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Uphill Trajectory

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Vuelta-sm_mediumThis isn't the deepest thought or most searching analysis you'll ever read (one would hope), but this Vuelta is shaping up into something significant... the first great Vuelta of the post-Puerto era. 

Now, granted, you have to believe that we're in the post-Puerto era, which can be difficult watching Valverde in the lead, but if that doesn't distress you, then, hey, good times. And it's been a while:

2005: Denis Menchov is awarded the overall victory two months after Roberto Heras clinched his third straight victory with a stunning time trial performance. This depressing turn of events puts a damper on the previous two (five? ten?) editions as well.

2006: Alex Vinokourov and his sidekick Andrei Kashechkin double-up on leader Alejandro Valverde over the final two mountain stages, with Vino salting away the win for good in the last time trial. Exciting, maybe, but any suspicions are confirmed the following summer when both Kazakhs are kicked out for blood doping.

2007: A chastened Vuelta gives nobody any reason to cheat by designing a course too dull to tempt even the weakest souls. Denis Menchov wins conservatively, to his credit if not to the enjoyment of any fans.

2008: Contador comes home, wins whenever it matters, and the Astana world domination plot is revealed for the first time. If you count Disco alum Egoi Martinez, fully fifteen stages end with a Bruyneel guy in gold. OK, Martinez was with Euskaltel by then, but made a great stand-in from Astana's perspective until Contador was ready to seize the lead on the Angliru. Watchable, but hardly suspenseful.

Let's face it, the Vuelta has lost a lot over the decade. This is almost totally subjective, but in the early 2000s I really looked forward to the wide-open battles that regularly ensued. Heras by 28" over Nozal in 2003; Casero over Sevilla by 47" in 2001; the great Angliru battle in 2002. But Heras became dominant, then disgraced, and Puerto pretty much drove a shiv into the back of Spanish Cycling. Arguably it hasn't been removed, though in keeping with the grisly metaphor there's a sense that removing it might make matters even worse. So the Vuelta, and Spanish Cycling, limp on in hopes of a better day.

No one race can sweep away the past, but at least we can have a Vuelta we think fondly of, for once. [update: I am not declaring the race clean; I am agnostic... maybe it is and maybe it isn't...] As long as Contador is chasing Lance's records, the Vuelta may be left to be contested by all the GC guys frustrated by the byzantine challenge of winning in Italy or topping Contador. That's a lot of very talented riders, and the prospect of a wide-open slugfest in September is a happy one. Much as I love the Giro, it struggles every year to stage a wide-open race, and the Tour is even more exclusive. 

Friday kicks off three massive stages, and the final week will give the secondary climbers and time triallers their chance as well. Six guys are within about a minute, and if Sammy Sanchez gets well quickly, all six have a plausible chance at the win. Each has his own circuitous route to the top step of a grand tour: the bridesmaids (Evans and Valverde), the sinner (Basso), the prodigy (Gesink), and the enigmas (Danielson, Samu). None is a sure bet to win. Buckle up and enjoy.