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Rising From the Ashes

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For several years the three grand tours have aligned in a pretty distinct pecking order. The Tour de France is still the heavyweight champion of the world. The Giro d'Italia has given audiences a lot to enjoy over the past few years. And the sad-sack Vuelta seemed on the verge of giving up on being part of the conversation. The race has always suffered a bit from the post-Tour hangover, but the pitiful stalemate of Operacion Puerto and a number of ugly scandals cast the entire country's cycling hierarchy in a rather unfavorable light. Vueltas became putrid circuses, none worse than the 20076 battle between two doping Kazakhs and Valv.Piti. To wash out the sour taste, the 20087Vuelta served up a desperately dull, three-week-long apology to cycling...  only to have Valverde return to win in 2009. Wild rumors would not go away, rumors of mass-changes, lopping off a week or eliminating a bunch of riders halfway through, or some madcap scheme. None of them came to be, only to see an even zanier outcome: purchase of a non-controlling interest by the Tour de France's parent ASO.

A year later, the race is colorful again. It always makes me nervous to say so, but the pall of doping didn't hang over this race. The startlist wasn't riddled with suspicion, and the main battle featured two guys who were forever plugging leaks in their legs from moment to moment with scotch tape and chewing gum. Without that depressing spectre bringing us down, we could safely believe our eyes and enjoy things like the Toledo stage: a visual feast, a fantastic finish on a crazy course, and the sight of Philippe Gilbert waving his gift for the win, a blade of Toledo steel. In other words, the melding of beauty, culture and great racing that puts the grand in grand tour. I don't attribute all of this to ASO; circumstances converged to make this a great race. But the stability they lend to every race they run is often powerful tonic.

Was this the grandest tour of the year? I'm saying it was. The Giro never fails to entertain, but in the end Ivan Basso handily beat a pretty uninspired field [update: OK last night I wasn't remembering the Aprica drama], and the present state of Italian cycling makes me uneasy. The Tour was a fantastic race, featuring drama, the world's best field, and a pretty tight grip on the nonsense. But for me the 2010 Vuelta upstaged them all. The battle between Nibali, Rodriguez, Anton and Mosquera was just incredible to watch, for so many reasons. Anton's sudden, shocking demise. Rodriguez' soaring and sinking form, and the razor thin battle between the last two men standing, slugging away at each other long after their tanks were empty -- this is what makes the sport great. It didn't matter that this wasn't the rarified battle between Contador and Schleck, carefully eyeing each other and launching the occasional flurry of fists. If the Vuelta teaches us anything, it's that you don't need the world's best riders to make the race. Nibali will be lucky to crack the top five at the Tour; Mosquera the top ten.

But the way Nibali and Mosquera turned themselves inside out on the Bola del Mundo, each one teetering between glory and collapse, back and forth from minute to minute as they searched their bodies and souls for one more scrap of energy and desire, was sport in its truest form. I plan to watch that stage again and again. Maybe I'll think about it when I'm dying on my cross bike this fall (laps 2 thru ...) and imagine I'm Nibali, too close to -- well, not victory, but something better than getting pulled -- to stop now. No discredit to Schleck versus Contador, a great championship fight, but the final epic battle of the Vuelta seemed just a tad more recognizable and inspiring to anyone who competes. Cycling's hallmark suffering is the picture of people digging unfathomably deep and seeing what they are made of. After this Vuelta, we can add two more names to the long, proud list of cyclists who found something like heart or guts or character, something more than just talent, in that moment of sporting truth.

My final Grand Tour ranking for 2010:

  1. Vuelta a Espana
  2. Tour de France Giro d'Italia
  3. Giro d'Italia Tour de France
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