There's an undercurrent to cycling when the calendar approaches September. Wherever a top rider finds himself -- Spain, Franco-Belge, Colorado, Canada... -- chances are he's at least thought about whether he should be honing his form for a shot at the Rainbow Jersey. Race results are scrutinized for signs that a big name rider is hitting his stride. Some years the worlds course is less inclusive than other years, and one breed of rider or another has written off the Mondiale for another year. Andy Schleck probably isn't using Colora... uh, the USA PCC to prep for Copenhagen. But most of the stars will be under the Rainbow microscope starting any day now.
At the Vuelta a España, the Worlds prep is a major deal. A steady stream of race miles are critical for anyone coming off a summer break. Grand tours give sprinters more than enough chances to work on their timing and top gear. Oh, and the classics types hoping to change the narrative in Copenhagen can launch the odd attack. But the Worlds course this year is presumed to be sprinter-friendly, so the points competition of the Vuelta should be entertaining to watch. Right?
Wrong. Or, not right for the reasons you might think. After years of rewarding sprinters for suffering over the undulating pais with a clean shot at the points competition, this year's Vuelta doesn't merely give them an excuse to bail before Madrid -- it practically pushes the bunch sprinters out the door. Here is a quick rundown of the nine "flat stages":
- Stage 2 (done): Chris Sutton takes an uphill sprint from the Farrars and Degenkolbs. At least it was sort of a sprint.
- Stage 3 (done): A cat-3 climb 13km from the line eliminates any of the fastmen still hanging around.
- Stage 5: There's a 27% wall 500 meters from the line. Remember, this is a rundown of the flat stages.
- Stage 6: Aha! A nice flat finish for once. All you have to do is get over the Alto del Catorce Por Ciento, a double-peaked Cat-2 climb that doesn't give up til 10km from the line, and the sprint is yours.
- Stage 7: Legit sprint stage. Not sure I'd call it flat, and the rolling terrain will give pause to a few sprinters' teams before they start chasing breaks, but fastmen gotta eat.
- Stage 12: Couple of bumps in the road, and after three mountain days and a time trial, plus three terrifying ones looming, the pack may be too weary to chase down the breaks. But if all else fails, OK, maybe a sprint.
- Stage 16: Put aside the discussion about which sprinters will still be in the race after the Angliru, and you've got a perfect day for a bunch gallop.
- Stage 19: Just another board-flat ride over four categorized climbs, including a Cat-2 14km from the line. Also, it's in the Basque Country, so there won't be any attacking.
- Stage 21: Finally, to Madrid. Guaranteed a sprint.
I don't even have a joke here. This has to be the least sprinter-friendly course in a grand tour that I can remember.* Worse, think about what this could mean. Think about the Giro, the last holdout against the ASO hegemony and a race that is known more for headline-grabbing courses. What do they do in response? Nineteen MTFs and a TTT?
[* I have the memory of an elephant. With brain disease.]
What this means? For the first time since Jose Maria Jimenez in 2001, the points comp will be won by a non-sprinter. Which one, it cannot be said. Presumably the MTF winners won't chase stages when the road goes up and back down again. More likely it's someone who can climb well enough to hang around every day, but not well enough to concentrate on GC. Sylvain Chavanel? JJ Cobo? Some of the northerners (Sorensen? Poels? Podgornyy?)? In perhaps another week the competition will be taking shape, and guys will wake up realizing they have a shot at a jersey. Then things get interesting. Til then, happy climbing.
Oh, and a mini-contest: what day will the mass exodus from the Vuelta take place? My picks are, in order, the first rest day, and right after Stage 12. Anyone taking the start in Sarria has his eye on Madrid.