It all went astray so strangely. The Tour de France, a looming mega-battle between winners past and present, came apart before it seemingly got going. First defending champ Chris Froome of Sky fell off his bike. Then he fell again, and again, and hopped in a team car. Reports followed that he'd broken a bone in one hand and another in his opposite wrist. Or that he'd encountered Llamas with Hats. Either way, he was no longer able to hold his handlebars, a key element of cycling. A few days later it was the turn of the other presumptive favorite, Tinkoff-Saxo's Alberto Contador, to go a-tumbling, striking a dent in the road at an inopportune time. Contador's race was also over before it could truly begin. And the rest was Italian Cycling History.
And now comes the lemonade.
Contador and Froome have taken the traditional response to dropping out of the Tour -- refocusing their skills and efforts on the Vuelta a España, starting this coming Saturday in Jerez de la Frontera. There, they will encounter the one rider whose absence from the Tour had been felt more than any other... Don Nairo Quintana of Movistar, the Colombian sensation who pushed the older champions at the 2013 Tour and dominated the Giro d'Italia this spring. Quintana had been held out of the Tour not to avoid these two but to avoid pressure beyond what's reasonable to put on a 24-year-old, by racing him and the hopes of an entire nation in the Tour. Better to do the other two grand tours, went the thinking, and work on improving under less scrutiny. It's a solid plan, and so far it's worked. We fans hated it though... except now we don't. Because this Vuelta, usually the stepchild of the grand tour season, is now the Race of the Year.
When it ends, we won't necessarily know who the world's greatest cyclist is -- Nibali is absent, and the two Tour refugees are likely on less certain form than Quintana, who arrives in Jerez by plan A, demonstrated ably in a stage win at the Vuelta a Burgos' main mountain event. [He and Dani Moreno are on the same time with one stage remaining but the Katusha man is officially the race leader.] And yet, a dominant performance, or any sort of winning ride at all, by Quintana will set the presumptive pecking order for next year's Tour de France on its ear, and set off ten months of enjoyable debate. A loss to either Froome or Contador will put us back where we started, assuming those two are the best, probably in that order.
The quality at the top of the startlist is hardly the only reason to rejoice in this race. The rest of the list is as deep as it is wide. FDJ are starting Thibaut Pinot, third in this year's Tour; Movistar counter with the Tour's #4, Alejandro Valverde, domestique to Quintana and stage-winner extraordinaire. AG2R bring the enigmatic Carlos Betancur, or at least that's the plan as long as the Colombian winner of Paris-Nice gets on a plane. Garmin have Dan Martin, a tremendous climber whose past disappointments in grand tours might disappear on this more favorable route, and Andrew Talansky, another of the crashed-out top Tour contenders. Ryder Hesjedal starts too. Astana bring Fabio Aru, a beautiful, emerging climber from Quintana's generation, and along similar terms Giant-Shimano will feature French hopeful Warren Barguil -- nearly two years younger, if that seems possible, and already owner of two Vuelta stage wins last year. Speaking of generations, Chris Horner is here, the defending Vuelta champ and sole member of his generation still going strong.
Joaquim Rodriguez is back for another try for Katusha, with Moreno at his side, a formidable duo. Robert Gesink extends his comeback from a heart ailment with a start here for Belkin. Other recent protagonists on site include Amets Txurruka, Damiano Cunego, David Arroyo, Tanel Kangert, Janez Brajkovic, and Jerome Coppel. Peter Sagan is here, as is Mark Cavendish and John Degenkolb and Bling Mathews. Fabian Cancellara is here, as is Tom Boonen and Filippo Pozzato. Cadel is here, fronting for a team with Rohan Dennis suddenly in its midst. Der Panzerwagen will stick around a while too, or so we hope.
The stars have truly aligned for the Vuelta, for once. The results, we hope, will be every bit as spectacular as the Tour was supposed to be.