I wrote who I thought would win the Vuelta, and who would finish in the top places, before the race started. I'm not going to go over my predictions, in fact I'd like to forget I wrote it. It was of course, utterly and completely wrong. Three of my top five are out of the race, and Rodríguez was sixth. Unpredictable and all that. But on this final rest day, I get a chance to survey who's left and have another go. There is a 39 kilometre time trial left, but most of the mountains have been climbed, and it is really, anyone's game.
The current top four is:
- Joaquím Rodríguez
- Fabio Aru á 1"
- Rafal Majka á 1' 35"
- Tom Dumoulin á 1'51"
This may be harsh (and I may end up eating my words on the side of a large helping of crow) but I think we can strike Majka off the list. Sorry Rafa, but there's just not much chance of him even taking back the 1'35" on Rodríguez, and then outclimbing him. Yes his time trial is better, but just not good enough. A podium is possible. So we have three. In reverse order of the chances I give them of victory -
When Fabio Aru attacked Rodríguez near the end of stage eleven, with Dumoulin and Quintana languishing behind, it wouldn't be too far fetched to think you were looking at the Vuelta winner. However, things have gone downhill for the young man who has stood on two Giro podiums. Though his time losses on the last two stages have been small, time losses they have been, and he never looked comfortable on the final climb on stage 16, despite an almost superhuman recovery to limit his losses to two seconds on Rodríguez at the end of the stage. If the final week was full of climbing, the Italian would be in a good position. He won the last two - difficult mountain - stages of the Giro despite looking weak on stage 16, but the climbing is all but over, with only a downhill finish mountain stage to come, and a time-trial beforehand. Aru seems to have been dealt the weakest hand. CQ's Head2Head has only one useful result - last year's stage 10 time trial, where Rodríguez beat Aru, but only by twelve seconds. However, this year has a better Rodríguez, a way better Aru, and Dumoulin coming like a freight train from behind, so really there's not that much data to work from. He can have off-days in TTs, like in the Giro. But can he win? Yes. With a good TT, and climbing like he did on stage 11 and Dumoulin having an off day. I just don't see it happening.
Rodríguez won stage 15, attacking in the fog to take a crucial 25 seconds back on Aru in his quest for red. I admit I thought his best chance had come and gone in 2012, but this is his best - and come on - last chance. But as always, we are reminded he is a poor time-triallist. And he is, I mean he's lost Grand Tours purely because of his ability against the watch. However, he is getting better. I think he'll take twenty seconds on Aru, but the time-trialling will foil him once again. Tom Dumoulin is getting better and better at the discipline, and I think he will beat Rodríguez by over two minutes. Supposing he does that, will it be enough? If Dumoulin is in red by nine seconds, will he win, with stage 20 to come? I think he will.
I can't tell you how much I want Dumoulin to win the Vuelta. Whatever you may mutter about Indurain, I just love to see a young rider bounce back from disappointment, and I especially like to see young riders winning Grand Tours especially when they weren't given a chance beforehand. I also love that Giant, who have been missing their 'best asset' Marcel Kittel all year, stand a really good chance of winning a race that no one epected.
But down to where and how he's going to win. In two words - time trial. Stage 17 is rolling, Dumoulin's perfect course, and while he won't ride it to his full potential - I hear riding up mountains faster than you ever have before for 16 days hurts your ability for it, but I would not put a penny on him gaining less than two minutes. I think that 2 minutes and 2 seconds win him the Vuelta. While I wouldn't say Rodríguez can't take ten bonus seconds somewhere, I think Dumoulin will be able to stay with him, and win the red jersey.