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Vuelta Stage 12: Enjoy this while it lasts, lads

Mondonedo – Faro de Estaca de Bares (181km)

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On the stage

This stage is pretty straightforward to preview. I mean, look at this profile:

There’s a couple of bumps in the road, but this is a sprint stage. I think there’ll be enough firepower in the peloton to bring back the inevitable break, and the straight, flat finish should help tilt the field towards the pack. There’s no reason to expect wind or road conditions to make it particularly challenging, either.

So, if it does all come back together, we’re looking at the usual suspects, by this stage of the race. That means Elia Viviani, Peter Sagan, Giacomo Nizzolo, Matteo Trentin, Danny van Poppel and Max Walsheid. Of those, Viviani is probably the quickest and certainly the most consistently fast. If he gets it all right, without Bouhanni the only guys I can concieve of beating him are Sagan or Walsheid. Will they?

Winner: Elia Viviani. No, they won’t. In fact, let’s look at this more closely.

On the sprint pecking order

You know what surprises me at the moment? Who the quickest man in the world is. I feel like this should be a bigger deal – some kind of a championship belt that is handed out by the cognoscenti. It has definitely changed hands this year.

We know who the best sprinter is. That’ll be Peter Sagan. Still, he’s always got there with a combination of consistently good bunch sprinting, coupled with an extraordinary ability to get into sprints after tough races. He’s still untouched as a hardman/sprinter.

For the last few years, we’ve had excellence in bunch sprinting from Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish, and Andre Greipel. This year, none of them have shone (though Greips winning in Wales on Sunday was great fun). Kittel has handed over his belt.

The thing with dominance is, you don’t really have to define criteria – it is pretty obvious. Still, I’m looking for weight of victories, winning in the biggest of races (the Grand Tours, Milan San Remo back when sprinters won it, flat world championships, etc) and flat out scaring the other guys. What are we seeing this year? Here’s my top eight.

8. Fabio Jakobsen: The case for him – he’s beaten some good sprinters at a young age and is well worth a look. They don’t just give away wins in Scheldeprijs, and he’s added to that wins in Binck Bank and Nokere Koerse. The case against him – these are hardman sprints, in Belgium, with a great team around him. He’s not winning consistently or in the biggest races. He’ll move up this list in future years if he focuses on sprinting.

7. Andre Demare: The case for him – he’s Sagan-lite (taking over from Kristoff in that role, perhaps?) and fourth on the overall VDS scoring list. Won a Tour stage, which is prestigious enough for anyone. The case against him – he’s increasingly not a pure sprinter, and is beaten too often on the flattest roads.

6. Sam Bennett: The case for him – three wins in the Giro put you on the list. He added Rund um Koln to that for a pretty decent portfolio. The case against him - consistency isn’t there, positioning is still a problem, and he isn’t routinely beating the biggest names. You don’t get the impression he’s scaring other sprinters.

5. Fernando Gaviria: The case for him – eyeballs. He just looks incredibly quick. Stage one of the Tour was his highlight win and it was great, and he looked rock solid in California. The case against him -he doesn’t win enough races, and often his sprints look good because he goes too early. The first Tour of Britain loss to Greipel was a good example of the downside of that approach. Another year should see consistency and positioning improvements, and make him a threat to grab the belt.

4. Peter Sagan: The case for him – yet another dominant win in the Tour points competition, plus two stages. Numerous other wins, including a bunch for Gent-Wevelgem. The case against – he doesn’t dominate pure sprints. Repeatedly beaten in bunch finishes in the Tour and Vuelta, as well as tune-ups like Tirenno and Down Under. Why should he care? He’s winning Paris-Roubaix and finishing fourth in Amstel Gold – that is not pure sprinter stuff, it is all-round excellence stuff. The best in the world at what he does, but it isn’t this.

3. Pascal Ackermann: The case for him – sheer weight of wins. Eight, to be precise, all prestigious enough, including Ride London and a rare Brussels-Fourmies double, plus the German champs, which aren’t easy to get. Added a solid spring in the flatter classics. The case against him – like Greipel in his early HTC days, didn’t go to the biggest races because of a teammate. Yet to ride in a Grand Tour and despite the crowding at Bora, you have to assume that’ll change in 2019.

2. Dylan Groenewegen: The case for him – in my view, looked the best sprinter at the Tour, winning the 7th and 8th stages before getting knocked out on Alpe d’Huez. If you’re the quickest man at the Tour, you’re in the conversation for quickest overall. His win at Kuurne remains one of the more brilliant, and unexpected, moments of the season. The case against him – that’s basically it for prestigious wins. Not enough for the top spot this year. Still, on his day you’d put him up against anyone, and that’s good enough for second on this list.

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1. Elia Viviani: The case for him – lots of wins, and in big races. You’d back him to grab more in the Vuelta, but even if he stopped today, he’s got 16 wins on the year, including five grand tour stages, the overall in Dubai, the Italian Nats and Hamburg. Admirably consistent, hugely fast, and dominant in the Grand Tours. That’s a winning case, even without throwing in a gold and silver from the European track championships. The case against – I don’t know, really. He didn’t take in the Tour, which is a pity, but he can’t do everything. That’s about it. He’s the belt holder for 2018.