La Vuelta – Week 1 update
Well, it’s been a pretty unpredictable week in a race that always promised to be unpredictable. Team Sky turned up with their weakest team for a Grand Tour for quite some time (which is inevitable when neither Froome nor Thomas are on the starting line). But the plan was that de la Cruz would lead and others would support. Clearly no-one told Michal Kwiatkowski. And then Richie Porte was installed as the pre race favourite, presumably about 10 mins before he contracted an unpleasant bout of gastroenteritis. Still, with early losses ending any chance of GC success for Porte, we were at least subsequently treated to the collector’s item sight of him in a 3 man breakaway, on a flat stage no less. Training ride perhaps?
Then just to throw a real wild card into an already wild bunch, up pops Rudy Molard from Team FDJ and takes the Red Jersey on Stage 5 which as at the time of writing (end of Stage 8), he is still wearing. Still, said David Millar, that was a smart tactic by Sky to ‘outsource’ the management of the Red Jersey to a team who will really appreciate defending it for a couple of days giving Kwiatkowski and the rest of Team Sky a clearly much needed rest ahead of Stage 9 (more of which below). And it would have been a brilliant strategy too had it not been for a really unlucky crash on Stage 7 for Kwiatkowski which saw him lose around 20 seconds to Valverde, Buchman and the other chasing riders.
Bauke comes close
A real highlight for us so far was Bauke Mollema’s super ride on Stage 5 to come second to Simon Clarke. The Trek Madone SLR with its oversized logo looked pretty special and its great to see Trek (and Bianchi) bikes competing for honours these days at the front of stages.
So who’s favourite now?
First of all, a word of caution. We are writing this on Saturday evening ahead of Stage 9, the first real test in the high mountains. Stage 9 is the first stage to go over the 200km distance and has a summit finish at the ski resort of La Covatilla, some 1962m above sea level. The climb to Covatilla is around 12.5 kilometres with an average gradient of 6.5%, though that is slightly misleading. The first 4.7 kilometres rise at 4%, while the remainder of the climb averages 8.5% with plenty of sections in double digits. The last 10% ramp passes under the Flamme Rouge before the climb flattens out. The last 750 metres or so rise at around 4%. Technical and challenging whichever way you look at it.
So given that today’s stage is likely to shake up the GC (perhaps), until we’ve seen the result, we’ve no idea of who is likely to post themselves as the favourite heading into the first rest day. Indeed, even once we know who’s won Stage 9, it’s unlikely we’ll really be able to pick a strong favourite. And anyway, it gives us the perfect excuse to write something else tomorrow when events on Stage 9 prove that everything we had predicted was completely wrong.
There would be something pleasing about Kwiatkowski delivering something amazing in Madrid but we don’t see it. Yates? Quite possibly but he’s unpredictable, uncontrollable at times even. Can he keep it together for 3 weeks? This year’s Giro would suggest that’s a challenge but he’s certainly looking strong at the moment.
Valverde? At the Grand old age of 38 it would be the perfect swansong and his finish yesterday on Stage 8, outsprinting a slightly under par Sagan on the line was an exercise in rolling back the years, even if some of those years contain events that have left his legacy rather tainted. But he’s also the consummate professional so will still work for Quintana if that’s still on the cards. But Quintana is still a little off the pace and not looking like 2018 is going to be his year. Buchman is looking good but does Bora Hansgrohe have the team to support him when the terrain gets tough?
So bring on the mountains (the big ones!). We still fancy Team Sky to be pretty good there with the likes of Tao Geoghegan-Hart and Jonathan Castrojievo but truth is, this race is wide open. And so much more fun as a result!