I feel sorry for the Vuelta a Espaa. Sitting there between the Tour de France and the World Championships like the forgotten third child or the difficult third album. It stubbornly clings on to its three-week-race status, pretending not to be the poorer cousin to the Giro and the Tour, or just a training race for the Worlds; putting on the odd crazy stunt to make sure people are watching. Trouble is, sometimes no one is
The field usually consists of a bunch of second division teams, just hoping that someones watching when they get their one and only chance to be on international TV this year, and foreigners whose Tour de France went horribly wrong; they either crashed out or flopped in July and hope that the Grand Tour heading of the race will fool their sponsor into thinking it was the big one.
The worst thing it has to cope with though, is the constant stream of veteran journalists and commentators who harp on about the fact that the race hasnt been the same since they switched it from April to August back in 1995. “Okay, so it rained all the time,” they say, “okay, it clashed with the classics, and they couldnt use the really high mountains; just like everything though, the Vuelta was better in the old days.”
Trouble is, they may be right
Okay, so who was riding this thing?
The field this year was pretty much the same as usual. Im pretty sure that Xacobeo-Galicia do other races, but Im not entirely sure which ones; its one of those teams that gets a nosebleed when it comes north of the Pyrnes but possesses a guy called Ezequiel Mosquera, who always seems to do well in this race.
Similarly Andalucia-Cajasur seems to get an invite so that their extraordinary coloured jerseys can keep the TV commentators awake on those interminably long breakaways they go on; its not quite pink, its not quite purple, what the hell is that colour anyway?
Spain does of course have some ProTour teams; Euskaltel-Euskadi were there as usual with their migraine-inducing orange jerseys that create a shocking clash with Andalucia-Cajasur. The Basque boys are always keen to prove that they deserve to be up there with the big boys, and sometimes they manage it.
Caisse dEpargne were there without a potential winner for probably the first time ever after Operacin Puerto finally caught up with last years winner Alejandro Valverde.
Tour flops trying to salvage their season this year included:
Saxo Banks Frnk Schleck, the only major casualty of the races flirtation with the cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix. This time hes got Andy working for him, oh hang on
Cervlos Carlos Sastre, he was at the Tour, right? Okay, he rode the Giro too so well forgive him that
Garmin-Transitions Christian Vande Velde, who cant seem to get past day three of a Grand Tour these days; lets hope he can stay upright this time
But hang on, whos this?
Rabobanks Denis Menchov, he was third in the Tour, he doesnt need to salvage anything surely
Liquigas-Doimos Vincenzo Nibali, he was third in the Giro behind teammate Ivan Basso, winning a stage and wearing pink on the way, whats he doing here?
Thrown into the mix is Team Katushas Joaquim Rodriguez, who threatens to take Alberto Contadors number one spot in the UCIs World Ranking, a classification that no one really understands and even fewer people really care about.
The sprinters are usually out in force, and this year was no exception. HTC-Columbia brought Mark Cavendish along for everyone to try and beat; his main competition was to come from Lampre-Farnese Vinis Alessandro Petacchi, Garmin-Transitions Tyler Farrar, Liquigas-Doimos Daniele Benatti and Cervlos Thor Hushovd.
Phase one: Feelin hot hot hot!
The Costa del Sol in late August? Lovely. Two weeks lazing on golden sands, wild nights of cerveza and discos (more about that later) What? Bike racing? Youve got to be kidding!
Night racing can be a great spectacle, although Im sure Garmin-Transitions Julian Dean might disagree after hitting a kerb in the warm up and bashing himself up. Trouble is though, when you have to hold the race that late because of the daytime temperatures you know youre in for a hot one.
HTC-Columbia won the floodlit team time trial in Sevilla and, as theyre so used to riding an eight-man lead out train for Mark Cavendish, the Manx Missile crossed the line first to take the races first red jersey.
The next day, a relatively short dash to Marbella on the coast featured a breakaway that inevitably included an Andalucia-Cajasur rider in Javier Ramirez, and an Australian Footon-Servetto rider called Johnnie Walker. He was to be one of the most popular riders of the race as journalists flocked to him on the assumption that he was a bottle of black-label Scotch.
Despite the plethora of A-list sprinters the stage was won by an FDJ Belarussian called Yauheni Hutaorvich, who apparently no one had heard of, despite his having won four races already this season.
Stage 3s finish in Mlaga looked for all the World like the finish of Amstel Gold, albeit about a hundred degrees hotter, so it was no surprise when it was won by the Amstel Gold winner Philippe Gilbert. OmegaPharma-Lottos finest was already a big favourite for next months Worlds, whod bet against him after this?
Just to confuse the sprinters the Vuelta threw in another hilltop finish on stage 4; after his team spent most of the Tour de France lying on the tarmac the World watched amazed as Euskaltel-Euskadis Igor Antn managed to stay upright and win.
Stage 5 saw the race given back to the sprinters as Tyler Farrar capitalised on Cavendish getting his timing wrong. A few small bumps on the way into Murcia the next day meant that a lot of the fast boys were left behind. Not the mighty Thor though, and the Norwegian champion duly thundered past the opposition. In a similar stage the next day the bumps were smaller and further from the finish; Petacchi showed Cavendish that sometimes an Ale-Jet can outrun a Missile.
As the race hit the hills once more, Cofidis David Moncouti stuck an early claim to his third consecutive mountains jersey on the stage to Xorret del Cat. Igor Antn managed to buck the Euskaltel trend again and kept his tyres on the road all the way to the finish to steal the red jersey from Gilbert, whod held it since his stage win in Mlaga.
In an almost identical situation on stage 9, Caisse dEpargne David Lopez escaped the breakaway group to take his biggest ever win.
Phase two: hittin the bars and hittin the hills
After nine days of racing in temperatures pushing 110, the peloton took the day off to drive north towards the Pyrnes. It was all pretty uneventful really. Oh, except that Andy Schleck and Stuart OGrady were sent home by Saxo Bank boss Bjarne Riis for going out drinking after dinner. What the..?
Depending on whom you believe, the two Saxo boys either went to the YMCA for a diet soda, or they spent the whole night dirty dancing with the ghost of Patrick Swayze (nobody puts Andy in the corner). The truth was probably somewhere in between, but whatever they got up to cant have been as much fun as spending the next week speculating and gossiping, which is what the press did; it was great!
Anyway, the result of it all was that one Schleck had to try and win a Grand Tour without being joined at the hip to the other, just like what happened in July.
With the race calling in on his home region of Catalunya, Joaquim Rodriguez desperately wanted the red jersey to show to his Mum. Tied on time with Antn at the start of stage 10, he mixed it with Cavendish and Farrar at the first intermediate sprint to take 2 seconds; Imanol Erviti became the second Caisse dEpargne worker bee to take a breakaway win, but J-Rod got his jersey (okay, thats not his nickname, but I so want it to be).
Clearly unhappy to have to put his migraine-orange jersey back on after a few days in mellow red, Antn went straight out and took it back again on the summit finish in Andorra. Yet again he proved that Euskaltel riders can stay on their bikes (you can see where Im going here with this, cant you?) and out-climbed all the other climbers to take his second stage win.
Now away from the Costa del Sol, where all the other Brits were turning a nice lobster-red on the beaches, Cavendish remembered how to beat the others and duly did it two days in a row.
Doh! After all his hard work to prove that Euskaltel riders dont spend their whole time falling off, Igor Antn fell off. Its never good to see a rider abandon while wearing the race leaders jersey; poor old Igor broke his elbow though, and was forced to go home. Rodriguez took the stage up to Pea Cabarga, but Vincenzo Nibali took over the lead, his jersey and shorts going against the old saying that you should never be seen dead in green and red.
Quick Steps local boy Carlos Barredo won the stage up to the Lagos de Covadonga, the Alpe dHuez of Spain, from a breakaway group. Really, its just like Alpe dHuez, apart from the lack of a horrible concrete ski resort at the top; oh, and the smooth road surface.
On yet another summit finish, this time to the Alto de Cotobello, a Schleck hit the headlines for the first time since the rest day as Frnk attacked on the final climb. He couldnt catch Euskaltels Mikel Nieve though as he took a stage win as a consolation for losing Antn two days before; Rodriguez attacked too and managed to get the red jersey back.
Phase three: this is getting serious now
The curfew was strictly observed on the second rest day, so sadly there were no stories of booze or hookers to liven things up. Carlos Sastre gave everyone a bit of laugh though, complaining that the team that was sent to support him in the Vuelta wasnt up to the job. Somehow he managed to say this with a straight face; er, Carlos, one of your teammates is actually ahead of you right now
A major surprise hit the race on its one and only individual time trial, as both HTC-Columbias Peter Velits and Denis Menchov manage to beat Saxo Banks time trialling colossus Fabian Cancellara. Spartacus wasnt feeling all that great and his morale was a bit low, he said; times have certainly changed in Riis team!
Ezequiel Mosquera had a good day; Rodriguez had a very, very bad one. Nibali had a botched wheel change when he really wanted a new bike, but took the jersey back again; the Xacobeo man was menacingly just 37 seconds behind him though.
With the time trial over with, everybody spent the next two days worrying about the Bola del Mundo on Saturday. Cavendish took his third sprint stage into Salamanca, and then Philippe Gilbert took advantage of the bumpy finish into Toledo to get his second. If that guy doesnt win the rainbow jersey next month
Meanwhile, Cancellara went home; a lot sooner than he said he would. Looks like another guy is on his way out of Saxo Bank
The Bola del Mundo turned out to be one of those epic contests that its very difficult to write anything funny about, as Mosquera attacked on the final steep bit and Nibali reeled him back in again, inch by inch. The Spaniard took the stage, but the Italian was celebrating because hed just won the Vuelta.
The 85km stage into Madrid gave Cavendish just enough opportunity to get his timing wrong again and Tyler Farrar took his second win of the race. Nibali took the plaudits though; the first Italian to win the race in 20 years, and the best Vuelta in ages.
Somehow or other, we got three brilliant Grand Tours this year.