The Vuelta is always an important opportunity for riders who have missed out on results in the early part of the season to take one final shot at Grand Tour success, but a particularly crash-heavy 2014 made this year’s Vuelta startlist one of the strongest in years. The late-season showdown, with many of the sport’s top talents in the mix, was a nice platform for several riders to make strong statements to close out the Grand Tour calendar.
Big Names Deliver in GC Battle
Alberto Contador has now ridden in the Vuelta three times in his career, and he’s won the overall victory each time. That is a stunning achievement in and of itself; this year’s victory is an especially impressive feat given the powerhouse startlist. Contador was untouchable in the mountains, and he was very good in the time trial as well. He also rode a tactically brilliant race; he had the weakest team of any of the top GC contenders, and it didn’t seem to matter at all. He followed the attacks he needed to follow, and didn’t waste energy with others. He was robbed of a chance to prove his strength at the 2014 Tour de France, but this ride at the 2014 Vuelta will be a warning to his rivals that he’ll be very hard to beat in the 2015 Tour.
Had Chris Froome continued throughout the race in the same shape that saw him lose a chunk of time to even Alejandro Valverde in a long, mostly flat time trial, it might have been cause for concern, but he ended the race very, very strong. It’s a shame it took him some time to get back to his best (it would have made for a better, more competitive race if he were able to put in the sort of time trial we know he’s capable of) but his main goal in starting this race was to ride well in a Grand Tour before the season’s end, and he absolutely did that. He may not have been able to touch Contador after falling behind early, but he should still come out of the race with confidence for 2015.
Nairo Quintana‘s abandonment following a bad crash took some excitement out of the race. Hopefully he will recover quickly for 2015; the strength he showed early this season will make him a top favorite in the Tour next year. Teammate Alejandro Valverde wasn’t able to threaten for the Vuelta overall once Contador took control, but that can’t take away from the amazing year he’s had. Among his many huge successes so far are victories in La Fleche Wallonne and San Sebastian, a Vuelta stage win, and Top 5s in the Amstel Gold Race, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour de France, and the Vuelta overall. His big ride in Spain came after a difficult Tour, to boot; it’s not easy to land a podium in the Vuelta on the heels of a three-week race finished less than a month before the start.
Joaquim Rodriguez, in 4th, never managed to contend, and he didn’t win a stage despite the presence of a very strong team. It was a disappointing ride given the expectations going in. His inability to match rival Valverde will be most frustrating for him. After dropping out of the Giro, Purito rode the Tour as a means of preparing for this race; it was an odd choice, and I’m not sure it was the right one.
Fabio Aru, on the other hand, should be thrilled with a 5th place result. He’s only 24, and he has now landed two Grand Tour Top 5s and three Grand Tour stage wins in the same year! It’s not easy to perform so well across two three-week races in one season, especially not as his young age. He made his “arrival” at the Giro, but I find his Vuelta a España, against so much top-tier talent and coming with plenty of race mileage in his legs already this year, just as impressive.
I’m not sure what Dan Martin‘s Grand Tour racing future holds because he clearly prefers the shorter events, but I’ve been saying for a while now that the has the talent to put in a Top 10 in a three-week event, if he could only avoid crashing or getting sick. It was good to see him finally deliver (7th overall), and against an elite startlist too. Warren Barguil, in 8th, also took a big career step. We knew he could climb, but could he perform at a high level across three weeks? It seems the answer is yes. He’s only 22.
Damiano Caruso was one of the biggest surprises of the race. He had never had a Top 10 in the General Classification of a WorldTour stage race coming into the Vuelta a España, and he picked up his first in a Grand Tour. BMC got a good one for next year.
Belkin will wish they’d gotten a bigger GC result out of this Vuelta, but they should be pleased with the performance of Robert Gesink, who was on track to land well inside the GC Top 10 before leaving the race for personal reasons. After a very tough start to the year and a long break spent recovering from a heart problem, that’s a very encouraging sign for Gesink.
A Few Thoughts on the Stagehunters
John Degenkolb dominated the sprints of the 2012 Vuelta, and his 2014 return to the race was a triumphant one. His four stage wins were impressive, especially the victory on Stage 5 over the very speedy Nacer Bouhanni. Degenkolb’s Points Classification victory may be even more impressive: it’s not easy for a sprinter to win the points jersey in the Vuelta, especially when versatile Alejandro Valverde is on the startlist, but Degenkolb was not to be denied once it became clear that green was within his reach. He missed out on a few opportunities at this year’s Tour due to an early injury in that race, but with the sort of speed he showed in Spain, he should be on track for plenty more success in the very near future, with the upcoming World Championships as a major target and the 2015 classics season and Tour beyond.
Alessandro De Marchi was another stagehunter who found success, picking up his first Grand Tour stage win after coming close several times in the past. He is emerging as one of the top breakaway talents in the peloton, showing a lot of strength when riding uphill on his own. He was King of the Mountains at the Dauphine in June, and riding off the front like he has been this year, a Grand Tour KOM jersey could be in his future.
Jasper Stuyven, who finished with six stage Top 10s, may not have come particularly close to any victories, but his consistent presence near the front on a variety of profiles bodes well for the future: he’s only 22. Yet another rising young talent for Belgium, who just announced a Worlds squad loaded with firepower.
Speaking of Worlds, it’s right around the corner! Stay tuned for VeloHuman previews of the team time trial, the individual time trial, and the road race, and be sure to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for more analysis.
Photo by Ramón Peña.