I still think the parcours is just this side of crazy – but like some banal Japanese TV reality show, the madness of the route has made this race compelling viewing. The Stage 16 Aramón Formigal finish climb was where your doubts first began to surface if you were a fan of the contestant who was favourite to walk away with the big cheque – Vincenzo Nibali (Astana & Italy).
For the first time the man from Messina looked less than majestic, scrabbling in the wheels to limit his losses as Chris Horner (Radio Shack & USA) prodded away at a gear which looked too high for his skinny legs, to half his deficit on the Sicilian.
On the rest day, the riders I spoke to said that it wasn’t a crisis for Nibali; he was just tired from defending the jersey and all the attendant protocols – podium, dope test, press conference and all the Media demands.
The rest day came and went.
Stage 17 confirmed that Bouhanni, Cav, Coquard, Degenkolb, Demare, Greipel and Viviani all did the right thing by watching the Vuelta on TV as yet another ‘sprinter stage’ ended in a solo win in Burgos for Belkin’s Dutchman, Bauke Mollema. With no sprint trains to keep the speed up, opportunist Mollema jumped when there was a lull with 700 metres to go and the sprinters went hungry again.
But the stage into the city which was the German HQ during the Civil War wasn’t that straightforward; with top ten riders Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R & Italy) and Thibout Pinot (F des J & France) both mugged when those tricky Saxo boys rode echelon in the cross wind with both men losing 90 seconds.
Battle hardened Italian warrior Matteo Tosatto again proved why he’s road captain for the Danish squad as he and the other Saxo legionnaires dragged their ever-aggressive Irish Centurion, Nico Roche into fifth spot, thereby rendering the AG2R dinner table an unhappy gathering as the little Italian dropped to sixth.
Stage 18 and the weary survivors headed into the mountains again with the finish on the grim Peña Cabarga with those 20% ramps. A feature of the race has been that as the stages have counted down the battle to make the break of the day has become increasingly desperate and what the TV viewer doesn’t see is the first two hours covered at warp speeds – 49 kph averages not being uncommon.
This day was no different despite the prospect of the brutal finish climb; ‘maybe if we grab enough time early on we can hang on?’ The solo winner, a brilliant Vasil Kiryienka (Sky and Belarus), did just that, jumping away from the break he paced himself perfectly on the roads running into the climb then pedalled smoothly to the top to take some well deserved glory after a season of slavery for the Sky ‘Bigs.’
And to prove that he’s not an automaton, he smiled a smile any Cheshire cat would have been proud of as he crossed the finish line. His win saved Sky’s Vuelta; but behind there was high drama as Nibali again crumbled at the top of a finish climb.
There was simply no disguising that Nibali, just like King Belshazzar in the Bible was ‘weighed in the balance and found wanting’ as Horner stabbed relentlessly at the pedals over the last two kilometres and Nibali’s back sank lower as that beautiful S Works suddenly felt like a farm gate.
The Sicilian held on to the red jersey by a scant three seconds but the writing was well and truly on the wall. It would be easy to say that it was Horner’s strength which did all of the damage but both Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha & Spain) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar & Spain) both put time into Nibali.
This isn’t the same Vincenzo Nibali who was a magnet for the red jersey in the first two weeks; more like a worn out shell of that man. Did he do too little between the Giro and Vuelta with those PR flights to Kazakhstan taking their toll – or has his season just been too long?
There will be a team analysing those very questions in some darkened office in the Gazzetta Della Sport HQ, even as I write this.
Stage 19 and quoting from the Good Book again; ‘the thing which I greatly feared is come upon me’ – the ‘thing’ being another hill top crisis for Nibali and this time there were no more buffer seconds left and it was Horner freewheeling to the podium.
Nibali wheeled round to head for the gap in the fence but his soigneur put his arm round him and explained that today there was no need to climb the steps to the podium and the TV cameras, the red jersey was gone. But other dramas unfolded on another mad day of racing – how does 50 K in the first hour sound?
Katusha grabbed their third stage of the race after Moreno’s double as a resurgent and fresh looking Joaquim Rodriguez thanked his men for their hard chasing labour in the best possible way as he zipped away to take the win and made the rest look ordinary.
Katusha did a mountain of work to set up their team leader yesterday.
And there was sunshine and rain for the young guns in the top ten – the losses of French hope Thibaut Pinot (F des J) were the gains of rising Czech star Leo Konig, with the man from NetApp-Endura moving over Pinot to seventh and under lining that the German/Scottish squad are punching well above their weight.
Today, Saturday sees the peloton face their last test of this obstacle laden race – the savage Alto de L’Angliru rising innocuously from a fold in the hills among the mining valleys of Asturias; it’s hard to see how the road can get up the cliff face which rears above you. And then you notice the zig-zag line across the face of the rock . . .
It’s not for the faint hearted and whilst the likelihood is that Horner will hold on to the jersey and cruise triumphant into Madrid on Sunday, anything is possible in this race.
Remember this time up the Angliru? Bradley Wiggins certainly does.
Behind Horner it’s also unlikely that Nibali will concede the minute which Valverde needs to leapfrog the Astana man; similarly and despite his late revival it’s unlikely that Rodriguez can put the 52 seconds he requires to get onto the podium into Valverde. But it is just possible that Konig could put 39 seconds into Pozzovivo to go sixth.
And the last word has to be about Chris Horner who tells us – ‘The press has been irresponsible even to print that this is my best form, it’s not my best form, this is just one moment when my best form has arrived at a fantastic moment.’
I’m sorry Christopher but despite some excellent palmares – notably the Pais Vasco and Tour of California – until this Vuelta you’ve never won a stage or worn the leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour and here you are drubbing men who have graced the podium of every Grand Tour – what is it we’re supposed to say about the way you’re riding?