Vuelta a España review: Five rising stars to watch in the future

The 2011 Vuelta a España concluded in Madrid yesterday with Peter Sagan claiming his third sprint finish of the race and Juan José Cobo safely defending the red leaders’ jersey he had worn since the pivotal Angliru stage the previous Sunday. The British Sky pair of Chris Froome (a mere 13 seconds behind) and Bradley Wiggins completed the general classification podium, while Bauke Mollema and David Moncoutié secured the points and mountains classifications – for the latter it was his fourth consecutive win in the competition.

Coming late in the season and as the least prestigious of cycling’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta is often a showcase for younger riders to prove themselves. At 30, Cobo’s success is likely to be the pinnacle of his career – his only previous stage race triumph of any note was the Tour of the Basque Country back in 2007 – joining the likes of 2001 and 1991 winners Ángel Casero and Melcior Mauri as ‘home’ champions who failed to convert their Vuelta triumphs into sustained international success. But here are five riders, all aged 25 or under, who had already made their mark in lesser races but seized the opportunity to move into the limelight in a Grand Tour for the first time. Watch out for all of them in the future.

Kittel followed up his Tour of Poland success with a win on stage 7

Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano)

The 23-year old German sprinter is in his first year as a professional, but quickly established himself in the winner’s circle with a stage at January’s Tour de Langkawi before taking four more victories at last month’s Tour of Poland. At the Vuelta, he claimed the bunch sprint on stage seven in a finish marred by a dramatic crash at the front of the bunch in the closing metres.

Blessed with an electric finishing kick, he forms one of a trio of powerful top-class German fast men alongside the established André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who will join him at Skil-Shimano next season from HTC-Highroad at the forefront of a new generation of up-and-coming sprint talent.

Martin won from a select group of five at La Covatilla (image courtesy of Petit Brun/Flickr)

Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervélo)

Cycling is written into the DNA of the 25-year old, who is the nephew of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and world champion Stephen Roche and cousin to AG2R’s Nicolas Roche. A climber capable of launching and sustaining prolonged attacks, Martin turned pro with Garmin-Cervélo in 2008 and has gradually built his reputation in the peloton with a number of wins in minor races including the overall at last year’s Tour of Poland.

This year was Martin’s second attempt at the Vuelta – he finished 53rd in 2009 – and he regularly showed impressive form and aggression in the mountains en route to a 13th place finish. He won stage nine at the summit at La Covatilla after outsprinting an elite group of five which contained the final top four (Cobo, Froome, Wiggins and Mollema). He also finished third and fourth on the vertiginous summit finishes at Sierra Nevada (stage four) and Peña Cabarga (stage 17), amassing enough points to finish fourth in the King of the Mountains competition. Martin looks set for a bright future as both a climber and an overall GC contender.

Four top four finishes (and six other top tens) won the points classification for the consistent Mollema

Bauke Mollema (Rabobank)

Now in his fourth year as a pro, the 24-year old Mollema is one of three talented young Dutch climbers on the Rabobank squad. Robert Gesink (25) enjoyed his breakthrough last year in finishing sixth at the Tour de France, while Steven Kruijswijk (24) has featured at the Giro, where he finished ninth this year after placing 18th in 2010.

Mollema had a disappointing Tour de France (he finished 70th) after placing ninth at Paris-Nice and fifth at the Tour de Suisse, but showed both strength and consistency in the mountains at the Vuelta. Although he did not win a stage, he finished in the top four four times among a total of ten top ten placings – enough to win him the green points jersey – and was second only to Martin at La Covatilla. Fourth overall in Madrid (just 2:03 behind Cobo), he is a good enough time trialist to be considered a serious GC contender, and could certainly form part of a formidable two or three-pronged attack alongside Gesink and Kruijswijk in the future.

Sagan won three stages at his first Grand Tour (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale)

The Slovakian sprinter is still only 21, but already has two years of professional experience under his belt and a palmarès any rider would be proud of. Among others, he has won stages at the Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice, Tour of California and Tour de Romandie, and added overall wins at this year’s Giro di Sardegna and Tour of Poland.

Sagan capitalised on Mark Cavendish’s early withdrawal to take three sprint wins at the Vuelta – Joaquim Rodríguez was the only other multiple stage winner, with two – claiming victory on stages six and 12 before edging out his rivals at the final gallop in Madrid. Sagan relies as much on power as he does acceleration – he is more of a Thor Hushovd or Erik Zabel than a Cavendish or Greipel – but undeniably has a nose for victory. Hampered only by the fact his Liquigas team are generally more focussed on the general classification, he looks set to become a major player in the sprints for several years to come.

Taaramäe crowned a consistent 2011 with victory on stage 14 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis)

In his fourth year with Cofidis, the 24-year old Estonian has developed into an all-round rider who combines time-trialling skills with strong performances in the mountains. 2011 had already been a breakthrough season for him, with impressive early season showings (third at the Critérium International and fourth at Paris-Nice) propelling him to 12th overall at the Tour de France, boosted by a tenth-place finish in the individual time trial.

Off the back of the Tour a sustained challenge at the Vuelta was always unlikely, but an impressive seventh at La Covatilla was then trumped by an outstanding victory on the summit of La Farrapona, when he was the only survivor of a 17-man break to claim his first Grand Tour stage, and his first international win of any type in over two years. Hopefully this will boost him to even better performances next season, as he possesses the all-round skills to develop into a genuine Grand Tour contender.

Honourable mentions

Finally, a quick mention for three other riders who caught my eye over the last three weeks.

After Wiggins cracked on the Angliru on stage 15, the Kenyan-born Chris Froome took up the mantle of British hopes and pushed Cobo all the way to Madrid, eventually succumbing by just 13 seconds. (Paradoxically, in real time he actually covered the course 19 seconds faster than Cobo but lost out due to time bonuses.) Nonetheless second overall equalled the best ever result by a Briton at a Grand Tour for a rider who has largely spent his career as a domestique rather than a protected rider. The 26-year old is out of contract with Sky at the end of the season and is likely to attract interest from several other teams looking to strengthen their rosters for 2012.

Tony Martin dominated the individual time trial around Salamanca, winning by 59 seconds, to add to his time trial victory at the Tour de France. In 2011 alone he has won a total of six ITTs and the overall at Paris-Nice, while serving as a key member of Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad lead-out train. In addition to now being a serious challenger to the pre-eminence of Fabian Cancellara in the time trial discipline, he is also a decent enough climber in the medium mountains who could further develop as a serious GC contender in the week-long races, as well as targeting a good top 20 finish at the Grand Tours.

Finally, Vacansoleil’s 23-year old Wouter Poels is yet another promising Dutch rider – perhaps more of an all-rounder than a pure climber – who was able to follow-up a pair of second-place finishes with 17th overall. I suspect he may not quite have the climbing legs of a top GC contender, but he could certainly profit in the week-long tours, the classics and as a breakaway specialist.

Anyway, that’s the end of the Grand Tours for 2011. Bring on the World Championships next week!

General classification:

1. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) 84:59:31

2. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:13

3. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +1:39

4. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +2:03

5. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +3:48

6. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +4:13

7. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +4:31

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +4:45

9. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +5:20

10. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +5:33

Points classification:

1. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 122 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 115

3. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) 101

4.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 100

5. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) 92

Mountains classification:

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 63 pts

2. Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale) 56

3. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) 42

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 33

5. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 32

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Debut wins for Sagan and Kittel promise open 2012 sprints

Rodríguez soars then stumbles in the mountains

Vuelta a España: Rodríguez soars then stumbles in the mountains

A pair of tough climbing finishes – the first a short punchy ascent, the second a long hard slog to the summit of a first category mountain – were supposed to resolve the picture at the top of the general classification of the Vuelta a España. Instead, they have only served to muddy the waters, with Sunday’s finish on top of Sierra de Béjar leaving exactly one minute separating 13th place from new leader Bauke Mollema, and with the title credentials of Joaquim Rodríguez hanging on the outcome of Monday’s individual time trial around Salamanca.

Stage 8: Talavera de la Reina to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 177.3km

Rodríguez moved to the top of the standings with a dominant win in San Lorenzo

Rodríguez had put himself firmly in the box seat with a coruscating attack on the final 2.4km climb of stage eight in San Lorenzo, which featured 200 metres of vertical gain and ramps of 27% and 28% in the final kilometre. The Spanish Katusha climber – the overwhelming favourite for the stage – jumped off the wheel of Lampre’s Michele Scarponi on one of the steepest sections with around 500 metres to go and pulled out a nine-second advantage by the finish.

Scarponi finished second with Mollema and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), with the rest of the general classification contenders scattered further down the hill. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali was 32 seconds back (52, after taking time bonuses into account). Sylvain Chavanel conceded the red jersey to Rodríguez after finishing 63 seconds down. Sky’s Bradley Wiggins was in a group of 11 GC men including Juan José Cobo (Geox), Janez Brajkovič (RadioShack) and Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) 20 seconds behind the winner, whose advantage at the head of the overall standings over teammate Daniel Moreno stood at 32 seconds.

Stage 8 result:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 4:49:01

2. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +0:09

3. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) same time

4. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) s/t

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:12

Stage 9: Villacastín to Sierra de Bejar La Covatilla, 183km

However, if the San Lorenzo climb was tailored perfectly to Rodríguez’s punchy characteristics, today’s finish on Sierra de Béjar – 18.2km with several sections over 10% in its second half – was certainly better suited to those capable of sustaining their power for the best part of 30 minutes. A four-man break had initially pulled out a huge advantage with two survivors – Omega Pharma’s Sebastian Lang and Vacansoleil’s Pim Ligthart – starting the final climb with an advantage of around 3½ minutes.

Mollema moved into the overall lead by just one second

Having caught Lang with less than 7km to go, there then followed one of the most exciting passage of racing seen in any of this year’s Grand Tours. A sequence of attacks by GC contenders shredded the peloton and left Rodríguez blowing hard towards the back of the group. In quick succession, Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis), Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step), Nibali and finally Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) put in big efforts off the front which upped the overall pace and sapped the legs of the less powerful riders.

Martin’s attack, which came with just over 5km to go, initially looked like being decisive. But having dropped his cousin Nicolas Roche (AG2R), Nibali eventually dragged the other leaders back up to him. By now Rodríguez was clearly at his limit, and when Sky’s Chris Froome hit the front to keep the tempo high for his team leader Bradley Wiggins it proved to be too much for the red jersey, who fell away just inside 3km and started to drop back rapidly. With opportunity knocking, Wiggins took over the pace-setting at the front, riding several tough climbers – including Nibali – off his wheel with an impressive sustained burst he has rarely if ever displayed in the high mountains. Only in the final stretch, as Martin launched a sprint in a bid for victory and the 20 bonus seconds that only Mollema could follow, did Wiggins tail off. For Martin, it was his first Grand Tour stage win.

However, the British champion’s effort had achieved its objective, with a pained Rodríguez crossing the line 50 seconds after Martin and conceding the overall lead to Mollema by a single second. The 24-year old Dutchman is good value for the red jersey, having been the most consistent performer in the race so far in a season in which he caught the eye when placing fifth at the Tour de Suisse in June, a year after placing 12th at the Giro d’Italia.

Nibali is a further eight seconds back, with Wiggins still outside the top ten in 13th, but now only 60 seconds behind the red jersey.

Dan Martin savours victory at the end of a punishing climb on Sierra de Béjar (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Individual time trial will shake up the order

With the top of the general classification compressed again, tomorrow’s 47km individual time trial takes on additional importance. Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin will be expected to dominate, although after nine punishing days of intense heat and tough climbs we may see some surprising results.

We will certainly see Rodríguez struggle – he lost six minutes in last year’s time trial over a similar distance, and will probably consider himself happy if he can limit his losses to three tomorrow. Similarly, Scarponi (18th at 1:54 behind) and Van Den Broeck (5th, 0:27) are also likely to struggle and concede large chunks of time which will knock them down the order.

Wiggins now stands just 1:00 off the race lead

Perhaps the most intriguing men to watch out for will be Geox’s Denis Menchov(21st, 2:18), a two-time Vuelta winner, and Wiggins himself. Both are top-class time trialists who could easily make up two to three minutes on the majority of riders around them, and both have performed strongly on the big climbs to date. Do not be surprised if either or both catapult themselves into the top three tomorrow night, a position both men are certainly capable of defending in the days to come. My money is on Wiggins to post a top-ten time against the clock – normally I would expect top-five, but I expect today’s effort will cost him some time tomorrow – which should be enough to put him into the red jersey heading into the first rest day. How long he will be able to defend it for is another matter, but it would be a significant achievement nonetheless.

After a week’s racing which has frequently seen temperatures topping 40°C, the competition for the red jersey is also hotting up. The next week – culminating in next Sunday’s ascent of the Angliru – should definitely reduce the field of genuine contenders to a mere handful.

Stage 9 result:

1. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 4:52:14

2. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) same time

3. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) +0:03

4. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +0:04

5. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:07

General classification:

1. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 37:11:17

2.  Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:01

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:09

4. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:18

5. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:27

6. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:35

7. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:37

8. Kevin Seeldrayers (Quick Step) +0:42

9. Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) +0:42

10. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) +0:46

Points classification:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 74 pts

2. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 62

3.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 48

5. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 25 pts

2, Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale) 23

3. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20

4. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

5. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 14

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Debut wins for Sagan and Kittel promise open 2012 sprints

Vuelta a España: Sagan and Kittel debut wins promise end to Cavendish domination

Contrasting maiden Grand Tour stage wins by a pair of Vuelta a España debutants – Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel – punctuated what should have been a relatively quiet couple of days for the big names, but turned out to be anything but. A late team attack by the Liquigas team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday’s stage was followed by a crash within sight of the finish today to leave many riders cursing a combination of unexpected time losses and crash injuries.

Stage 6: Úbeda to Córdoba, 196.8km

Stage six to Córdoba saw a four-man break reeled in by the peloton with 27km remaining, just before the final second-category climb. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) set a fierce pace on the front which soon had several riders hanging on desperately at the back, including the now familiar sight of a struggling Igor Antón. It’s safe to say now that the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader’s general classification hopes have vanished.

Defending King of the Mountains David Moncoutié predictably popped off the front to collect maximum points over the summit and was joined early on the subsequent descent by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step). However, with just under 10km to go to the finish, Liquigas launched a pre-planned attack, with four men – including 2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali – breaking away from the bunch at speeds touching 90kph and flying past the Moncoutié group. Only stage three winner Pablo Lastras – who had previously won in Córdoba back in 2002 – was able to go with them as the Liquigas attack put clear daylight between themselves and the other GC contenders.

Having executed their plan to perfection, you would imagine that in the final few kilometres there would have been a communication from the Liquigas team car to its four riders saying something along the lines of:

Right, we want Vincenzo to get as many bonus seconds as possible, ideally the 20 seconds for the win. So let’s set him up for the sprint. If he can’t beat Lastras, make sure none of you finish ahead of him so he gets second place and 12 seconds. Okay, everybody got that?

Sagan won a stage on his Grand Tour debut (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But no. As the lead quintet approached the finish, the four Liquigas riders seemed unclear what to do and as Lastras opened up his sprint Sagan shot forward to cover the move and at least ensure the stage victory stayed within the team. Lastras crossed the line two lengths behind as Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Eros Capecchi all looked at each other and, having already shot themselves in one foot, promptly put a bullet in the other as Agnoli took the four bonus seconds for third ahead of his team leader. It was, quite simply, a comedy of basic errors at the end of a superbly executed tactical move.

The key GC contenders all finished in one of two groups, either 17 or 23 seconds behind – red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was in the first of these – meaning a Nibali victory would have effectively doubled his gains and earned him enough time to put him into the overall lead.

At 21 years 203 days, Sagan claimed his first Grand Tour stage on his debut, making him the youngest winner at one of the three biggest races of the year since Heinrich Haussler at the 2005 Vuelta.

Stage 6 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 4:38:22

2. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) same time

3. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

Stage 7: Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 187.6km

Today’s stage had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it, and first year pro Marcel Kittel delivered not only his own maiden Grand Tour stage victory but a similar first for his Skil-Shimano squad in their sixth year of racing. However, the finish was marred by a massive high-speed crash near the front in the final 100 metres when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) drifted right as Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) edged to his left beside him. The two touched wheels, immediately went down heavily, and set off a domino effect which sent several other riders tumbling to the ground.

A first Grand Tour win for both Kittel and Skil-Shimano

Earlier, a four-man break had built a lead of nearly nine minutes, but on a flattish day with a predominantly downhill final 40km a mass finish was always going to occur. With the sprinters’ teams all jostling for position, Skil-Shimano moved decisively to the front under the flamme rouge and provided a strong lead-out for Kittel, who held off yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan by a bike length as the carnage unfolded behind him.

Leading contenders Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim RodríguezMichele Scarponi and Jurgen Van den Broeck all came down in the crash – none appeared to suffer anything more than cuts and bruises – but red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was able to pull up in time to avoid being unseated. Farrar did not remount for several minutes and was taken to hospital immediately afterwards with muscular and tissue injuries to his left leg, but reportedly no broken bones. However, it seems likely he will be forced to abandon.

The crash held up more than half the peloton, but because it occurred in the final 3km everyone in the bunch received the same time. Even without the accident, Kittel would have won anyway as he was in pole position already. Chavanel retains his 15-second lead over Daniel Moreno, with both Nibali and Rodríguez in close attendance. That is likely to change after tomorrow’s finish in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km.

An end to Mark Cavendish’s sprint domination?

For the past four years, the combination of the world’s fastest pure sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and cycling’s best lead-out train in HTC-Highroad have dominated the bunch finishes in every major race they have entered. Cavendish alone has won a remarkable 30 individual stages in nine attempts at the three Grand Tours in that period, while André Greipel added six more before leaving for Omega Pharma-Lotto last winter.

Degenkolb's departure from HTC-Highroad will add to the competition next year

However, HTC-Highroad is disbanding at the end of this season, and Cavendish and arguably the finest collection of sprint talent the sport has ever seen are being scattered across the professional peloton. That roster includes Matt Goss (winner of Milan-San Remo), lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw, and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who won twice at the Dauphiné and will be joining his compatriot Kittel at Skil-Shimano next year.

Cavendish has yet to confirm who he will ride for next year – Sky are assumed to be his most likely destination – but no matter where he goes he is unlikely to have the kind of well-drilled train that the likes of Renshaw, Goss, Tony Martin and Bernhard Eisel guaranteed him. The Manxman will still win races next year – and plenty of them – but the break-up of his team means the stranglehold he has had on flat stages, where his rivals have generally been racing only for second place, will be broken. That can only be a good thing for the sport.

Already this year we have seen Greipel, Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen win their first Tour de France stages, and the addition of Sagan and Kittel to the winner’s circle at Grand Tours will ensure a broader spectrum of potential winners at the biggest races next year.

At 23, Kittel is in his first season as a professional, but announced his presence immediately with a victory at January’s Tour de Langkawi. But it was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month where he really sprang to prominence, winning four stages with devastating final bursts. His win today was equally impressive.

The 21-year old Sagan is already in his second year, and emerged as the overall winner at the Tour of Poland after two stage wins and some dogged defensive climbing on the hillier stages. The Slovakian is well suited to finishes requiring power as well as speed, and had already enjoyed a hugely successful 2011 before the Vuelta, winning three stages at the Giro de Sardegna, one at the Tour of California and two at the Tour de Suisse. He is also a two-time stage winner at Paris-Nice.

The elite group of sprinters will soon be saying goodbye to veteran stalwarts such as Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen but now includes newcomers Kittel and Sagan. Add to that the established Greipel and Farrar, powerful classics men such as the Norwegian pairing of Thor Hushovd and Boasson Hagen and a number of others who are not quite in that top bracket but are all potential big race winners on their day – Degenkolb joins the likes of Daniele Bennati and J J Haedo in this category – the sprinters’ field looks deeper and stronger than it has done for several years. Bunch sprints in 2012 should be quite a sight to behold.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 4:47:59

2.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

4. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) s/t

5. Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 27:29:12

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:15

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:16

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:25

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:41

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:44

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:49

9. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:49

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 48

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

4. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41

5. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 41

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 10

5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Vuelta a España: Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Stage 5: Sierra Nevada to Valdepeñas de Jaén, 187km

It was the legendary heavyweight Muhammad Ali who coined the phrase “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” to describe his individualistic boxing style, but that description could equally be applied to Katusha’s Joaquim Rodríguez. Last year on this very finish he attacked too early and ran out of steam before the line, but this time around he showed he had learned his lesson by leaving his kick a fraction later and powering away from his rivals to take a comfortable win which moved him within 23 seconds of the race lead, which is still held by Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel.

A ‘flat’ stage with zero probability of a sprint finish

Obviously the race organisers had a sense of humour when they classified this as a ‘flat’ stage. For starters, there are two second category climbs – actually, it is the Alto de Valdepeñas twice over – with the second summit coming just 8km from the finish. And then there is the final uncategorised 1.3km climb to the finish at the top of the town, which gradually kicks up and features gradients of up to 27% in its final 500 metres. There was about much chance of the sprinters contesting the stage win as there is of me wearing the polka dot jersey at next year’s Tour de France – which is to say none at all.

Stage 5 profile

The same finish featured on stage four last year, with Igor Antón winning the first of his two stages ahead of Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Velits, Rodríguez and Philippe Gilbert – all punchy climbers to a man. The gaps between the top men were small, but with a bonus of 20 seconds on offer to the stage winner it represented an opportunity for one of the general classification contenders to steal a decent chunk of time on their rivals.

I love this type of stage, particularly when placed early in a three-week race like this. It offers the best chance for a puncheur or classics specialist to claim individual glory and possibly the overall lead, while simultaneously giving the serious contenders the opportunity to lay down a marker and gain a chunk of time without risking going too far into the red as they might do with an attack on a long hors catégorie climb.

This year’s Tour de France served up two such stages early in its first week, on Mont des Alouettes (stage one) and the Mûr-de-Bretagne (stage four), both of which produced exciting finishes won by Gilbert and eventual champion Cadel Evans and served to animate the early stages of the race as a whole. The Giro also specialises in sting-in-the-tail parcours of this nature – often steep, narrow and twisty finishes into hill-top towns – which always seem to throw new names on to the top step of the podium. It serves as a great reminder that many top riders exist in that extremely large grey area between the power of the fast-twitch sprinters and the lightweight chicken skeletons of the pure climbers.

Rodríguez flies, Antón sinks, Chavanel clings on

The day’s racing started at a furious pace despite the hot conditions, with several attacks occurring before an eight-man break finally settled. The group included Michael Albasini (HTC-Highroad), Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis), Angel Madrazo (Movistar) and Johannes Fröhlinger (Skil-Shimano). With the break struggling to stretch out a significant advantage, Albasini kicked on just after the halfway point of the stage, building a lead of over two minutes. He was later joined by Fröhlinger and Madrazo with around 40km left, but although the latter later launched a solo attack all three were comfortably reeled in before the second climb up the Alto de Valdepeñas as Liquigas-Cannondale drove the peloton on.

Halfway up the ascent, Astana’s Alexsandr Dyachenko attacked off the front and was soon followed and immediately passed by three-time reigning King of the Mountains David Moncoutié (Cofidis). The Frenchman streaked away over the summit and continued to build his lead on the rapid descent. With 4km to go he was leading by 34 seconds on the approach into the town of Valdepeñas de Jaén as the peloton, led by Liquigas and Katusha, set a furious pace to reel him in. Yet again it proved to be too much for Antón, who had been barely able to hold on to the bunch on the climb and whose only objective was to minimise his losses on the finish on which he had won last year.

Rodríguez powered clear of the entire field to win at Valdepeñas de Jaén

Entering the final kilometre, Moncoutié’s lead had been reduced to 16 seconds – nowhere near enough to hold off the chasing pack. As the road started to kick up beyond 20% in the final 600 metres or so, he was quickly swamped and spat out the back, eventually finishing a distant 35th, 31 seconds down. It was left to the previous day’s winner, Daniel Moreno, to set a punishing tempo for his team leader Rodríguez which dropped everyone except Vacansoleil’s Wouter Poels. That left Rodríguez with the job of timing his acceleration to fly clear of everyone else, which he accomplished with some ease to lead Poels across the line by four seconds, with Moreno trailing in just after him.

The rest of the peloton followed behind in dribs and drabs, having exploded in the final half-kilometre. Michele Scarponi, Jakob Fuglsang and Jurgen Van Den Broeck were in a group of seven which finished just seven seconds down.Vincenzo Nibali and Denis Menchov conceded eleven seconds, Janez Brajkovič and Bradley Wiggins 20 each, Chavanel 31 and Antón 57.

Overall, the top 17 riders on general classification are separated by less than a minute, with Chavanel’s advantage over Moreno reduced to a wafer-thin nine seconds. The former knows his days in the lead are numbered, but paid handsome tribute to his team for all their support in defending the red jersey.

Stage winner Rodríguez reiterated his desire to win the overall in Madrid and was delighted with both the crowd support on the final climb and the gains he had made on his rivals:

I’ve clearly achieved more than I expected with the gap I created over my adversaries on such a short distance. The last kilometre was extremely spectacular. It was like a big Belgian classic with a huge crowd. Everyone was yelling ‘Purito!’ [his nickname]. It was very enjoyable.

Rodríguez was always a short-odds favourite to win this stage after Antón’s struggles on Sierra Nevada. Already in 2011, he has finished fifth at the Giro, won two stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné, and finished second to Gilbert at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne, both hilly classics not vastly dissimilar to this stage. If he can minimise his losses in the individual time trial, he is clearly the man to beat on the steepest finishes and confirmed his status as a genuine potential GC winner.

The next two days are likely to see the balance tip back in favour of the sprinters, before two days in the mountains and the individual time trial bring an end to what has already proven to be a punishing opening section of the race. In particular, watch out for the end of Saturday’s stage in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km. Rodríguez will be heavily favoured again there.

Stage 5 result:

1. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 4:42:54

2. Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:04

3. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:05

4. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +0:07

5. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) +0:08

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 18:02:34

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:09

3. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

4. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:26

5. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:33

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:36

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:38

8. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:43

9. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:44

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 39

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 28

4. Wouter Pouls (Vacansoleil-DCM) 28

5. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 26

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

5. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 6

Link: Vuelta a España official website

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Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Vuelta a España: Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

In blistering temperatures touching 40ºC, the red jersey worn by the leader of the Vuelta a España has been passed from rider to rider like a hot potato. For the first time in the race’s history, four different riders have held the overall lead after four stages, with the jersey passing from Jakob Fuglsang to Daniele Bennati to stage three winner Pablo Lastras before finally settling on the shoulders of Sylvain Chavanel, who finished 57 seconds behind Daniel Moreno on the highest summit of this year’s race at Sierra Nevada, good enough to move him to the head of the general classification.

The intense heat of a Spanish summer is already taking its toll on the peloton and proved too much for Mark Cavendish, who abandoned the race today saying that he had no power left. Whether it was the extreme weather or perhaps a touch of the stomach problems which had already caused his roommate Matt Goss to quit the race is as yet unclear. Either way, his retirement will compromise his preparation for next month’s World Championships in Copenhagen on a course which for once suits the sprinters.

Lastras claimed his third Vuelta stage and the red jersey

No stage win, but Chavanel gains time on the peloton …

Monday’s 163km stage from Petrer to Totana was won by Movistar’s Pablo Lastras – his third career Vuelta win – after he rode away from the rest of a four-man breakaway group over the final climb of the day, whose summit came with just 12km to go. Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, the best and most experienced finisher of the other three, was left by Markel Irizar (RadioShack) and Ruslan Pydgornyy (Vacansoleil-DCM) to lead the pursuit. The latter pair seemed so afraid of losing to the Frenchman that they effectively sacrificed any chance of victory and gave Lastras a free ride to the finish.

Having been forced to do all the hard work in the closing kilometres, Chavanel nonetheless had enough left to at least win the sprint for second, 15 seconds behind the stage winner and new red jersey, but more importantly 1:28 ahead of the peloton.

… And converts it into the red jersey

Today’s (Tuesday) fourth stage from Baza to Sierra Nevada provided an early introduction to the high mountains on a summit finish at the highest point of this year’s race. Cavendish climbed off his bike, having been dropped from the peloton well before the final 23km hors catégorie climb, which had last featured at the Vuelta in 2008, when it provided the springboard for stage winner David Moncoutié to win the first of his three consecutive mountains classifications.

Moreno won stage four and moved up to second overall

An early seven-man breakaway built an eight-minute lead which the peloton had whittled down to 2½ minutes by the base of the climb. With the pace increasing, the escape group was reduced to four men as the chasing peloton behind also started to thin out. Surprisingly Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Antón, many people’s favourite to win the race, was soon in difficulty, clinging on to the back of the pack and eventually dropping off altogether with around 8km to go as the riders at the front started to test each other’s legs.

Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali was among the first to put in a meaningful change of pace, before Saxo Bank-Sungard’s Chris Anker Sørensen attacked off the front, followed by Astana’s Robert Kišerlovski. With the Russian sitting resolutely on Sørensen’s wheel and refusing to take a turn at the front, the pair bridged to the four surviving escapees with 5km remaining. Sørensen immediately kicked on, and only Guillaume Bonnafond (AG2R) was able to go with him. Again, the Dane was forced to make all the running as the pair sought to establish a stage-winning lead.

Meanwhile, Katusha’s Daniel Moreno had jumped off the front of the peloton and was able to make the junction to the lead pair. An exhausted Bonnafond was quickly dropped, leaving Moreno and Sørensen – with the Saxo Bank man yet again having to do the bulk of the pace-setting – to contest the finish. Moreno was able to bide his time before coming around Sørensen with 200 metres to go and sprint to an easy victory. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) led a group of around 30 riders including most of the favourites across the line 11 seconds down. Chavanel was 57 seconds back, while Antón cut a forlorn figure as he trailed across the finish 1:38 down on Moreno.

Chavanel became the Vuelta's fourth leader in as many days

The result put Chavanel into the red jersey by 43 seconds over Moreno, courtesy of his advantage from the previous day’s successful break. Nibali is the best placed of the major heads of state in fifth, 53 seconds off the overall lead, with Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre) all less than 40 seconds behind him.

It is early days yet, and it is always dangerous to read too much into individuals’ form on the basis of a single mountains stage – albeit one of the more difficult ones – with the key race-defining days still a week and a half away. However, it is clear that Antón does not have the same form which saw him in the overall lead two-thirds of the way through last year’s race before crashing out. Already 1:31 behind Nibali, he himself admitted he is not the rider he was 12 months ago:

I’m not in the same condition as last year. Considering the time I’ve lost today, it’s going to be very difficult to win the Vuelta but there’s still a long way to go. I didn’t climb well today but I’ve limited the damage and I haven’t lost too much.

Who else fared well today? Chavanel‘s occupancy of the red jersey will only be a temporary one – he is more of a hilly classics rider than a true climber. Moreno‘s win catapulted him into second overall, but he will quickly return to his more customary role of supporting Rodríguez’s challenge and will expect to tumble back down the order. Nibali made a clear statement of intent to demonstrate his form and confidence. Wiggins rode at the front in the closing stages to show that he has recovered fully from the crash which prematurely ended his Tour de France, but then this was also the kind of long, steady climb which favours his unexplosive style. We will have to see how he fares on the steepier, punchier climbs. Rodríguez and Scarponi are certainly capable of hurting their rivals on the steepest slopes and were also conspicuous near the front of the pack today, ready to cover any sudden moves. And Van Den Broeck, Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) and Janez Brajkovič (RadioShack), among others, also rode comfortably in the pack throughout. Menchov in particular will be content to just follow wheels and look to make his move in the individual time trial.

In short, with the exception of Antón, the only conclusion that can be drawn is that today’s stage was inconclusive. All the major players looked to be in decent enough form, and even the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader could ride himself back into contention with one well-placed attack. Incidentally, tomorrow’s ‘flat’ stage finishes in Valdepeñas de Jaén ends with a short but brutal climb that touches gradients of up to 27%. When the same climb featured in last year’s race, the stage was won by Igor Antón. I don’t think he will win tomorrow – and even if he were to do so the time gains would be relatively small – but it is the sort of finish which suits him well, and there are plenty more to come in the days ahead.

In boxing parlance, he has been knocked down and given a standing eight count, but he has not been knocked out just yet. Particularly given the draining temperatures of this first week, there is still a lot of racing to come in this Vuelta.

Stage 3 result:

1. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 3:58:00

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) +0:15

3. Markel Irizar (RadioShack) same time

4. Ruslan Pydgornyy (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t

5. Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale) +1:43

Stage 4 result:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 4:51:53

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) +0:03

3. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) +0:11

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) same time

5. Przemysław Niemiec (Lampre-ISD) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 13:19:09

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:43

3. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:49

4. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:49

5. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:53

6. Kanstantsin Sivtsov (HTC-Highroad) +0:58

7. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:59

8. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +1:03

9. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +1:03

10. Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step) +1:04

Points classification:

1. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 28 pts

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 26

3. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 26

4. Chris Sutton (Sky) 25

5. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) 22

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

5. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 6

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

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