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

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