La Vuelta a Espana – the third Grand Tour of 2013 – began on Saturday 24th August in the seaside town of Sanxenxo with Vincenzo Nibali starting out as favourite to add the title to his victory in the Giro d’Italia in May. If he’s successful in taking the Red Jersey then he will be the first rider since Alberto Contador to win two Grand Tours in the same season (he won the Giro and Vuelta in 2008).
Stage 1 was the traditional team time trial, an event that is a bit of a marmite discipline. Some people like the way that it allows those riders who don’t normally win stages to get a bit of glory. Others like the idea of teamwork being celebrated. Some just find it a boring exercise and can kill off some riders’ chances of overall victory if their team has a bad ride.
The course was 27km long, with a technical layout and a constant wind that buffeted and battered the teams throughout, punishing riders who dropped out of their formation. Strong contenders were the Fabian Cancellara led RadioShack Leopard team and Omega Pharma-Quick Step, but in the end the clear victors were Nibali’s Astana team. They were outstanding as a unit and knew exactly what they had to do to win given their position as last to start.
Nibali’s main rivals this year on the Vuelta’s notoriously steep and punishing climbs are expected to be Alejandro Valverde and Joaquin Rodriguez, but they lost time to the Italian after this TTT. Astana came in 10 seconds ahead of RadioShack, whilst Valverde finished 29 seconds down on the winners. Rodriguez had a torrid day, finishing 58 seconds behind.
Nibali didn’t claim the leader’s jersey. He was second across the line behind the Slovenian Janez Brajkovic but it was no doubt just the start he would have been hoping for.
The TTT on day one of this year’s Vuelta clearly left some of the teams smarting, including Movistar and their GC contender Alejandro Valverde. Stage 2 was 177km long, starting in Pontevedra in Galicia and finishing down the coast on Baiona, Alto Do Monte Da Groba.
It was an uphill finish with one other notable climb halfway through the stage. A group of three riders had formed a considerable lead by the time this first climb reared up, but it wasn’t until the foot of the final climb that they were caught. The race leader Brajkovic was dropped and Movistar tried to stamp their mark on the stage by riding at a high pace, but it was not to be for them. Instead the Czech rider Leopold König attacked with less than 2km to go, sparking Nicolas Roche, Daniel Moreno and Domenico Pozzovivo to respond.
It was tricky to pick a winner from this group until the Irishman Roche (son of the cycling legend Stephen) put one more effort in to break free and claim one of the biggest victories of his career so far.
Valverde finished 12 seconds back along with Rodriguez, whilst the overall leader’s jersey was taken by Nibali who was a couple of seconds behind them along with Rigoberto Uran and Roche’s cousin Daniel Martin.
Another summit finish faced the peloton on the third day of racing in Spain, although the whole stage was generally a flat affair from Vigo to the finish line in Mirador de Lobeira, taking in some small ups and downs before the final, short and brutal climb.
The five riders who launched a quick break were never in danger of winning this stage, and the teams with most at stake kept in touch with them for most of the stage. With just under 40km left the break was caught, but a series of crashes kept breaking the peloton up. The wind was playing havoc with the riders and the leading group slowed to allow others to catch them.
At the foot of the climb to Morador de Lobeira there were a series of attacks and riders began to be dropped from the head group. Juan Antonio Flecha made a move first, countered by Ivan Santaromita of BMC, the Italian Champion. He seemed to have a great chance of taking the stage but began to struggle at the 1km banner until 41 year old Chris Horner decided to have a go himself. He burst away from the group, caught and passed Santaromita and just kept on going.
The veteran American held on to take a brilliant victory, finishing 3 seconds ahead of a group including all the big names. This meant RadioShack’s Horner would ride in the next stage in the Red Jersey, 3 seconds up on Nibali and 11 seconds ahead of Roche.
The rolling 185km stage from Lalin to Fisterra on the coast had a tough profile from start to finish. There were no huge climbs, but the course never flattened out, and finished with yet another sharp climb and a thrilling and frenetic final kilometre.
One feature of this stage that stood out was the Mirador de Ezaro – a brief yet tortuous climb 30km from the finish. The road ramped up to nearly a 30% gradient. Those riders in the small breakaway struggled and the chasing pack were visibly in trouble. It is rare that you see a professional cyclist struggling to keep their pedals turning on a climb but on this climb a lot of riders were doing just that.
Nicolas Edet was first to crest the summit, and he was joined by Amets Txurruka until Luis Leon Sanchez was able to catch them with 3 other riders. This break lasted until they had 15km left and the peloton swept them up.
On the final climb Juan Antonio Flecha made a couple of attacks to try and claim a win, but each time he was caught. Just as it looked like he would make one more effort Daniel Moreno of Katusha sprinted clear like a rocket, fighting tooth and nail under pressure from Fabian Cancellara to take the victory by a few lengths.
The red jersey again changed hands after Chris Horner was dropped on the final climb, with Nibali once again taking up the GC lead.
A bunch sprint to the line featured for the first time in this year’s Vuelta as Michael Matthews of Orica GreenEDGE secured a first win in a Grand Tour.
The stage began in Sober and the terrain was rugged and hilly, taking in 2000 metres of climbing and two category 3 ascents. It was expected that this would be a sprinter’s stage, although there was always a chance that a break could stay clear of the pack. In the end, the 5 man group who launched an attack very nearly held on to their lead.
The leaders were caught with just over 2km to go and after a couple of half hearted attacks the sprint trains formed and the speed was ratcheted up. With 200 metres left Matthews hit the front, timing his sprint perfectly, and crossed the line ahead of Maximiliano Ariel Richeze and Gianni Meersman.
Nibali remained in the overall lead, ahead of Chris Horner and Nicolas Roche. Daniel Moreno held the points classification whilst Roche maintained his position as King of the Mountains.
The sixth stage was one that it seemed was made for the sprinters. Starting up in the mountains around Guijuelo, the course descended 176km towards the medieval town of Cacares following a bit of a bumpy route that offered no major climbs. The only danger to the big sprint teams would be if a strong break formed and was able to hold a lead on the rolling roads.
This was obviously what time trial world champion Tony Martin thought… although he didn’t want anyone else’s help. He went for it very early on and got into a fantastic groove, building a strong lead of over 7 minutes after 25km. The riders in the peloton were clearly wary of Martin and they were careful to not let his lead extend any further.
They started to work harder, gradually bringing the gap down to 1 minute at the 20km marker and then with 1km left he had a 6 second advantage. After a 175km solo break it seemed that he might just pull off an extraordinary win.
Alas, the sprinters had not read the script and the main pack caught the tiring Martin with 100 metres left. It was so harsh on the German rider, but great drama for the spectator. A sprint ensued and it was Danish champion Michael Mørkøv who took the victory, hanging onto Fabian Cancellara’s wheel before zipping past him to win at the last.
No change at the top on this stage, so Nibali goes into another quite mountainous stage in a good position and looking strong. Roll on the super climbs!
Standings after 6 stages:
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) – Astana 22:38:07
2. Christopher Horner (USA) – RadioShack Leopard 0:00:03
3. Nicolas Roche (Irl) – Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:08
4. Haimar Zubeldia Agirre (Spa) – RadioShack Leopard 0:00:16
5. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) – Movistar 0:00:21
6. Robert Kiserlovski (Cro) – RadioShack Leopard 0:00:26
7. Rigoberto Uran Uran (Col) – Sky Procycling 0:00:28
8. Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) – Katusha 0:00:31
9. Rafal Majka (Pol) – Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:38
10. Roman Kreuziger (Cze) – Saxo-Tinkoff 0:00:42