After 12 stages of racing at La Vuelta a España, it is difficult to be certain of who will win the race. The favourite at the start was Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and he has so far been in the lead for the most part. However, just like the Spanish Inquisition, no-one expected Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard). The American has been busy stirring things up. His performances so far have been remarkable, but can he hang on in there for long enough to take a dream win?
This 169km stage from Valls to Castelldefels featured a daunting climb close to the finish. The Rat Penat has a lovely ring to it and would come 50km before the end of the stage. It would usually provide a good chance for the sprinters’ teams to take control and chase down any breakaways.
As it happened, a very strong group formed a break after 60km of racing and they built a good lead over the peloton. By the time the Rat Penat was crested they held a 3 minute advantage and the group was now smaller but still impressive. The main field tried in vain to catch them but they held on to their lead and it only ever dropped to around 2 minutes.
So it was down to the remaining 8 or so riders to duke it out for victory. Coppel (Cofidis) and Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) were the first to strike, and were soon joined by Scarponi (Lampre-Merida). They got reeled in only for Coppel to try one last time to burst clear. Barguil (Argos-Shimano), Zandio (Sky) and Nocentini (AG2R La Mondiale) managed to bridge the gap but again, the group worked hard and caught the escapees.
The stage was coming to a close and the group began to grow wary of each other. It was a case of who dares wins and Barguil was the rider who was able to capitalise when the group’s fatigue began to show. His efforts paid off and he held on to claim his first Grand Tour stage win.
Nibali kept his GC lead over Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff).
Woof! What a monster of a stage! La Vuelta entered Andorra and took in 4 huge climbs to test the peloton. Highest of all was the Port de Envalira at 2,410 metres in height whilst it finished at Collada de la Gallina – 1,550 metres.
The weather certainly played its part on a cold and murky day that claimed the scalp of Ivan Basso (Cannondale) who had to withdraw with hypothermia.
The break of the stage was quick to form and built up an 8 minute lead over the first 50km, which was extended ever further up the Envalira as Katusha led the chase, causing chaos in the main field. The first to reach the top was the now 3 man breakaway of Gilbert (BMC), Luis Leon Sanchez (Belkin) and Ratto (Cannondale).
On the descent Sanchez crashed out to leave Gilbert and Ratto on their own. They were 8 minutes ahead and Ratto was able to build a lead over Gilbert on the second big climb of the day. Behind them there was chaos in the race. Different groups and breaks formed and failed and riders were clearly suffering from the cold and the dangerous conditions.
Ratto had a solid lead over Gilbert, whilst back down the road the was no real urgency from Nibali and Horner as Ratto was way behind them overall. Gilbert had given up and was caught by Horner and Nibali on the final climb leaving Ratto to creep along up the punishing 15% gradients to win the stage before exhaustion consumed him.
Nibali and Horner were locked together and eventually the Italian sprinted clear close to the line to claim second, whilst other big names lost time and allowed Horner to claim second in the GC behind Nibali.
La Vuelta saluted the 100th edition of the Tour de France on this year’s Queen Stage of the race by entering France after the previous day’s brutal stage in Andorra. 4 first category climbs faced the peloton before the finish in Peyragudes… and only a mere 232.5km long too!
The stage was won by a Frenchman on home soil to send the crowd wild. FDJ’s Alexandre Geniez soloed his way to a victory that he described as “the best day for me”. He was a deserved winner, having been a part of the initial breakaway that formed on the first category 1 climb of the day.
That group was 28 riders strong, and inevitably gradually broke down until Geniez launched his attack for victory with 27km left.
The weather was much better than the previous day which would have been a huge relief for the riders. Once the got to French territory they were faced with the mighty Col du Port de Bales and the six riders held a plus-4 minute advantage over the peloton. This group was broken up by the climb until Geniez and Cardoso (Caja-Rural) were all alone and cresting the summit.
Meanwhile, Nicolas Roche decided he had to do something about his standings in the GC. He had lost several minutes on stage 14 and he attacked on the Port du Bales climb. He was joined by his Saxo-Tinkoff team-mate Oliver Zaugg who had fallen back from the breakaway group to build up a minute’s advantage on the main field.
With the French crowds cheering him on, Geniez launched his bid for victory on the descent from the Col du Port de Bales and with a spring in his pedals the Frenchman was able to hold onto the solo win whilst the GC had fun and games behind him.
The final climb saw a series of attacks by the big names, but no-one bar Scarponi was able to quite break. The leader was able to reel anyone else who tried to escape back into the elite group of 5 riders that were chasing down Roche. With stunning scenery as a backdrop, Geniez was followed over the line 3 minutes later by Scarponi and Roche. Nibali, Horner et al were 15 seconds behind Roche.
In the third Pyrenean stage of 2013’s Vuelta the course started high and just kept going up to the 1,800 metre high finish at Aramon Formigal. The stage saw real drama with a photo-finish deciding the winner and one of the big GC riders cracking on the final climb.
The break started relatively late in the race and was made up of a large group of riders, with smaller groups taking their chances and bridging the gap from the peloton as the race went on. They held onto their lead as one until the final stages of when they began to string out and the young Argos-Shimano rider Warren Barguil showed that he wasn’t a one hit wonder. He attacked at the foot of the final climb and was able to gain a 30 second advantage on those behind him.
The GC riders were in the peloton and as they approached the final climb the pace ramped up and damage started to be done to the race leader. Valverde (Movistar), Roche, Horner and Rodriguez (Katusha) all managed to get clear of Nibali, who showed signs that he wasn’t as strong as some thought. He cracked under the attacks and, isolated from any team-mates, lost time to his rivals.
At the head of the race Rigobert Uran Uran (Sky) had caught Barguil with a kilometre left and tried to sweep past him. Barguil showed remarkable guile to hang onto his wheel and the two riders were locked side by side coming to the last few hundred metres. Huzarski (Net-App Endura) and Nerz (BMC) were gaining on them and as Uran stood up out of his saddle to sprint for the line, Barguil kept cool and pipped the Colombian to the finish line for his second stage win.
Riders came into the finish in dribs and drabs. Nibali had recovered slightly but he lost precious time to Horner who continued to impress and at the end of the day placed under 30 seconds behind the Italian.
A rolling stage was in store for the riders on stage 17 and they would have enjoyed their second rest day after the torment of the preceding Pyrenean stages. Crosswinds were forecast, something that would have given hope to any teams hopeful of splitting the peloton up.
The breakaway move came from a couple of riders who built a strong lead of over 7 minutes, but when the sprinters’ teams want to reel someone in on such terrain, it is a formality that they won’t be able to hold on to the end.
Their advantage was reduced methodically and with 28km left a decisive move by Saxo-Tinkoff split the peloton. Some GC riders (Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) and Pinot (FDJ) were caught off guard and this allowed Nicolas Roche to overtake them to move up in the overall standings. Chris Horner’s RadioShack team-mate Fabian Cancellara also dug the knife in to see if they could drop Nibali, but the Astana rider was on the ball and stayed with them.
As they entered Burgos the Lampre team were clearly looking to set up their pace man Richeze for a sprint win. It seemed it would come down to this, until in the last kilometre the Dutchman Bauke Mollema (Belkin) burst clear of the main field, launching a classic late attack to snatch a classic win.
There was no change in the top three GC standings but given Nibali’s problems in stage 16 those looking to overtake him were licking their lips as the decisive mountains loomed into view.
Chris Horner’s dream Vuelta continued in earnest on stage 18. The mountains of Cantabria have been host to some classic climbing duels in the past and whilst the rolling, lumpy terrain might not have the same drama as the Pyrenees, it can lead to some epic racing.
Pena Cabarga is a typically (for La Vuelta) steep climb and as the road ramped up towards the finish at its peak we saw Horner’s climbing abilities once again coming to the fore. He was in a group with Nibali, Valverde, Moreno (Katusha) and Rodriguez when the Katusha duo accelerated away from the rest. Horner went with them, and Nibali found the strength to catch them up himself. Then Horner stepped it up a notch and Nibali popped. It looked like he would surely also mean Horner would snatch the leader’s jersey from him, but Horner just missed out by 3 seconds.
A break formed early on in the day and built up a solid lead by the time 100km had been covered. With under 40m left riders were attacking from this break and the decisive move came from the eventual winner – Vasil Kiryenka (Sky) – along with Clark and Hansen.
Kiryenka was in a focused mood and soon tried his own solo attack. He maintained a high pace to hold off any attempts to catch him. This was a masterful display from the Sky rider on challenging descents and climbs.
As the Vuelta moves into its final three stages it looks set to be a marvellous finish to this Grand Tour. Nibali has shown strength earlier in the race until the last few stages in the mountains when he has cracked under pressure from Chris Horner. He only has a 3 second lead and with the legendary Alto de l’Angiru to come on Saturday it is anyone’s guess whether it will be Horner, Nibali or maybe Valverde who will have the strength to enter Madrid in the red jersey.
Standings after 18 stages
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) – Astana 73:39:35
2. Christopher Horner (USA) – RadioShack Leopard 0:00:03
3. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Spa) – Movistar 0:01:09
4. Joaquim Rodriguez Oliver (Spa) – Katusha 0:02:24
5. Nicolas Roche (Irl) – Saxo-Tinkoff 0:03:43
6. Dominico Pozzovivo (Ita) – AG2R La Mondiale 0:05:44
7. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) – FDJ 0:06:14
8. Leopold Konig (Cze) – Team NetApp-Endura 0:06:35
9. Samuel Sanchez Gonzalez (Spa) – Euskaltel-Euskadi 0:07:51
10. Tanel Kangert (Est) – Astana 0:11:10
Gustaf Håkansson – the 'steel grandpa' who won a 1,000-mile bicycle race bit.ly/1bD4P8R