The Vuelta a Espana has boiled down to a four-man race


ANDORRA (VN) — A week into racing and the Vuelta a España is a four-horse race.

The Arrate summit in stage 3 provided the first glimpse of who was on form; Saturday’s thrilling uphill battle in the Pyrenees, with Alejandro Valverde pipping Joaquim Rodríguez to snag the win, only reconfirmed it.

The 2012 Vuelta is a four-man race. Or, to be more precise, three Spaniards versus a Brit.

Chris Froome (Sky) is the lone extranjero still within a reasonable shot of winning in what’s been a wild ride so far. Just 50 seconds separate fourth-place Valverde (Movistar) and leader Rodríguez (Katusha), with Froome still second at 30 seconds adrift despite losing some time Saturday and Alberto Contador poised in third at 40 seconds.

Maximum tension, no room for error; that’s how the Vuelta is stacking up going into its second week.

When asked if it’s him versus Spain, Froome just laughed.

“I hope not!” he said, trying to take the best out of losing 15 seconds to his rivals on the steep climb high above Andorra. “It’s still a little bit of a learning curve for me, doing two big grand tours so close together in top shape. It was tough today, but it made for exciting racing.”

There’s been no lack of excitement so far through the opening week of the Vuelta. Saturday’s eighth stage was the fourth of 10 uphill finales, with the steepest and most decisive yet to come.

Team Sky took control of the push into Andorra, marking the Vuelta’s return to the Pyrenees after skipping them last year, with Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Henao both setting ablaze the peloton. The Gallina climb was Rodríguez’s mountain — he lives and trains in Andorra most of the year — but Sky was not afraid to put its men on the front.

“The team is confident in Chris,” Danny Pate told VeloNews at the start in Lleida. “Urán and Henao are both flying right now and could be leaders on any other team. Everyone is backing Chris. He says he’s feeling good.”

Froome, however, showed the first chinks in his armor in the critical final kilometers of the climbs. The Spanish knew the climb, Froome didn’t, and it showed.

He surged to the front too early, only to be gapped as Rodríguez and Valverde counter-attacked. Rodríguez was content to widen his lead on GC while Valverde won his second stage of the week. He lost 15 seconds and missed out on the finish-line bonuses.

Valverde took advantage again and raced intelligently to win his second stage of the 2012 Vuelta.

“I followed Purito, who knew what to do, and I knew I had to be first in the final corner to win,” said Valverde, who revived his GC hopes after crashing in the controversial splits in stage 4 to Valdezcaray.

“I will keep fighting for the GC, but I am the one who’s raced most this season and who is the least fresh of all the top favorites here,” Valverde continued. “I will continue with the idea of the GC, but we’ll see.”

In fact, of the leading four, no one seems overly confident in his chances just yet. Everyone knows the hardest part of the Vuelta is still to come and everyone is on a different page when it comes to form.

Valverde wasn’t even going to race the Vuelta and only decided to do so after his Tour de France didn’t go as well as hoped. Good thing, because defending champion Juanjo Cobo is this Vuelta’s nowhere man so far.

Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank’s Contador is coming off his controversial racing ban and raced only six days before the start of the Vuelta, while Froome’s season peak was at the Tour de France and the Olympic Games time trial, where he was second and third, respectively.

Everyone is eager to see whether Froome’s legs can hold out into the final week while waiting to see if Contador can find his.

So far, Contador has not quite had the winning punch. He’s yet to win a stage despite attacking both at Arrate and Vadelzcaray. He cramped at the Fuerte de Rapitàn on Thursday, but looked sharper Saturday.

He crossed the line third, just off for the stage win, but he grabbed his first finish-line time bonuses of this Vuelta and reduced the time difference to Froome to just seven seconds.

The hope within the Contador camp is that he will get stronger as the Vuelta unfolds, peaking just in time for three critical stages in Asturias next weekend.

“I’m going OK, but not great,” Contador said at the line. “I’ve been watching Froome, so maybe that has cost me for the stage. I am missing a little bit of power, but I am happy because we dropped Froome. The idea is still Madrid.”

Overall, Contador said he’s been satisfied with his performance through the first week of racing in what’s his first grand tour since the 2011 Tour.

“The first week’s gone well, though I am missing the stage victory,” Contador said. “I am confident I will arrive at my best form for the final week of the Vuelta. That’s when it really counts.”

And then there’s Rodríguez. A winner at Rapitán, “Purito” just missed wins at Arrate and Gallina, losing both times to the surprising Valverde.

Second at the Giro d’Italia in May, Rodríguez comes into this Vuelta still looking for his first grand-tour victory. With 10 hilltop finales and just one individual time trial, this might be his best chance ever. He’s already admitted that with Froome and Contador in the field, outright victory could be unlikely, but he’s certainly going to go down swinging.

“With Froome, Contador and Valverde, it’s very hard; they’re beasts,” he said. “We were just flying, to the death. Every day we seem to be going faster. We arrived almost on hands and knees.”

For Rodríguez, as always, the time trial will decide everything. Fortunately for him, the TT comes early (next Wednesday), and it’s quite a hilly parcours, featuring a third-category climb over sinuous, narrow roads.

“Until we race the time trial, no one will really know their options, but it’s important to be there,” he said. “Being realistic, I know that I have to be just about perfect in the time trial, even though we’ll see what happens later, because there is still a lot of Vuelta.”

Behind the leading four, many other pre-race favorites have given up so much time that their days as serious threats for the podium are already over.

Defending champ Juanjo Cobo (Movistar) dropped early and bled 5:18 to drop to 27th at seven minutes back. Two-time Vuelta champ Denis Menchov (Katusha) lost nearly 14 minutes and sank to 63rd.

Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), fourth at the Tour twice over the past three years, lost even more time, enough that now he will not be a GC threat and he can try to win a stage, which he says is his principal goal in this Vuelta.

The Dutch climbers on Rabobank all seem to be suffering in the Iberian heat and could not answer when the strong surges came up the Gallina climb. Robert Gesink did well to finish ninth at 39 seconds back, but he’s already slipped to fifth at 1:41, perhaps the “best of the rest,” but looking to be a touch off form to seriously challenge for the podium.

Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) also rode well to limit his losses in another steep, punchy climb that’s not his favored terrain. He rode well to stay close to the favorites and rode to a respectable 11th at 44 seconds off the pace.

The sophomore effort by Talansky was handicapped out of the gate, when Garmin crashed in the TTT and ceded 1:27 in the Vuelta’s first day. Now 16th overall at 3:40 back, Talansky could well punch into the top-10 overall in Wednesday’s time trial if he has a strong ride in Galicia.

Talansky is only one minute out of the top-10 and consistency will be the name of the game going into the second half of the Vuelta. So far, Talansky is riding well to limit his losses and is slowly picking his way through the GC, riding from 24th after stage 3 to 16th.

The 2012 Vuelta continues Sunday with a tricky finale over the Montjuic climb, which could produce some differences. What makes it tricky is that it’s a steep, narrow descent to the finish line with 1km to go, meaning strong descenders such as Contador and Rodríguez will have an advantage over the rest.