Thursday, August 16, 2012

La Vuelta a España, La Vuelta Desamado

La Vuelta a España, le Tour d'Espagne, the Tour of Spain, may be the least loved of the Grand Tours. After decades of directly competing with the Giro d'Italia - both races used to run at approximately the same time in spring - it moved to its current schedule in September in 1995. The new schedule made it an important race for many classics warriors who use it as a warm-up for the World Championship in October. But it also all but pushed it off the calendar of many General Classification (GC) contenders who already met their goals for the year. In a way, it became a race for GC contenders who were either left off the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France for various reasons and wanted a last chance to prove themselves.

History has made the case for us: many winners of the Vuelta don't even come back the following year to defend their title, if they showed up at all. We note the loyalty of Tony Rominger and Alex Zülle who are repeat winners, and recently Vicenzo Nibali who returned to try and defend his victory. To be fair, one can argue that Nibali had to target the Vuelta defense because he was crowded out of his own team who chose Ivan Basso to lead the Giro and the Tour that year.

Since the new Vuelta schedule in 1995 very few winners of the Giro or Tour bothered to contend in the Vuelta if they showed up at all. Gilberto Simoni came in 2001 but only finished 36th in the Vuelta. His best was 10th in the 2002 Vuelta after ejection from the Giro that year. Damiano Cunego came in 2004 and finished 15th. Alberto Contador won the Giro-Vuelta double in 2008 because his team was uninvited to the Tour de France; he didn't bother coming back to the Vuelta until this year; The Spanish federation arguably scheduled his come back from suspension just in time for the Vuelta.

Denis Menchov, twice winner of the Vuelta, didn't bother showing up in 2009 after winning the Giro and suffering in the Tour. Michele Scarponi - at that time not yet realizing he had won the 2011 Giro - gamely signed up for the Vuelta hoping for a good showing, but had to withdraw due to fatigue. Will he have showed up if he knew that he had won the Giro that year? The jury is out.

Lance Armstrong never came to the Vuelta after his Tour wins. At least Spaniard Miguel Indurain deemed it appropriate to come to the Vuelta after winning the Tour for the first time in 1991; he finished second in the Vuelta and his next time was his last time in 1996 when he didn't finish. It was effectively the last time be pushed his giant windmill crankarms in the pro peloton.

We can argue why the Vuelta is Unloved, but that it is Unloved is clear.

Perhaps this is why the Vuelta organizers periodically offer up radical ideas. The latest one is that the Vuelta will be reduced to two weeks starting in 2013. Or maybe that it will move to April, even earlier than the Giro d'Italia. Or maybe both the Giro and the Vuelta will be shortened to make way for new races outside of Europe.

What do we look forward to in this Vuelta?

  1. Finding out where Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Juan Jose Cobo (MOV and defending champion) have been. After a breakthrough 2011, both riders have been winless. Earlier this season Gilbert conceded, "C'est le sport." Carrying a large contract and hype, this year he is subject of discontentment from the Belgian national team for being selfish. Cobo's win last year was perhaps a surprise even for him, beating the SKY duo of Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome. His then-team Fuji-Geox folded and he joined Movistar where he's been anonymous this year. Will the real Cobo show himself now? 
  2. Seeing Alberto Contador crush his adversaries - or not. We will spare you yet another discussion on his doping case, but on a good day Contador should be crushing the entire peloton. Has he been training sufficiently? Speaking of doping, Alejandro Valverde's form is rising as evident from his TdF third-week stage win. Will he challenge Contador in a two-way fight of returning convicted dopers? 
  3. Witnessing the rise of Chris Froome. Some argue that Froome was stronger than Wiggins in the TdF. It's harder to argue that he wasn't the strongest in last year's Vuelta. It was widely discussed that his failure to win was due to inappropriate gearing, limited by his non-round chainrings (see this excellent investigation on VeloNews). He's rightly earned leadership at SKY, and with Cavendish opting out of the Vuelta he has a dedicated team excepting for Rigoberto Uran, who might just make his own showing with a stage win. 
  4. Discovering new champions. There are plenty of young guns that we hope will make a good showing. Andrew Talansky of GRM is one of them. Only 23 years of age, he is the designated leader and he took the win in Tour de l'Ain recently. Elia Viviani of LIQ is another youngster of the same age, who we think is due for his first grant tour stage win. He's had a busy 2012 with an Olympic track focus, and a few smaller wins in the early season. It seems to us he is playing a triple game of spring classics - summer Olympics - fall Vuelta/Worlds, a big game plan for a youngster. Bauke Mollema of RAB is 25 years old, finished 4th in last year's Vuelta along with the points jersey. This year he had bad luck in the TdF: he crashed out of stage 11. But not to worry, he had a very good showing in the recent Clasica San Sebastian (notably won by teammate Luis-Leon Sanchez) and we think he'll have a good Vuelta. Gianni Meersman of LOT, a year older at 26, also did well in the Clasica. 

What do you look forward to in this Vuelta?

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