Blazin' Saddles - 10 things we learned from La Vuelta
Simon Yates successfully buried his demons from the Giro, Movistar made a right hash of things, Spanish cycling is at a crossroads, and the rainbow stripes will encircle the chest of someone who is not called Peter Sagan next year. Or Vincenzo Nibali, for that matter. Here's what we learned from the 73rd edition of La Vuelta.
Unpredictable Vuelta delivers drama in buckets but cracks still apparent
When was the last time you saw the breakaway go the distance on the flattest and most sprinter-friendly stage of the Tour de France? Even that unlikely scenario – with Jelle Wallays holding on, just, for victory in stage 18 to Lleida – happened in a Vuelta which delivered drama in buckets and rarely disappointed.
If stage 13 to La Camperona had played out in the Tour, Rafal Majka would have held on for the win; instead we witnessed the unheralded youngster Oscar Rodriguez of wildcards Euskadi-Murias come from nowhere to deny the Pole and Belgian's Dylan Teuns.
Frenchman Tony Gallopin pulled off another coup to defy the sprinters in stage 7 to Pozo Alcon, American Ben King triumphed twice in the first two major uphill finishes, even Nacer Bouhanni got in the act and caused an upset in stage 6.
That win by Bouhanni gave Cofidis their first Grand Tour stage win in four years and came after Dimension Data and EF Education First-Drapac had both ended their WorldTour victory droughts for 2018. In EF's case, Simon Clarke's triumph was later doubled up by Michael Woods on yet another crazily narrow and steep goat track on Monte Oiz.
And yet, on the day Alexandre Geniez won at Spain's answer to John O'Groats and – most unlikely of them all – Cofidis secured their first leader's jersey since Sylvain Chavanel seven years earlier through Jesus Herrada, the controversial crash that marred the finish in stage 12 was another reminder of how far behind La Vuelta is on the organisational stakes.
The crash – which saw a race official get knocked down by Geniez as he swerved to avoid the gathering photographers on the narrow finish straight and caused the withdrawal of Sky's Dylan van Baarle – was wholly unnecessary and entirely avoidable. It came just days after a helicopter blew barriers into the paths of riders after the finish at La Covatilla.
Add to these incidents the frequent moments when TV motorcycles got way too close to the riders, and the nasty spill that saw Fabio Felline and Victor Campenaerts taken out by a hidden piece of road furniture in the opening week, and the litany of unacceptable flashpoints grows.
La Vuelta may be glorious in its unpredictability and its route planners may be commendable for their bravery. But so much of the race remains amateurish and shambolic – a huge indictment to owners ASO and the entire Grand Tour movement.
Clouds part to reveal the rude health of British cycling
Since Bradley Wiggins won the Tour in 2012, nine out of 19 Grand Tours have had a British winner – a hit rate almost approaching 50%. And yet, the only of those winners who does not currently have a asterisk to his name is Geraint Thomas, who owes his very elevation to Sky Plan A status to the cloud that cast Chris Froome's participation in July's Tour very much in doubt.
Nothing has come of the Fancy Bears revelations which nevertheless jiffied Wiggins's achievement, while Froome was cleared of all wrong-doing following his leaked salbutamol case in the wake of last year's Vuelta.
Indeed, even before Froome received the green light, the Kenyan-born Briton had won the Giro to secure that historic grand slam. And now Britain's riders have another clean sweep – this time an unprecedented run of different riders standing atop the podium of each Grand Tour in one calendar year.
Yates, the latest winner from the GB production line, himself was banned for four months back in 2016 after an administrative error meant he raced Paris-Nice without the requisite TUE required for an asthma drug he was prescribed by his team doctor. The authorities showed leniency – but Yates was first to admit that in a sport like cycling, mud sticks just as puss seeps from a saddle sore.
These question marks aside, there's no denying that British riders now hold all the aces in the three biggest cycling races of the season: Froome and Thomas have the experience and team fire-power to keep on winning, while Yates – six years younger than the Welshman – has time on his side and his best years ahead of him.
There's no reason to think that we won't be talking about 10 Grand Tour wins in 20 editions next May. After all, Yates has already admitted that he has unfinished business in the Giro…
French enjoy most successful Vuelta in years
Not since Laurent Jalabert won five stages en route to securing the golden jersey in 1995 have France enjoyed such a profitable Vuelta.
Through Thibaut Pinot's brace of summit wins at Lagos de Covagonga and La Rabassa, Nacer Bouhanni's sprint win, and opportunist raids from Alexandre Geniez and Tony Gallopin, the French matched their tally of wins from that race 23 years ago.
And while there was no Jalabert equivalent on the top of the podium in Madrid, Rudy Molard enjoyed four days in red for Groupama-FDJ while French wildcard team Cofidis also led the race through Jesus Herrada for two days, coinciding with Luis Angel Mate's long run in polka dots. Britain aside, no nation fared better than France.
The beginning of the end for Valverde
There was an air of inevitability when veteran Alejandro Valverde started to go backwards on the first and only time the race ventured above 2,000 metres. The Coll de la Rabassa was a long slog, but the gradient nothing to make the knees shudder, so Valverde's inability to keep his red tilt alive was perhaps more indicative of his advancing years and the efforts of a long summer taking their toll.
While the 38-year-old is still capable of the kind of uphill kick that won him two stages – and could have delivered another, were it not for Gallopin's opportunism – Valverde no longer has the tenacity as his younger colleagues in high-altitude situations.
His collapse on the Coll de la Gallina in stage 20 was mirrored somewhat symbolically by the victory of his young compatriot, Enric Mas. If the Quick-Step Floors rider, who rose to second place on GC with that ride, is the future of Spanish cycling, then Valverde is very much the past – even if, presently, he's still capable of a flourish.
While hitting the wall, Valverde nevertheless finished that stage in 10th place – marking it a century of top 10 stage finishes in the Vuelta. Since his maiden edition back in 2013, Valverde has only ever been out of the top 20 on GC on four occasions – out of a whopping 245.
This astonishing consistency deserves praise and explains why Valverde has now won the green points jersey on four occasions. But, sitting in second place just 25 seconds adrift 48 hours from Madrid, Valverde must be upset by finishing fifth. More worrying, too, will be his apparent nose-diving of form ahead of the World Championships.
Landa the only winner for Movistar
Having entered the Tour de France with high hopes around their famous leading trident, Movistar stuttered to mediocrity as Mikel Landa finished seventh, Nairo Quintana tenth and Alejandro Valverde fourteenth.
The Spanish team looked set to turn things round in the Vuelta after Valverde's early brace of stage wins saw the team entering the final week with two riders on the virtual podium – both in with a realistic chance of denying Yates his maiden win.
But a familiar combination of time trial woe and some weary climbing saw Valverde stumble to fifth and Quintana end up eighth. The upshot being that the team's best Grand Tour position all year came from Richard Carapaz, who finished fourth in the Giro.
Failing to win is bad enough, but to miss out on a single podium all season is a calamity. Movistar management must now face some home truths: Valverde has no long-term future and Quintana looks unable to repeat the heights of his past. Their best performance of the entire Vuelta came from the man who wasn't there.
Mikel Landa is now the key to Movistar turning things round. The team must move heaven and earth to ensure that he does not, as reported, move back to Astana. And the only way of doing that will be to build a Tour team around him – and not the others.
Dennis on course for maiden world TT title
Watching Rohan Dennis on a time trial bike is as close to poetry in motion as anything in cycling. If it's a mystery that the 28-year-old has yet to don the rainbow stripes, then it's one that will imminently be solved. There can be no other winner in Innsbruck than Dennis, whose two TT wins in the Vuelta showed that he is the out-and-out favourite for the Worlds. Tom Dumoulin may beg to differ, mind.
Sagan has ridden his last race in the rainbow jersey – for now
The Slovakian's inability to win any sprints on the Vuelta would be warning enough if the forthcoming World Championships road race took place over flat terrain. That the route features arguably the hardest climb in Worlds history is greater reason to expect Sagan's wonderful three years in the rainbow stripes will come to an end in Innsbruck.
Sagan showed remarkable consistency in finishing second four times and third twice – doing so while riding back to fitness following that nasty spill in the Tour. But such is the nature of the course in Austria that it's more likely that we'll see the man who won red – or his twin brother – take those rainbow stripes, than the current incumbent stretching his winning run to four years.
In fact, there's more chance Sagan will be popping wheelies off the back to entertain the Austrian fans than he'll be competing on the front at the pointy end of the race.
Candidates for Innsbruck road race title pile up
Good luck to anyone betting on who will be the next world champion. From their showing in the Vuelta, we can safely assume that it's not going to be Richie Porte, whose only moment of excitement came from getting in a doomed breakaway on a flat stage. And while Vincenzo Nibali improved, he also looks well short of his usual explosive self.
Valverde, Michal Kwiatkowski and Sagan had a fair few uphill sprint tussles, but none of them seem capable of victory either. All this leaves those who really came through in the final week of the race as serious contenders: both the Yates twins, Thibaut Pinot, Miguel Angel Lopez and Enric Mas.
Simon Yates showed his class with a maiden Grand Tour victory but, after riding the first fortnight very cautiously, it was his twin brother Adam who proved key in the final stages. The word on the street is that it's Adam, not Simon, who could be Britain's main man at Innsbruck in the absence of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
Viviani fulfilling his potential at Quick-Step
He won three times and could have triumphed at least twice more, there's no denying that this has been a breakthrough season for Elia Viviani. So often stuck on the side lines at Team Sky, the Italian champion has now won seven Grand Tour stages in his maiden season at Quick-Step – a year that he quite rightfully has dubbed his best-ever.
Patrick Lefevere now has a tricky decision: does he stick with Fernando Gaviria for the Tour next year or does he send Elia Viviani instead?
Yates, with youth on his side, didn't do it his way
Britain's latest Grand Tour winner is two years younger than Chris Froome was when he won his first Tour, and in Madrid on Sunday, Yates was flanked by riders who were both younger than him in Enric Mas (23) and Miguel Angel Lopez (24).
He certainly rode the Vuelta with maturity beyond his years, pursuing a tactic of "conservative flair" (as coined by his Mitchelton-Scott team) over the gung-ho all-out-attack mode which served him so well in the Giro – until the penultimate day in the mountains.
While Yates often looked to be struggling to hold himself back in the opening week, it clearly served him well to stick to the plan and keep his powder dry until it really mattered. If, physically, Yates still has some development to make, then this roller-coaster of a season has seen him develop at a rapid rate both psychologically and tactically.
Yates's best years are ahead of him, while those of his fellow British riders are clearly behind. The rapid rise and gradual decline of a rider such as Quintana, however, will act as a cautionary tale. If nothing can be taken for granted in this sport, there are no guarantees that we'll see Yates top another Grand Tour podium. But it would be a huge surprise if he didn't – starting with next year's Giro.