Saturday, 20 August 2011

Vuelta a Espana 2011: Stage 1

Did the Vuelta’s team presentation start with the launch of a hundred black cats into a mirror factory? Three riders slipped their chains coming off the start ramp, Nick Nuyens crashed into a ditch, Geox were utterly unable to hide their age, and Sky combined a crash with poor communication to put in an utterly awful TTT performance.

Before the start my prediction was for an HTC, Sky, Garmin one-two-three. The presence of Grabsch and Martin in a well drilled team explained HTC’s predicted top spot, while the generally practiced TTT performances of the other two had me thinking that even with their squads packed out with climbers they’d function cohesively and efficiently. Just so we’re clear, my other outstanding prediction at the moment is that Butlin’s will be opening a Kabul camp by summer 2012.

While not all the teams might think so, it hasn’t been a bad start to the Vuelta. A stain on Marco Pantani’s memory has been wiped away now that we’ve finally got a Grand Tour theme tune worse than the one il Pirata 'sang' for the Giro in 96. Better yet, the painful need to choose between Eurosport and ITV4 has been settled by ITV’s decision not to bother with anything resembling a commentary and instead just have the race pictures provide a pretty backdrop to Ned and Matt’s polite chatting, which may be knowledgeable but is also completely lacking in any sort of urgency. Even if you like that sort of thing, the terrible acoustics of the studio would have ruined it for you. I’m taking donations now, if I can raise the £5 ITV apparently lacks, I’ll buy them some egg-boxes.

ITV’s sound was perfectly complemented by the Spanish cameras, which at one point rendered Quickstep’s kit a fetching shade of green. I was hoping the same thing had happened when Andalucia Caja Granada rolled off the ramp, but no, they actually are riding in a kit that’s indistinguishable from Liquigas at any distance greater than three feet. That’s not likely to be as problematic as it sounds, because after stage four no one from Andalucia will be within three feet of anyone from Liquigas anyway.

The racing itself was exciting and had the odd unexpected twist. No one is surprised by bad luck striking Radioshack anymore, but when Brajkovic’s slipped chain was copied by Saxobank and Lampre riders as well, I started to wonder if there was a lump or bump on the start ramp jarring them loose. A more technically minded friend suggested that the riders anticipatory back-pedalling before the start might be misaligning their chains.

In any case, a few dropped chains were nothing compared to the bad luck Sky appear to be having. They went from being “treated like dogs” at the team presentation to crashing off screen at one of the early roundabouts and losing four riders shortly before Xabier Zandio finished his turn at the front and dropped off, apparently unaware that he was now the all-important fifth man. Can I recommend the Rosetta Stone Conversational Spanish kit?

Sky eventually rolled in 42 seconds behind Leopard Trek, with the creaking knees of Menchov and Sastre bringing Geox in a second behind at 43. Now if the other challenging teams such as Igor Anton’s Euskaltel or Joaquim Rodriguez’s Katusha had come in with those 40+ deficit seconds I’d have said no problem: there’s a lot of climbing and only one time trial to come. For Menchov and Wiggins though...there’s a lot of climbing and only one time trial to come.

Fingers crossed they can come back from this, as they really do deserve better luck.

Almost unnoticed amidst the crashes and mechanicals, Fabian Cancellara's pulling prowess gave Leopard-Trek the stage and Jacob Fuglsang the first Red Jersey of 2011 with a 16:30 that went largely unremarked upon until it became obvious that HTC and Liquigas weren't going to overhaul it after all. Well done Spartacus.

1. Leopard-Trek / 16:30
2. Liquigas-Cannondale / 16:34
3. HTC-HighRoad / 16:39
4. Astana / 16:40
5. Movistar Team / 16:44
6. Quick Step / 16:45
7. Skil-Shimano / 16:48
8. Omega Pharma-Lotto / 16:48
9. Garmin-Cervélo / 16:55
10. Katusha Team /16:55
11. BMC / 16:57
12. Euskaltel-Euskadi / 16:58
13. Saxo Bank-Sungard / 16:58

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