Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Lots of straws to clutch at.

Is Poels still feeling frisky?
I spent the first 13 days of the Vuelta convincing myself that Bradley Wiggins couldn’t be expected to mount a genuine challenge for the red jersey in such a mountainous tour just weeks after breaking his collarbone. Then, after numerous robust performances where he rode comfortably over mountains I’d expected to ruin him, dropped riders I expected to drop him, and most importantly of all, lead from the front, setting the pace and bossing the group, I changed my mind. Nibali may have been the bookies favourite, but it was Wiggins who looked like a leader.

Although his margin in red was slender, his performance was strong enough that I’d started wondering if the real question was not “Can he survive the Angliru?” and more “Will the tabloids christen a Sky one-two Friggins, Woome or Bris?” Presumptious of me, no? The 22% slopes eventually saw Wiggins swaying like an evangelist at a tent revival, while JJ Cobo overcame his unsightly, knock-kneed climbing style to power his way to the top of a mountain that, from a spectator’s point of view, looks even nastier than the mighty Zoncolan.

So where does that leave things? Realistically, only Froome and Wiggins are in a position to attack Cobo, and only Bauke Mollema is in a position to attack Wiggins. Today’s stage was notable only for the confusion at the finish, with sprinters turning hither and thither on a badly signposted run in. But tomorrow won’t need signposts-the finish is on Pena Cabarga, which will loom over the riders. At 6k it isn’t a long climb, but the majority of it is over 9%, with the final K at 14%.

A climb that short and steep would have Joaquim Rodriguez written all over it (figuratively and literally) had his crash today not put a question mark over his back and wrist. More importantly, however, Pena Cabarga is the last summit finish of the Vuelta and the last clear cut chance to shake up the GC. No less a luminary than John Wilcockson is refusing to count Wiggins and Froome out thanks to the time bonuses still available. Until the confusion at the finish today, the 20 second bonus for the winner would have brought Froome level with Cobo if he could take first and the Spaniard not make it into the top three. Even after Cobo’s unexpected tenth in the sprint, the gap between first and second is still only a slender 22 seconds, a gap that could be closed if Froome outperforms him today.

That’s not as unrealistic as it sounds-Cobo’s two time-gaining attacks have both seen him spend a long time off the front grinding away for precious seconds. Even then his most sizeable time gain came when 20% + gradients brought Wiggins almost to a standstill. Cobo isn’t a Rodriguez or Contador who opens a ten or fifteen second gap almost as soon as he turns the pedals, and Pena Cabarga is too short for him to eke out much time if he does get away. Froome and Wiggins aren’t explosive either, but their pretend-its-a-mountain-time-trial approach to climbing has only failed them on the most absurd gradients the race has dished up. In all honesty, I favour Froome and Wiggins to be better placed at the summit of Pena Cabarga than Cobo, on a climb that practically demands that gaps appear between the riders.

Sadly, for all that optimism about the placings, I don’t see the gaps being large enough to overcome the existing deficit, nor do I see Bauke Mollema and Rabobank sitting back and settling for fourth when Wiggins is still within reach. Quite aside from the likelihood that non-GC men like Moncoutie, Montaguti, Moreno and Rodriguez will be contesting the finish, it seems probable that Mollema will also be trying to get in on the action. The chances of the time bonuses falling where they’ll do Sky’s pair any good seems pretty slim with so many riders vying for the summit.

I think today will see the gap between the top four narrow, but the GC remain unchanged. With Rodriguez nursing poor arm, picking a stage winner is harder, but Moncoutie’s 4th place on the same climb last year makes him look good, as does Wout Poels incessant friskiness. 

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