Monday, 20 August 2012

Vuelta a Espana 2012: Opening Salvos

So, by day three the Vuelta has seen almost as much action as the Tour managed in three weeks. Marvellous. So far, everything is going according to expectations: JJ Cobo and Jurgen Van den Broek have pretty much dropped out of contention already, while Contador, Froome, Rodriguez and Valverde look to be the strongest men in the race.

Slightly less expected was the drop down the GC of Thomas De Gendt and Nairo Quintana, two riders thought to be likely top ten finishers who are now 2:54 and 3:09 down respectively. The other riders to watch (Gesink, Mollema, Anton) are still at the happy end of the GC.

What was really interesting about today was just how lively it was. Contador launched six attacks, Rodriguez  had a go as well, and Valverde fought to the last to secure his stage win and Red Jersey. As for Froome, I'm really not sure what to think. It's all very well being the most explosive climber at a Tour de France full of diesel climbers, but I always thought that the high-octane climbing explosions of Rodriguez and Contador would leave him slobbering in their wake.

As it turns out, I was wrong about that. But not in a way that I find completely reassuring. There aren't many people who can get back onto Contador's wheel after he's attacked once, let alone six times. The fact that Froome managed to labour his way back to Berty repeatedly and then pip him for third place (and a 4 second bonification) suggest that he's both faster and less fatigued than I expected him to be. Contador never got more than about fifteen bike lengths on him, and the gap never stayed open for more than about 25 seconds.

Sadly, Froome's heroic gap closing looks a little less impressive when you consider that Valverde and Rodriguez were doing a much better job of holding Contador's wheel. More importantly, Froome can afford to dig into the red and hunt Contador down on a 6Km climb, but chasing like that on the long climbs could be ruinous-in those circumstances he'll need the sort of sub-zero nerve that lets him carry on at a pace he can maintain, trusting that it will be enough to reel Contador in over the course of a half hour climb.

Froome's Time Trialling ability will be enough to nullify anything short of a legendary mountains performance from Valverde or Rodriguez, but it won't give him as much of a buffer over Contador, who's more competent against the clock than Purito or Piti. If Froome's to succeed he needs to walk a very thin line between not letting Contador get too far away from him on the climbs, but trusting in himself enough that he won't burn himself out chasing.

What is reassuring is that while Contador still has the ability to attack over and over again, he seems to be just a fraction off his top acceleration. Every time he attacked today you could see him pull the gap open, whereas prime Contador could leap up the road in a way that had you wondering if the Eurosport highlights editor were experimenting with axial cuts.

Essentially, we're still pretty much where we were three days ago-watching the two favourites, expecting neither to be at their peak, and wondering whether it's easier to recover from fatigue or inactivity. The fear that the extremely mountainous route might provoke a canny waiting game seems to have been unfounded-the big names have thrown bombs at each other on a 6Km lump on day three, so it's a safe bet that they're planning to make a fight of it. Can't wait.

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