Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
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Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International