With almost two weeks of the Vuelta completed the overall General Classification is starting to take shape. The winner of this year’s race is going to come from a select group of the four strongest riders in the race and everyone else looks to be competing for a top ten finish. However the everything up to now has been about getting in a good position for the next three days as they will be pivotal in deciding who will where the Red Jersey into Madrid.
Over the last four days there have been a couple of subtle, but important, occurrences in the GC that set up the dynamic for the racing in the high mountains. First of all: Rodriguez kept the race lead after the time trial which was unexpected, for the rider himself included. This means that now the other contenders will have to put pressure on and attack him rather than the other way around. This will really put him to the test as the riders who will try and break him in the mountains are in a completely different position compared to those that attempted the same in the Giro. Contador will not be able to sit as Hesjedal did and take the time later on; the next three days are his terrain and surely he has to try something to dislodge Rodriguez. In the Tour last year we saw him try a couple of big attacks in the Tour last year and he is looking much stronger at the Vuelta so hopefully we will see him try something big.
Team Sky will also be trying to turn the tables after Chris Froome didn’t manage to acheive what he wanted in the time trial. The question is will they stick to the tried and tested relentless pace at the front of the peloton plan or try something different. Hopefully they try something different because the riders that they are facing up against don’t look like they will be dropped with this technique. Indeed, based on the Giro, this could really play into the hands of Rodriguez and help him finish high on the stage. With the calibre of climbers that they have available in Porte, Uran and Henao (all outside the top twenty overall) they are arguably the team in the best position to do something. If they send one of these riders up the road in the day’s breakaway then later in the race Froome will have a very strong ally that he could bridge across too. Unlike Wiggins, Froome has shown willingness to accelerate quickly and create gaps on the big climbs, if he can do that with support from his team then it could turn into a dangerous move.
Valverde will have the most interesting challenge of the lead four. A very similar rider to Rodriguez he may, like Froome, suffer from also riding the Tour and begin to fade in the next week. However, up until now he has looked very good indeed and it would be foolish to discount him from challenging for the overall, even if he says a podium is enough. The problem he will have though is how can he ride these mountains well while distancing himself from Rodriguez? It will be difficult and it would seem that like, Contador and Froome, a long range attack is his best option to put Purito is difficulty though whether he will be able to do this is another question. Alternatively Valverde may switch his attention to securing 3rd place and also the King of the Mountains jersey by looking for high placings at the finish to gain both the points and the bonus seconds.
As for the race leader, Joaquin Rodriguez just has to stay in control, this is, of course, easier said than done. He is in a situation now where he doesn’t have to open up gaps and distance the other main riders, he can just follow the attacks and keep in contact. Along with Valverde he is the strongest finisher of the top four so shouldn’t even get too concerned with the other taking the bonus seconds on offer at the end of the stage. He has shown this year that he can ride well in the mountains and is looking like the strongest rider at the Vuelta: it’s going to need something big to dislodge him. This will not be easy though as he does have a very able team to help him the mountains with 6th placed Moreno and multiple winner Denis Menchov for support.
Outside of the top four there should also be some interesting movement. Ireland’s Nicholas Roche is looking good and climbing well this year so he should manage to keep his place in the top ten overall and may even look to move up a spot or two. Andrew Talansky managed to move into the top ten after the time trial and it will be a big test of his abilities to see if he stays there. Given the amount of time Garmin lost in the opening Team Time Trial however it is clear he has been riding very strongly and as only a second year pro this is a very good ride indeed, as well as being one he is enjoying. After the worst time trial of the riders fighting for a good overall position Igor Anton will want to improve. He has started to look stronger again and the feels that if he can keep fighting a good GC result is possible. The high mountains are where he has excelled in the past so if he can keep pace with favourites he will be back in the top ten.
The upcoming stages (a detailed preview of Stage 14, Stage 15 and Stage 16) will provide the real highlights of this year’s Vuelta as the main riders of the race fight it out to remain in overall contention and those just below them look to stay in the top ten overall. Some of the best Grand Tour riders in the world are going to try and gain the upper hand over one another: it is not to be missed.