Vuelta a Espana - Vuelta seven-day catch-up
Eurosport - Tue, 14 Sep 22:32:00 2010
So, not much has happened then? Wrong. Here are some of the things we have learned from the second week of the race.
Nobody wants to keep hold of the red jersey until Madrid: Rodriguez got stage fright and lost his slender lead after just one day to the man from whom he stole it; Igor Anton looked comfortable in red but not so much when covered in red blood; Nibali, with his slender four second lead, always looked as if he was keeping it warm for one of his rivals; while the forthcoming time trial and penultimate day mountain stage suggests we'll see at least one change at the top now that Rodriguez is back in the driving seat.
Anton and off: With two mountain top finishes (and 40 bonus seconds) to his name so far in the race, Anton was preparing to extend his lead at the top of the standings once again when he hit the deck at top speed in stage 14 alongside Euskaltel team-mate Egoi Martinez just 7km from the summit finish of Pena Cabarga. It's impossible to say whether or not Anton would or could have gone on to win the Vuelta in Madrid - but he was in a damn good position and his dramatic exit will always be one of those niggling 'what ifs'.
Euskaltel's bike handling is pretty shoddy: One person wouldn't have been that surprised with the dramatic events of stage 14 and that's Johan Bruyneel. Back during last July's Tour, the RadioShack directeur sportif had a pop at the Basque outfit after both Martinez and Ivan Velasco hit the deck exchanging musettes, almost causing a third crash in one day for Lance Armstrong. "Euskaltel really needs to learn how to ride bikes. It's just shocking. I don't know whether that's controversial or not, but I don't care. They've probably caused every crash in this race," said Bruyneel.
Nieve is no sieve: The unheralded 26-year-old Basque climber earned himself a maiden professional win - and an entry on Wikipedia - with a superb ride to take stage 16, which went a little way to compensate Euskaltel for the harsh loss of Anton and Martinez.
Bjarne Riis clearly has beef with Andy Schleck: The younger of the Schleck brothers was kicked off the race by the Saxo Bank directeur sportif after going out on the razz with old stager Stuart O'Grady on the night of the rest day. Despite the Australian stressing the pair only had one beer and were not back late, Riis said he had no option but to turf them out, suggesting they may well have staggered home as late as 5am. With both riders switching allegiances to a new Luxembourg-based outfit this winter, it's not inconceivable that Riis bares a little grudge - especially after stressing (quite unprofessionally) how excited he was with the prospect of teaming up with Alberto Contador and beating Andy in the Tour next summer.
Frank Schleck is in the race: You'd be forgiven in thinking that Schleck senior had been thrown out of the race alongside his brother. So anonymous had Frank been in the opening two weeks of the race he'd had about as much presence in the peloton as a Chilean miner at the office Christmas party. But the Saxo stranger finally emerged on Monday's stage 16, attacking on the final climb and finishing second atop the Cotobello with a distinct smile on his face. "I am moving towards my best level again. I am full of confidence. I've come to win the race," said fourth-placed Schleck, forgetting the small matter of a 2:16 deficit.
The Velits twins are really quite tidy: With Martin taking a superb third place in stage 15 and Peter sitting extremely comfortably in 6th place on the GC, it won't be long before articles are written about the HTC-Columbia pair with the headline "Twin it to win it". Along with the exciting Peter Sagan, the Velits have given Slovakian cycling something to sing about - which must be a sentence hitherto never written.
Cav is back but still has excuses: Two back-to-back sprint victories put Mark Cavendish back into the green jersey and meant the Manx Missile became the first - and only, thus far - sprinter to notch more that one victory in this year's race. First Cav beat Farrar in Lleida and then he doubled up with a rudimentary win in Burgos - but couldn't resist having a pop at the likes of Tyler Farrar and Wouter Weylandt for what he saw as an inter-team effort to thwart him in the green jersey standings.
Nicolas Roche is silent but deadly: The Irishman has been quietly efficient throughout the race, showing an alluring ability to stick with the finest in the mountains without displaying a stinky fanfare. Currently fifth in the GC, Roche is on course for the highest Irish Grand Tour finish since Sean Kelly won the Vuelta in 1988.
If at first you don't succeed: Perennial breakaway specialist Carlos Barredo finally broke his Grand Tour duck with an excellent solo ride up to Lagos de Covadonga. The Spaniard swung his fist as he crossed the line - not in the direction of another rider (as he liked doing during the Tour) but to punch the air in celebration. Nice one, Carlos - now you can be uttered in the same breath as Tommy Voeckler. Well, almost.
Sometimes it does rain in Spain: Barredo's victory in stage 15 was played out in the most miserable of conditions - the only time we have not been blessed with blue skies and bright sun during the race.
Northern Spain is much better on the eye: Saddles had a pop at the arid, dull landscape of the opening nine days; thankfully, the rolling hills of north Spain are geographically more than adequate compensation. So stunning is the scenery, you'd think the locals would set up some kind of political movement and campaign for independence or something. The E.T.A. for that development can't be far from now, surely?
Caisse d'Epargne spreading themselves a bit thin: The Spanish team went into the opening rest day with one stage victory from David Lopez and six riders in the top 21. Imanol Erviti added another stage win, but the team no longer has anyone in the top ten while crashes have done for the hopes of Marzio Bruseghin and Rigoberto Uran. Still, as a unit the team has proven there's still life after Alejandro Valverde - just not one that involves contending for the podium of a Grand Tour.
Roy Sentjens is a bad liar: "I don't understand what is going on. I know everyone says this, but I'm really innocent. I am perplexed," the Milram rider told newspapers after testing positive for EPO. A day later, he confessed to everything, refused a B-sample and retired from cycling.
Rodriguez may never be more than a red one dayer: The Katusha rider notched his second career Vuelta scalp last week - seven years after his first win - and a day later moved back into the red jersey he wore for a solitary day earlier last week. But with the time trial in Penafiel coming right up, it looks like Nibali will be back in the hot seat come Wednesday night.
---- What we still have in store ----
The likes of Millar, Cancellara and Zabriskie will fight it out for glory in the pancake flat 46km ITT as Nibali tries to build up as much as an advantage over Rodriguez and Mosquera as possible.
Stage 18 is a sprinters delight and maybe one for Cavendish to make it a Vuelta hat-trick, while Friday's stage to Toledo is one for the breakaways - a final chance for the likes of Serafin Martinez and Niki Terpstra to get that elusive win.
Saturday's final mountain challenge, which includes a new ascent to Bola Del Mundo, should prove nothing short of epic. Unlike when the 2009 Tour featured the Ventoux on the penultimate day, this really should be where the race is finally decided before the remaining sprinters (if there are any) do battle in Madrid.
Follow Blazin' Saddles throughout the Vuelta on www.twitter.com/saddleblaze.