It's proving a real delight to see multiple teams — Katusha, Movistar, Rabobank, Saxo Bank — riding hard on the front, and not just the robotic men in blue from Team Sky. Unlike the Tour, the destination of the overall crown is not a given and we have a fierce battle on our hands before the race enters Madrid.
You see, the Tour was won through strong time trialling and one team wearing down the rest in the mountains. There was no pizzazz, no flair, no spontaneity. The Vuelta is proving a real treat in comparison, with a Big Four featuring three Spaniards — Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador — and one Brit, Chris Froome.
Each rider is hugely different from his opponents, boasting different weapons in his armoury. Rodriguez does the punchy uphill finishes like no other. Valverde is a vulture who flies high and feeds on the scraps left behind. Contador can attack on multiple occasions and wear his opponents down. Froome can recoup time against the clock, and then grimace his way to the top in the wheels of his opponents.
Such is the open and intriguing nature of the race route, each of the main contenders has been given contrasting opportunities to strike — and Week Two could prove decisive.
If Britain are going to win their second Grand Tour of the year through Froome, they are not going to do it through mollycoddling and grinding down the opposition like they did in the Tour; they are going to do it with out-and-out attacks in the mountains (albeit it with some Class-A Colombian support in Uran and Henao).
Let's take a look back at the first eight days of racing and then a little look forward at what we can expect in the week to come...
Stage one: Pamplona TTT
Rabobank look to have it in the bag before Movistar emerge the surprise victors at the death, despite defending champion Juan Jose Cobo losing time (not for the last time this week). Garmin-Sharp do their best Bbox Bouygues impression with a hefty four-man stack on a tight bend in scenes reminiscent of the town's famous Running of the Bulls.
Stage two: Pamplona — Viana
John Degenkolb proves deadlier than Davis and swifter than Swift with a powerful late surge in the bunch sprint. In fierce heat, Javier Aramendia of Caja Rural is part of the main break — he's a name we'll get used to as the week progresses. Jonathan Castroviejo keeps the red jersey for Movistar (despite having a very un-Spanish sounding first name).
Stage three: Faustino V — Arrate
Joaquim Rodriguez learns that it's important to pedal all the way to the end after bring pipped by Alejandro Valverde over the line. The Green Bullet takes the red jersey from his team-mate Castroviejo — but the star of the show is Alberto Contador, who puts in more attacks on the final climb than Bradley Wiggins did in the entire Tour de France.
Stage four: Baracaldo — Valdezcaray
Team Sky show their dominance (and gamesmanship?) by attacking hard in the crosswinds, forcing a crash that holds up red jersey Valverde and then taking almost a minute off the Spaniard before the finish. "I didn't know the race leader was involved," says Chris Froome with about as much conviction as when he claimed ignorance after distancing Wiggo on an Alpine climb last July. Australian Simon Clarke holds on to the win, beating Tony Martin in a one-way sprint following the final Cat.1 climb. That man Aramendia rides solo in a brave attempt to bridge the gap but never reaches the leaders.
Stage five: Logrono — Logrono
Praised for their innovative and exciting route, the Vuelta race organisers prove that even they're not perfect with this eight-loop flat 168km circuit race snorefest, won by Degenkolb with another late surge. The German youngster delights the public with his animated post-race interview peppered with Teutonic affectations such as sporadically loud 'Jas' in between sentences. Serial escapee Javier Chacon (Andalucia) rides for 140km on the front of the race in what must have been the dullest (and most difficult) day of his life.
Stage six: Tarazona — Jaca
Red jersey Rodriguez coasts past Froome to take the win at the Rapitan Fort above Jaca on a day Contador loses vital seconds and blames it on dehydration and cramps (admittedly a better excuse than contaminated meat). Part of a Dutch-Belgian flavoured break, Thomas de Gendt tries to repeat his Stelvio heroics but is caught on the final climb, probably dreaming about the honeymoon he has still yet to take following his July wedding.
Stage seven: Huesca — Alcaniz
There are more bellowing 'Jas' from green jersey Degenkolb after the youngster nets his third sprint win. Last on GC but the most aggressive rider nonetheless, Aramendia is involved in the day's main break but yet again finishes way off the pace (there's something romantic about being so attacking and yet, ultimately, so much slower than anyone else). Team Sky work their guts out for Ben Swift, who subsequently gives up as soon as Degenkolb launches his sprint in the motor racing venue hosting the finish. Understandable: this was Argos Formula 1 versus a Sky Go-Kart.
Stage eight: Lleida — Andorra
Contador looks a shoo-in for the win before fading dramatically in the last 150m of the final climb of Collada de la Gallina, allowing both Valverde and Rodriguez past for a Spanish one-two-three. Froome takes fourth place after looking vulnerable and ungainly on the ascent, not being able to deliver after some hefty work from Sky's Colombian mountain pace-setters. Aramendia, a glutton for punishment but no longer bottom of the GC, is one of the four breakaway riders but is dropped on numerous occasions by his fellow escapees.
Stage nine: Andorra — Barcelona
Rodriguez consolidates his overall lead after handing — quite literally — Philippe Gilbert his first win of the season. The Belgian latches on to J-Rod's wheel on the Montjuic climb inside the final kilometres in Barcelona before easily taking the win — and then holding the Katusha rider's hand over the line. BMC owner Andy Rihs is left in a state of shock after seeing both Alessandro Ballan and Gilbert attack towards the finish — and what's more, pull off the win. Andalucia's Chacon is named most aggressive rider after being part of a four-man break — his third in the race. The Vuelta Fighting Spirit aggressive riding award now seems to be a two-way battle between Chacon and fellow Javier, Aramendia.
The week ahead: Big Four and Javier v Javier
The scene is perfectly set for an even better second week of racing, with a couple of flattish stages, one punchy hilltop finish, the individual time trial and three major summit finishes all on the horizon.
Rodriguez should enter Wednesday's ITT with 53 seconds over Froome and a one-minute cushion over Contador — two riders who will be favourites for the race against the clock, alongside Tony Martin. But with J-Rod and Valverde looking stronger in the mountains than the other half of the race's Big Four, expect the red jersey to go to-and-fro this week.
Rabobank have three riders in the top ten too, so expect some action from rangy red-hot Dutchmen Gesink, Mollema and ten Dam. Euskaltel's Igor Anton will look to turn things round while Nico Roche is getting nearer and nearer to that elusive win as he continues riding hard for Saxo Ba... sorry, Ag2R-La Mondiale.
It will, of course, be fascinating to watch Javier v Javier in the Pro Continental Combativity sideshow too - plus who knows what a win might do to a resurgent Gilbert's confidence...
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