Tuesday, September 24, 2013

La Vuelta a España 2013

Just a few weeks on from the Tour de France, La Vuelta is a tough race with so many questions - like, for example, just how do you pronounce Nibali?  (Nee-baa-li?  Nee-bly?  Nibbly?)

The good thing is that it gives many riders the chance to step into the spotlight thanks to the absence of many of the TdF's top riders.  No Chris Froome or Alberto Contador this year, for example.  It's not a race for sprinters either - no Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel or Andre Greipel. 

British interest was very minimal, with only a couple of Team Sky's plucky lower-division boys having a go.  For make no mistake, this is a race for the southern European tough guys, where Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) and Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde (Spain) were expected to dominate. 

But, just as in the Tour de France, they all had to take a back seat to a guy named Chris. 

Not Froome this time, but Horner - Chris Horner from the USA, the oldest man in the race at 41 years old.  Nibali - however you pronounce it - took the red jersey early on, when he explicitly didn't want it - but lost it when he explicitly wanted to keep it.  The gripping Horner-Nibali battle for the red jersey was set against a backdrop of an intensely tough route which makes much of the Tour de France look like a picnic.  The Vuelta may lack the magic and glamour of that iconic bike race, but yet it is still unmissable viewing packed with golden moments - the little-known Italian Daniele Ratto's epic breakaway and stage win on a gruelling rain-soaked, hypothermia-ridden climb in Andorra; or Tony Martin's brave breakaway on one stage only for victory to be snatched from his grasp.

You know you're getting old when...you remember when a current cyclist's dad won the Tour de France.  I remember Stephen Roche winning the Tour de France in 1987, back in those days when the highlights of Le Tour were screened nightly on Channel 4.  Now his wee boy Nicolas is all grown up, and had a very good Vuelta this year, finishing 5th overall.  I'm sure he will go on to greater things. 

But I digress.  With the gap between Horner and Nibali down to just three seconds with two days to go, it was all to play for on the crucial penultimate stage, when Horner crushed Nibali's challenge and had the race won, just one day before the final stage in Madrid. 

Needless to say in these post-Armstrong times, you can't be too good without your credibility being questioned at press conferences and internet forums.  Winning the Vuelta was a tremendous achievement, but for a 41 year old American rider, judged to be past a professional cyclist's physical peak, a former team-mate with a history of injuries and no real Grand Tour form, questions will be asked.  The cheerful and chatty Horner always had something to say during his many interviews in the Vuelta, but strangely sidestepped important questions in his final post-race interview in Madrid. 

As ever, ITV4's coverage was excellent, with Gary Imlach presenting and Phil Liggett on commentary.  Even better news for us cycling fans is that ITV has secured the rights to broadcast the Tour de France until 2019; ITV4 will also show the Criterium Dauphine, Criterium International, Liege Bastogne Liege and Paris Roubaix from 2016 to 2019, which are all very important races in the cycling calendar.  ITV4 will also continue to screen the Tour of Britain and the Vuelta. 

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