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La Vuelta

Alejandro Valverde winning yesterday’s stage on the climb of La Gallina, with Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador just behind

We’re a week into the Vuelta a España, the third of cycling’s annual three-week stage races, following the Giro d’Italia in May and the Tour de France in July. The Tour has become easy to follow here in the US, with extensive TV and newspaper coverage. The Giro and Vuelta — not so much. Back in May, I kept searching on TV for the Giro. I knew it was on Universal Sports, but I couldn’t figure out where Comcast had it, or hid it. Last night I finally figured out the problem, with respect to current viewing of the Vuelta at least. Universal will let you watch the live feed, but only if you are a current subscriber to DIRECTV or DISH with a package that includes Universal. Which is to say, I’m out of luck. This isn’t good, for me or for cycling.

What we have been able to watch this past week is the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, a one-week stage race in Colorado that concluded today. It has featured many of the top US riders, along with a selection of other top riders from around the world. I haven’t watched much, but I’ve been following the results in the paper. Our local hero (and family friend of my pal Russ), Tyler Farrar, who did not have a good Tour last month, rebounded with two stage victories. Tejay van Garderen and Christian VandeVelde, who had been fighting it out for the overall lead, fell behind on a mountain stage yesterday to Levi Leipheimer, in good form at last in his recovery from being hit by a car in Spain in April. Overall victory came down to today’s time trial in Denver, which Gail and I were watching live on NBC Sports Network early this afternoon, but it was only a tease. They switched to car racing, reserving the broadcast of the leaders for prime time tonight. Who wants to wait? I read the results. VandeVelde won, with Tejay 21 seconds back and Levi 24 back.

As for the Vuelta, it’s been exciting so far. You may recall Chris Froome’s outstanding performance in the Tour last month, having many wondering if he could have won had he not been riding in support of teammate Bradley Wiggins. A year ago in the Vuelta, he was in the same position, riding to support Wiggins, only to prove himself the better rider in the end, too late to win, but good enough to finish second, with Wiggins third. This year, on the Tour’s penultimate stage, the time trial into Chartres, Wiggins demonstrated his mastery, finishing 1’16” ahead of second place Froome on the day and showing that he really was the team leader. He would finish first and Froome second overall the next day in Paris. Eleven days later in the Olympics time trial, Wiggins won gold, with Froome in third. So, okay, maybe Froome isn’t the best. But he’s riding in this year’s Vuelta and Wiggins isn’t, which means if he isn’t too tired from peaking for the Tour and the Olympics, he may be the favorite.

Then again, what about Spaniard Joaquin Rodriguez? He entered the final day of the Giro in May with the overall lead, 31 seconds ahead of Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. That final day’s stage was a time trial in Milan, in which Hesjedal outrode Rodriguez, slipping ahead for victory by 16 seconds. A dramatic finish. This is Rodriguez’a opportunity, on home roads, to make up for that narrow loss.

But wait, Alberto Contador is back. Wasn’t he banned for doping? Yes but the ban ended on August 5th. He won the Tour in 2007, skipped it in 2008 while winning the Giro and Vuelta, won the Tour again in 2009, and won it in 2010 (but was stripped of that victory). What form is he in? Can he return on top?

What I’m suggesting is, this is a dramatic Vuelta, with three of the world’s best riders out to prove themselves. A Vuelta I would have liked to watch.

How has it been going? Through Wednesday, it was pretty tight, with Rodriguez first, but Froome in second just a second behind, Contador in third five seconds behind, and another 14 riders within a minute. Thursday’s stage opened up the first gaps, Froome and Contador still second and third, but 10 and 36 seconds back, with Colombian Rigoberto Uran 42 back, Dutchman Robert Gesink 54 back, and Spaniard Alejandro Valverde moving into sixth at 54 seconds back.

Yesterday’s stage in the Pyrenees separated the leaders further. Contador appeared to have the stage sewn up, but Rodriguez and Valverde came up quickly in the closing meters, both passing him, with Valverde getting the stage win and Rodriguez and Contador given times one second behind (as in the photo above), Froome finishing 15 seconds back. Overall, Froome still held second, but 33 seconds behind Rodriguez, with Contador third at 40 seconds and Valverde climbing to fourth at 50 seconds, all four well clear of the field (with Gesink in fifth, 1’41” back).

Today’s stage ran from the Pyrenees into Barcelona, with a closing climb up Montjuïc. Looking at the times, I see that Rodriguez just missed out on a stage victory again, finishing second to Philippe Gilbert with Froome and Contador in the peloton 12 seconds back. Oh, there must be time bonuses for top stage finishes, because despite being only 12 seconds back, they both lost 20 seconds overall. And Valverde, who was 9 seconds back of Rodriguez on the day, lost 17 seconds overall. Thus, as we go into tomorrow’s rest day, Rodriguez lies 53 seconds ahead of Froome, a minute ahead of Contador, 1’07” ahead of Valverde.

But remember, Rodriguez lost his Giro lead in May in a time trial, and a 39.4k time trial looms this Wednesday.

I just looked in The Guardian for their brief coverage of today’s stage. Here’s a quote:

Both Froome and Contador will view Wednesday’s time trial as an opportunity to wrest the race leadership from Rodríguez, who is not noted for his ability against the clock.

“I know I’m not going to enjoy [the time trial] and I’m not capable of adding a full minute to my lead in the mountains so adding every second I can could make the difference on whether or not I finish on the podium,” said Rodriguez, who lost the Giro d’Italia because of a weak time-trial ride. “And, hopefully, for winning the Vuelta.”

I wish I could watch.

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