Rest day Vuelta pondering. Yates? Quintana? Who?

Yates still in red

First, let’s all admit what a joyful experience the Vuelta a Espana has been so far.

Isn’t it wonderful to watch mountain stages in a grand tour where there isn’t a Team Sky rider anywhere to be seen? No Froome, no line of Sky jerseys at the front, strangling the life out of the race. The nearest Sky rider to the red jersey, David De La Cruz, is nearly twelve minutes behind.

The Vuelta has once again been everything the Tour de France isn’t: surprising, compelling, dramatic and closely contested. You can’t control the Helta Skelta Vuelta — it’s a loco good time from beginning to end.

Speaking of endings, here we are at the second rest day with a tightly grouped collection on GC rivals and no outright favorites. Race leader Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and the Movistar duo of Nairo Quintana and old man Alejandro Valverde are all within 43 seconds. Steven Kruijskijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Enric Mas (Quickstep Floors) are 1:29 and 1:50 back, respectively.

This weekend’s double shot of mountains was some of the most exciting racing we’ve seen. Saturday’s stage up to Alto Les Praeres and Sunday’s throw-down on the Lagos de Covadonga climb with both riveting. There were plenty of tension and fireworks and we still don’t know who is the strongest man in the race.

Yates is in top form and riding with confidence but as he enters the third week the narrative will still be his spectacular flame-out in the Giro d’Italia when the race looked like his to win. His irritation and argument with Quintana about the Colombian not helping him chase down stage winner Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was a reminder that he’s still a young, impetuous rider that might be prone to wasting energy at the wrong time. Still, he and Quintana would appear to be the front runners.

Still, what to make of Quintana’s inability to put in any serious attack on what should be his playground, Lagos de Covadonga? He said he simply didn’t have the legs but that’s not exactly a vote of confidence with a week still to race and two big summit finishes to come. Perhaps he is smarter than Yates and measuring his efforts more carefully, hoping the legs will come around when it’s time for the kill. According to the experts, they should be fairly well-matched in the time trial so the mountains will decide.

We’re less bullish on the chances of 38 year old Alejandro Valverde to win the Vuelta. He’s ridden in impressive fashion and should put in a good performance against the clock — perhaps faster than his teammate Quintana. Nevertheless, it’s hard for us to think that at his age, he can stick with Yates — or Quintana — on this final mountain stages. At some point, fatigue has got to set in.

That brings us to Miguel Angel Lopez, who now sits in fourth at 43 seconds back. We’re still mystified why he refused to work with Quintana on Alto Les Praeres when they had the chance to put some time into Yates. For a man who likes to call himself Superman, it was a subpar decision in our view. He’s the wild card and we’d expect him to keep Valverde off the podium and maybe climb to second place.

Could Steven Kruijskijk crawl his way onto the podium? It just feels like the Dutchman has been doing a lot of work at the front on almost every stage. Matches have been burned and while he’s tough and motivated, in the end, we think he will fall short of the top three.

Who wins in Madrid? My heart is pulling for Quintana but my money is on Yates reversing his Giro disaster and winning his first grand tour. (And no Team Sky in sight — whoo-hoo!!!)

 

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