“This morning in my head I was a winner, but I knew I had to cross the line and until you cross it you can’t say you are a champion” – Nairo Quintana, 2016 Vuelta a España winner.
So, there we are. La Vuelta 2016 was a fierce fight to end, be it between Froome and Quintana for the red jersey, Chaves and Contador for the 3rd place or the ‘sprint teams’ for the end stage win. In the end, Quintana won his second Grand Tour by 1’23 over Froome, with Chaves and Orica BikeExchange producing one of the rides of their season to get their Columbian his deserved podium place, while also securing the final stage win with Magnus Cort Nielsen. Eight teams were yet to win a stage or a jersey by the time the riders rolled up to the starting line in Las Rozas, surprisingly including Astana, Giant Alpecin, Tinkoff and Lotto-Soudal.
No doubts about it, this year’s Vuelta looked especially difficult. Many teams left out sprinters for extra climbers, meaning the likes of Degenkolb for Giant Alpecin and Bouhanni for Cofidis weren’t to be seen. Gianni Meersman (Etixx) profited from this to take two stages as well as having the chance to wear the Green Jersey (Points Classification) for 6 stages. Valverde fought hard to gain the jersey by Madrid, yet by stage 21 it was on the shoulders on Felline (Trek) – as the only jersey which could change holders by the end of the race. Yet Valverde didn’t contest the final sprint and Felline retained it, Quintana still held the red and white jerseys, Fraile won the polka dot jersey for the 2nd time in 2 years and BMC won the team classification. At La Vuelta, road books that didn’t quite match the profile were an issue, and the Vuelta was dubbed “insanely hard” by many riders, including Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data). Yet they persevered until the very end. Lined on the streets of Madrid were thousands of fans, the most prominent donned in Columbian shirts, there to cheer on their two men who had battled through to take two of three podium places. One of these men was Nairo Quintana.
No Doubt for Nairo
Quintana’s debut season with Movistar at the 2012 Vuelta was spent being a climbing domestique for teammate Valverde, and the pair have been somewhat ‘inseparable’ ever since – the ‘Quintana or Valverde’ battle has been especially prominent. So prominent in fact, both were implied to lead at the 2016 Vuelta, yet with a heavy focus on Quintana. They were also told to share leadership at the 2015 Tour. And the 2015 Vuelta. A dangerous move perhaps, demonstrated by the Froome/Wiggins era for Team Sky. Yet this wasn’t unnoticed by Valverde, who once took to a press conference to state “this is nothing like Froome and Wiggins, far from it.” Is the jury out on this one? While Valverde fell from GC contention after losing over 10 minutes on stage 14 (he slipped from 3rd overall to 19th), Quintana was already holding on to the red jersey, and he held it all the way to Madrid. Despite bad luck in previous GT’s (such as crosswinds) and sudden attacks from Froome (second on a sprint stage? Is there anything he can’t do?) had hampered his GC hopes, Quintana launched an attack for the stage win on stage 10 on the Lagos de Covadonga and didn’t look back – except for when he was looking for Chris Froome.
Success for the Boys in Blue
Orica GreenEDGE BikeExchange gained Vuelta success in 2012 with Simon Clarke winning the Mountains Classification. While they have no trouble winning the overall for races such as the Herald Sun Tour (2014, 2015), the Tour Down Under (2012, 2014, 2016) and have had numerous successes in team time trials, they were yet to impact in Grand Tours fighting for general classification. This all changed with the success of Adam Yates in the 2016 Tour de France – placing 4th overall and winning the White Jersey (Young Rider Classification) – and Esteban Chaves at the 2016 Giro and Vuelta – placing 2nd overall in the Giro and 3rd in La Vuelta. To quote Svein Tuft in the stage 20 BSP – it is an exciting time for Orica. They’re winning “sprint finishes, hilly sprint finishes, mountain finishes” and are now in a position to contend with Froome, Quintana, Nibali, Valverde and Contador. Esteban Chaves finished 3rd in GC, yet Orica found themselves with two men in the top 10 with Simon Yates finishing 6th as well. Not only are they now battling for podium places in Grand Tours, they’re still continuing to win stages in them too. La Vuelta was incredibly successful for OBE, with Simon Yates winning stage 6, Jens Keukeleire winning stage 12 and Magnus Cort Nielsen winning stages 18 and 21 – the most sought after sprint stage win this GT. Where will Orica-BikeExchange go from here? It’s looking pretty definite the only way is up.
Froome’s Fighting Force
Chris Froome won his 3rd Tour de France after his sudden attack on the descent of the Col de Peyresourde, sprint stage attack with Sagan and Bodnar (Tinkoff) and teammate Thomas as well as his time trial win put him 4’05 in front of second placed Bardet. As well as winning the Critérium du Dauphiné, he went on to participate in a crash filled Olympic road race and took the bronze medal in the Olympic time trial, before finishing 2nd in La Vuelta by just over a minute. Froome stated the “ambush at Formigal” was the stage he lost the Vuelta, and with the considerable amount of time Froome gained back on Quintana after his time trial, it really makes you wonder how close the final podium could’ve been. After tasting so much success in just one year, many could be frustrated with the fact they finished second in the last Grand Tour of the year, especially after essentially losing it in one stage. Yet not Froome – who “of course – would have preferred to have been on the top step in Madrid, but that’s racing. I gave it my best and I’ve got to be happy with that.” Froome can undoubtedly be proud of his success this year, and the sportsmanlike behaviour he’s held the entire way though, most notably applauding Quintana who crossed the line just in front of him on stage 20 to secure his Vuelta win. It is obvious the both of them uphold the highest respect for each other, and it’s great to see in cycling. Long may it continue.
“He is the greatest rival there is at the moment. He made me suffer at the Tour and here I have won.” – Nairo Quintana on Chris Froome.
IAM’S Grand Tour Swan Song
IAM Cycling are determined to go out on a high. After the news dropped in May that IAM Cycling team owner Thétaz couldn’t find a co-sponsor for the team, they hit back to end the rest of their season with impressive wins. Kluge won their first ever GT stage at the Giro, Devenyns won the overall at the Tour of Belgium (as well as stage 2), Pantano not only won a stage at the Tour de Suisse but went on to be a threat at the Tour de France, making the break numerous times and winning stage 15, Matthias Brändle won both the Austrian Road Race and Time Trial Championships, Devenyns again won an overall – this time at the Tour de Wallonie (as well as winning stage 5) and Naesen won at the GP Ouest-France. While at their last Grand Tour of the season, IAM were keen to continue their success. Their efforts in breakaways did not go unnoticed and they also won stage 7 with Genechten and stage 16 with Mathias Frank while Pellaud wore the first ‘red number’ of the Vuelta with the combativity award. Tinkoff are also folding at the end of the season, and riders from both teams made sure to perform at the La Vuelta for a contract at a different team next season.
While ‘Grand Tour season’ is officially over, that doesn’t mean all road cycling season is. Mid-September marks the European Championships, followed by the Eneco Tour and Milano-Torino that same month. October is the month for Il Lombardia, the road World Championships and the Abu Dhabi Tour to name but a few.