This Vuelta appears to have been anything but a good warm-up and form-check for the upcoming pancake-flat Worlds. While the use of statistics is severely limited in cycling, the form requirements for major races lend them well to certain preparation. Last year, Jeremy took a look at the previous ten years of World Championship victories, and with Thor Hushovd the winner of the 2010 World Championships, it seems four markers have been very good indicators: riding the Vuelta for preparation, winning a stage, abandoning the Vuelta to rest, taper, and peak for Worlds, and riding Worlds with large teams.
And so the Vuelta plays a crucial role for Worlds prep. However, continuing the current trend in Grand Tours stage design, there are few completely flat transfer stages earmarked for sprinters. Indeed, ten days deep into the Vuelta and there have only been two field sprints, won by Sky’s Chris Sutton and Skil-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel. All the ambitious sprinters gamely came, but who is left standing?
QuickStep’s Tom Boonen came with clearly the worst form of those considered contenders. His serious concussion at the Tour seems to have left a psychological block for him: we didn’t see him contend any sprints. The problem is, when you are Tom Boonen, nobody will let you get off the leash with a late attack. So what is Boonen going to do?
Mark Cavendish may still be considered a stop contender for the Worlds, what with a strong Team UK performance that earned them a full roster. But his early exit, which HTC-Highroad said was due to “lack of power”, doesn’t bear well for his ambitions. Did he push himself too much? Detractors say that in reality it was his disinterest in helping the team that led him to climb off the saddle. But if it is true that he lacked power, can he recover in time? He has flashes of one-shot brilliance, as in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, but he excels in stage races when he can rely on several stages’ worth of warm up to start his winning ways.
Other contenders include Lampre’s Alessandro Petacchi and 3-time champion Oscar Freire of Rabobank (who abandoned on Stage 8, apparently due to difficulty breathing) – between them, these veterans have only Freire’s 3rd place on Stage 7 to boast about. Petacchi impressed during the Giro, even finding some climbing legs in support of his teammate Michele Scarponi, but it looks like three Grand Tours in one season is proving to be a bit too much to handle.
Meanwhile, Garmin-Cervelo’s Tyler Farrar, perhaps an outside shot at the Worlds title with a dedicated team USA to back him up, fell injured in a mass pileup on Stage 7. So did Rabobank’s Matti Breschel, who has been designated Denmark’s man for Worlds.
In this morass of poor performances and abandons, one rider that has really impressed is Liquigas’s Peter Sagan. He has uncommon longevity in stage races, which can translate well in a long Worlds-type course. This year’s Vuelta is proving to be a good training ground for him, and he even pulled home a Stage win on Stage 6, when he and three Liquigas teammates shredded the front and took four of the top five on the stage.
Italy continues its search for leadership, and few names have surfaced – albeit by and large by riders not racing the Vuelta. Those include Liquigas’s Elia Viviani with his treble in the US Pro Cycling Challenge, teammate Daniel Oss who won one stage there, and Colnago-CSF Inox’s fastman Sacha Modolo, who has had a great season so far and came second to a strong Cavendish in the London test race. With Daniele Bennati continuing a fairly quiet season, Paolo Bettini may have to choose one of the other youngsters.
Another outside contender by virtue of the fact of his entering the race is Philippe Gilbert. Team Belgium may have to make a bet on the Walloon Son. However, his trademark “Gilbert Maneuvre” appears to be running a bit low on the turbo juice – at the GP Plouay when he was overhauled by a surging peloton.
This year’s Vuelta, with its abandones, few-and-far-between sprint stages, and rigorous climbs, seems to be diametrically opposed to the sprint-ready World Championships course. Considering this difficult preparation, who might be a threat for Worlds, and how are they preparing? Share your thoughts below.