Vuelta 2011 – The best stage race of the year?

It is now the end of the cycling season and we await once more for January to roll round so we can get excited about the perhaps undeserved hype of the Tour Down Under. As such there have been plenty ‘Best of 2011’ lists appearing in various places.

The category ‘Best Stage Race’ is rarely ever not the Tour de France in these retrospective lists. This is because it is the most famous race and many people deciding to fill out the voting form may not know their Paris-Nices from their Paris-Roubaixs. But this year, when people decided to give their vote to the Tour de France it seems to come with a caveat along the lines of ‘I know everybody always votes for the Tour de France, but this year’s really was the best stage race of the year’.

They’re not wrong, but I found that this year’s Vuelta a Espana was also massively intriguing. We saw one of the smallest winning margins of any Grand Tour ever. And in Juan Jose Cobo we were also presented with a winner who did not complete the 3,300km in the fastest time. Cobo beat Christopher Froome by 13 seconds thanks to time bonuses. The Team Sky rider clocked up the actual fastest time around the lap of Spain this year.

Froome and Cobo battling it out at the 2011 Vuelta a Espana

But these trivialities all became apparent after the fact. What made this year’s edition of the Vuelta so unusual and captivating was that the G.C. was being contested by riders who had never really challenged the G.C. in a Grand Tour before.

Cobo had managed a 10th place in the Vuelta back in 2009. Wiggins, lest we forget, rode himself into fourth place at the Tour de France the same year; but he managed that even before he realised himself that he may have a future as a Grand Tour rider. Froome’s best ever Grand Tour performance also came in 2009 with a modest 36th place in the Giro d’Italia.

None of the podium finishers of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana had ever finished on the podium of a Grand Tour before.

Three Grand Tour podium newbies.

While these seems like it may be a statistical abberation, it actually happens more often than you’d think. In fact, this year’s Vuelta is the 31st time that a Grand Tour podium has been filled with riders who had never had that particular honour before.

The last time it occurred was in the 2007 Giro d’Italia won by Danilo Di Luca whose previous best effort had been fourth in the same race in 2005. He was accompanied on the podium by a spotty kid called Andy Schleck who was making his Grand Tour debut and by Eddy Mazzoleni who had managed a 10th place in the 2003 Giro.

But if we add in this year’s fourth place Vuelta finisher Bauke Mollema, this makes the top four of the Vuelta having never finished on the podium of a Grand Tour. To find the last time this happened in any Grand Tour we have to go a lot further back than 2007.

It was the Vuelta a Espana in 1985 the last time the top four finishers in a Grand Tour had all never finished on the podium of a three week race. Pedro Delgado was the winner that year, who of course would go on to win the Tour de France in 1988. Just behind him in second place, after the Spaniards ganged up on him, was Robert Millar who had won the King of the Mountains at the Tour but this was the first of three visits he would eventually have to a Grand Tour podium.

Pedro Delgado

Third place in the 1985 Vuelta a Espana went to Francisco Rodriguez who also won two stages and finished third in both the points and mountains classifications. Prior to this, his best result of note was winning a stage of the Dauphiné Libéré the previous year. And finally in fourth place was Pello Ruiz Cabestany who had won the Tour of the Basque Country that year and would go on to finish fourth again at the Vuelta in 1990.

But in 1985, the notion of challenging for the G.C. was new to all of these riders, just as it was to Cobo, Froome, Wiggins and Mollema at the Vuelta this year.

At the Tour de France, we knew that Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador were capable of finishing on the podium. Between them, they had done it 11 times before at Grand Tours. The excitement lay in the occasions where they bucked the trend of all riding to a summit finish together at the head of the field.

Andy Schleck winning Stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France after an unexpected attack on the penultimate climb.

Two of the most memorable moments of the Tour were when Contador cracked on the climb to Luz Ardiden and when Andy Schleck attacked with 60km to go on to stage to Serre Chevalier. These moments were memorable because they were out of the ordinary.

At the Vuelta we were presented with a more subtle layer of intrigue, but every mountain stage was out of the ordinary because Cobo, Froome, Wiggins and Mollema had never found themselves making the race at a Grand Tour before.

Every day we were wondering just how far each of these riders would make it. Would this be the day that they finally cracked, thus proving they didn’t have what it takes to make it on to the podium? This is also the reason why we were so captivated every day by Thomas Voeckler’s performance at the Tour. We just didn’t know what he was capable of. And neither did he.

So while the Tour de France might make it to the top of all the ‘Best Stage Race’ of the year lists, the Vuelta had it’s own charm and mystery. From one point of view, the Vuelta lacks the gravity to pull the sport’s big names towards it, which may be true. But is this very reason, the lack of big names, that made the Vuelta so unpredictable and is perhaps a worthy runner up in the category of the ‘Best Stage Race’ of 2011.

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  1. Paul Kelly - November 18, 2011 @ 12:35 pm

    Good stuff Cillian!

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