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 by: Bill Oetinger  10/1/2015

The Vuelta does it again

On Sunday, September 12, I was sitting in a sidewalk cafe in the town of Cernobbio, on the shore of Lake Como. With a glass of wine and a few wedges of cheese in front of me, I was browsing the pink pages of Gazzetto dello Sport, catching up on the latest sporting news, Italian style. (Yes, the sports section is printed on pink paper. It's why the leader of the Giro d'Italia wears a pink jersey.)

The only thing wrong with this picture is that my Italian is not good enough to read all the articles. But the headlines and the photos told enough of the story for me to get the basic drift, and the drift was very much euphoric from the Italian perspective. On the left side of the page was a report on an all-Italian final in the women's field at the US Open (and the unexpected crash-and-burn of Serena Williams' Grand Slam dream). On the right side was the report on Fabio Aru's wonderful come-from-behind victory in the final mountain stage of the Vuelta a España.

VueltaThe tennis story was certainly shocking, but it was the Vuelta account that really grabbed my attention.

As I have been reporting in this space for several years, the Vuelta organizers (and riders) always seem to pull a rabbit out of their hat, putting on a magical miracle of a race each year. This year was no exception. It had all the things we like—or that I like anyway—in a stage race. There were nine serious mountain stages, eight with wicked uphill finishes. The tough uphills were scattered throughout the three-week race, coming on Stages 2, 6, 7, 9, 11, 14, 15, 16, and 20.

As for the start list and its star quality, it too was a heady mix. Chris Froome and Mikel Nieve from Sky, Vincenzo Nibali, Fabio Aru, and Mikel Landa from Astana, Nairo Quintana and Allejandro Valverde from Movistar, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff), and Tejay Van Garderen (BMC). About the only top gun missing was Alberto Contador. Several of these riders had completed the Tour de France, including the top four: Froome, Quintana, Valverde, and Nibali, all ready to test the premise that doing well at back-to-back grand tours can't be done anymore.

In the end, Froome and Van Garderen crashed out before making any sort of impression, and Nibali lost time behind someone else's crash and then suffered the indignity of being tossed out of the race for hanging on his team car as he tried to get back up to the peloton. But all the rest of these leading actors stuck around to duke it out, right up to the finish.

Add to that list one rider no one would have predicted would be a contender: Dutchman Tom Dumoulin. At 6'1" and 160 pounds, he's at least 20 pounds heavier than the typical little mountain goats who shine in the high hills. Nothing in his pro bike resumé suggested any propensity for going uphill quickly (at least relative to the true grimpeurs). He is however very good in time trials, and that would prove to be a factor here.

Dumoulin stayed in the thick of the action, right through almost all of the most brutal hill finishes. He couldn't match the frisky accelerations of the best climbers. He'd be gapped on some 20% wall, but he wouldn't panic; he'd stick with his best tempo and limit his losses, sometimes even clawing back precious seconds near the finish. It was gutsy and heroic. As much as I like and respect some of the other top riders, it was hard not to root for the big guy to come out on top. If he could prevail, he would become the first Nederlander to win the Vuelta since Joop Zoetemelk in 1979. It was shaping up as a real Cinderella sort of fairy tail.

After Stage 16, with all but one of the mountain stages completed, Rodriguez was first, Aru was just one second back, Majka was at 1:35, and Dumoulin was hanging tough at 1:51. With the one and only individual time trial on Stage 17, the question was: had the pure climbers built enough of a cushion to hold off Dumoulin in the ITT? The answer was no. As expected, he won the time trial and took big chunks of time out of most of the climbers. The only good climbers to turn in decent time trials were Valverde—already a little bit out of it—and Aru. So, at the end of the day, the standings were:

1. Dumoulin

2. Aru :03

3. Rodriguez 1:15

4. Majka 2:22

5. Quintana 2:53

6. Valverde 3:15

Game over? Unfortunately for Dumoulin, not quite. There was still one more big mountain stage on the penultimate day. The real question should have been: did Dumoulin build enough of a cushion in the ITT to hold off the climbers on Stage 20? He'd done so well in hanging tough and doing damage control on all those prior mountain stages…and, in his favor, this was the only big mountain stage that wasn't an uphill finish. After its two biggest climbs—out of a total of four—it was level or downhill for the final 18 kilometers. So even if he got gapped, he might be able to bridge back up. It seemed possible, but nope…didn't play out that way.

With a couple of K to go on the second to last climb, Astana teammates Landa and Aru attacked out of a small group containing all the other contenders. Over the course of the next couple of minutes, most of the other leaders were able to jump across to them…all except Dumoulin. He went over that summit :20 down, then, thanks to a determined descent, cut that deficit in half before the final climb began. But that's as close as he would get. Out of the remnants of a breakaway, Aru picked up two more teammates—all part of a savvy game plan for Astana—and they and Landa buried themselves for Aru. Minute by minute, mile by mile, the gap back to Dumoulin grew. The poor guy, with no teammates to help him, was finally out of ammo.

Meanwhile, Quintana and Majka attacked Aru and his train and started putting time into them. Could they gain enough to ruin the best-laid plans of Astana? Not quite! Aru did just enough to stay close, so that the final results had him first, with Rodriguez at :57, Majka at 1:09, and Quintana at 1:42. Dumoulin had to settle for a scrappy sixth place and a well-earned Most Combatitive jersey. For whatever it's worth, Quintana was sick with a fever and diarrhea for a few days midway through the stage race. He lost over three minutes to the other contenders on a very tough Stage 11. Without that setback, the results might have been quite different.

Fabio AruFabio Aru is a worthy champion, and I expect we'll be seeing more of the little Sardinian in the years to come. He only arrived on the world stage last year, with a third in the Giro and fifth in the Vuelta. This year: second at the Giro and now first at the Vuelta. He's just 25. I felt the Astana team rather mismanaged their strategy at the Giro this year; that they could have won with a smarter game plan. But they got it just right at the Vuelta. It all begs the question: who will be the team leader next year: Nibali or Aru? Stay tuned!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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