Astana Pro Team's rider Vincenzo Nibali of Italy after the fourth stage of the Vuelta (AFP)
After an unpredictable opening week of the Vuelta a Espana our erstwhile blogger Blazin' Saddles looks back on the story so far.
Six stages down (at the time of writing) and still there's only been one bona fide bunch sprint in a Vuelta that boasts 11 summit finishes in total. It's been a quite wonderful race so far, with a different rider from a different nationality taking the spoils each day.
Of all the stage winners so far, only Dani Moreno of Katusha has tasted a previous Vuelta victory - while the pedalling fossil Chris Horner became the oldest rider in history to take a maiden Grand Tour stage scalp. Even so, the fact that everyone's really talking about a rider who finished seventh place on Thursday goes to highlight the gloriously whimsical nature of this race.
Time to get our teeth into some of the main talking points so far...
Thrifty Nibali not happy to be in the red
Vincenzo Nibali, the biggest pre-race favourite since Richard Virenque turned out at a French housewives invitation-only egg and spoon sprint in nothing but a polka-dotted pair of speedos, knows that this Vuelta will not be won in the opening week.
With Janez Brajkovic and Jakob Fuglsang, the Astana team is mighty strong and when riding to victory in the opening team time trial it was left to Brajkovic to cross the line first. It was a nice touch - Brajkovic is out of contract at the end of the season and a red jersey could do him many favours. But the reality was that Nibali had no intention of taking the leader's bib himself.
The next day, when the Slovenian cracked on the summit finish, a rather sheepish Nibali moved into the race lead. It was no surprise that, 24 hours later, Nibali did not respond to Chris Horner's final-kilometre attack for he was happy to concede the poisoned chalice to his American counterpart.
But no one expected Horner to blow on the final climb to Fisterra in stage four - not least, Nibali. In fact, the Italian was as bemused as anyone when informed that he was back in red, presuming Horner had come home in the same group as him. It was with reluctance but with a smile that the Shark from Sicily mounted the podium that afternoon. Can he now keep his jaws on the jersey for the rest of the race?
Joining Saxo-Tinkoff has been the making of Roche
For years at Ag2R-La Mondiale Nicolas Roche was like a pre-op transsexual pondering what it was he wanted to do with his natural attributes. Should he keep dressing up as a girl but flatter to deceive or should he go all the way and have the operation that may change his fortunes?
In cycling terms, Roche had to decide between masquerading as a GC rider but struggling to grab top 10 finishes while harming his chances to net stage wins; or change his vocation, ride for someone else, but free up opportunities elsewhere.
The Gallo-Irishman effectively decided to go under the knife and joined Bjarne Riis's Saxo-Tinkoff - and it has been the making of him. Sure, finishing 40th in the Tour de France marked his lowest ever finish in Paris - but he did so while riding commendably as a super-domestique to Alberto Contador, learning new skills and assuming new responsibilities.
And now that Contador is deciding to sit out the Vuelta, Roche has carte blanche to do his thing. A maiden Grand Tour stage victory up the Alto Do Monte Da Groba in stage two has been backed up with both the mountains classification and the combined classification, with the 29-year-old currently sitting pretty in third place just eight seconds behind Nibali.
With the form he's showing, bolstered by the support of his team-mates Roman Kreuziger and Rafa Majka, there's no reason to believe Roche cannot better his previous highest finish in the Vuelta, a seventh place in 2010.
Many said joining Saxo-Tinkoff would see Roche throw away any personal ambitions; in reality, he has blossomed as a rider and taken things on to another level. With Contador increasingly looking like a one-Grand-Tour-a-year man, Roche could be integral in Riis' plans going forward.
Is Futurama's Chris Horner still concussed?
Chris Horner (Radioshack)
The out-of-contract American is riding an impressive race as he bids to secure a deal that may prolong his career beyond his 42nd year on this planet. The RadioShacker's stage three win saw Horner become the oldest rider in history (61 years and 307 days) to win a stage and wear the leader's jersey in a Grand Tour.
His post-race interview showed that the passion and drive is still there - even if it did remind the world what an odd character the Japan-born all-rounder really is. Watching Horner speak was like tuning into an episode of the Simpsons or Futurama.
In fact, Horner is a dead ringer for the old walking stick-wielding fogie Hans Moleman, the Simpsons character who often comes to a sticky end (for example, he once crashes into a truck full of sugar; he's also invariably sent to the electric chair, suffocated, blown up, drilled through the brains, set ablaze and knocked out).
Keeping in sync with his cartoon alter ego, Horner himself came a massive cropper in the 2011 Tour de France, finishing stage seven despite being diagnosed with concussion, a broken nose and a haematoma to his calf following a nasty crash 40km from the finish. His post-stage interview that day clearly showed that the then 39-year-old had dropped a few sandwiches from his picnic hamper at the scene of the crash, and was pretty much riding on crazed autopilot mode.
But listening to Horner talk about his ride into the red jersey two years on raised the question of whether or not the RadioShack rider has ever recovered from the after-effects of that concussion - or whether or not he was ever concussed in the first place.
Is this goodbye to Tyler Farrar?
Garmin-Sharp's 29-year-old former fast-man is very much the experienced old hand in a race where many of his sprinting rivals are in their early 20s and competing in their maiden Grand Tours. You'd expect Farrar to be pressing to add to his career tally of three Vuelta stage victories - but the American has been nowhere near as competitive as someone who has notched wins in all three Grand Tours should be.
Not only was Farrar comprehensively beaten by Michael Matthews for stage five, he has also been shown up by non-sprint specialists such as Fabian Cancellara - and also the one sprinter who is older than him, Lampre's Maximiliano Ariel Richeze, the Argentine who hasn't appeared in a major European stage race since testing positive for the steroid stanazol on the eve of the 2008 Giro.
With no wins this season except one solitary scalp in California, the clock must be ticking away for Farrar, a rider who has failed to complete seven of his eleven Grand Tours since his debut in 2009. Even a set of Transitions lenses cannot un-blur that stat.
Was Martin's the best seventh place in the history of cycling?
Not many people will remember that Team NetApp-Endura finished seventh in the opening team time trial, or that Michele Scarponi crossed the line six places behind the ever-green Chris Horner in stage three.
But everyone, for quite some considerable time, will recall Tony Martin's seventh-place finish in stage six. In fact, Saddles would venture that Michael Morkov's maiden Grand Tour stage victory that day will pretty much be relegated to a mere footnote to the real story: Martin's 175km solo break that came to an end just 20 metres from the line.
Ironically enough, after what Martin described as a "four-hour time trial", it was the German's ITT rival Fabian Cancellara who finally led the pack back onto the wheel of Martin in the closing straight - just when it looked like the impossible was going to happen. The fact that Martin's advantage with 15km remaining was just 15 seconds made his feat even more agonisingly extraordinary.
Surely it's only a matter of time until someone cashes in on a series of niche souvenir t-shirts that say 'I was there when Das Panzerwagen finished seventh'.
Favourites keeping their powder dry
It's not just Nibali who's doing his best to keep a low profile. While the Italian seems bent on losing the red jersey, his other GC rivals have been holding back and conserving their energy. In the case of Ivan Basso, Domenico Pozzovivo and Joaquim Rodriguez, this is partly to do with their respective teams' poor showing in the opening TTT. But on the whole, none of the big guns seem ready to fire just yet.
Katusha are happy to let Dani Moreno ride up the road - for second place in stage two and the victory in stage four - rather than unleash Purito before the high mountains, while both Alejandro Valverde and Rigoberto Uran have been quietly consistent.
The big disappointments so far are Sergio Henao, already three minutes down, and his fellow Colombian Carlos Betancur, 44 minutes in arrears and struggling with illness and loss of morale. Henao's plight shows that Sky perhaps made a mistake in naming him as their team captain - and that he could well struggle to fill Uran's shoes when the latter moves to OPQS in the close season.
With the exception of Henao and Betancur, the riders expected to make a splash come Madrid are all pretty much there or thereabouts. Just look at stage three, effectively a dress rehearsal for the big mountain challenges to come, where most of the race's favourites finished in a cluster three seconds behind Horner, a man whose age should catch up with him once the roads get steeper.
- Sports & Recreation
- Chris Horner
- Nicolas Roche
- Vincenzo Nibali
- Alberto Contador
- Janez Brajkovic
- Vuelta a Espana