Alejandro Valverde adds to the uncertainty

I love the Vuelta. I really, really love the Vuelta. I’ve been thinking this a lot recently and can’t put my finger on precisely why I enjoy it so much more than other races. Sometimes it’s best not to scrutinise these things lest you inadvertently dissipate the magic, but one thing I’ve concluded is that a lot of the appeal revolves around uncertainty.

Uncertainty is the lifeblood of sport

Germany v New Zealand would make a terrible fixture in both football and rugby because the respective outcomes would be so predictable. In a bike race, winners are never predictable, but the palette of riders from which the winner will come can be narrow. If it’s a flat stage, it’ll be a sprinter. If it’s a mountain stage, it’ll be a climber.

The Vuelta toys with the grey areas in between. There are tough stages for sprinters and relatively easy stages for the climbers. This opens things up to more riders and makes finishes a little more intriguing. This is then compounded by the fact that we rarely know who’s in form and who isn’t.

Unsteady climbs

Stage six finished with a hard 5km climb – tough enough that the overall contenders would come to the fore, but not so long that it would become all about sustainable power to weight ratios. A bit of unsustainable power would also come in handy, which meant that riders who are a bit faster over shorter climbs might also be in the running for the win.

As it turned out, it was mostly the general classification riders who thrived, but what’s important is that we didn’t know that at the time. Seeing Dan Martin drift off the back on a long, steady, Alpine climb is no great surprise, but here he was one of the favourites. When he lost contact with the main group, it was news.

Setting the pace

In the end, Alejandro Valverde constituted the front of the race. He set the tempo almost all the way up, nominally working for Nairo Quintana, but somehow he was still the fastest at the end. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador followed second and third so all that whinging about lack of racing, broken legs and what-have-you can now be ignored.

Quintana finished 12 seconds back. Perhaps not yet in top form, he may improve as the race wears on and he is certainly someone who copes well with longer climbs so don’t extrapolate too much from Valverde having been superior on this stage.

Joaquim Rodriguez also showed his face and looks like he’ll be one of the main protagonists from now on. He attacked too early, but that’s another aspect of uncertainty in the Vuelta – no-one does reconnaisance, so these things can happen.

Losers

If certainty kills the tension needed to enjoy sport, complete, eternal uncertainty leaves people unsatisfied. A Grand Tour is about gradual revelation and on stage six, a small corner of the painting was unveiled. Several potential overall contenders lost time.

Laurens Ten Dam was 44 seconds down, but might cope better with longer climbs. Dan Martin was 59 seconds down, but almost certainly won’t. Then there are those who lost a minute or more.

Rigoberto Uran lost 1m04s. Cadel Evans lost 2m16s and I suspect he might be pedalling towards retirement.

Carlos Betancur watch

19m30s down, he nevertheless gained time on Matteo Pelucchi, who is now the only rider beneath him in the general classification.

Stage seven

Another grey day. Not the weather – the route. Here’s the profile. The run-in to the finish involves a kilometre or so at 5%. It’s not really a climb, but nor is it flat. It’s a hard, climby sprint. Revel in the uncertainties, my friends.