Let’s try and work out who’s actually trying to win the Vuelta a Espana | a recap of stages 1-8

Stage two of the 2018 Vuelta a Espana (all images via YouTube)

The logical thing to do would have been to include the stage nine summit finish in this report, but sometimes logic has to bow to convenience. I’ll catch up with that and the whole of the second week in my next recap.

For now, stages one to eight.

The setting of scenes

The opening prologue gave us some small gaps to take into the hills. The Rider Called Rohan (Dennis) was quickest – as he invariably is on these short stage one time trials – with Michal Kwiatkowski just a little way behind. The Pole has greater emphasis on the power side of the power-to-weight ratio than most of his overall rivals, so this was no real surprise.

Lighter climbers like Thibaut Pinot, Adam Yates, Fabio Aru and Miguel Angel Lopez all lost 30s or so to him, as did Vincenzo Nibali and Rigoberto Uran, both of whom still seem to be dealing with the after-effects of their Tour de France crashes and the resultant lack of training.

What was no surprise at all was that Richie Porte lost more time than anyone. The Tasmanian managed to contract the shits the day before the race. I don’t believe it was a full-blown bout of the wild shits, but it still amounts to sub-par preparation for three weeks of endurance bike racing.

Richie Porte and Vincenzo Nibali fall out of the running

If you’re going to fail to compete for a Grand Tour, the best time to do this is on stage one and stage two because that’ll save you an awful lot of effort in the long run.

Having minced around the time trial course to no great effect, Porte was confronted with searing temperatures and an uphill finish on stage two. He duly failed to deliver and can now do what he likes for a week or so before maybe looking for a stage win later on.

He somehow managed to lose 13 minutes, which was no mean feat considering the final climb was a fairly nondescript little hill. (There was even talk that one of the sprinters might take the stage before it began.)

Vincenzo Nibali lost four minutes. He squeezed in about two weeks of training after recovering from his broken back. This seems pretty insignificant and so it has proven.

Adam Yates was another to (probably deliberately) surrender hopes of winning the race. If there was any doubt, we can now be certain that he’s there to help out his bro, Simon.

Uphill finishes in the Vuelta all but guarantee that Alejandro Valverde will feature. He won the stage without appearing to break sweat. Michal Kwiatkowski was second again having sweated rather a lot.

So who’s actually in the running for this Vuelta then?

Nothing of any real consequence happened on stage three, but stage four brought the first proper mountaintop finish and this seems a good way to try and work out who we’ll actually be watching these next few weeks. If the likes of Nibali and Porte are effectively bowing out this early, we may need to bolster our cast list.

If we take out all the imposters who were in the break, the finishing order of the overall contenders was as follows.

  1. Simon Yates (the other Yates)
  2. Emanuel Buchmann (a gangly young German, the son of a carpenter)
  3. Miguel Angel Lopez (little ball of muscle from Colombia)
  4. Alejandro Valverde (no introduction necessary)
  5. Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky, sticky-out ears, who was race leader at this point)
  6. Nairo Quintana (a more established Colombian climber)
  7. Enric Mas (possibly this particular Vuelta’s random overachieving Spaniard – there’s usually one)
  8. Thibaut Pinot (Frenchman who doesn’t seem to much enjoy racing in France)
  9. Steven Kruijswijk (a man who never seems to get tired)
  10. (Actually there was a whole bunch of people on the same time as Kwiatkowski and I probably should have ended the list there)

Yates was the most interesting of these. He finished two seconds ahead of Buchmann but gained about 20s or so on everyone else by reprising his familiar Giro d’Italia trick of attacking with about 4km to go.

Speaking after the stage, Syates (shall we call him that?) seemed borderline annoyed with himself, giving the impression that this sort of move was an addiction he was desperately trying to suppress.

The day’s main non-contender was Ilnur Zakarin, who lost eight minutes and can therefore be forgotten about.

Breaks, splits and punches

Stage five was won by the breakaway and was largely unremarkable except for the fact that Team Sky let the gap grow to such an extent that Rudy “Who?” Molard took the overall race lead. (This really isn’t that important. Don’t bother committing his name to memory.)

Stage six was a sprint win for Nacer Bouhanni and the first Grand Tour stage win for Cofidis since 2014. Cofidis are pretty rubbish.

Sprinters are kind of beyond my remit for this race, but a quick word about Bouhanni because he likes to get in literal fights. He’s previously missed the Tour de France after punching a drunk bloke in a hotel because he was keeping people awake. This year he missed the race having had ‘a physical altercation’ with his own sporting director earlier in the season.

The stage was also notable because there were crosswinds towards the end. Crosswinds are great because someone significant always loses out on a day when they’d never expected to. On this occasion it was Thibaut Pinot and Wilco Kelderman who lost 1m44s.

Stage seven was another frenetic finish. After spending the whole day on immaculate tarmac, the closing kilometres were gritty and narrow with twists and turns and falls and rises. Michal Kwiatkowski crashed on a descent and lost 30s.

The stage was won by a man I still think of as Gallopin’ Tony, but who is actually called Tony Gallopin. He eked out a 100m advantage on the peloton with 2km to go and never surrendered it. The Frenchman is normally thought of as a one-day racer but he’s shown before that he can perform well on a summit finish on a one-off basis. He now says that he’s lost a bit of weight and is actively looking to place well overall in this Vuelta, so maybe we should watch him.

Stage eight was a weird uphill finish which didn’t look like much on paper but featured a near-hairpin with 300m to go. This meant a hard effort up an incline from a near standing start. You should know by now that this is the kind of thing that generally means an Alejandro Valverde win. He finished just ahead of Peter Sagan who is easing into form ahead of the World Championships next month.

What’s next?

These are the highlights.

I’ll recap all of this middle stretch next week.