a View on the Vuelta

this article originally appeared on The Roar

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It’s a common sight in pro cycling these days – seeing a team attempting to boss a stage by sending their men to the front of the peloton from a long way out.

They do so with the hope of winning with their protected rider, only to see them fail. There are, most often, just too many variables to be controlled.

However, Orica-GreenEDGE pulled it off in style yesterday at the Vuelta a Espana.

Fascinating too to see a rider coming into his own, as Michael Matthews did by taking the win off the plucky Dan Martin. Matthews was confident enough to let Martin try to come back at him and it’s a confidence well deserved as he is turning out to be a very versatile – and very good – rider.

It might sound a little condescending to herald the ‘arrival’ of a rider with an already impressive palmares, one that shows evidence of early promise and of course a total, before yesterday, of three stage wins in Grand Tours (two at the Vuelta in 2013 and one this year in the Giro), but it’s the respect with which he is now viewed by the peloton that marks the difference.

Many names were bandied about before yesterday’s stage but when Matthews gave a pre-stage interview in which he downplayed his chances of taking the leader’s jersey but spoke with no little belief in his ability to take the win in Arcos de la Frontera, there was a real air of self-belief about him.

In the end though he managed both the win and to take the race lead.

Screen Shot 2014-08-26 at 10.26.16

The Vuelta peloton is one with some great riders that were, on paper, perfectly suited to the finish yesterday but Matthews looked unbeatable, coming from a boxed-in position with 500 metres to go to storm the line. He might not yet have the mountain legs needed to podium in a race this long but he is without question the top world-class Australian in the World Tour.

You have to feel a little sorry for the Irishman though. His Giro got off to the worst possible start – and end – with a broken collarbone in the first stage TTT sending him out of the race. Yesterday would have been a perfect comeback but it wasn’t to be.

In truth though, I doubt that even a race-fit Martin would have beaten the Orica-GreenEDGE man, as he looked to have power to spare.

The rider Mathews took Red off, Alejandro Valverde, was criticised after Stage 2 by some commentators for having his team chase hard to close down the lead of the breakaway rider Valerio Conti of Lampre-Merida.

It seemed odd to put a team to work so early in a 21-stage race, – some said naive – but this may well be Valverde’s last hurrah and perhaps he was a little too eager to ensure his day in Red.

There’s little doubt that teammate Nairo Quintana is the rising force in the team and the Colombian’s disappointment at missing the Tour because Valverde wanted the team to concentrate its resources on his vain attempt to win the race was understandable – though a win at the Giro must have salved those wounds.

Could there be some tension on the team bus? If there is, the Colombian is sure to make his point in the high hills.

One positive to come out of the Vuelta already was the withdrawal, voluntary, of Chris Horner by his team. The Lampre rider returned low cortisol levels as a result of taking oral cortisone (allowed) at the Tour de France. His cortisol level would not be enough for the UCI to suspend him but as Lampre are members of the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), which does consider the level shown by the American to be unacceptable, he was pulled.

This is a real step in the right direction and Lampre should be applauded for this step, even if, in my opinion, they should not have signed Horner in the first place.

It also highlights the folly of trying to ride in a UCI sanctioned when sick and unable to continue without banned medication, even despite the fact that the authorities allowed the medication in question.

Horner took the cortisone to see off a lingering bronchial infection but that choice has come back to hit him hard. As defending champion he must be gutted to be sat at home watching the race on TV, but he made a choice. It might seem harsh, the decision, but your chickens are going to come home to roost sometime.

Fascinating Vuelta this one, with Froome and Contador peaking after their mid season problems, and Quintana presumably rested too.

Let battle commence.

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