Vuelta a Espana

Three upcoming summit finishes could determine leader of wide-open Vuelta

Three summit finishes over the next five days should do a lot to settle a GC situation that remains very open midway through the 2011 Vuelta a España.

Three summit finishes over the next five days should do a lot to settle a GC situation that remains very open midway through the 2011 Vuelta a España.

It’s hard to imagine that a very tight Vuelta overall – with 13 riders within 2:35 of race leader Chris Froome (Sky) – won’t look very different after the Spanish tour tackles two new summits, Manzaneda on Wednesday and Farrapona on Saturday, ahead of the hyper-steep Anglirú waiting on Sunday.

The wide-open GC picture means that the Vuelta should see some real fireworks over the next five days.

“This Vuelta has been hard and the hardest part is still to come,” said Garmin-Cervélo sport director Bingen Fernández. “No clear favorite has emerged, so that means there are still a lot of people who believe they can win. That should make for a lot of attacks over these coming mountain stages.”

Froome and Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins, third at 20 seconds back, are in an ideal position to make a run for the podium. Wiggins is having his best grand tour performance since riding to fourth in the 2009 Tour de France and lit up the peloton with perhaps his best-ever climb in his career in Sunday’s La Covatilla summit.

“I think it’s got better and better as the race has gone on for me. I was a bit ring rusty to start with but two days ago, the way I rode that climb was like a turning point for me really, probably in my career. It was fantastic,” Wiggins said. “I’m third overall, 20 seconds off the lead and I’ve got the luxury of my teammate leading, which deflects the pressure slightly. I think it’s just a great position to be in and if someone had given me this 10 days ago in Benidorm I’d have taken it.”

Many look to defending champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) as the rider who is best-positioned. Always consistent, Nibali is poised in fourth at just 31 seconds back.

Nibali hasn’t been superb on any one day, but he hasn’t lost time in any of the key stages, either. With a strong finishing kick, Nibali will be looking to win stages and claim finish-line bonuses to start chipping away on the GC.

“It’s been an intense and tiring start to the Vuelta. The hardest part of the Vuelta is still ahead of us, an important detail,” he said. “I’ve said from the start that the key to winning this Vuelta will be consistency and, in this aspect, I am happy with how things have gone so far.”

Several teams have two viable GC options going into the final half, something that will help their respective interests and make for some dynamic racing. Teams will be able to send one of their well-positioned riders on the attack to force other rivals to chase before unloading with more attacks from behind.

Sky has Froome and Wiggins (1st and 3rd) while Leopard-Trek is well-positioned with two riders making their first real runs at the overall, with Jakob Fulgsang and Maxime Monfort (2nd and 6th). RadioShack is still in the running, with Jani Brajkovic and Haimar Zubeldia (9th and 10th), with Geox-TMC hanging on with Jose Cobo and Denis Menchov (8th and 13th).

Menchov, the two-time Vuelta champion, says that a clear leader has yet to emerge from the Vuelta and that more attacks are sure to come.

Menchov struggled early and couldn’t quite take the time he would have liked in Monday’s TT, but at 2:35 back, the Russian still believes he’s in with a shot.

“We are in good position, even though we have people ahead of us such as Nibali and Wiggins. There’s still half of the race ahead of us and I note that I am feeling better day by day,” Menchov said. “If the circumstances favor us we still have a lot to say in this race and I will fight for the GC. I am counting on the fact that there are a lot of climbers who have lost time and they will have to attack and shake up the race, and that’s a situation that can benefit Geox. If we’re smart and work well, we can position ourselves well.”

Among the climbers who slid backwards Monday were Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), 14th at 3:23; Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD), 22nd at 4:22; and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo), 24th at 4:58.

Rodríguez remains optimistic he can still challenge for the podium.

“I am in better position for the podium than I was last year. After I lost the time in the time trial (in 2010), there only remained Bola del Mundo. This year, we still have half the Vuelta to race,” Rodríguez said. “The Vuelta is still very open. Whoever rides out of Farrapona and Anglirú with the lead will be in a good position, but there’s still a lot of racing after that.”

Changing weather could also be a factor. Forecasters are calling for a chance of showers and cooler temperatures into this weekend for the back-to-back climbing stages at Farrapona and Anglrú.

Worsening conditions will make the mountains of Asturias even more treacherous for the peloton, and more exciting to watch from the sidelines.