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Analysis: Vuelta moving in right direction

With Rodríguez and Contador battling, organizers have hit it right. The balance between cutting edge and tradition is key for the future

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SANTILLANA DEL MAR, Spain (VN) – The Vuelta a España caught its collective breath Tuesday after an action-packed, thrilling two weeks of racing.

In what’s arguably been the most interesting grand tour of the season, the Vuelta enters its final week with the GC battle still unsettled. Has the Vuelta taken a jump in quality and depth to bring it ever closer to parity with the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France? Vuelta boss Javier Guillén certainly hopes so.

“We are very happy with this Vuelta and how the fans and riders have reacted,” Guillén said. “We couldn’t have asked more from how the race has unfolded so far.”

Vital to the Vuelta’s surge are two key factors. First, with the arrival of ASO as majority owner a few years ago, Guillén and his staff, led by ex-pro Abraham Olano, have spiced up the route dramatically. Not only has ASO given the Vuelta financial stability, ever more important in Spain’s worsening economic crisis, it has pushed the race to break new ground.

Gone are the long, flat boring stages on four-lane highways between major cities. Olano and the planning staff are pushing the Vuelta into España profunda, onto small, rural roads into unknown pockets of Spain.

The second factor in the Vuelta’s rise has been the move of the race forward a week on the racing calendar, allowing it to catch the final 10 days of Spain’s summer holidays. Rather than starting in September, when Spanish children are back in school and the summer holiday-makers have gone home, the Vuelta is starting in the third weekend of August.

The end result is bigger, more passionate crowds than ever with a GC battle that has proven to be incredibly exciting.

Riders like the relatively shorter stages (averaging 175km to the longer 195km of the Tour), which means later starts, usually around 12:30 or 1:00 p.m. The peloton has even taken the brutally steep finishes, such as the 24-percent ramps up Cuitu Negru on Monday, in stride.

“If the distances were exaggerated, these climbs would be too much,” said stage 16 winner Dario Cataldo (Omega Pharma-Quick Step). “These kinds of climbs provide a spectacle. The sport needs it. It’s very, very difficult, but it’s not too much.”

This year’s explosive route, with 10 uphill finales and steep climbs such as Cuitu Negru and Bola del Mundo, have provided a thrilling backdrop.

The riders are certainly doing their part to keep it interesting.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) has fended off an endless onslaught from Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) in an intense fight for the red leader’s jersey. “Purito” leads the “Pistolero” by a slender margin of 28 seconds with five days of racing remaining.

Contador, speaking to the media during a press conference Tuesday morning, said he would keep fighting all the way to Madrid.

“I do not make excuses,” he said. “Purito is proving very strong. There are still some hard days. Anyone can have a bad day. I will keep fighting until the final meter. Everything will be decided on Bola del Mundo.”

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), knocked out of the GC picture when he crashed in echelons in stage 4, remains locked in a battle with Chris Froome (Sky) for the final podium spot. The pair is separated by nearly three minutes, but Valverde knows what Froome is capable of.

“We can breath easier now, thinking about the podium and the team classification,” Valverde said during a rest day press conference. “Froome is still dangerous. He’s further back, but I saw how strong he was during the Tour. I know what he is capable of. We cannot relax.”

And behind that, the Vuelta is seeing intense racing all the way down the clasificaciones. Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) is proving he’s the real deal, hanging on to seventh against such heavy hitters as Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi).

And the Vuelta is also helping to break new ground, with Ji Cheng (Argos-Shimano) becoming the first Chinese rider to start a grand tour and Daniel Teklehaimanot (Orica-GreenEdge) the first black African to race a grand tour. Both are hanging tough in what’s been a brutal Vuelta.

As much as this year’s Vuelta is so interesting, the race remains a prisoner of sorts to the vagaries of the cycling season. Contador’s presence has driven media interest in Spain through the roof, but he’s only here because he couldn’t race the Tour. No matter what happens in this Vuelta, next year’s top goal for Contador will once again be the Tour.

The same goes for many riders, such as Froome and Gesink. Even Talansky, who is riding just his second grand tour with impressive consistency, sees this Vuelta as a stepping stone toward the future. And his future, just like nearly every stage racer, is focused on the Tour.

“It’s not about this Vuelta, it’s about the Tour de France for next year and the year after that, and three years down the road,” Talansky told VeloNews last week. “It is also about this Vuelta. I want to see how far I can go.”

So far, Talansky has proven incredibly consistent, and it’s that consistency over three weeks that forebodes big things for him in the future.

The Vuelta’s own future remains to be seen. It will be hard for Olano and Guillén to match the exciting, grueling courses over the past two seasons. Last year’s Vuelta was universally agreed to be the hardest grand tour of the year. Just like Talansky, consistency — in challenging and intriguing courses and world-class international fields — is a key to the Vuelta’s own success.

But if the Vuelta continues to be incredibly difficult, riders might shy away, especially after focusing on earlier races such as the Tour or Giro. Guillén says the Vuelta will continue on the road it started down a few years ago.

“We want to continue to try new things,” he said. “The fans have responded to what we are doing. We think that’s the best confirmation that what we’re doing is the right way.”

Next year’s Vuelta will start in Galicia, the green, lush coastline of Spain’s northwest corner. There are rumors that the Vuelta might end on the Canary Islands, with a climbing finish up the Teide volcano. That would mean turning its back on the traditional finish in Madrid.

So far, bucking tradition has served the Vuelta well. The key is finding the right balance between cycling’s roots and the need for a modern touch. This year’s Vuelta certainly has found that place.