PRADES, France (VN) — When VeloNews polled sport directors ahead of this Vuelta a España, two names popped up: Chris Froome for the win. The other? Vincenzo Nibali.
Both riders surged into the frame Monday during a teaser stage into the mountains of Andorra. Froome snagged the red leader’s jersey, and Nibali won the stage. Will these two battle all the way to Madrid? It sure looks that way.
“This race is important for me like the Giro,” said Nibali, who won the stage in a flourish. After finishing third in the Giro d’Italia in May, cycling’s “Shark” is back at the Vuelta, fresh and ready to take on Froome.
“I still have room for improvement,” Nibali continued. “The stage victory is important, and we will keep fighting in this Vuelta.”
This Vuelta won’t be a two-man race, at least not yet. The 2017 Vuelta started Saturday with its best GC field ever. And though many said they were on stage-hunting mode, Monday’s stage revealed their GC ambitions. Fabio Aru (Astana), Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), among others, were right there in the front group.
Monday’s short but jumpy stage confirmed that Sky is here to win. And it also revealed that more than a few rivals won’t be taking it sitting down.
Though this Vuelta is a slow boil, with the hardest stages coming in the final week, the first serious climbs of the Vuelta came early, and a few favorites paid the price. Top among them was soon-to-be-retired Spanish star Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who ceded more time.
“I didn’t feel good from the start,” said Contador, racing on French roads for the last time of his career. “I hope to improve as the race progresses.”
But others were in the mix as Sky pushed the pace to try to blow up the race. BMC Racing’s Nicolas Roche and Tejay van Garderen both powered through, using their team time trial victory to keep them near the red leader’s jersey. Only time losses Sunday into Gruissan in stage 2 cost them a chance to take red.
“It seems like every day is a one-day race,” van Garderen said. “Me and Roche, we’ve shown we are ready for the GC fight, even though it’s still a long way to go. Today showed we are going well. It would have been nice to have taken the red jersey. Only two seconds back, that’s a good place to be.”
Froome is intent on winning the Vuelta once and for all. He’s been three times second, and brings a Tour de France-level team to the Spanish grand tour.
Team Sky showed their strength as the race powered from France into Andorra, setting a hard pace over the Col de la Rabassa, the day’s first of two climbs. Froome didn’t want to lose the opportunity, and powered ahead to eliminate a few potential rivals. Froome was alone, and was caught on the descent into Andorra to battle for the win.
“I’ve lost the Vuelta before by 13 seconds,” he said, referring to his 2011 loss to Juan José Cobo. “So I am going to fight for every second I can.”
The four-time Tour winner downplayed questions about carrying the red jersey all the way to Madrid. Only a hiccup during the Tour de France kept Team Sky from carrying yellow from start to finish last month. What counts is having yellow in Madrid.
Things are still wound tight. It’s only stage three. Anything could happen. The GC favorites won’t square off again until next weekend in the short but steep climbs around Alicante.
This could set up an epic battle between Froome and Nibali. The Italian won the 2014 Tour after Froome crashed out. Nibali has never beaten Froome on-one-one in a grand tour. Only Contador and Nairo Quintana hold that honor.
Nibali is the only other active rider — besides Contador — to have won all three grand tours.
Could this be this Vuelta’s main storyline?
Nibali celebrated his win by putting his palm above his helmet, imitating a shark’s fin. The Vuelta waters are still turbulent, so he promises to keep hunting.
“I’ve never done that before, so I thought, why not have some fun?” Nibali said of his victory salute. “I suffered a bit, and I was under pressure from Sky, but I hope to get stronger as this Vuelta unfolds.”
Many cycling fans are hoping for the same.