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Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: Why the Vuelta is key to the worlds

Fans who have followed the Vuelta a España for the past three weeks must have been wondering why so many riders were dropping out. Of the 198 starters, only 139 finished the race in Madrid on Sunday. Many quit because of injuries suffered in the overly frequent crashes, but the majority never planned to finish. The common refrain was: “I was just using the Vuelta to prepare for the world championships.” And who could blame them?

By John Wilcockson

Fans who have followed the Vuelta a España for the past three weeks must have been wondering why so many riders were dropping out. Of the 198 starters, only 139 finished the race in Madrid on Sunday. Many quit because of injuries suffered in the overly frequent crashes, but the majority never planned to finish.

The common refrain was: “I was just using the Vuelta to prepare for the world championships.” And who could blame them?

In the 14 years since the Vuelta was moved from its traditional spring date to September, 11 rainbow jerseys have been won by men that started the Spanish grand tour. But the trend of starting the race simply as training for the worlds didn’t really begin until eight years ago.

Worlds winner
and Vuelta performance

2008 — Alessandro Ballan (Italy)
Quit after 14 stages (1 stage win)
2007 — Paolo Bettini (Italy)
Quit after 17 stages (1 stage win)
2006 — Paolo Bettini (Italy)
Quit after 17 stages (1 stage win)
2005 — Tom Boonen (Belgium)
Quit after 13 stages
2004 — Oscar Freire (Spain)
Abandoned on stage 12 (1 stage win)
2003 — Igor Astarloa (Spain)
Quit after 10 stages
2002 — Mario Cipollini (Italy)
Abandoned on stage 8 (3 stage wins)
2001 — Oscar Freire (Spain)
Quit after 14 stages
2000 — Roman Vainsteins (Latvia)
DNS
1999 — Oscar Freire (Spain)
DNS
1998 — Oskar Camenzind (Switzerland)
16th on GC
1997 — Laurent Brochard (France)
19th on GC
1996 — Johan Museeuw (Belgium)
DNS
1995 — Abraham Olano (Spain)
2nd on GC (3 stage wins)

That was when Spaniard Oscar Freire, obliged to race in his national tour, deliberately quit the Vuelta after two weeks (see chart). He knew that he had to be in top condition (and be as fresh as possible) to shoot for the title in Verona, Italy, on the home turf of his trade team sponsor, Mapei, which was paying him a handsome salary.

Freire won that rainbow jersey. And a trend was started.

Before 2001, the Vuelta preceded the worlds six times, but none of the eventual world champions deliberately used the stage race as training. In fact, three of them (Johan Museeuw in 1996, Freire in 1999 and Roman Vainsteins in 2000) didn’t even start the Vuelta. The other three champs (Abraham Olano in 1995, Laurent Brochard in ’97 and Oskar Camenzind in ’98) all rode (and finished) the Vuelta as GC contenders — not worried that they’d be too tired to race the worlds.

Since 2001, every worlds winner has quit the Vuelta, on average, after 13 stages. That has left them with about two weeks to recover and plan their preparations to peak on the day of the UCI world elite men’s road race championship — the 76th edition of which takes place this coming Sunday in Mendrisio, Switzerland.

Using a three-week grand tour to prepare for the year’s most important championship race sounds smart from a rider’s perspective, but it doesn’t always please the Vuelta organizers, or the fans. This year, some 15 riders who have ambitions at this week’s worlds quit the race prematurely (see list).

Worlds contenders
and Vuelta performance

• Alejandro Valverde (Spain), 1st overall
• Samuel Sánchez (Spain), 2nd overall
• Cadel Evans (Australia), 3rd overall
• Ivan Basso (Italy), 4th overall
• Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), 54th overall
• Matti Breschel (Denmark), 68th overall
• David Millar (Great Britain), 80th overall
• Alessandro Ballan (Italy), quit after 16 stages
• Damiano Cunego (Italy), quit after 16 stages
• Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), quit after 13 stages
• Andy Schleck (Luxembourg), abandoned on stage 8
• Tom Boonen (Belgium), quit after 13 stages
• Oscar Freire (Spain), quit after 13 stages
• Kim Kirchen (Luxembourg), quit after 5 stages
• Simon Gerrans (Australia), quit after 13 stages
• Allan Davis (Australia), abandoned on stage 9
• Alexander Vinokourov (Kazakhstan), abandoned on stage 12
• Linus Gerdemann (Germany), quit after 11 stages
• Gerald Ciolek (Germany), quit after 17 stages
• Stuart O’Grady (Australia), quit after 16 stages
• Tyler Farrar (USA), quit after 11 stages
• Ryder Hesjedal (Canada), quit after 17 stages

The most prominent of these were last year’s Italian one-two worlds finishers, Alessandro Ballan and Damiano Cunego, who both pulled out after 16 stages. Of the other main contenders, Freire and Fabian Cancellara both quit after 13 stages, and Andy Schleck didn’t get beyond eight stages.

The good news is that seven riders who did finish the Vuelta —the first four on GC plus three others — have a chance to end this week in the rainbow jersey. Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde is a co-leader of the Spanish national team with Samuel Sánchez (the Olympic champ) and Freire; Cadel Evans (who might have won the Vuelta but for a neutral service snafu on a key mountain stage) leads the Australian team with Simon Gerrans and Allan Davis (who both quit the Vuelta); and Ivan Basso hopes to recover from a grueling three weeks in time to share the Italian team’s leadership duties with Ballan and Cunego.

If one of the Vuelta finishers does win the worlds, he would have bucked the trend; but a true revolution would be a winner who didn’t even start the Vuelta. And in this category there are a number of potential champs. These include Norway’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, who’s fresh off winning the Tour of Britain (including four stage wins!), along with another ToB finisher, Filippo Pozzato, and his fellow Italians Luca Paolini and Giovanni Visconti, who have been racing domestically.

As for the Americans racing in Mendrisio next Sunday, the best hopes lie with Vuelta non-finishers Tyler Farrar and Tom Danielson. It was a major setback when the U.S. team’s main candidate, Chris Horner, crashed out of the Vuelta with a broken wrist; but the bigger disappointment is that the country’s biggest stars — Lance Armstrong, George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Dave Zabriskie — have all ended their seasons and didn’t even consider racing the worlds.

Perhaps that would be different if the world championships were moved back to their traditional date of late August, just after the Tour de France — and before the Vuelta. But that’s another story!