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Vuelta GC battle takes form after selective first half

Vuelta GC battle takes form after selective first half, but it's only now getting good

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GRANADA, Spain (VN) — Going into last weekend’s trio of decisive climbing stages at the Vuelta a España, there were no less than 18 riders within one minute of then-race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).

Fast-forward to Tuesday’s rest day, and the Vuelta has completely turned upside down.

Three mountaintop finales, including Monday’s race-changing brutal climb up Alto de Hazallanas, changed the dynamic of the Spanish tour.

What was once a race of many has become a race of five.

“Now we know who can fight to win this Vuelta,” said Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, who settled into fourth on Monday, 1:02 back. “The hardest part of the race is still to come. Nothing’s decided yet.”

It might not be over for Valverde, but it is for a lot of riders who came here with high GC ambitions.

Neither of Sky’s Colombian leaders are anywhere to be seen — Rigoberto Urán languishes in 27th, at 4:08, while Sergio Henao, who arrived with captain status to the Vuelta’s start, is just one spot ahead in 26th.

Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) has been the biggest name to crash out so far, hitting the deck on a nasty urban circuit in Sevilla on Friday.

Samuel Sánchez and Igor Antón, riding in what was meant to be Euskaltel-Euskadi’s final grand tour before Formula One ace Fernando Alonso stepped in to save the team, are now firmly in stage-hunting territory.

Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), and the Belkin duo of Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema have each sunk out of GC contention.

Ivan Basso (Cannondale), who showed signs of life Saturday at Peñas Blancas, is slipping backward, giving up time both Sunday and Monday, and is hanging on the edge of podium contention in seventh, at 2:20.

There have been a few surprises, with French youngster Thibaut Pinot ( eighth at 3:11, Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff) ninth at 3:16, and stage winner Leopold Konig (NetApp-Endura) 11th at 3:58, but the revelation of this Vuelta has been the re-emergence of Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard).

Going into the Vuelta’s meaty second half, the race is down to five clear favorites for victory.

Horner is the Vuelta’s big surprise. At 41, he’s won two stages, secured a promising lead going into Wednesday’s lone individual time trial, and has barely two weeks of racing in his legs all season.

Nipping at his heels is Nibali, second, at 43 seconds, who remains the Vuelta’s top favorite, at least on paper. The Giro d’Italia winner is glad to have survived the harrowing first half of the Vuelta, and promises to swing for the fences.

“I think this Vuelta is still a long way from the finish,” Nibali said. “There are so many difficult days ahead of us, starting with the time trial Wednesday. [Tuesday] is a rest day, and that’s the most important thing.”

Nicolas Roche (Saxo) is showing impressive resilience to retain third, 53 seconds back, and will be a legitimate podium threat if he can put down a solid time trial Wednesday.

Valverde is fourth, with Joaquim “Purito” Rodríguez (Katusha) 1:40 back in fifth — certainly further back than he would have hoped at this point.

The first half of the 68th Vuelta was the easy part of a brutish three weeks, replete with short, challenging climbs across Galicia in the opening stages, following by a few sprint stages before last weekend’s trio of mountains.

Things will only get harder from Tuesday’s rest day all the way to Madrid. Standing in the way are Wednesday’s individual time trial and three hard, long climbing stages across the Pyrénées, before a final weekend that includes the monster climb up Anglirú on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage.

“Horner won with authority [Monday]. The rest of us — Nibali, ‘Purito,’ Basso, Pinot ,or Roche — we’re all pretty much close to each other right now,” Valverde said. “I don’t know how the current situation will change the race, as Nibali, ‘Purito,’ and myself were watching each other a bit, but we are not the only podium contenders, as everyone can see.”

It’s way too early to crown Horner as winner apparent, but the veteran American goes into the second half of the race in the driver’s seat.

Horner, who is enjoying full backing from RadioShack, has absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain. Still riding without a contract for next season, Horner has never been in such an enviable situation in his long, storied career.

“For sure the objective is to place as high as possible, and try to win,” Horner said. “The most difficult thing for me is the chrono. Sometimes I am good, like when I won at País Vasco, and sometimes I am awful. Without a good time trial, it would be difficult to win the overall.”

On Monday, Horner was even suggesting he would lose the leader’s jersey to Nibali in Wednesday’s hilly course. Others are not so sure. Cannondale sport director Mario Scirea thinks the course will not produce big time gaps.

“If it were a flat power course, Nibali would have an advantage over the others,” Scirea said. “But it’s quite technical, with a decent climb in the middle. That will help the likes of Basso, Horner, and the Spanish riders to keep it close.”

While Horner has emerged as a surprise GC danger, everyone is still watching Nibali. The 28-year-old Italian is a confirmed grand tour winner, and comes to the Vuelta with one eye on the red jersey, and another on the world championships at the end of September.

The question mark for Horner will be if he has the legs to last all the way to Madrid, while Nibali is building as the Vuelta unfolds.

“Nibali came into this Vuelta at about 75 percent of his full form,” said Astana sport director Alexandr Shefer. “Our goal was simply not to lose time to our main rivals by the first rest day. [Tuesday] is the first rest day, and he is in second place. After that, Nibali is going to be in top form more or less, and if we can get within 15 seconds of the jersey [after the time trial], then we’ll be in the chocolate.”

For Russians, being “in the chocolate” is akin to being one very happy camper.

What it means for everyone else is that this Vuelta, although a race that was once was a full herd of horses, is still very tight. And unlike the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia this year, there is a sense that anything could happen. This Vuelta could very well go all the way down to the wire. The fun is just beginning.

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