Saturday, December 9, 2006

¿A Vuelta to die for?

La Vuelta one of three grand dramas.

Even before the peloton assembled for the first stage of the 2006 Vuelta a España, it was a race that seemed poised as one that could mark a new beginning. The run up to La Vuelta possessed all the drama required for it to go down in history. Crime, drugs, police, tension, riders with something to prove and a peloton in search of a future. La Vuelta was a minefield of metaphor. It would either be remembered as a decisive turning point, or, as yet another lost opportunity for cycling. La Vuelta could see the sport descend further into the maelstrom of suspicion and lies, allegation and counter claim of innocence, it could be more of the boring old same, or it could be an opportunity for cycling to somehow rise like a phoenix from its own smouldering ashes. There was a hope that this scaled down race, affected by a increasing lack of faith on the part of cycling's fans, and a lack of investment from its sponsors, could be cycling's new start. Hope that this race might just serve to rekindle the interest, and the passion that has been so recently lost.

Unlike any other sporting events the three Grand Tours embody a dramatics of life that is played out over a full three weeks. To those involved in them they seem to be a lifetime. These races embody all the aspects of life in such a way that they are so much more than sporting events. They are above all human dramas of an intense, immense stature. Each of them, are part and parcel of the consciousness of societies, and a search for some truth and meaning to the human condition. All are built in one way or another upon an idea of molding the individual, the land, and peoples through a spectacle of involving superhuman figures that seek to mark out their own territories and conquer the boundaries of their precarious existence. This year's Vuelta reinforced this feeling and in doing so it brought it to a whole generation who had never had the luck to witness such a thing before.

La Vuelta is a different race.

La Vuelta, like Spain itself, with its geography and its cultural history, probably more than anywhere else on the 'continent' trapped halfway between Europe and Africa, has been regarded as the poor Iberian cousin of the tours of France and Italy. Its running has been interrupted by civil war and politics, and this year, if not interrupted, at least affected, by the fallout of the positive EPO test of last year's winner and the police investigation which it sparked.

La Vuelta is a different race, this year and always. Because Spain is a country, of multiple landscapes. A place where regional differences mean a lot - the people, languages, terrain, character, wine and of course food. Much of it is high open plains, there the wind plays havoc and, of course the heat as well. Scattered throughout are barren peaks, a thousand Ventoux's, and on three sides are rocky, hilly, pine covered hinterlands bordering the coasts.

La Vuelta is a different race, as it comes after six months of leg and mind sapping competition. It takes a special, sort of rider to want to fight it out over these three weeks. As such it is a test of endurance, of not only three weeks but of a whole season long. It is nearly always close, and often, even with its mountains, faster than the Tour or Giro. In many ways it is always more exciting than the others and it doesn't deserve any poor Iberian cousin status at all.

The Race - Act I.

But above all else, there was a race, a beautiful, wonderful race with which the young could learn what a Grand Tour was all about. However, out of Andulacia and into Extremaduria, the race covered in its first week two landmarks of recent cycling. Stage 4 to Caceres where two years ago the news of Hamilton's positive test. Stage 5 to La Covatilla, another barren, desert like ski station, nearly 2000m in altitude, was designed as a tribute to Heras. The start of the climb commencing in the home town of the fallen champ.

La Covatilla, was the race's first major appointment, and it wreaked havoc. Favourites by the wayside on the first climb. Menchov, uncomfortable a few days earlier when he was presented with last year's winner's jersey, never to recover. Mayo, down, and as always lowering his sights before the racing really got under way. And even Vinokourov now seemed out of contention. Sastre, with his shiny new teeth, the object of Spanish faith, lost a little time. As did the golden boy, Valverde. Di Luca becomes the first race leader. And Pimiento (the capsicum) Gomez Marchante, and the Eastern connection of Brajkovic and Kashechkin give everyone something to think about. Danielson and Samuel Sanchez just hang in.

From here it was north across the high plains of Castille Leon, where for a change the wind only made people nervous, but never came into play.

ACT II – Stalemate of attacks.

In the week following La Covatilla so much happened. One thing to note was that each day in the mountains was broken by long days in the saddle, either negotiating the winds of the high plains or of the leg breaking toboggan stages of the northern coastal hinterland. The change of rhythm played havoc on the legs. One day a gearing of 53 or 54/11, the next 39/23 or more. One day churning out the power with a huge gear across the flat, the next climbing or surviving up mountains, steeper and steeper. An the heat just continued, never a day under 35 degrees, and the further north, the more humid it became.

Stages 7, 8 and 9 were the days when the duel began. Forget the rest this was a duel between between Valverde, the highest placed favourite, and Vinokourov, still more than a minute and a half behind. It seemed at this point Vino's aim was to threaten, his young, astute partner was much higher up on the general. But the hunt for La Vuelyta, between Valverde and Vino, developed into one of the classic encounters of cycling's modern age. Not in any of the seven years of Lance's domination was anything like this seen. An excitement that has been absent from cycling for far too long. Life (as in Vivir), seemed to be being breathed back into the sport – V, Valverde, Vinokourov, la Vuelta, vitality, visualised, hour after hour, day after day, on the road and the screen.

Stage 7 to Morredero. A narrow brute of a climb on the border between Castille and Galicia. A stage to tell the grandchildren about. A classic day in its own right. Vino away in a small group, a smidgen of seconds ahead of the group of leaders, Di Luca was in the gold at the start of the climb. Then Attack after Attack by Valverde, attack after attack after attack. Other contributed, Mayo, Pimiento, Brakjovic, but none turned the pedals, as if there was no chain, like Valverde. He just didn't seem to stop. With each one the leader's group dwindled until there was only a handful left.

Finally Valverde caught Vinokourov, but then, in a blink of an eye and with just a kilometre to go the blonde, Tartar eyed Cossack attacked again. A devastating burst of speed, he churned up the slope. Behind Valverde towed the others. Forced to do all the chasing, no one was going to help him. Ahead Vino was going too far, he was so strong. With 200 metres to the line he had it won. He had it won! With 150 metres to go he had it won. The chasers were within sight, but the TV always seems to shorten the distances and everyone knew then that Vino had it won.

And then, well then there was a flash. A flash nothing more than a white flash. Up out of the saddle, the white jersey of Valverde. There was nothing left to race. 150 metres to go, less, and less. It was still going uphill and Vino looked so good. “The bloke's got a kick like a track sprinter" O'Grady has said before today. He can win on any terrain.

And on then on the Morredero, a hill to die on, it was then poor old who had Vino to suffer the white bullet. Vino who has suffered playing second and third fiddle at Telekom. Vino who had suffered from being outed from the Tour, after his director was caught paying off the good doctor with a suit case filled with Euros, Swiss Francs and Aussie Dollars. Vino who is suffering from not having a Pro Tour licence for his team. Vino just couldn't believe his luck. The luck of Vino, just when would it change?

Poor Vino he couldn't do a thing, nobody could have done a thing. Valverde closed the gap between them and between him and the finish, in a flash, in no time at all. It is doubtful that something like this has ever been seen before. This was a devastating win, a psychological knock out punch, a classic to stand along the greatest cycling finishes of all time.

And it seemed to start something that just coulldn't be stopped. Attack, attack, attack. Vino and Valverde. A duel, a battle, a fight to the finish, something to breathe life back into cycling. Stage 8. No shell shocked Khazak. Stage 8 into Lugo. The first time in so many years. The first time the TdF virtual winner Oscar Periero has ridden as a pro in his home country. First lap of Lugo, he gets away and soaks up the atmosphere. Here the local hero who's face adorns everything, billboards where he tells you not to speed. The peloton, how many kilometres, at 52 kph plus. fast and hot. The last 8km lap around Lugo, the speed exceeded 80 kph. At the finish the peloton was strung out, broken up over minutes because of this speed. The final stretch, an uphill dig, less than one kilometre, the strong men were heading to fight it out, Paolini, Bettini, the usual suspects for a stage like this. And then Vino jumped, and went. Nobody, would catch him today. Reward for the bitter taste of the day and the season before. And then number 9.

Number 9, La Cobertoria, into Asturias. When have you seen anything like that before? 207 kilometres, six categorised climbs, 5025 metres of climbing. At the first climb, kilometre 35, Horillo and others are already dropped. They form a team, though not teammates to find their way to the finish without being disqualified as too slow. but the stunning thing was the final climb. When, Vino attacked just a little way in to the climb. Vino jumped and then before anyone else could react Kashechkin followed him. Wasn't he meant to stay behind and mark the others? No, the Cossacks meant business and no one was ready for this. The two Cossacks, on their carbon fibre steeds, from the team that bears the name of their capital, mounted a two man time trial up the climb. Actually a one man time trial. Vino ahead pulling his younger teammate all the way, as far as he could go. Kashechkin who was higher on GC, his astute cycling mind sheltered by the raw power of his elder.

Valverde, calm behind, with his praetorian guard having done their work. Valverde pulling the names, Pimiento Marchante, Sastre, new teeth still shining, and others. And then, a kilometre to go, maybe a little more. Valverde jumps. Away, up, up and away, his effortless style, up towards the slipstream of the Kazakh pair. Kashechkin says to Vino, "you go, you go for the win". And so he did. This time glancing over his shoulder every few pedal strokes to check that the Morrederro won't happen again.

This was la Vuelta's intermezzo. Valverde had succeeded Brkjovich in gold, and Spain expected him to go all the way to Madrid as leader. For Vino it was the beginning of the passage from defeat to victory. It was nothing but as series of stunnning attacks that entrenched the duel and excitement even further. Nothing like this has been seen in a recent Tour de France. Each stage, saw, when there was a chance attack, counter attack, and attack. It was attacking without rest. One any one climb you could count on both Vino or Valverde trying to dislodge the other, four, five six times, It was attacking without stop, incessant attacks, whether climbing, or on the technical sections, or even when descending. They were attacks that in normal circumstances, those that we have been numbed into being accustomed to, would provide one rider with a rapid and comfortable result. The boredom of the Tour, of this year's Giro, this was nothing like that, in this year's Vuelta these attacks seemed to only further entrenched positions, they seemed to only further this stalemate of epic proportions.

ACT III - the waves of Cossack attacks.

After the north south again across Castille. A wonderful downhill victory for Samuel Sanchez in the hanging city of Cuenca. A time trial win for Dave Millar, claiming to be a diffferent rider, but with many at this year's race just not prepared to believe in anything anymore. And then back into Andulacia, through the country of the good, the bad and the ugly. Here just like at Stalingrad, it was in the end, the wave after wave of Khazak attacks that finally weakened the enemy.

The monster stage through the mountains that hem spaghetti western country up against the coast. Stage 16, the Velefique, an Alpe d'Huez of the desert, and two ascents of the Calar Alto, in all 3300 metres of climbing squeezed into 145 kilometres. On the final ascent, the two, Vino and Valverde, eye ball to eye ball, the others falling over themselves behind. Only Samuel Sanchez and his young teammate Igor Anton had enough strength to get back to them. Vino telling Valverde to work with him to finally wipe the smile of Sastre's face, Valverde responded: “Que No!”. Anton coming into range read it right, and passed as wide as the narrow tarmac allowed. Anton, Igor Gonzalez-Galdeano's great hope for Euskadi's future ascended to his first major win of his career. Behind the two V's just kept at it, one trying to dislodge the other, the other sticking like glue to their wheel.

Until Granada, that was. On the outskirts of the ancient Moorish capital is another barren rock of a climb. Steep with sections that point to the sky at over a13% gradient. On one side the hill drops away like a desert wall, the other rising up like the ramparts that protect the old town below. A group away, the American hope, named Danielson, the highest placed among them. behind CSC and Caisse mass at the front, increasing the pace to try and dislodge the lone wolve Cossacks. later Kashechkin would tell how they enjoyed the pace.

As the ramps start to bite Kashechkin attacks and makes a gap. He has Paulinho up the road, in the remnants of the day's break. Danielson has gone on alone and the Portuguese waits for the Cossack charge. And it comes! Soon Vino attacks Valverde. Sastre is all over the bike, smile long gone. And for the first time in three weeks Valverde can't respond. The crisis! The effect of those incessant Cossack charges. Ahead the Cossacks link up, Paolinho can't stay with them and the two mount a drive over the hills twin peaks. On the first of them Valverde leaves Sastre behind and flies across the top. Then down, sharp narrow turns, on this side covered in by pines. As the road widens Valverde has them within sight. Two Cossacks and the Pimiento. Vino looks back, he sees whats happening, and as Valverde hooks onto the rear of Kashechkin, Vino is already off on the left hand side, as far away as possible, attacking on the descent, never to be caught again.

This was the point at which la Vuelta was won and lost. Dowhnill, bravery at 90 kms an hour, never giving in, never stopping, attacking, up, across and finally downhill. on the outskirts of Granada Vino catches Danielson, they talk, Vino wants the gold, Danileson wants to recover something. Vino could have just kept going, but he is smart as well as strong, valiant but savvy and fair. he gives the win to Tom and he takes what over two weeks ago, not to far from here it looked like he had lost forever.

On a roll, Stage 18 is an opportunity to rub in the victory. Rub it in the way they started it, a two amn time trial breakaway up the vicious la Pandera. Not too long but steeper than any climb in this year's race. The Cossacks did not taking any prisoners on la Pandera. Vino powered out as many watts as Armstrong did on any day, taking Kashechkin with him tot he finish, holding his head close to his, a bear hug as they crossed the line. the battle had been won, in the cold and mist of yet another barren rocky climb. Spain a land of a thousand Ventouxs conquered by a two man wolf pack from the Cossack steppes. Kashechkin gets a win, Vino will get another in the final time trial. His tally will be 3, one stolen at the line, one given away, it could have been 5. But above all else he gets the gold to take all the way back to Astana.

This year's race had stages colour, passion and quality, stages of such life, that if you have only been watching the sport for a decade or two, that probably you have never witnessed. This year's race deserves a book, many books, a film more. It was a race that can be and deserves to be run over and over again, at home on the TV or simply in your mind while you are out there lonely on the bike. And it is a race which those of us lucky enough to witness will be able to pass down to younger generations long after we have stepped off our bikes for the last time.

Madrid – por fin.

At the end of the race, with Landis not far away, Spanish TV interviews Oscar Pereiro, “the winner of the 2006 Tour” and ever present on the podium on the big stages, congratulating Valverde and Vino is the Spanish Minister for Sport, the man now personally leading the charge to reform the sport. A man himself the subject of legal action, by Manolo Saiz. The Minister aside Vino. Vino the man who sacked Saiz, and took the bold step of taking control of the team himself. Vino, blonde, albino, Tartar eyes, a bundle of muscleno w supported by a whole Cossack nation. Vino beside Kashechkin, the brain, that seems to think hard over every word on and off the bike. Standing tall the Cossack pair as their Soviet style nation anthem blares out in the centre of Madrid. The Cossack pair, holding their flag, with Vino's hastily painted golden bike ready to be sent home to the capital's national museum.

Has cycling, after so many years of creating its own world outside of the state and international organisations, has it finally been brought under control? Are these Cossack ambassadors of a new world order, who speak the peloton's creole of French, English, Italian and Spanish, the one's that might deliver us from evil? Can we, unlike Elvis, overcome our suspicious minds and go on to love again?

Whether or not, one thing is for sure, whatever the reality, the 2005 Vuelta was a race that stands out as the most exciting race in recent history. A million more times exciting than anything we have been treated to in the last decade. It was a Vuelta to die for. One in which cycling could itself either lie, die or live and be loved again.

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