Upwards and upwards Chris Froome rises. Down and down plummets Vincenzo Nibali.
Fabian Cancellara must wonder what he has done to incur such misfortune, a season after claiming his third Ronde. Caught in a savage pile-up on stage three of the Tour, and suffering with ’empty legs/body’ as early as stage three at La Vuelta, Spartacus, it’s fair to say, has had a torrid time of it this year.
John Degenkolb, by contrast, a member of the startled group of favourites that watched Niki Terpstra ride into the distance at last year’s Paris-Roubaix, won the Queen of the Classics this season. And Milan-Sanremo.
Marcel Kittel was unstoppable in 2014, winner of four stages at the Tour. This season he was not chosen by Giant-Alpecin for the French race and has been cold shouldered by his national federation in the matter of selection for the worlds. Germany will be led instead by André Greipel, who took his turn to win four stages of the Tour. Cycling’s poster boy must give way to the Gorilla.
Up and down. Cycling’s biggest names it seems ride a seasonal see-saw, who go from experiencing the highest highs one year to being unable to buy a win the next. Nibali had no need to cling to car doors last season; they would only have slowed him down. Now, La Vuelta’s organisers have thrown the book at him; the Highway Code, in all probability.
The life of the professional cyclist is unpredictable at best. Alberto Contador was reportedly summoned from a beach to ride the 2011 Giro d’Italia. A little over a year later, he was stripped of the title. He might have wished he’d spent longer on his tan.
Cycling’s knight of the realm revealed an unexpected similarity with the monarch in suffering an annus horribilis a year after sweeping all before him. 2012 ended with a knighthood for Sir Bradley Wiggins. 2013 can’t have ended a day too soon.
Fate is fickle and training will take a rider only so far. Once clear of the neutralised zone, his ride is determined as much by fortune as watts per kilo. Nibali calls for understanding from his team bosses and a reassembly of the squad that did so much for him last season, but he must realise more than most that this is not Astana’s year.
Only a fortunate few can ride cycling’s seasonal see-saw with success, soaring gracefully, then managing its descent to spring lightly upwards again, avoiding contact with the ground and a spine-jarring bump. Alejandro Valverde, last season’s world number one, has stood on a podium 21 times this season and won eight races, though he has previously spent two years grounded.
These are days of celebration for Froome, Greipel, and Degenkolb, while Nibali, Cancellara and Kittel must be tempted to shred their calendars and burn their diaries. Cycling’s seasonal see-saw is rarely bucked, however. Its exhilarating rise and remorseless descent are part of the ride. Nibali, at least, is likely to have had quite enough of hanging on.
STAT’S THE WAY, UH-HUH, UH-HUH
17 – second places this season for Peter Sagan
9 – stages of La Vuelta won by Alejandro Valverde
3 – Grand Tour winners left in La Vuelta (Froome, Quintana, Valverde)
Ticket to ride? Nibali, red-handed
Another Nibali moment: cracked on the fog-bound slopes of the Angliru in 2013 by Chris Horner – aged 41…
A Vuelta just doesn’t feel like a Vuelta without the Orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi in the bunch. A 2012 reminder of what we’re missing