10 Truths from a belter of a Vuelta
Now the Spanish dust has settled on Fabio Aru's dramatic victory in the Vuelta a Espana our cycling blogger Felix Lowe takes a looks at the bigger picture following a truly epic race.
Quintana has company in the next generation
It's perhaps unfair to judge Nairo Quintana on his performance in Spain: hampered by illness during the second week and fatigued from a competitive Tour de France, the Colombian struggled to impose himself. He may have finished fourth but he was very much an also-ran during a race in which he failed to win a stage or wear a classification jersey for the first time in a Grand Tour since his debut in the Vuelta back in 2012.
While Quintana struggled, Fabio Aru - fresher, hungrier, fitter and more explosive - revelled in the absence of his Astana team-mate Vincenzo Nibali. Five months older than Aru, Quintana is no longer the youngest Grand Tour winner of his generation. His hopes of winning the Tour some day soon will not only depend on the form of Chris Froome, but also the smiling Sardinian.
Nibali may well need to find a new team
Having finished second in the Giro and now first in the Vuelta, it seems inconceivable that Aru will not make his belated Tour debut next July. Can he do so on the same team as the 2014 champion? It seems increasingly unlikely - especially given the circumstances of Nibali's departure from the Vuelta: kicked-off for being dragged along by the car of the team he felt "abandoned" him in favour of Aru following his crash in stage two.
With Nibali's relationship with Astana manager Alexandre Vinokourov already strained from three tricky weeks in France, doubts had surfaced even before Astana took to beach front for the farcical TTT to Marbella. Surely it's a question of when, not if, Nibali leaves the Kazakh team. Under contract until 2016 - the year Alberto Contador bids farewell from the pro peloton - Nibali may well be on the receiving end of Oleg Tinkov's batting eyelids next season, where a return to winning ways at the Giro is more likely than a leadership role on the Tour.
Rodriguez and Valverde will never see eye to eye
Vuelta : ITW ValverdeEurosport
Just because two veteran performers with more palmares than most of us have had five-star hot dinners herald from the same country, that doesn't predicate a strong bond. Look at Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome - and they were even team-mates. The truth is that Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde have never been that close - and the latter's antics on the last stage of the race will only have added another layer of frost between the two.
With two points separating them in the green jersey standings in Madrid, Valverde took advantage of a Purito puncture to win the intermediate sprint and snatch the jersey from his rival's shoulders. In turn, this dug up memories of the world championships in 2013 where Rodriguez felt Valverde had favoured his own Movistar team-mate - eventual winner, Rui Costa of Portugal - over his national team-mate. Don't expect much collaboration between the two in the punchy worlds circuit in Richmond next week.
Spanish cycling may be at a crossroads but the future's bright elsewhere
If you take Rodiguez out of the equation the top six of the Vuelta - an Italian, a Pole, two Colombians and a Dutchman - had an average age of 25. Spain, meanwhile, had four riders in the top 10 (Rodriguez, Valverde, Mikel Nieve, Dani Moreno) with an average age of 34. Just three more Spaniards made the top 25: David Arroyo (35), Haimar Zubeldia (38) and Mikel Landa (25).
While fresh talent was on display in abundance in Spain, hardly any of it heralded from the host nation. Valverde was the only rider older than 28 to win a stage in the opening 12 days in a race that saw neo pros Caleb Ewan, Kristian Sbaragli and Alexis Gougeard strike. Throw in braces from Dumoulin and Esteban Chaves, and victories for Bert-Jan Lindeman, Nelson Oliveira, John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan (all 26 or under) plus Trek starlets Jasper Stuyven and Danny van Poppel, and it was a veritable bonanza for the new kids on the block.
Stage 11 winner Landa and fellow 25-year-old Omar Fraile - who won the polka dot jersey during his maiden Grand Tour - flew the flag for the younger Spanish generation, but there is genuine cause for concern once the likes of Alberto Contador, Rodriguez and Valverde retire.
Old boys continue to perform well too
Joaquim Rodriguez and Tom DumoulinAFP
We nevertheless witnessed five stage winners in their 30s with Valverde and Rodriguez joined by Frank Schleck, Ruben Plaza (both 35) and Nico Roche (31). Of course, this is eclipsed by the Tour's 13 stages won by riders in their fourth decade, and is one less than May's Giro. But it goes to show that the old guard can still put in a stellar, Horner-esque performance on their day.
Schleck's victory was the most unexpected, coming as it did atop the savagely steep Ermita del Alba climb and against the younger legs of Colombia's Rodolfo Torres. But arguably the most impressive individual one-off performance in the race came from that man Plaza, who soloed clear 114km from the finish of the penultimate stage to bag his second Grand Tour stage win of a superb season.
Dumoulin can come back even better
No one could have watched Tom Dumoulin's downfall in stage 20 without willing on the Dutchman to save at least enough face to retain his position on the podium. It seemed cruel that a man whose duel with the eventual winner Aru defined the race - a man who wore red for three separate stints while defying all expectation in the mountains - should have finished a relatively lowly sixth by virtue of the race being two climbs too many.
But cycling is cruel - and Dumoulin's bubble was popped in the harshest possibly way. And yet there's a lot for him to take heart from this breakthrough race. To have won a mountain stage as well as the expected ITT in Burgos - and finishing in the top 10 while flirting with the race lead throughout - would have exceeded the 24-year-old's expectations entering the race, especially following his serious injury in the Tour.
Now Dumoulin knows he has what it takes he can come back lighter, more experienced and more driven. He arrived in Marbella a time triallist; he leaves Madrid a genuine stage race contender in the years to come; and that three-week transformation provided us with most entertaining race of the whole season.
Astana shone bright but Giant-Alpecin don't deserve the flack
Astana's Italian cyclist Fabio Aru celebrates on the podium after winning the 70th edition of "La Vuelta" Tour of Spain in Madrid on September 13, 2014AFP
In May Astana completely bossed the Giro but ended up only with their men Aru and Landa flanking Alberto Contador on the podium; fast forward four months and following the disappointment of the Tour, Astana were back to their bullish selves with a performance of all-round excellence that made light of Paolo Tiralongo and Nibali's absence.
The team's red jersey heist on the penultimate stage - where Andrey Zeits and Luis Leon Sanchez dropped back from the break to help pace Aru along with Landa - was all the more formidable in the light of Giant-Alpecin's sudden disappearance after their earlier protection of then-leader Dumoulin. Critics were quick to stick the knife into Giant's failed attempts at keeping their man in red. Even fellow pros and countrymen of Dumoulin's proffered their two cents' worth.
But no one could have foreseen Dumoulin's emergence in the Vuelta as a potential winner - hence his 1000-1 odds before the race. Giant sent a team to support Degenkolb in the sprints - quite sensible, really, given the German had won nine stages in his previous two Vuelta appearances. Dumoulin was there to ride back into form following his Tour heartbreak - and to win the Burgos ITT. His did both those things emphatically - so much so, that his team inevitably paled in comparison.
Sky's Plan B is not Plan G
While Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo recorded podium places in the absence of their star riders, Sky had to make do with eighth place for Nieve (his best in a Grand Tour) and a stage win for Roche. They fared better than BMC, who lost their man Tejay Van Garderen before winning a consolation stage through Alessandro Di Marchi (at 29, neither one of the new generation or the old guard just yet), but had no secondary GC hope following Sammy Sanchez's departure with a toe infection.
Roche and Sergio Henao may have both had a better GC tilt had they not suffered accidents of their own, but on the whole it was a race of mediocrity for Sky - with Geraint Thomas showing the strains from a long (and successful) season in the saddle. Elsewhere, Elia Viviani was winning stages for Harrogate toffee in the Tour of Britain - but the Italian has no place in Sky's Grand Tour set up when they have an overall victory as their main aim.
Landa's impending arrival may give Sky exactly what they need: a rider who can compete at a high level in Spain, especially if not called on in July. It's the Spaniard, rather than Welshman Thomas, to whom Sky should look to deliver results in the major races in Froome's absence.
Hansen's record is here to stay - perhaps forever
Australian Adam Hansen broke a 57-year record for consecutive Grand Tours when completing his 13th successive race in Spain - one better than Spaniard Bernardo Ruiz's streak in the 50s. It wasn't Hansen's most memorable race (Lotto Soudal ended up empty-handed) nor was it his hardest (July's Tour saw him ride on in agony with a separated shoulder in the opening week). But it deserves all our praise.
Now he's done 13, don't expect the 34-year-old to let up any time soon. "I will continue racing all the Grand Tours until I fall off my bike," Hansen said. Not only will this record keep getting bigger - it won't be beaten while most of us are still kicking around, either.
Motorbikes must be condemned and praised in equal measures
That the separate incidents of moto madness which ended the race for both Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho were indefensible is undeniable to anyone with even a modicum of sense but it's all too easy to lump all race support drivers into a collective entity and chastise them for their wickedness and borderline criminality.
Jesse Sergent, Jakob Fuglsang and Greg van Avermaet all know what it's like being hit by a race vehicle during other occurrences this season - be it a TV moto or Shimano 'support'. But each and every one of these riders has at some point in their career taken bottles of water, fresh wheels or information from these motorbikes and cars - plus had their image, and that of their sponsor's logos, appear online and in print the world over as a direct result of a race photographer.
These motorbikes are not simply present to rob Peter, to slay Paulinho. When a security issue meant no helicopters or planes could fly above Madrid to provide the satellite relay during the final stage of the Vuelta, no motorbike images were available for viewers. The result? Dull static images from different vantage points around the circuit; paint dried quicker than those 10 laps.
Like everyone, a motorbike driver can make mistakes - and when they do so it's felt much more acutely. Their job is a stressful one and they are certainly not blameless - perhaps putting themselves before their counterparts on two wheels. Measures must be taken - without vilifying all drivers - to ensure these incidents do not escalate any further than they have already, lamentably, gone.