After six stages of the 2014 Vuelta a Espana, all 198 cyclists remain in the field which is an unusual occurrence for the opening week of a Grand Tour but the first real mountain test on Thursday did produce the expected gaps in the field with the favourites moving to the front of the general classification. For those riders aiming the win the coveted red journey, the 2014 edition promises to be one of the best for many years.
A low level of cortisol in his body following the legal use of Corticoid to treat Bronchitis has prevented Chris Horner from defending the crown which he won in 2013, but of the remaining contenders Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde are a select group of riders each capable of winning the Vuelta.
Froome and Contador have entered this race in the knowledge that they both crashed out of the Tour de France. Contador, in particular, suffered a hairline fracture of the leg during that race and just riding on a bike let alone participating in a three week Grand Tour is a credit to his determination and courage. Rodriguez has been busy riding himself into form after a crash during the spring while Quintana won the 2014 Giro d’Italia. Valverde was in contention for much of the French tour but faded during the final week.
Five days of early skirmishing in the current Vuelta had not produced any significant gaps among the favourites, but the sixth stage to a summit above the town of La Zumbia threatened to split the field. The hilltop finish was not particular difficult at just less than 5km in distance but the steepness and heat of the day could not be ignored.
As the riders entered the final climb, the breakaway group was soon caught, and Valverde decided to set a strong pace at the front followed by his Movistar team mate Quintana. As expected, the other favourites were poised just behind as the remaining riders gradually lost contact with the leaders as the gradient steepened.
Such was the pace set by Valverde that no other rider was capable of mounting an attack until Rodriguez accelerated within the final kilometre. He was eventually overhauled by Valverde with Froome finishing second and Contador close behind in third place. A few seconds further adrift were Rodriguez and Quintana.
For Valverde, it was an early show of strength which he must maintain over three weeks whereas Froome and Contador will be pleased with their showings after a troubled few weeks following their experiences in the Tour de France.
The main talking point was the fifth place finish of Colombian Quintana who appeared unable to cover the original acceleration by Rodriguez and was content to lose a few seconds. Is he feeling the effects of a long season or is he just pacing himself for a hard three week race as per his performance in winning the Giro.
Time will be the ultimate factor in answering this question but the 2014 Vuelta promises to be a vintage edition as the race enters its second week with Valverde currently wearing the red jersey.