Lessons Learned from the 2011 Vuelta a Espańa

Steven HainlenContributor IISeptember 13, 2011

Lessons Learned from the 2011 Vuelta a Espańa

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    The 2011 Vuelta a Espańa concluded in Madrid on Sunday September 11th.  Often overlooked when compared to the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, the Vuelta allows riders the opportunity to seek retribution for earlier season shortcomings or to develop form for the last races of the season. 

    The 2011 edition saw an extremely unexpected winner in Juan José Cobo from team Geox-TMC, David Moncoutié winning a record fourth Climber's Jersey, and the return to the Basque region of Spain for the first time in 33 years.  The Vuelta usually indicates who has form for the fall races, including the World Championships, and also distinguishes a few riders to watch out for in the next season.  Here are five lessons that were learned from the 2011 edition of the Vuelta a Espańa.

Peter Sagan Delivers at a Grand Tour

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    No one ever doubted that Peter Sagan was good, but many of his wins have been in second-tier races.  The 2011 Vuelta a Espańa should be considered Sagan’s coming out party.  Sagan had three stage wins, one second place, and could have had one more great result if it was not for a poorly placed traffic circle.  He won on sprint stages while also taking a mountain stage. 

    Some may argue that Sagan’s win on stage six showed his immaturity by taking the win over his GC teammate Vincenzo Nibali, but in hindsight it is clear that Nibali did not have the legs to win the Tour of Spain, and therefore the stage win for team Liquigas was more important. 

    Sagan’s tenacious style of riding and impressive results are reminiscent of a cyclist from Texas before his battle with cancer.  Lance Armstrong entered the 1993 World Championships as a 21-year-old with some great results and left Oslo as the World Champion; and Sagan will head to Copenhagen as a 21-year-old with impressive potential, and at this point Sagan has to be considered one of the favorites to win the World Champion's Rainbow Jersey.

New Talent Shines at the Vuelta

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    The 2011 Vuelta a Espańa featured 10 riders winning their first grand tour stage.  Peter Sagan was the star performer of the new stage winners, but the other first time winners included Christopher Sutton of Sky, Daniel Moreno of Katusha, Marcel Kittel of Skil-Shimano, Dan Martin of Garmin-Cervelo, Michael Albasini of HTC-Highroad, Rein Taaramäe of Cofidis, Juan José Haedo of Saxo Bank, Chris Froome of Sky, and Francesco Gavazzi of Lampre. 

    For some riders, such as Taaramäe and Martin, their stage wins served as confirmation of long heralded talent; while for others, such as Kittel and Froome, their success came as a surprise which will serve as a springboard for future fame.  Any stage win at a grand tour is the highlight of a rider’s season and will almost guarantee them a contract for the next two years, and in a time of uncertainty in cycling due to wary sponsors, these riders just earned themselves some security over the next few years.

The Basque Country Shows What It Means to Love Cycling

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    There is no group of people who are as enthusiastic and love cycling more than the Basque people, and after 33 years since the Vuelta’s last visit to the arena, the Basque people, the all Basque cycling team (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and the region's terrain proved to the Vuelta organizers that this area should be frequently featured in the race.  The most memorable moment of the return of the Vuelta to the Basque country has to be Igor Anton, the leader of the all-Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team, dropping his breakaway companion on the El Vivero climb and the subsequent stage win.  Anton lives in this area and the sights and sounds the spectators provided for their homegrown hero were overwhelming.  If you haven’t seen it, go find video highlights of Stage 19 of the 2011 Vuelta.

Wild-Card Teams Impress at the Expense of the UCI ProTeams

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    The Vuelta organizers invited tour pro-continental teams to the 2011 edition of the race, and three of the four left a significant impact.  Skil-Shimano won a stage with Marcel Kittel and animated almost every sprint finish, David Moncoutié won a stage and his fourth Climber’s Jersey and Rein Taaramäe, both of Cofidis, won a mountain stage, while Geox-TMC won the overall Vuelta title with Juan José Cobo, the Combined Classification with Cobo, the Team Classification, the hardest stage of the race, and placed two riders in the top 5, with another in the top 20. 

    In comparison, AG2R, Astana, BMC, and Radioshack were almost non-existent in the race, and Quickstep and Omega Pharma-Lotto were both underwhelming.  Those six teams accounted for a total of zero stage wins and three riders in the top 20, none of whom were in the top 5.  For the third grand tour in a row, the wild-card teams earned their spot in the race while a large number of UCI ProTeams did not live up to expectations.

The Favorites Do Not Always Win

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    Juan José Cobo was, at best, the third option on his team, and Chris Froome was never mentioned as a protected rider, but they ended up with first and second place in the General Classification respectively.  Additionally, Daniel Moreno was supposed to work exclusively for Joaquin Rodriguez (who will never win a grand tour unless every stage ends with a 2 kilometer 20% climb), and ended up finishing almost 10 minutes in front of Rodriguez and in 9th place. 

    These “second tier” riders covered every move, rode solid time trials, and capitalized on other rider’s bad days.  Each pre-race favorite showed that they lacked form or ability on one or more occasions, but Cobo and Froome exhibited no weaknesses.  Cobo and the riders of team Geox-TMC deserve substantial credit for the win, but the team management of Geox deserves particular praise for altering their team strategy and designating Cobo as the protected rider even though Menchov was still well positioned.