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Vuelta a Espana 2018: First week in review

Joe Robinson
3 Sep 2018

Yates accidentally in red, Valverde winning and Bouhanni grinning. A look at the first week of the Vuelta

Dare I say it, but the first week of the Vuelta a Espana 2018 has been rather tame, at least by its usual standards. It's been hot, too hot at times, and the terrain tough, but the usual Iberian carnage has been lacking.

Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) leads the race, despite not really wanting to, becoming the second rider of the season after Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) to wear the red of the Vuelta having also worn pink at the Giro d'Italia.

At the end of yesterday's stage to La Covatilla, Yates looked first surprised at taking the race lead and then slightly disappointed, confessing to ITV that he was 'in a situation where I said I didn't want to be'.

With race leadership comes extra responsibility. Daily podium presentations are followed by a media scrum and dope test for good measure. As if riding your bike for five hours was not tiring enough...

The 26-year-old knows this all too well having held the pink jersey at this year's Giro for two weeks before emphatically losing it with just two days remaining. This cut still stings and Yates doesn't want to reopen the wound.

What may help is that his lead is small, just two seconds over the evergreen Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who himself is already a double Vuelta stage winner this year. In third is Valverde's teammate Nairo Quintana followed by Emmanuel Buchmann and Ion Izagirre, both within twenty seconds of the lead.

Valverde looked his usual self on the smaller climbs, outsprinting Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) to Caminito del Rey on Stage 2 and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) to Almaden on Stage 8.

However, the 38-year-old struggled on the longer climbs and looks set to disappear from the GC battle soon but he looks in great shape for the World Championships later in the month. As does Kwiatkowski who held the race lead for three days before also fading in the moutains.

Despite two summit finishes and a few more hilltop skirmishes, less than one minute separates Yates in first and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) in tenth. We are no closer to knowing who will win the Vuelta than we were a week ago. 

We do know some of the big names that won't be winning, though. Richie Porte (BMC Racing), for instance, has already lost over an hour on the lead, resigning himself to breakaways on flat stages designed for the sprinters.

Rather than the climbs, it was crosswinds that caused the most damage in the opening week. Stage 6 to San Javier was struck by a strong gale blowing the like of Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) into the gutter. By day's end, they had lost 1 minutes 44 seconds to their rivals.

A shame really, especially for Kelderman who proved on La Covatilla that he is one of the race's strongest climbers. The lanky Dutchman was doing his best Tom Dumoulin impression as he led a group of four favourites away from the rest, effectively time trialling to the summit.

There is plenty of terrain for Kelderman to claw back time but whether he can grab it back from the 13 riders ahead of him on GC remains to be seen. Podium ambitions could be more sensible for now.

Beyond the GC, Nacer Bouhanni proved he isn't just a 'boxer in lycra' in taking a surprise sprint win. I say surprise as 2018 hasn't been a year blessed with victories for the Frenchman, rather constant public spats with the Cofidis management team and sensationalist newspaper headlines.

Most recently, it was claimed that Bouhanni fell out with team management on Stage 5 of the Vuelta, insulting DS Jean-Luc Jonrond and punching the team car, an incident that Cofidis denied.

This was all buried by Stage 6 when Bouhanni took a first Grand Tour stage since the Vuelta in 2014.

While Bouhanni celebrates, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) commiserates, taking four stage top-10s but no victory as yet.

He has been outsprinted by Elia Viviani, outfoxed by Tony Gallopin and outsmarted by Valverde making it 19 race days without a victory, his longest barren streak of 2018 so far. Is he losing steam just before making a bid for a fourth consecutive Worlds or is he just taking the time to enjoy the Spanish sun?

While Sagan will brush off his disappointment, onto his Roubaix cobble or Tour de France green jersey, Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) will be wondering what he needs to do to actually win.

Twice a runner-up already at this Vuelta, he also placed second at the Classic San Sebastien and took a podium at the Tour has brought the Dutchman within touching distance of glory but it's just not clicking. On both occasions when Mollema came close to the win last week, it seemed as if he was lacking the tactical nous to cross the line first.

The same certainly can't be said of Ben King. The American has single-handedly salvaged an awful season for Dimension Data with their first two WorldTour victories of the season after a year filled with injury, illness and bad luck.

On Stage 4 to Sierra de la Alfraguara he was simply stronger than Nikita Stalnov (Astana) and on Stage 9 to the mythical La Covatilla, he was simply smarter than Mollema, riding an uncatchable tempo from the bottom of the climb to the top. 

For King, it seems, you wait all year for a WorldTour victory and then two come at once.

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