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With Froome absent, Quintana favored to win Spanish Vuelta

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BARCELONA, Spain — Chris Froome’s decision not to defend his Spanish Vuelta title and fitness concerns for other top cyclists leaves Nairo Quintana in position to claim the Grand Tour for a second time.

Quintana beat Froome to win the Vuelta in 2016 but the Colombian climber has struggled to carry that and other successes over to the Tour de France.

Last month, Quintana finished the Tour in a disappointing 10th place. He he was knocked out of contention on the first day of the race after he broke both his wheels and lost a significant amount of time.

But fortune permitting, the 73rd edition of the Vuelta, which starts on Saturday, should be Quintana’s for the taking.

Quintana did win one mountain stage at the Tour but he will need to avoid mechanical mishaps and hold his own on the Vuelta’s two individual time trials to take the overall victory.

“We need to do well because we had prepared well for the Tour and yet due to one thing or another it didn’t go our way,” Quintana said on Thursday. “Whenever they say we are favorites… we have to show that we are on the road.”

The 28-year-old Quintana also won the Giro d’Italia in 2014.

His Movistar squad includes 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde, who could still be an option to lead the team at the age of 38 if Quintana falters.

Here is a look at the riders and the course for the 2018 Vuelta:

NO FROOME, THOMAS FOR SKY

After winning the last four Grand Tours, Froome’s Team Sky appears ready to let its rivals fight for victory at the Vuelta, which will start in the southern city of Malaga.

Froome and current Tour champion Geraint Thomas are not on the Sky squad for the Spanish race and instead will participate in the eight-stage Tour of Britain starting on Sept. 2.

In place of Froome and Thomas, Sky will be led by Michal Kwiatkowski and David de la Cruz.

BANGED UP BUNCH

Top riders Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), Richie Porte (BMC) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) are all racing in Spain after being forced to withdraw from the Tour because of crashes.

Porte broke his collarbone on Stage 9, when Uran sustained injuries to his left arm and leg that eventually led to him withdrawing on Stage 12. Nibali also had to quit on Stage 12 after he fractured a vertebra while climbing the Alpe d’Huez.

A top-notch climber and expert in descending, Nibali’s first Grand Tour victory came at the Vuelta in 2010. He went on to win the Giro twice and the Tour. But given Nibali’s bruised back, Bahrain Merida has named Ion Izagirre as its leader.

“I have been training for about only a couple of weeks and for this reason I think it will be very difficult to aim for the general classification,” Nibali said. “I will see day by day and I hope to be able to do well in some mountain stages anyway.”

Other riders to watch are UAE Emirates pair Fabio Aru, who won the Vuelta in 2015, and Dan Martin.

An outside challenger could be Steven Kruijswijk, a Dutch rider for LottoNL-Jumbo who finished fifth at the Tour.

THE COURSE: MADE FOR CLIMBERS

This year’s race will feature two individual time trials, a short 8-kilometer (4.9-mile) time trial on Stage 1 and a 32-kilometer ride from Santillana de Mar to Torrelavega on the northern coast on Stage 16.

But the real focus will be on the mountains, with nine stages concluding in summit finishes.

The Vuelta organizers saved the most demanding route for the race’s 20th and penultimate day, when the peloton will face a short but explosive 97.3-kilometer ride in the Pyrenees. The stage in Andorra features six categorized climbs culminating in the beyond-category Coll de la Gallina summit.

Geraint Thomas blowing in the wind at Tour de France

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ALBI, France — Geraint Thomas and his teammates don’t need a mountain to deliver a hammer blow on their rivals at the Tour de France.

They can do it on the flat, too. With a little help from the wind.

The defending champion was the big winner of a chaotic Stage 10 in southern France on Monday when French rival Thibaut Pinot and other title contenders were caught napping by a treacherous combination of winds and narrow roads.

Unable to all ride at the front, Pinot and other riders got left behind when the winds first stretched and then shattered the peloton into groups over 35 frantic final kilometers (20 miles) of a 217.5-kilometer (135-mile) trek from Saint-Flour to Albi in south-central France.

Perfectly positioned at the front when the pack took different routes around a traffic circle, triggering the first split, Thomas and his Ineos teammates put pedal to the metal to make the gap on Pinot and other contenders caught behind as big as possible.

The bill for the French podium finisher in 2104, as well as Rigoberto Uran, Jakob Fuglsang, and Richie Porte was costly. They rode in a whopping 1 minute, 40 seconds behind Thomas.

“At the start we said at some point this race is going to split,” explained Luke Rowe, one of Thomas’ teammates. “We were all over it with numbers at the front.”

Once opened, the gap increased speedily, with yellow jersey-holder Julian Alaphilippe and Ineos riders setting a frenetic tempo until the end.

“We were straight on the front foot, we knew it was on us to drive it to the line,” Rowe said. “I was saying to the guys, `This is a TTT (team time trial) all the way to the finish line.”‘

Tour de France rookie Wout Van Aert won the stage with a sprint to the line. But Thomas was the headline act.

“I couldn’t think of anything better,” Thomas said. “It’s especially good on a day like today when you never expect it. It was just a positioning error from them and they lose a minute and a half. That’s how it goes.”

Ahead of big Pyrenean stages this week, Thomas vaulted to second place overall, 1:12 behind Alaphilippe, with teammate Egan Bernal in third place, four seconds further back.

After a flawless start to the race, it was Pinot’s first mistake, and a big one. Looking to become the first Frenchman to win the race since Bernard Hinault in 1985, he dropped from third to 11th overall, 2:33 behind Alaphilipple and 1:21 behind Thomas, perhaps not fatal to his Tour but a huge setback.

Pinot used an expletive to describe his day.

“What do you want me to say? There’s nothing to say,” he said, looking absolutely disgusted.

Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was almost as disappointed.

“He was ideally placed in the Tour and to be trapped like that in the last 35 kilometers of the stage before the rest day is sad for him,” he said. “It’s a lot of time lost.”

The peloton split into three groups on a long but narrow section of road opened to the wind when Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck Quick Step teammates sped up the pace at the front to close the gap to six breakaway riders. The fugitives were reeled in with 25 kilometers (15 miles) left before Thomas and Co., working well with Alaphilippe’s team, pushed harder in an impressive display of collective strength.

“It’s not only in the mountains where you can gain time, we have a strong team for days like today, too, and that’s what we showed,” Thomas’ teammate Dylan van Baarle, said.

Enjoying another day in yellow, Alaphilippe said he and his teammates were thinking about placing Elia Viviani for the finish-line sprint when they accelerated, not deliberately trying to hurt Pinot.

“We didn’t plan to split the bunch. We only expected the stage to be nervous and tricky. Our intention was only to protect my yellow jersey and to focus on a sprint,” he said. “We knew precisely at which kilometer there was a risk of crosswinds. All teams gave the same instructions. There was a lot of stress and pressure in the peloton and when it split, everyone expected it, then we did the maximum.”

A three-time cyclo-cross world champion starting to live up to his billing as a future star, Van Aert is riding his first Grand Tour.

“The last 70 kilometers were very nervous,” he said after edging Viviani by just a few inches. Australian Caleb Ewan placed third.

Van Aert surged from the left in the last stretch and resisted Viviani’s comeback by throwing his bike at the line.

The up and coming Belgian said he got the OK from his team bosses to race for the win because his team leaders were trapped in the group behind. But even then he didn’t expect to beat recognized sprinters such as Viviani and Peter Sagan in a photo finish.

“It’s crazy,” he said.

Technology beating romanticism at Tour de France

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ALBI, France — With all the technology stacked against them, the six breakaway riders at the Tour de France had no hope of making it to the finish without being caught.

Race directors were watching their every move on TV screens set up in their cars, and rival competitors riding behind were informed in instant time of the gap through earpieces. It was a day for a bunch sprint, and it could not be any different.

At the Tour, long gone are the days when bold riders would launch long-range attacks and foil the sprinters at the finish line. The sport has changed so much in the space of 20 years that, on the many long and flat stages peppering the thee-week racing program, breakaways have nearly no chance of succeeding.

“A stage victory in the style of Jacky Durand or Thierry Marie? It’s nearly impossible on Grands Tours, and even more at the Tour de France,” Arkea Samsic team manager Emmanuel Hubert told The Associated Press.

Hubert, a former pro rider, mentioned Durand and Marie, two riders who epitomized the idea of panache. In the 1980s and ’90s, both were capable of launching long-range victorious rides that made them fan favorites.

Such long-haul trips still take place nowadays, but they are almost never rewarded.

Take the six who spent Monday at the front of the pack in the southwestern Aveyron region. If they had any hopes of reaching Albi ahead of the pack, they quickly found out their grand day out would not feature a happy ending.

There were four climbs on the day’s program, but the flat finale gave sprinters a golden opportunity to get a stage win. Tony Gallopin, Michael Schar, Natnael Berhane, Anthony Turgis, Mads Wurtz Schmidt and Odd Christian Eiking moved away from the pack soon after the start. With none of them a threat in the general classification, the peloton was happy to let them go.

But once their lead reached three minutes, the fugitives were kept on a tight leash, with sprinters’ teams speeding up the pace at the front of the pack to make sure they would not open a gap too difficult to bridge later in the stage.

A classic scenario then developed. Using all the data available to determine the right time to move, sprinters’ teams organized the chase about 50 kilometers from the finish to rein in the audacious group.

“There is so much at stake for the sprinters’ team,” Cofidis manager Alain Deloeil told the AP. “For them it’s nearly a professional mistake if, on a flat stage, they don’t bring back the breakaway. They need to set up a sprint for their fast man.”

These scenarios, which also affect racing in the mountains, are a real problem for organizers who need to maintain the excitement over a three-week period. At a closed-door meeting before the race started, Tour director Christian Prudhomme urged riders to be more audacious in their strategies after a somewhat boring start to the race last year.

Deloeil and Prudhomme are nostalgic for an era when ear pieces and power meters were words still to be invented. They believe riders don’t use their instinct anymore, with their eyes glued to screens determining whether they should attack or chase down fugitives.

Team Ineos, the former Team Sky, often relies on data from power meters – the small devices fitted to riders’ bikes measuring their power output – when tackling climbs. It’s a strategy that produced five Tour victories with three different riders since 2012.

Prudhomme would like to see restrictions on power meters.

“Riders should not have permanent access to their data,” Prudhomme told the AP. “In days gone by, Fausto Coppi used to attack Gino Bartali when he noticed the little blue vein coming out on his rival’s leg. It was a sign that Bartali was getting tired. And Bernard Hinault waited until Joop Zoetemelk’s leg moved aside, because it meant he was tired. And that was the moment Bernard chose to attack.”

According to Prudhomme, banning power meters would add a refreshing dose of romanticism to a sport heavily relying on data.

“If riders could not read their power meters, there would be more emotions,” he said. “But obviously the biggest teams don’t want that.”

Stephane Rossetto, a Tour rookie who twice tried his luck over the past 10 days in long unsuccessful breakaways, said many competitors are too conservative in their approach.

“That’s modern cycling, and we need to adapt,” the 32-year-old said. “Many riders are just looking at their power meter and don’t go beyond a certain limit. And with ear pieces, we get the gaps in real time. There is not much room for surprise. Me, I never look at my power meter.”

Luke Rowe, a teammate of defending champion Geraint Thomas at Ineos, hit back at Prudhomme’s remarks.

“He is living in the Stone Age with comments like that,” Rowe said. “I can tell you, from a guy who spends a lot of time riding on the front, you don’t ride on power. You ride on feel, you ride on who is in the break, how far ahead they are, on wind direction, terrain. You take all these factors into consideration to see how you are going to ride. You don’t stare at power meters.”

Boosting Rowe’s case, it was the good positioning of Ineos riders at the front of the pack – and not technology – that allowed them to gain around 100 seconds on three dangerous rivals when crosswinds played havoc in the finale of Monday stage.