• The legs of Orica-Scott's Esteban Chaves has felt the brutality of this year's Vuelta a España. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
On paper, the level of difficulty for this year's Vuelta a España was turned up to 11, but harder is not always better, writes Anthony Tan.
Cycling Central
8 Sep 2017 - 6:51 PM  UPDATED 8 Sep 2017 - 8:56 PM

It was just one of 50 summits to be traversed in the 72nd Vuelta a España, and it came midway through the fifteenth leg from Alcalá la Real to Alto Hoya de la Mora, Sierra Nevada.

The main action was always expected to happen on the final, special category, climb to the Sierra Nevada ski resort. However, the ascent that preceded it, the Cat. 1 Alto de Hazallanas, was no walk in the park, and was in fact used as a summit finish at the 2013 Vuelta, proving decisive. On that day, and on that climb - not used before in the race - American Chris Horner, with 4.5 kilometres remaining and nudging towards his 42nd birthday, rode away from the group of favourites to solo to an impressive second stage victory, and in the process, reclaimed the race lead. Thirteen days later, after losing the jersey again before taking it back from Vincenzo Nibali three days from Madrid, he would become the oldest Grand Tour winner in history.

Sunday last, on this stage of just 129.4km, rather than use the Alto de Hazallanas as an ideal launchpad, the group of favourites rode up the 16.3km, 1,680 metre-high ascent without fuss and four minutes slower than old man Horner did four years ago. And aside from Astana rider Miguel Angel Lopez's race-winning move, sparked by Alberto Contador on the descent of the Hazallanas, there was little in the way of attacking on the Alto Hoya de la Mora; the many splits were mostly made by riders dropping off, as opposed to being dropped.

It's been that way for much of the past week. Notwithstanding the indefatigable Contador, who is clearly enjoying his swansong, and perhaps the Colombian Lopez, the rest, including race leader Chris Froome, look like a peloton tired and bedraggled.

They look like they can't wait for it to end.

The Vuelta is normally the most unpredictable of the Grand Tours, and that, in large part, is what makes it so appealing. Yet with organisers shoving in enough mountains and summit finishes for two (maybe enough for three?) Grand Tours, and Team Sky bringing a Tour de France-worthy line-up that has cosseted the red jersey holder since he took the race lead just three days in, much of that randomness has been lost. Since the fifteenth stage, Froome and his henchmen have only had to watch no more than five guys, because the rest were more than three minutes in arrears; following Tuesday's time trial that he won, the gaps to the Kenyan-born Brit have only widened.

Such has been Froome/Team Sky's superiority, had the parcours not been so mountain-laden, perhaps the overall classification would not look so different. Then again, maybe it would have; maybe there would have been more opportunism from the other GC contenders, and thus changes of lead, rather than submission at the hands of Team Sky.

Yes, professional riders are obliged to go whichever way the route takes them, but I can't help but feel much of this Vuelta has portrayed a bunch of dead men riding.