Tom Dumoulin can still win Vuelta a Espana but Fabio Aru is favourite
Dutchman capable of clinching overall victory on stage 17 time trial
Last Updated: 02/10/15 11:39am
The mountainous 11th stage of the Vuelta a Espana always promised to shake the race up and it delivered far more emphatically than we could have ever imagined.
So much happened - and most of it was unpredictable. Chris Froome unfortunately crashed and had to leave the race, Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana were both dropped, Tom Dumoulin produced another magnificent display and Fabio Aru emerged as new race leader with a performance that suggested he is the best climber in the field.
I think the Italian will now go on to win overall, mainly because he is clearly hungry and on form, but also because many of his fellow climbing specialists also rode at the Tour de France – Valverde, Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez - and all of them appear to be short of top, top condition.
But it won't be easy, and I foresee two headaches for Aru. The first is politics within his own Astana team, because it was alarming how, according to reports, Mikel Landa defied team orders to wait for and help Aru on stage 11, and instead followed his own script by going for stage victory.
That basically means Aru cannot rely on Landa's assistance in the remaining mountain stages and potentially deprives him of his key climbing domestique. If Aru starts to tire, that could be important.
The second headache is Dumoulin, who no one could have predicted would still be in contention at this point. If there were just mountain stages remaining, I think he would gradually fall out of the running, but stage 17 is a 38.7km individual time trial and while both Aru and second-placed Rodriguez are poor against the clock, Dumoulin is one of the best in the world.
Plus, it's a flat course, so I can see Dumoulin taking up to a minute out of both Aru and Rodriguez for every 10km.
There aren't any more summit finishes after the time trial on which Dumoulin can lose time to Aru, so if he gets to stage 17 within three minutes of the Italian, I think he can still win the race.
But that means he has to defend stoutly and ride intelligently on the three back-to-back summit finishes from stage 14-16.
Of paramount importance is not to go on any unnecessary attacks. When I won the Tour in 1987, my closest rival was Pedro Delgado and I deliberately didn't follow his moves in the mountains because I knew I could handsomely beat him in the time trials. It worked for me and it can work for Dumoulin.
But all that said, I think he will fall narrowly short. Still, a podium finish would be a sensational performance and result.
Sadly, Froome's crash and subsequent exit from the race was not the only bad news story of stage 11, because Sergio Paulinho being forced to abandon after being hit by a race motorbike also made negative headlines.
He was the second rider to be crashed into by a race motorbike at this year's Vuelta, after Tinkoff-Saxo team-mate Peter Sagan fell to the same fate on stage eight, and was the fourth of the summer, following Jakob Fuglsang at the Tour and Greg Van Avermaet at the Clasica San Sebastian.
This spree of accidents has understandably generated calls for action to be taken, specifically for motorbike riders to be more experienced or given more training.
It's a difficult one, but I'm not sure lack of experience or training is the issue. I personally think there are simply too many motorbikes at races.
At a time when the sport is trying to make itself more watchable and marketable, we can't very well take TV or photographer motorbikes out of race, but I do think the motorbike that tells riders the time gap between breakaway and peloton is expendable.
Riders already have radios in their ears telling them the gaps, so as far as I can see, that motorbike is only there to display a sponsor's logo. Again, I fully understand the need for sponsor exposure, but rider safety has to be put before race revenue and, to me, that bike can go.
Admittedly, removing one bike won't make a huge difference, but it's a start.