Vuelta a Espana has spoilt us as Tom Dumoulin & Fabio Aru battle on
Last Updated: 20/11/15 3:23pm
When Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Horner went into the final weekend of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana separated by just three seconds, it was a remarkable situation that I didn’t anticipate we would see again for another decade.
How can almost 80 hours of racing come down to such a small margin?
But sure enough, here we are again, two years on, only this time it is Tom Dumoulin and Fabio Aru scrapping tooth and nail over three seconds with three stages to go. It has its critics, but the Vuelta has spoilt us once more.
I kind of feel sorry for Aru. He hasn't really put a foot wrong all race and, having amassed three top-five finishes in grand tours over the past two years, it would be a logical progression to for him to win this race.
But against all expectation, in Dumoulin he has come up against a truly magnificent performance from a rider who didn't even believe himself that he could challenge for victory. Aru will be cursing his luck.
Thursday's 18th stage must have been a sobering one for him. He attacked Dumoulin six times I think - I lost count - and Dumoulin barely even grimaced, let alone looked in danger of being dropped.
I was hugely impressed by that. Having produced such a powerful performance to win the time trial the day before, I thought there was a danger Dumoulin could be heavy-legged on Thursday and struggle to follow attacks.
The fact that he was still fresh answered the final lingering question I had about him: will he have a bad day? On that evidence, it doesn't look like he will.
That's the hallmark of a grand tour winner: staying on top of your game for 21 stages. You can be as good a climber or time-triallist as you like, but holding it together from the first kilometre of stage one to the last kilometre of stage 21 is another skill altogether. Dumoulin looks like he has it.
People are now wondering whether he is a potential Tour de France winner of the future, and I certainly wouldn't rule it out.
I see shades of Miguel Indurain in Dumoulin, and we all know what Indurain achieved at the Tour.
The climbs are shallower at the Tour, which will suit him better than the steep ramps of the Vuelta, and there tends to be more emphasis put on time-trialling, which again will play into his hands.
But then the Tour is a different beast to the Vuelta and is a lot harder to win. There is more attention on it and more pressure, it tends to be a lot more competitive, and riders invariably arrive at the Tour in their very best condition.
You cannot say that about this year's Vuelta. Chris Froome was short on form, Alejandro Valverde has looked tired throughout and Nairo Quintana hasn't been right from day one. Without wanting to play down their achievements, Aru and Dumoulin haven't faced the best at their best.
So who will win the Vuelta? It's too tough to call. I look at the mountains still to come and think Aru will nick it, but then I look at Dumoulin's composure and think he'll hang on.
Only one thing is for sure: Aru will not give in. He is no doubt preparing the kitchen sink - plus all the plumbing - to throw at Dumoulin over the next two days, particularly on Saturday's 20th stage, which has four category-one climbs.
That is going to be a hard and stressful day for Dumoulin. I don't envy him having to face that.
His problem is that, because he is not a climber, he doesn't have to have the bad day I referred to earlier to lose those three seconds. He can perform well on a climb and still have to hand over the red jersey.
As he has astutely acknowledged himself, even a split in the peloton in a bunch sprint could be his undoing.