Vuelta a Espana: Five lessons from week one

The things we learned during the opening week of racing

By Matt Westby.   Last Updated: 02/09/13 3:04pm

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Daniel Moreno, right, has been one of the stars of the opening week

Daniel Moreno, right, has been one of the stars of the opening week

The opening week of racing at the Vuelta a Espana was a pulsating mix of thrilling uphill finishes and hijacked sprint stages.

The race has already thrown up a series of surprises, both in the identity of the stage winners and the wearers of the coveted red jersey, as well as offering hints as to how the remaining two weeks will pan out.

Here, we look at five things we learned from the first week.

1. Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara are in prime condition

Tony Martin looked in superb condition during his lone breakaway on stage six

Sir Bradley Wiggins, you have been warned. Just over three weeks out from the world championship time trial in Florence, the Briton's two arch rivals for victory have shown themselves to be in superb form at the Vuelta. Tony Martin, the reigning world time trial champion, produced one of the most impressive individual rides in recent memory by mounting day-long lone breakaway on stage six, riding so powerfully that the sprint trains only caught him with just over 10m to go. Fabian Cancellera, meanwhile, looked sharp on virtually every stage, but particularly on stage four's uphill finish, when he came second. He was also the man most responsible for bringing Martin back on stage six and then put in a hefty stint on the front of the peloton on the climb to Alto de Penas Blancas on stage eight.

2. Nicolas Roche is a genuine general classification contender

Nicolas Roche performed brilliantly in the first week of the Vuelta

The Irishman has performed superbly at the Vuelta so far, claiming his first Grand Tour stage win and also wearing the leader's red jersey. However, those achievements don't tell the full story of his coming of age at this race. His win on stage two's short uphill finish showed his punchy climbing and sprint qualities, while his third place on the long drag up to Alto de Penas Blancas on stage eight proved his ability to flourish just as well on the big mountains. He then showed his pedigree on the extreme, 30 per cent gradients of stage nine's finish in Valdepenas de Jaen by crossing the line in fourth place. Taken together, they revealed a rider in top form who can excel on the Vuelta's summit finishes and, consequently, consider himself a genuine challenger for overall victory.

3. Vincenzo Nibali is yet to peak

Vincenzo Nibali was dropped on both stages eight and nine

The Italian came into the Vuelta on the back of underwhelming displays at the Tour de Pologne and Vuelta a Burgos and his performances in the first week suggest he is still to return to the top form that saw him win the Giro d'Italia this year. His time losses have been minimal and it cannot be ignored that he has led the race on two occasions, but equally, the fact he was dropped on both stage eight and nine is hard to overlook. Nibali showed no such weaknesses at the Giro, when he rode almost flawlessly from start to finish, and clearly has some way to go before gaining parity with the likes of Roche, Joaquim Rodriguez, Daniel Moreno and Alejandro Valverde on the Vuelta's summit finishes.

4. Sprint finishes on flat stages cannot be taken for granted

Zdenek Stybar, right, and Philippe Gilbert, left, stunned the sprinters on stage seven

Tony Martin's incredible performance in almost holding off the sprint trains on a flat sixth stage at time felt like a freak one-off. However, 24 hours later, history repeated itself when Zdenek Stybar and Philippe Gilbert shot off the front of the peloton 10km from the finish on stage seven, which was even flatter, and succeeded where Martin agonisingly failed by clinging on for a one-second triumph. What those two days showed is that, no matter how flat the profile, the combination of powerful attackers and under-strength sprint trains means that, at this Vuelta, there is no such thing as a certain sprint day.

5. Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde are still the men to beat

Alejandro Valverde, front, and Joaquim Rodriguez, rear, are handily placed on the general classification

Irrespective of the superb first weeks enjoyed by Moreno and Roche - who were one-two in the general classification after stage nine - Rodriguez and Valverde remain the two key men anyone with designs on winning the Vuelta must first beat. Neither has yet shown the sort of explosive, attacking climbing that saw them excel at last year's Vuelta, but they have been in the picture on all of the uphill finishes in the race so far, often crossing the line side by side. They are both in striking distance in the general classification - Valverde fourth, 22 seconds down, and Rodriguez sixth, 56 seconds down - and will each know that it is the final week of the race when they will need to come to the fore, not the first.

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