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The Travails of Aru and Quintana as Team Leaders

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Despite all the elements that make road racing a team sport—domestiques fetching water bottles or giving up a wheel or bike to a teammate after a crash or mechanical; lieutenants helping a leader back to the peloton after being delayed or pacing him up the early slopes of a mountaintop finish; or a lead-out man taking absurd risks to position his sprinter before a bunch finish—it eventually comes down to the leader needing to call on his legs, lungs, heart, brain and true grit to win the race, especially if it’s a grand tour.

John Wilcockson/Yuzuru Sunada

That’s become very apparent this past week at the Vuelta a España, where the current top six riders on overall classification are all previous grand tour winners or podium finishers. Each is an example of how, at the end of the day, you have to rely on your own mind and body to challenge for victory—whatever assistance you may have had from your team earlier in a stage. Let’s take a closer look at the two youngest team leaders at this Vuelta, one who’s still challenging for the final victory and one who’s not.

Fabio Aru—currently in sixth place—is an Italian climber on the Astana team. He’s 24, and he turned pro just two years ago, yet he’s already riding his third grand tour. On his debut at last year’s Giro d’Italia, he worked for team leader Vincenzo Nibali, using his climbing skills to pace Nibali on the key mountain climbs. Aru finished that race back in 42nd overall, but all the time he was learning his craft (very quickly!), and when he came into this year’s Giro he was ready to step into the role of team leader—while Nibali prepared for the later Tour de France. Aru stepped to the plate brilliantly, won the mountaintop stage at Montecampione (his first pro win), and ended up in third overall behind the Colombian pair Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán.

Quintana is only three months older than Aru, but he’s more than a season ahead of him in his pro career, having raced his first grand tour, the Vuelta, in 2012, placing 36th overall and helping his Spanish team leader, Alejandro Valverde, finish second, 1:16 behind winner Alberto Contador. The Movistar teammates began last year’s Tour in the same roles, with the young Colombian softening up the opposition on the high mountain climbs with impressive attacks while Valverde sat on his rivals’ wheels. That plan worked well, with Valverde sitting in second overall before an untimely mechanical combined with the peloton getting shredded in crosswinds cost Valverde 10 minutes and saw Quintana become the team leader for the Tour’s final week.

Quintana, of course, went on to place second to Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux and then win the final mountain stage to finish second overall—the best-ever result for a Colombian. The taciturn Quintana then raced like a true leader to win this year’s Giro, defending his lead for five days after taking the controversial, snow-affected mountain stage to Val Martino. In the final standings, the young Colombian was almost three minutes ahead of Urán and just over four minutes ahead of Aru.

Many talented riders have had breakthroughs early in their grand tour careers (think Jan Ullrich or Andy Schleck) and then discovered how tough it is to be team leader in race after race—as Quintana found out this past week at the Vuelta. Mainly thanks to his Movistar squad winning the opening-day team time trial, Quintana rode well enough on the first few summit finishes to take the race leader’s red jersey last Sunday. This meant that he was exposed to all the media pressure of a race favorite before Tuesday’s 36.7-kilometer individual time trial.

All time trials are a tough proposition, as anyone who has raced one at their personal limit can attest—I collapsed and threw up finishing one TT and, after racing intensely for an hour in another, suffered from an unbearably painful crotch for the following week.

This week’s Vuelta time trial, from Aragon’s historic Royal Monastery of Santa María de Verula to the shadowy town of Borja, was particularly challenging. Most of the course was on narrow twisting back roads that climbed through 1,300 feet in a series of stair-steps to the first time check at 11.2 kilometers prior to some 18 kilometers of rapid, constantly turning downhills and flats. And the riders had to fight strong crosswinds on the final stretch along a wide main road.

Quintana is a good time trialist and he knew that he’d have to ride as hard as he could to maintain any chance of overall victory. Things looked pretty good for him as he crested the main climb, 20 minutes into his TT. As the last starter, he knew the times of his main rivals. That time split showed he was 22 seconds ahead of Aru, eight seconds faster than Froome, four seconds slower than Urán, 12 seconds back of teammate Valverde, and 20 seconds behind the fastest at that point, Contador.

The Colombian knew, like the others, that he’d have to take plenty of risks on the long, technical downhill. The first section had recently been resurfaced with smooth blacktop, while a new metal crash barrier was installed on the outside of the first (right) turn. Only half a minute into the descent, Quintana was on the right side of the road approaching that turn, holding his right hand down to check the shoe cover.

Realizing he was badly positioned for the upcoming turn, he shifted toward the left side of the road before cutting back toward the right side when the curve began—but his speed, position and angle of attack were all wrong. He attempted to steer his front wheel away the barrier, but he probably didn’t see that the new blacktop sat a couple if inches proud of the old surface. Both of his wheels dropped down the lip and caused his rear (disc) wheel to collide with one of the metal support posts, bringing his bike to an abrupt halt and sending him somersaulting over the bars to land on his back.

In an instant, Quintana’s bid to add the Vuelta to his Giro win was over—and his whole race ended 14 kilometers into the next stage when he was involved in a mass pileup and broke a bone in his right shoulder. Meanwhile, Aru’s Vuelta chances were just beginning. The Astana team leader limited his losses in the time trial, conceding 31 seconds to Froome, 58 seconds to Valverde, 1:21 to Contador (the new race leader) and 1:48 to Urán. On Wednesday, while Quintana was lying in the hospital, Aru showed real leadership qualities on the mountaintop stage finish to the Sanctuary of San Miguel de Aralar. He tried a couple of short counterattacks before making a decisive move at the one-kilometer-to-go point, which he followed with an intense, totally focused effort to stay clear of the chasers and win the stage—to move up from eighth to sixth overall, 2:13 behind Contador.

It’ll be instructive to see how Aru’s performance as a team leader continues over the Vuelta’s remaining week and a half. As for Quintana, his second crash in 24 hours marked the end of his 2014 season. Next year, depending on the course, he will no doubt return to the Tour as a team leader (maybe with Valverde, who’s 10 years older, riding as his lieutenant). It’s too soon to say whether Quintana will be a consistent grand tour winner through the upcoming decade, but he knows that it will be extremely challenging to achieve his goal, and his country’s dream, of adding a Colombian name to the list of champions who’ve won the Tour de France.