Cycling: Roche and Deignan to take Vuelta in stages
First held in 1935, the Vuelta a Espana, or Tour of Spain, has always been regarded as the third biggest bike race in the world, after the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France.
And since the three-week Vuelta was switch from its late April date to September in 1995, the event has grown in stature, not only in its own right, but for anyone targeting a good world championships, which were moved to October that same year.
The new-look Vuelta has also become synonymous with faster, slightly shorter stages and it's often unpredictable route -- with tough mountain stages often coming after just a couple of days -- makes for a punchier style of racing.
When Nicolas Roche and Philip Deignan line out for their respective teams at this year's Vuelta on Saturday night in Seville, they will be hoping to build on the tradition of successful Irish riders in the race.
Having won a stage of the Giro d'Italia in 1960, Crumlin native Shay Elliott became the first Irish rider to win a stage in the Spanish tour when he sprinted to victory on stage four in 1962. Elliott went into yellow on the same day and held on to the lead for three stages before German strongman Rudi Altig took over when he won stage seven.
Altig lost the jersey to Elliott three days later and the Dubliner held onto the lead for another six stages before Altig eventually took it back by winning the final time trial with three days to go.
Elliott became the first Irishman to stand on the podium of a Grand Tour when he finished third overall, seven minutes and 17 seconds behind Altig and just three seconds behind Spaniard Jose Perez Frances.
Elliott added a Tour de France stage win, three days in yellow and another Vuelta stage win to an illustrious career the following year.
Irish fans had to wait until 1979 for another Irish win at the Vuelta. This time around it was second-year professional Sean Kelly who opened his account on day one with the first of two stage wins that year.
The teak-tough sprinter from Carrick-on-Suir won no less than 16 stages in the Tour of Spain before he retired.
His most prolific Vuelta saw him take five stages in 1980, finish fourth overall and take the first of four overall points classification wins.
Although he racked up stage wins galore in the meantime, it wasn't until 1986 that Kelly stood on the podium of a Grand Tour for the first time when he took two more stage wins and third overall behind Spaniard Alvaro Pino and Scottish climber Robert Millar.
Having garnered two stage wins in the first week of the 1987 edition, Kelly wore the leader's yellow jersey for four days towards the end of the race and was a shoo-in for victory until an infected saddle sore forced him to abandon the race with three days to go.
Kelly returned to the event the following year and having won stage 11 in a bunch sprint into Jaca, went into the final week two minutes adrift of Spanish race leader Laudelino Cubino of the BH team, who had worn yellow since the second stage.
On a tough stage 13, however, Kelly battled to finish fourth and got to within a half-minute of Cubino's lead. Cubino lost his yellow jersey to his BH team-mate Anselmo Fuerte three days later and Kelly moved up to within striking distance.
Kelly won the penultimate day's time trial from Las Rozas to Villalba and took the overall lead, with German Raimund Dietzen leapfrogging Fuerte for second. The following day in Madrid, Kelly won the Vuelta by a minute and 29 seconds from Dietzen and took the final yellow jersey, plus the blue of points leader and the red jersey for the best rider in all combined categories.
Although Stephen Roche only ever rode one Vuelta, finishing 14th in 1992, his son Nicolas finished 13th overall and came within millimetres of victory on stage 18 in his first Vuelta in 2008. It would be a full 21 years after Kelly's victory, though, before another Irishman won a stage at the Vuelta.
Deignan (26), from Letterkenny, was part of a 16-man breakaway group that went clear on stage 18 last year on the road to Avila. On the penultimate climb of the day, Deignan chased Tour of Switzerland winner Roman Kreuziger of the Liquigas team over the top and joined the Czech rider on the descent.
"It's always over the top of the climbs where you can make a difference," he reflects. "Everybody sat up for a second and Kreuziger attacked. I just went after him and that was it, we rode flat out all the way to the finish."
Deignan survived a few slippery moments on the rain-soaked run-in to outsprint Kreuziger and take Ireland's first Grand Tour stage win in 17 years.
"I didn't think it would be such a big deal back home," Deignan admits. "When I came back to the hotel, I had about 80 missed calls and another 70 or 80 text messages.
"Even the Irish sports minister was trying to ring me, but I didn't get around to answering him."
Deignan's breakaway group had also finished 10 minutes up on the peloton and saw the Donegal youngster move up to ninth overall, the best Irish result at the Vuelta since Kelly's win in 1988.
Since his Spanish stage win though, Deignan has been plagued by illness and has barely raced all year. The rake-thin climber abandoned the Tour of California in May and spent two weeks in bed in Letterkenny with a stomach virus, losing half a stone in weight.
"It's been a very frustrating year," he says. "Really, since the Tour of Catalunya back in March, I've been getting sick every three or four weeks and it's been really annoying. I've never really got going. It's been stop-start all year."
A trip to the Cervelo team doctors in Switzerland found his immune system was damaged and Deignan only returned to competition at the Tour du Limousin last week after almost two months out. Despite losing 32 minutes in the four-day French stage race, Deignan was named on Monday as part of the Cervelo team for this year's Vuelta.
Almost a year after his mountain-stage win, Deignan is under no illusions as to his position on the team and fully expects to ride in a support role for Cervelo team leader and 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre.
"I don't know what to expect really," he says. "I feel okay out training, but I've been training hard one day, easy the next, so I'm not too sure how I'm going to recover in a stage race. But I can't expect to be in the same shape as I was in last year. Carlos is going really well and he wants to try and win the race.
"I'll be there to help him. It'll be a change from last year. I was team leader last year and I'll be a worker this time, which I don't mind doing for Carlos. It's going to be hard, but I'll just be glad if I can get through the race well."
Roche on the other hand is coming into the Vuelta off the back of a top-15 ride at the Tour de France and although this will be the first time he has ridden two Grand Tours in the same year, he is aiming for a top-10 in Spain.
"The Vuelta is where everything started for me," said Roche yesterday. "I almost won a stage and finished 13th overall in 2008 and I have improved every year since then. I would like to finish in the top 10 this year, but I haven't raced since the Clasica San Sebastian, a week after the Tour de France, so I don't know how my form will be."
According to how his legs react to the first days of racing, Roche may change his race plan during the Vuelta. "I will find out pretty quickly how I am going, because there is a first-category mountain on stage three that we have to climb twice. If I lose time in the early stages, then I will go for stage wins instead."
This year's race will be top heavy with sprinters like Mark Cavendish, Alessandro Petacchi, Daniele Bennati and Oscar Freire all in the mix. They may have to wait five stages, however, to get their chance for a flat stage. There are eight high-mountain stages with six summit finishes and 12 first-category climbs to be traversed, with just one individual time trial on stage 17.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank) will be hoping to take his third Vuelta victory, while Andy Schleck and brother Franck (Saxo Bank) will be hoping to make up for their respective disappointments at the Tour de France.
Home favourite Carlos Sastre has already stated his intentions of riding for victory, while Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), Luis Leon Sanchez (Caisse d'Epargne) and Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) should also be in the hunt.
The Vuelta a Espana begins with a 13km team time trial on Saturday night in Seville with the first overall leader getting the new red race-leader's jersey. The jersey has been redesigned in a nod to Spain's World Cup-winning football team and the locals will be hoping to celebrate more success in Madrid on September 19.