La Vuelta 2012: Not So Fast There, Purito...

If I had made a prediction at the start of this years Vuelta a Espana, I would have named Alberto Contador as my favorite. I was convinced that he would have used his forced time away from racing to his advantage and arrived rested and strong. But then along came Joaquin Rodriguez, and on the most foreboding of the Vuelta's stages, he showed his mettle forcing me to the conclusion that I had picked wrong.

I admit, I thought it was all over, the history books as good as written. Rodriguez, the man nicknamed Purito, seemed to have the answers to all the questions Alberto Contador threw at him. Following stages 14 and 16 particularly when Rodriguez marked each of Contador's numerous attacks, and then out kicked him at the finish. Question: Can you match me at Puerto de Ancares? Answer: Yes! Question: Can you match me at Valgrande-Pajares? Answer: Yes!

But then came stage 17, 187km between Santander and Fuente De, a seemingly innocuous day with not a single climb rated above category 2. A day made for the long break, a day for the rouleurs to shine, to take a chance for glory. In the end though, it was not the Tour's rouleurs who left their mark on the day - it was the favorites. Two of those marks are marks of success, the third of collapse and disappointment. Team tactics, unswerving duty, gutsy riding all played a part in the days outcome.

The eyes of the assassin watched and waited, gauging the race and the competition, and then struck. It was a perfectly planned, perfectly timed assassination. And, at least for the time being, it took out the race's previous leader. Also able to capitalize on the chaos was the ever-present Alejandro Valverde, who like Contador, leap-frogged over Rodriguez and now finds himself only one step down from the throne.

Can I predict a victor now? The Saxo-Tinkhoff brigade seems strong and more than capable of defending their leader. Likewise, Movistar seem more than able to gather around Valverde. There is still one massive day in the mountains to come (Saturday). Can Katusha regroup in time to provide the same assistance to their leader? Or was the decisive move made today? Four days to go until the large lady can sing, but my bet is that Contador and the Saxo's have what it takes to see this through to the end.