David de la Cruz (Team Sky) believes that victory at this year's Vuelta a España is still anybody’s to win with little separating most of the top riders. Conversely, De la Cruz says that it is anybody's to lose as the race enters a mountainous second week.
After a week of racing, there is under a minute between the top 10 and the deficit to Thibaut Pinot in 16th is just 2:33. De la Cruz says that none of the general classification riders have put themselves forward as the one-to-beat yet and one sign of weakness from anyone could spell the end to their overall hopes.
"Yesterday was the first real mountain stage, with 4,000 altitude metres and over 200 kilometres. In the end, the difference was not too big," De la Cruz told Cyclingnews at the Team Sky hotel on the outskirts of Salamanca. "It's difficult to see one rider stronger than another. If you see the level, it's quite similar. In yesterday's final not that many people attacked and the first uphill finish was the same. We are going super-fast on the climbs, and in the end, there are not big differences between the riders.
"From now on, anything can happen on any stage. We have nine stages in the legs and the stages have been hard in the heat. It's something you have there and then one day you don't feel so good and the other riders know that you don't feel good and they accelerate and boom you're gone from the GC. If you look at the first 16 riders, we're all pretty close. Anything can happen and anything can change.
De la Cruz has not had as good a start as he might have wanted coming into the Vuelta after losing almost a minute to the group of Nairo Quintana, Wilco Kelderman and Miguel Angel Lopez. He had looked a little bit lacking in the earlier mountains, giving away eight seconds on stage 2 and losing touch briefly on stage 4 before regaining contact in the final kilometre of the stage. There is no panic for the Spaniard, who believes he can turn things around in the coming two weeks.
"If I compare the feelings on the first day and yesterday, my shape is getting better. Of course, it's not enough yet but I'm still confident," explained De la Cruz. "We've seen in the last Grand Tours that a lot can change in the GC from the first week to the last and I've always been a rider that can improve his shape during the race and hopefully this year it can be the same, I can get better and have the legs to fight for the GC and a stage victory."
Team Sky's other leader Michal Kwiatkowski endured a tougher weekend, after spending the early part of the race in the red jersey. Still recovering from a crash a few days before, the Polish rider lost two minutes to Quintana on La Covatilla. De la Cruz says that they are still co-leaders heading into this second week.
"Probably, we will arrive at a moment in the race where one rider is better than the other one and then when the situation happens, the one that is worse will have to help the one that is better but until this day arrives, I think that this is better for us. I have a really good relationship with him. We were together in Caja-Rural and then in Quick-Step so it's a long relationship. It's easy for us," he said.
As well as turning around his fortunes at this year's Vuelta, De la Cruz will be looking to improve his Grand Tour record. Aside from one hugely promising seventh at the 2016 Vuelta, De la Cruz’s three-week experiences have been littered with misfortune. He has abandoned seven of his 10 Grand Tour appearances and was closing in on a top 10 finish at last year’s Vuelta when he crashed out on the penultimate stage. Though, rather than looking back and thinking what could have been, he uses those disappointments to push him forward.
"Cycling is special because there is this bit of adventure and you don’t know what will happen. You can train, you can do everything well but then you arrive there and there can be crashes, wind, punctures or mechanical problems,” De la Cruz told Cyclingnews. “Of course, it has been painful. When you look at my Grand Tours, there have been many days where I’ve had something but then I was gone. On the other hand, it makes you stronger. Then you say, if I have the opportunity then I’ve got to take it because you don’t know what will happen. It's nothing that I have in my mind, but it keeps you focused and I think 'David, just focus and try to do your best.'"
De la Cruz, who also rode the Giro d'Italia earlier this season, takes heart from seeing his teammate Chris Froome turning around what looked like an unwinnable position at the Italian Grand Tour.
"For me, to see how he kept the focus and how he dealt with the bad days because we know that he had some days where there were 10 riders who were better than him, but then he turned the coin to the other side. For me, it was a great experience that will help me at this Vuelta a Espana."