At the Team Sky bus at the Vuelta a Espana starts Mikel Nieve may not draw in the crowds in such huge numbers as Chris Froome - the rider he’s substituted as team leader for Sky at the race but nonetheless as the Vuelta heads back into the mountains today, his rivals know that they would underestimate Nieve’s climbing talents at their peril.
There’s no doubt about it, following Chris Froome’s departure, if the number of well-wishers at starts and finishers is anything to go by, local fans attention on Team Sky at the Vuelta a España has dropped off considerably.
At stage 13’s start at Calatayud, for example, just a couple of fans stop the riders as they come off the Team Sky bus to ask for autographs. Meanwhile on the opposite side of the avenue where Katusha are parked, throngs of Spanish aficionados stand in the warm sunlight to cheer local star Angel Vicioso as he makes his way to the start.
Even so, Mikel Nieve, 31, eighth overall and Sky’s ‘Plan B’ for the Vuelta after Froome’s departure, doesn’t appear to mind the lack of attention as he gets ready before Friday’s stage. Quietly spoken, Nieve belongs to the class of climber that prefers, as the cliche has it, to let his legs do the talking.
Seventh in Cortals d’Encamp, and twelfth overall in the Vuelta last year, Nieve has taken an extremely tough stage win in the Giro, at Val di Fassa in 2011, as well as at Cotobello in the Vuelta in 2010. He’s had top ten places overall in both the Italian and Spanish Grand Tours too.
To an extent, Nieve has already played the role of Sky team leader when Froome has had a difficult moment, but much more briefly. In the 2014 Dauphine, on the final stage to Courchevel when Froome was injured, Nieve came through for Sky with a classy uphill win.
“I’m in good shape, I was very pleased with how it went in Andorra for me,” Nieve tells Cyclingnews. “These three tough days will tell me more about how I’m going.”
Asked if he would sign on the dotted line for any particular result in Madrid, Nieve is not willing to do so. “I’m not giving myself any particular target. Just as high up on GC as possible.”
“Following Froome’s abandon we’ll go on, you have to do that when the leader goes, we’ve got a good team and we’ll keep going til Madrid. I’ll do what I can. Chris was coming here to win the Vuelta, my role is to be one of the guys in the battle.” - but not necessarily to be going for the victory- “and see what gives.”
“Froome had a bad day [at the Alto de Capileira on stage seven, losing nearly 30 seconds], then he got over it, he was keen and wanted to go for the win. If he hadn’t crashed, for sure he would be fighting for the overall victory.”
All three of the Vuelta’s final ascents on Saturday, Sunday and Monday are unprecedented in the Spanish Grand Tour, but Nieve says he knows the final ascent of today’s climb, an 18 kilometre grind up to Alto Campoo, “because I went up in an amateur race. It’s not that hard, but it goes on for a heck of a long way. On such a long stage [215 kilometres] it’ll do damage.” Monday’s stage, though, which is the hardest and with most climbing, “is the one which suits me the best. Day by day.”
Asked about his future and whether he will stay with Team Sky in 2016, Nieve said that he would have more news soon but as yet had no comment to make.