It’s time for Spain’s premium stage race and this year’s line-up rivals even that of the Tour de France. For starters, the overflow from the Tour is of the highest class and we and gearing up for an exciting rematch between Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. In addition to the pair, many have been referring to Astana’s elect as one of the strongest teams in recent history. It’s certainly not balanced, with a number of team captains- Fabio Aru, Vincenzo Nibali, Mikel Landa- expected to align their expectations. Their big names, however, will at least be supported by some of the domestiques who served the team so well in the Giro. In Andorra on Stage 11 we’ll see non-stop climbing in what may well be one of the hardest days in recent memory. A line up so strong and a stage so hard? Not bad for the youngest of the three Grand Tour siblings.
As the junior sibling, the Vuelta was always going to be a little quirky. In many ways the race has a familiar and consistent structure with a couple of time trials and plenty of mountains. The organizers, however, aren’t afraid to attack Spain from different angles and the route worms across a variety of unforgiving mountain passes. Spain has so often being a happy hunting ground for Alberto Contador who’s season has officially ended and is the only glaring absentee. This year’s race is strange in the fact the riders will be climbing from Stage 2 and that there is no high summit finish in the final week. Instead, the majority of the pain arrives slap bang in the middle of the race and the day in Andorra could be seriously special. This isn’t to say the final week will be a dud, anybody leading after the monstrous Stage 16- which finishes on the Alto Ermita de Alba- will have to survive a long time trial and plenty of attacking in the final days. The organizers are following their counterparts from Italy and France by relegating sprint stages to a rarity. Stages 2, 4, 6, 7, 9, 11, 14, 15 and 16 all contain a ramped finish of sorts with Stages 13, 18, 19 and 20 containing more than enough climbing to rule out the fast men. Stages 1 and 17 are time-trials which leaves a meagre few stages for the sprinters to contest.
Tour runner-up Quintana goes into the Vuelta as favourite off the back of his scintillating finish to the French race. He cracked the previously uncrackable Chris Froome and if his legs hold so should his odds. He led the race in 2014 before crashing out and his recent Grand Tour record reads 1st, DNF, 2nd. His biggest opposition may indeed come from Movistar stable-mate Alejandro Valverde. It’s difficult to present an argument for Valverde being the better climber but he may be given leadership in what would be roles-reversed from July. The two proved that they can and will work together but pressure will be on to perform as well as, if not better, than they did in the Alps.
The Vuelta is the only Grand Tour on Valverde’s glistening palmares and he may be in the mood to add another win. A lot clicked for Valverde in the Tour, at long last, but he still finished over five minutes behind Froome. Valverde excelled in the role of super domestique and perhaps benefitted from not being Movistar’s number one. Back on home soil, and in the absence of Contador, all eyes will be on this Spaniard- he seems equally capable of winning or blowing up. Valverde’s podium hopes will be boosted if he produces a reasonable time-trial.
Froome was a tour de force last month but that must be forgotten as we buckle up for the Vuelta. Though Froome was incredibly strong, his performance on the last two stages has left questions being asked. Was Froome ill? If so, how ill? And even if he wasn’t ill, is he even capable of completing a Tour/Vuelta double? With all the talk of Contador’s Giro double-up the Tour/Vuelta has been given short shrift. It feels as though more riders ride both races, but no Tour winner not named Carlos Sastre has even attempted the double since 1995. Last year Froome bounced back in Spain after abandoning the Tour but this time he looks to bounce onwards. Many signs point against Froome being successful here but there’s a whole lot in his favour. For one, the majority of his rivals also completed the Tour and of those men Chris Froome has been the best this year- that much we can say.
As Astana’s chosen man for the Giro and Vuelta it could have all been so simple for Aru; in Italy he would develop his reputation with a strong showing against Contador and then in Spain attack the podium. His Giro was difficult but it certainly wasn’t bad. For a young Italian two brilliant stage wins and a second place should be a cause for nothing but celebration but it seems Aru went through every emotion during the race. The emergence of Mikel Landa undoubtedly helped Aru finish as close to Contador as he did, but it also clouded Aru’s success. At the Vuelta he is joined not only by Landa but by Alexander Vinokourov’s favourite-to-criticize multiple Grand Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali. All three men have points to prove despite none having particularly bad seasons. A fresh Aru still offers most potential and is just as exciting a prospect as he was in May. He may be helped by the fact Mikel Landa could be told to toe the line ahead of his pending transfer to Team Sky.
I’m running out of things to say about Vincenzo Nibali. The facts will show he came fourth in one of the hardest Tour de France’s of recent times and he continues to perform when it matters (but only when it matters). This won’t change the feeling he probably won’t win this year’s Vuelta and is a distant 12/1 with some bookies. Nibali’s best hope is to let his strong team (yes, they’re strong enough to support two leaders) govern large parts of the race and hurt his rivals with well-timed attacks. There is yet nothing to suggest Nibali/Aru won’t work as a dynamite pair, though they have not raced together since Nibali’s 2013 Giro win where a 22 year-old Aru finished 42nd. With any luck, Nibali will come out of Stage 10’s time-trial with more gains than losses and should be there or thereabouts in Madrid.
A number of people have been calling Domenico Pozzovivo a dark horse and you begin to wonder if the term still applies. Either way, Pozzovivo is certainly an unknown quantity after his horrible crash in his home tour. In his favour is his climbing. Pocket-sized Pozzovivo may be a touch lacking in explosiveness, but looks at ease following wheels and it will take some kick to shake him off. If he can put together a consistent race he could pick up enough time to ease the losses he will suffer in the individual time trial. Then again, he isn’t even that bad at the solo discipline. I expect Pozzovivo to be a presence in the top 10.
Tejay Van Garderen
The story of Tejay Van Garderen was one of the saddest to come out of the Tour de France. It wasn’t so much his abandoning from the race- we’ve seen them in abundance over the years- but the fact he could well have broken into the top three at last. There was also the particularly nasty morning he suffered on the day he left and the fact his BMC team seemed lost without him. The team spoke out about how they were ready to do it all again in 12 months’ time but for the American an opportunity has come much sooner. If his legs remain in good shape Van Garderen is to be taken seriously.
Beneath the big names the field is lacking a little and some teams appear to have exhausted their resources in the summer months. A man not yet mentioned is Joaquim Rodriguez. In his home tour he may once again go for the overall win and has the talent to challenge. If he decides this is a bridge too far, there are a number of stages suited to his punchy style. As with what seems like hundreds of previous races, his main rival for those hilly sprints should be Alejandro Valverde. The rolling terrain will also attract the likes of Dan Martin- though the Irishman has only shown flashes of form this year.
For the stages not quite so hilly we have the tough sprinters and whilst the race doesn’t have many it does boast one of the best inJohn Degenkolb. I expect the German to mop up any opportunities that come his way. Nacer Bouhanni will be his biggest rival for the second year running and is probably faster if in a flat-out sprint. Orica-GreenEDGE bring hot property Caleb Ewan who will both hone his craft and excite his fans.
This year’s Vuelta will also host Peter Sagan who truly is in a class of his own. I’m not sure what the Slovakian’s plans will be in this race but his team will likely turn to him in their pursuit of success. After a long and asking season we would be expecting a dip in fitness from anybody not quite so brilliant.
The Vuelta is full of climbs and not lacking in climbers. Rafal Majka is a star on the slopes whilst the likes of Esteban Chaves, George Bennett and Joe Dombrowski will be looking to make names for themselves. Lampre’s Pryzemyslaw Niemiec has gone well in Spain, whilst Team Sky may allow Mikel Nieve off the leash with Froome’s Tour win banked. Riccardo Zoidl has gone well this year and may do so again for Trek. They also bring the experienced Frank Schleck and an ITT favourite in Fabian Cancellara. The mountains are so nasty here that the climbing stages could well be mopped up by the big boys. Astana and Movistar are always hungry for victories.
In the breaks we should being seeing a lot of Caja-Rural. Pello Bilbao and Omar Fraille are my picks to go well, whilst Lluis Guillermo Mas could look to steal from the sprinters as he did in the Tour of Turkey. Team Europcar make a rare Vuelta appearance and their riders will be attacking for a new team sponsor, or indeed a contract elsewhere.