The post-Tour lull has hit harder than in previous years. Both the Grand Boucle and May’s Giro d’Italia were given appropriate fanfare but the Vuelta has almost crept into prominence. The Olympics hasn’t helped matters, with road (and track) cycling continuing to gain in popularity and a dramatic men’s road race stacked full of big names. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to get excited about the Vuelta when the race wound up the most exciting Grand Tour of 2015. This year we see a familiar mix of leg-numbing climbs and riders seeking redemption.
Pro Cycling Stats lists just three of the 21 Vuelta stages as ‘flat’. Two are time-trials and one is the procession to Madrid. Closer inspection reveals this summary to be pretty accurate. There are another couple of stages which could wind up to a bunch sprint but the route is constantly undulating and visits areas of Spain where flat roads are few and far between.
Things kick-off next Saturday evening with a long team time trial in the province of Ourense. It’s interesting to note that the race takes place almost entirely in northern Spain. A transfer in the final week takes riders east to Alcaniz before the race works down to Alicante on the east coast. A final transfer to Las Rozas precedes the Vuelta’s finale. All of this means an absence of the Andalucia region and the challenges offered by the heat on Spain’s south coast.
Few Vuelta stages would fit in at the other Grand Tours. The organizers pack in these nasty – yet brilliant – summits at every possible opportunity. Stages 3 and 4 set the tone for the race with short, steep finishes. They look suitable for the punchy explosive sorts but are hard enough to create gaps to sleeping contenders. There are more bumps in the days that follow before four summit finishes in a row at the start of the second week. It’s been said multiple times before; if you’re a sprinter, why would you ride the Vuelta?
The fastmen will see Stages 8 as a flat day ruined. Riders will tackle 150km of the flattest roads Unipublic could bear to include before gearing up for a vicious ramped finish with gradients touching 20%.
Stage 9 is even harder and rolls over a trio of category 3 climbs before a short category 2 finale. Stage 10 takes things up another notch with the beyond category Lagos de Covadonga at the day’s end. Spain’s climbs lack the recognition of those of the Alps and Dolomites – this not helped by the fact the Vuelta visits so many each year – but the Lagos de Covadonga is a wonderful spectacle and a suitably energy-sapping challenge. It’s 12.2km long and has an average gradient of 7.2%. There are some flatter sections and even the occasional decline meaning at other points riders are made to endure double-digit gradients; the final section is a 17.5% wall.
After the first rest day the quartet of summit finishes concludes with Stage 11 and the Peña Cabarga. The gradient rockets on certain sections and the climb was the backdrop to Chris Froome’s first Grand Tour stage win in 2011.
After two relatively gentle days in the Basque country – where the race has visited on surprisingly few occasions – we reach the Vuelta’s one-two punch of serious climbing. Stage 14 is gruelling. Riders will first tackle the Col Inharpu, a short while later the Col du Soudet, and then the Col de Marie-Blanque with its brutal final 2km. That should be enough for a Grand Tour stage but, of course, it isn’t for the Vuelta. The stage finish is on the Meta Aubisque, the longest climb of the day with frequently changing gradients.
Stage 15 is just 119km long – that’s less than 75 miles – and could be frenetic. The climbs aren’t the steepest so there’s a chance the day is given to the breakaway. However, the far more likely scenario is that we see the stage attacked from the moment the flag drops – the next day is one of the easiest of the race so they’ll be no excuses for holding back.
Following the second rest day in Castellón, Stage 17 provides another ramped finish. There’s no way of knowing how this stage will play out but GC contenders are unlikely to let an opportunity pass by. We might actually see a sprint on Stage 18 before the only individual time trial arrives two days from Madrid.
For all the climbing in this year’s race there’s no escaping the pure test of the 39km time trial on September 9th. It’s surprisingly flat which will hurt the pure climbers and likely provide a top ten shuffle. However, Stage 20 provides the tenth summit finish of the race and an immediate chance to make back TT losses. The stage should be fantastic and takes riders to the Air Force base on the Alto De Aitana. The climb is long and was last visited in 2009 when won by Damiano Cunego. It could well play host to a day of memorable Vuelta racing.
This year’s Giro was loosely pitched as Nibali vs. Landa whilst the Tour was dubbed Froome vs. Quintana. By contrast, yet as expected, the Vuelta is a loaded free-for-all.
Alberto Contador is currently the bookies favourite but I’m not sure he’s mine. In his favour, he didn’t complete the Tour after abandoning with injury and has made the Vuelta his adjusted goal. He showed some promise in the early part of the season, is always motivated on home soil and remains a threat in just about every race he starts. But can he put together the fastest three week ride in the peloton? Even taking into account the obvious mitigations, he didn’t look great at the Tour. His support remains second-rate and his rivals are lining up. It’s a big ask.
Where to start with Chris Froome? He was supreme when winning July’s Tour despite a couple of spells on the floor. He looked strong at the Olympics but was slightly further behind Silver medallist Tom Dumoulin in the Time Trial than some had expected and never really got involved in a manic Road Race. Despite there being plenty of signs Froome had held his Tour form, there was at least a trace of tiredness to his performances. It’s possible to reason the sharp Vuelta climbs aren’t best suited to Froome but it’s easy to see the two time runner-up in the Maillot Rojo at some point during the race. His Tweets confirmed the Vuelta was on his mind and he’s just been announced in a fresh-looking Sky squad.
I don’t want to cover too much old ground but Quintana was found wanting at the Tour. Not only was he off the pace set by Froome, but also of his own early season performances. Gone was his vigour and sparkle, and he’d given up the fight by the second day in the Alps. I believe Quintana has good scope to bounce back but, worryingly, when he doubled up last season his Vuelta looked very heavy. If he has prepared properly for the Vuelta he should be taken very seriously but if the race has been an afterthought then others are preferred.
No rider who podiumed at the Tour has gone on to podium at the Vuelta since Carlos Sastre (first and third) in 2008. This bodes well for Esteban Chaves who would emerge as Contador’s leading rival if the ‘big two’ were to be dismissed. It was at the Vuelta last year that Chaves transitioned from a good climber to a good stage racer and his potential was confirmed at this year’s Giro. He failed to challenge in the Olympic Road Race but the style of racing at the Vuelta should suit him well. If he’s not too tired, he should go top five.
Lotto NL-Jumbo‘s Giro almost-hero will return to the Vuelta for the first time since 2011. If the real Steven Kruijswijk is the rider we saw ease over the Della Paganella and power up the Alpe di Siusi then he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with. He’s smart and strong, time-trials respectably and will be extremely difficult to drop – Contador struggled back in 2015. However, at 29 years old this year’s Giro remains the only time the Dutchman has been in a Grand Tour podium scrap – the Vuelta poses an interesting test.
Valverde’s riding his fifth Grand Tour in a row – roughly the span of time I’ve been writing on Just Pro Cycling – and I’m running out of ways to describe his Grand Tour chances. He’ll likely have co-leadership duties with Quintana and may be a more active figure than in July’s Tour. His set of recent GT finishes is phenomenal and there’s nothing to suggest he won’t claim another top ten. The Vuelta suits, but Valverde is unlikely to gain time on the hardest mountain stages. Top five could be his limit.
Best of the rest
In many ways, Cannondale’s Andrew Talansky is a nearly-man running out of time to prove his potential as a Grand Tour contender. Nevertheless, without a Grand Tour in his 2016 legs – and with a strong showing in the Tour of Utah – he is an obvious candidate for a wildcard pick. I don’t think he can lay claims to the Maillot Rojo and his 2014 Dauphine can only be brought up so many times, but he has the grounding for a strong performance. If his year was built around a challenge then I expect him to cause a few surprises and he should have a great teammate in Joe Dombrowski. Fellow American Tejay Van Garderen will be aiming to complete a non-French Grand Tour for the first time since 2010. He may not even lead BMC but I’m interested to see how he goes away from Alpine slopes. After racing for Fabio Aru in the previous two Vueltas, Astana bring Miguel Angel Lopez as their leader. I thought the Colombian would go well at the Olympics but he struggled to impose himself on the Road Race. There’s a chance he’ll disappear into the Vuelta background too but if Astana rally around him the prodigiously talented 22-year old could play a part in the GC battle. The French threat looks blunt without usual suspects Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot. Instead, Ag2r may thrust leadership duties on the promising Pierre Latour and FDJ look to have given Kenny Elissonde the nod over likely stage-hunter Alexander Geniez. Lampre-Merida have announced Louis Meintjes in their squad (7th in the Olympics, 8th at the Tour) but the South African – who’s been riding hard since the Tour Down Under – will surely show signs of tiredness.
What else to look out for
BMC bring two possible stage winners in the always-exciting Darwin Atapuma and the ageless Sami Sanchez. They’ll also start favourites for the team time trial despite lacking their specialists. Caja-Rural announced a line-up which includes Brit-abroad Hugh Carthy who’s having a wonderful emergence this year. The Spanish wildcard team can also boast Burgos stage winner Sergio Pardilla and a rider who looks capable on all types of terrain in Pello Bilbao. Trek-Segafredo’s squad pack two of the fastest finishes in the race with Niccolo Bonifazio the faster and Fabio Felline the more likely to endure a day’s climbing. Orica-BikeExchange have another of the fast finishers in Marcus Cort Nielsen. Another on the Australian team is Britain’s Simon Yates, fresh off a good performance at the Vuelta a Burgos. He’ll be eyeing a breakthrough performance to rival his brother Adam’s Tour ride.
The all-but-confirmed Zdenek Stybar could offer Etixx a threat on the punchy finales. The squad’s Vuelta line-ups are often a medley of talent and Stybar, along with Gianni Meersman and Maxime Bouet, should be in the mix for stage honours. Lotto NL-Jumbo have 13 victories this year but seven are courtesy of Dylan Groenewegen, four came at the Ster ZLM Toer in June, and just one has been on the World Tour. After his precious domestique work for Kruijswijk at the Giro, all-rounder Enrico Battaglin may be let loose by the Dutch squad to hunt stages.
Froome and Sky just look too strong for Contador and Quintana, unless we see a reversal of form from the last twelve months. Chaves may not have done the Tour but he’s done plenty of riding this year and his legs should be heavy. Kruijswijk is a danger but the short sharp climbs don’t inspire confidence. The top ten should include Andrew Talansky and could include Miguel Angel Lopez. The points jersey will be mopped up by a GC guy but the mountains jersey is impossible to call. Most of the big climbs come at the end of stages and we could see the blue spots hijacked by Froome. However, this hasn’t been the way in recent years and there are plenty of aggressors hungry to wear a Grand Tour jersey.
- The Tour hoodoo to be broken and Froome to win the Vuelta
- Andrew Talansky top ten finish
- Alberto Contador to win a stage
- Darwin Atapuma to win a stage
- Alexander Geniez to win a stage
- Pello Bilbao to win a stage
- Enrico Battaglin to win a stage
- A rider in the GC top three to win the points jersey
- Atapuma/Geniez/Dombrowski/Pardilla to win the mountains jersey.