If the Grand Tours were a series of films, the Vuelta Espana would be the third instalment with plenty of action, plenty of plot twists and plenty of your favourite characters. There wouldn’t be time for a long build or slowly unravelling story and we might even see a major shock in the opening scene. It would only be mediocre commercial success but the critical reception would likely be brilliant. The Vuelta calls up leading GC riders with varying form, fitness and motivation for an end of summer showdown packed full with summit finishes. Get your popcorn, it starts this Saturday.
Bonjour la Vuelta! That’s not a horrible misunderstanding of the Spanish language – this year’s Vuelta Espana actually starts in France.
Just as in 2016 we get a Team Time Trial but thankfully it’s just 13.7km long. Last year Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana gained nearly a minute on Contador’s Tinkoff with AG2R nearly two minutes in arrears. The Nimes course isn’t as technical as some maps might suggest and gaps should be relatively small.
Stage 2 skirts the French coast and the flat profile calls out for the sprint teams… if there were any. The absence of sprinters is frightening and I can’t imagine any team would be too keen to control the peloton. Magnus Cort Nielsen is the fastest rider on the startlist but his stacked Orica team won’t be doing any unnecessary riding. The possibility of crosswinds is another factor that reduces the chances of seeing a big sprint.
There’s a lot to be excited about on Stage 3 where we start in France, enter Spain and then wind up in Andorra. The organisers are not messing about with this one. We start with a long 5% climb and two more summits in the final 45km make this short stage a serious GC day.
Stage 4 will be for anyone who wants to impersonate a sprinter before we are treated to a vintage Vuelta finale on Stage 5. The route states in Benicassim and after five categorized climbs we reach a wall of a finish in Alcossebre with 400m of climbing at over 20%. That’s staggeringly difficult and gameplans will be rendered useless. Who’s got the legs for the victory?!
Stages 6 and 7 don’t look like much but without any interest in a sprint we should see plenty of aggression.
The route moves away from the coast for Stages 8 and 9 – both could be brilliant. Despite the absence of big summits, we are gifted two more short and brutal climbs; the Vuelta organizers do not like flat finishes! The final climbs are so tough that the Ardennes specialists may be challenged by the GC guys. Stage 9 concludes on the Cumbre Del Sol where Tom Dumoulin took a stunning victory in 2015 – my favourite Grand Tour stage of that calendar year.
A short rest day transition takes us west towards the centre of Spain. Stage 10 might not affect the GC but a downhill finish may tempt the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet into action. However, I have a feeling the GC guys will wait until Stage 11 and the climb of the Alto de Velefique, 13.2km at 8.6%. It’s immediately followed by a second gentler climb towards a summit finish on Calar Alto.
Stages 12 and 13 could be gobbled up by breakaways but Stage 14 serves up another big summit finish and therefore a further dose of GC action. The finish on La Pandera will be brutal with high temperatures and high altitude likely to deal major punishment.
It’s a family story on Stage 15 with another high altitude summit finish to Sierra Nevada.
We travel from south to north to reach the motorsport racetrack Circuito de Navarra, the host of the only individual time trial of this year’s race. At 40km long we could see Chris Froome stamp his name on the race. Following the second rest day, we could see a few interesting results as someone always suffers for the break in routine!
Despite even more uphill finishes in the following three days, it’s Stage 20’s return to l’Angliru that should really decide the race. However, before we even reach the main event there’ll be two Cat 1 climbs to deal with.
The Vuelta often throws just one feature climb into the business end of a stage but organizers haven’t held back for the grand finale. The first two climbs average over 8% and it seems ridiculous to dub them merely a warm-up. Riders who survive in the front group will go to war on l’Angliru. It’s arguably the hardest climb that regularly features in Grand Tour racing and perhaps only its mediocre 12.5km length stops it from rivalling the most iconic climbs in cycling. At a 9.8% average, it is an absolute monster lurking in the Asturias principality.
The final stage is short and flat. We might just get a sprint.
Who’s Going To Win?
You get the feeling our recently crowned four-time Tour de France victor really, really, wants to win the Vuelta Espana. It was on Spanish roads in 2011 that he made his breakthrough (and saved his career?) when following Juan Jose Cobo to Madrid and snatching a stage win on the Peña Cabarga. He was second again in 2014 and once more last time out behind Nairo Quintana. He’s made the Tour/Vuelta double look possible but has yet to arrive in vintage Froome fashion. His 2015 ride was highly erratic in comparison to his ice-cool Tour victory (he later abandoned) and twelve months ago he found himself in an unfamiliar position against Quintana. This time around I believe a lightly-raced Froome will be fresher and – with help from Sky – we could finally see a successful Tour/Vuelta double.
Messina’s very best has the ability to stop Chris Froome. Nibali always looks motivated by the opportunity to knock Froome from the top of the sport and he’ll be hoping his legs are in good shape following a relatively light schedule since the Giro d’Italia. There was evidence of form at the Tour of Poland and I expect Nibali once again keep his streak of high place Grand Tour finishes intact. It’s difficult to know if the hard route suits Nibali as short, sharp climbs are not always to his taste. Furthermore, his team look weak. Bahrain-Merida needs to invest in some support riders ahead of their second season. Nevertheless, I’ve got money on Nibali from back in July and he knows how to go well in Spain.
Orica are bringing an amazing team of climbers to the Vuelta Espana but I hope they take a risk and pencil in Adam Yates as team leader. Carlos Verona, Jack Haig, Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves are all good enough to hold personal ambitions but Adam Yates could easily reach the podium – or better – if he climbs at his best level. The motto crash at the Giro d’Italia ruined an otherwise strong race and I’d be surprised if he didn’t better his ninth place finish.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
A route packed with hard climbs may excite Romain Bardet – and his army of fans, including myself – but this is the first time the Frenchman will ride the Vuelta and I’ve got serious doubts over his form. His recent seasons have been very Tour-centric and that decision has been justified. Last year he did go well in both Milano-Torino and Il Lombardia but a three week stage race just a month after the Tour is a totally different challenge. To make matters worse, AG2R will suffer in the TTT and Bardet will be need to be at his brilliant best to get close to the top five.
Both Bardet and teammate Domenico Pozzovivo have had good results this year and will be able to ride without pressure. Perhaps adding a Vuelta stage win will become an adjusted target.
Prediction: Top 10
Zakarin is an unpredictable but undeniably strong climber. He’s aggressive, bold and worthy of his new-found reputation as a Grand Tour GC contender. He wasn’t flying at the recent Tour of Poland but finished alongside Vincenzo Nibali on the final mountain stage. The route should be fine for him but he’ll need to make sure he’s in touch at the end of Stage 13. If he is, he might be able to climb his way into contention on the big summits and nullify any potential losses in ITT.
Miguel Angel Lopez
With neither the Giro d’Italia nor Tour de France in legs, Miguel Angel Lopez arrives in Spain from a totally different path. His early season was non-existent following a crash at the end of 2016 but solid results in all three of his comeback races have catapulted him into contention. The most recent came at the Vuelta Burgos where he landed a summit stage win over an all-conquering Mikel Landa. Astana will likely go with two leaders but Lopez deserves chance to shine. He’s a great climber and Vuelta has a knack of crowning new stars.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
Astana’s co-leader is Fabio Aru. It’s difficult to tell if his dip at the final week of the Tour was entirely down to the bug he picked up or whether tiredness was playing a part. A strong final time trial suggests Aru did have something more to offer – perhaps he was robbed of his podium! Either way, he’s one of the more interesting riders arriving from the Tour. His Vuelta victory in 2015 followed a long break across the early summer so he’ll be facing a completely new challenge. I can’t see him having an awful race but I’ll be surprised if we see him in the red jersey.
Prediction: Top 5 battle
I’m including Contador in my list of contenders one last time! The Spaniard doesn’t usually hold back and he certainly won’t be bowing out quietly. Nevertheless, he earns his mention due to style and longevity rather than any serious claims. Not only has he just ridden the Tour but Contador hasn’t looked to have the beating of the new generation of GC riders since his Giro d’Italia win in 2015. Part of me hopes he falls away from the GC battle so he can dance away for one last stage victory.
Prediction: Top 10
What Else To Look Out For
Movistar on home Soil
Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana have given Movistar a strong presence in the recent editions of their home Tour but neither will start in 2017. This is bad news for their hopes of a race win but good news the likes of Ruben Fernandez and Marc Soler. I got close to putting a bet on Soler having grown to be a big fan during the Volta Catalunya but his form seems to have nosedived through the summer. He was eighth at the Tour de Suisse but I had expected even better than that! Dani Moreno and Carlos Betancur (not for me…) may yet prove to be their best hopes.
Wilco Kelderman & Sam Oomen
Sunweb have had a sensational year and their team for the Vuelta threatens once more. Wilco Kelderman was looking good when he crashed out of the Giro and should feel unlucky to have missed out on the Sunweb party. He was fourth at the recent Tour of Poland with young teammate Sam Oomen back in seventh. The 22-year old continues to impress and has put in some strong rides this year for himself (the Dauphine) and others (Amstel Gold Race). Add to the mix Warren Barguil and we’re sure to see a lot of those black and white jerseys. It’s refreshing to see Barguil selected despite signing a contract elsewhere for next year. Not all break-ups need to be bad!
Best of the rest
Knee surgery prevented Julian Alaphilippe from riding the Tour de France but he returned at the Vuelta Burgos and looked to be somewhat close to his spring form. I don’t believe this year’s Vuelta will be the best Grand Tour of Alaphilippe’s career but he’s always worth a watch and Etixx will be gunning for stage wins.
Louis Meintjes starts back-to-back Grand Tours for UAE but the rumours are that he’ll be trading a GC top ten for a potential stage victory. BMC are another team without a leader and their Grand Tours haven’t gone to plan so far this year. They’ve included several of their usual suspects but it’s Rohan Dennis who I’m most interested in. The route doesn’t suit a GC charge but he’ll be motivated to make his mark at some point during the race.
Trek – Segafredo haven’t built a team around Contador suggesting they’ll be after stage wins. There’s not much on offer for John Degenkolb and Edward Theuns but they do look like two of the races biggest threats in any bunch sprints.
I’ve also got my eye on LottoNL-Jumbo and Juan Jose Lobato. The Spaniard yo-yos in and out of form but I like his chances of snatching an unlikely stage win. I’m happy to see him selected for his first Vuelta Espana since 2012. He recently beat Nacer Bouhanni in a sprint in Trevoux and that’s a good enough preparation for me!
The Other Classifications
Froome starts favourite for the Points Classification (which is hardly for the sprinters in Spain) with Alaphilippe second and Nibali and Degenkolb the next best. In my opinion, none of this quartet will top the leaderboard! Matteo Trentin offers some appeal if he aims for points and I also like the Astana duo of Luis Leon Sanchez and ‘Superman’ Lopez at 50/1 apiece. It’s a very open market!
As for the Mountains Classification, Omar Fraile starts a justified bookies favourite. He loves Spain, loves climbing and loves breakaways. At 9/4 I can’t get on board and have instead opted for UAE’s Rui Costa at 40/1. I doubt he’ll ride GC and he should be back somewhere close to his early season form.
You can’t discount Caja Rural in Spain. Jamie Roson is 66/1 with his experienced teammate Sergio Pardilla at 100/1. There are plenty of points on offer for riders who get in the breaks!
Predictions, Bets & Certainly Not Tips
- Vincenzo Nibali to win the Vuelta @ 7/1 (bet placed in July)
- Trentin to win the points jersey @ 14/1
- Luis Leon Sanchez to win the points jersey @ 50/1
- Rui Costa to win the mountains jersey @ 40/1
- Jamie Roson to win the mountains jersey @ 66/1
- Sam Oomen top ten finish @ 11/2
- Ilnur Zakarin to finish top three @ 11/4
- Juan Jose Lobato to win a stage
- Edward Theuns to win a stage
- Domenico Pozzovivo to win a stage
- Joe Dombrowski to win a stage
- Rohan Dennis to win a stage
- Miguel Angel Lopez to win a stage