The hardest race to predict given the deep field with varied motivations, ambitions and pressures and the Vuelta is all the better for it as it promises surprises along the way.
There are many summit finishes, it depends where you draw the line between a steep hill and mountain climb and then more mountain stages with a descent to the finish. The variety and regularity of mountain stages and just one medium length time trial make this a route for the climbers but the fear is the early mountain stages set the tone for the rest of the race; last year’s stages saw the scenery change but the story remained the same. There are time bonuses of 10-6-4 seconds at the finish line and 3-2-1 at the intermediate sprints.
There are few races in the run-up to help gauge form, several of the contenders have not raced since the Tour de France. Additionally motivation levels range from desperation to indifference and for some the Vuelta is a training race for the Worlds or base-building for 2016.
Chris Froome is the prime pick. Second last year on the comeback after a broken wrist, now he doesn’t have to face Alberto Contador. He won the Tour de France and now finds a route to suit with a time trial on a course he’d have designed. There are still big question marks, first doing the Tour-Vuelta doble is a big ask. He didn’t finish the Tour with thoughts of the Vuelta, preferring the lucrative criterium circuit although he was reported to be riding for four hours before one event, proof he’s not been slacking and he’s been spotted training in the hills behind Nice too. Second Sky don’t approach the Vuelta like they do the Tour, stage recons are rare. His tilt at the Vuelta comes with a strong team with Geraint Thomas replacing Richie Porte as his Sancho Panza and out-of-contract Sergio Henao looking strong in the recent Tour of Poland with Nieve, Kiriyienka and Roche in support in the mountains too.
Nairo Quintana is next. The Colombian was getting better and better in the third week of the Tour de France and can match Froome on the climbs but you’d expect him to lose in the time trial stage. Expect is the word because, like Froome he’s not raced since the Tour and we have little to judge his form on too. He’s racing with Movistar in what they describe as “our race” and Alejandro Valverde is another excellent pick. While Quintana’s participation wasn’t certain, Valverde always knew he’d be riding and probably went into Vuelta mode the day after Paris. But can he win? He’s been on the Vuelta podium since 2012 but has yet to take a grand tour post his Puerto ban so the podium looks a safer pick. But this has been satisfying with his Tour podium, will this boost him or cost him? He proved loyal to Quintana and Movistar have an excellent chance here, especially with a strong team to help.
Astana bring three leaders. If Fabio Aru is the future of Italian cycling he needs to switch to the present tense soon. Fifth here last year he’s improved so should be able to hold his own if the field has improved too. He’s also one of the few riders to have been targeting this race for months with altitude training camps as opposed to the “we might as well ride” approach of others so if you value freshness, he’s your pick. It must be hard for Vincenzo Nibali to look Fabio Aru without seeing himself as a younger rider with time and promise on his side. Today Nibali maybe famous and earning millions but burdened this. He’s riding out of duty, responsibility and on a salvage operation after a season that’s not worked, an Italian champion’s jersey and one Tour stage win are not what Astana pay him for and this kind of negative pressure can’t help. Still the course suits him including some downhill finishes. Mikel Landa could be the most exciting to watch but he’s not looked in sizzling form, when he won the Giro he was ablaze in the warm-up Giro del Trentino but in the recent Vuelta a Burgos his results were modest and with a juicy contract with Team Sky we can question is motivation but really ask about Astana’s desire to support a rider who is leaving, perhaps he’ll just try to repay the team that rescued him after Euskaltel vanished. All are helped by a strong team with Luis Leon Sanchez, Diego Rosa and Dario Cataldo, a Sky-like policy of hiring helpers who could lead on another team.
Talking of budgets, BMC Racing have a big one but not many GC contenders which explains their mid-season move for Richie Porte. Tejay van Garderen wasn’t supposed to ride but his Tour de France exit forced a diary change. If this was bad for him it still meant he started planning for this race long before some of his rivals so he’s had time to rebuilt and get over the disappointment of July. Yet at the same time his Tour exit came late in the race so he’s hardly Señor Fresh either. The American will look to the time trial to avenge any losses in the mountains but if he can hang on some mountain stages it’s hard to see him doing it every day, you suspect they’ll be a day when things come unstuck. Darwin Atapuma brings options for the mountains while Samuel Sanchez was supposed to be the team leader until TvG changed plans but it’s hard to see the 37 year old winning much, especially as he’s going to be on team duty now.
Joaquim Rodriguez leads Katusha. He took two stage wins in the Tour de France but was reduced to stage winning raids after losing a lot of time. He’s a podium contender here but the time trial looks awkward for him. He’s might have lost Giampaulo Caruso but he’s got support from body-double Dani Moreno who has one stages in the past, looked scintillating in the recent Vuelta a Burgos and could sit well in the top-10 through teamwork.
Domenico Pozzovivo is another rider who has been aiming this race for a long time after his gory Giro exit. He’s a capable Giro and Vuelta rider and exciting to watch too who says he wants a top-5 result, a legitimate aim if the form is right, all we have to go on is a solid Tour de l’Ain where he helped engineer a win for team mate Latour.
Rafał Majka leads Tinkoff-Saxo and the Bison of Zegartowice can climb and time trial. After riding in service of Alberto Contador this is his last chance to make amends with stage race leadership this year after a disappointing early season where he was given opportunities but didn’t take them, for example in Paris-Nice. Peter Sagan’s presence on the team is probably a good idea as rather than hogging resources it takes pressure off with the Slovak expected to perform.
Lotto-Soudal’s Jurgen van den Broeck, the peloton’s master of hiding in plain sight, returns to racing. As ever he can finish high but rarely wins. He’s the epitome of a diesel engine and the Vuelta’s steep slopes are likely to prove too much but he needs something to secure a contract. Bart de Clercq could be a darker horse but he’d sign for a stage and the top-10.
It’s not just Astana who bring three leaders as Cannondale-Garmin have Joe Dombrowski, Andrew Talansky and Dan Martin. Talansky’s had a disappointing season and is part of those looking for redemption in Spain. Meanwhile Dombrowski is in ascending form after a win in Utah so it’ll be interesting to see what he can do. Martin is good for a stage win or more but consistency in a grand tour seems to be a problem. Overall the team seems to show the pressure they’ve been riding like Frenchmen with premature attacks that waste energy.
Anyone else? Pierre Rolland will look to repeat his 2014 Giro where he finished fourth oerall with some mountain raids but is his head ready for it? Trek Factory Racing bring Haimar Zubeldia and Fränk Schleck. If things go well Lampre-Merida’s Przemysław Niemiec can take a stage and crack the top-10. MTN-Qhubeka haven’t told us who will be sponsoring the team in 2016 but they’ve re-signed Louis Meintjes and he will look for a mountain stage. Team Colombia’s Rodolfo Torres looks their best. Orica-Greenedge have Esteban Chaves for the mountains and FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde won atop the Angliru in 2013. Cofidis’s Dani Navarro climbs well too.
|Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde|
|Fabio Aru, Joaquim Rodriguez|
|Tejay van Garderen, Vincenzo Nibali|
|Domenico Pozzovivo, Dani Moreno, Mikel Landa, Sergio Henao|
Comment: Nobody gets five chainrings. Chris Froome might be the prime pick but he’s not the certainty he was before the Tour de France. He’s got July in his legs to account for and a mixed month of criteriums since. The same for Nairo Quintana but he could lose a minute in the time trial to Froome. Fabio Aru is the fresh pick and we’ll see what he can do in the first week before fatigue starts to set in and the time trial looms.