In his autobiography ex-pro Charly Wegelius likens the Vuelta to “the crew of a pirate ship“, “either riders didn’t want to be there or they were desperate to perform.” Thanks to its position as the last mountain stage race of the year the race offers redemption for some who haven’t had the season they want. For others the Vuelta a straight target, a prestigious goal and this year there’s the added twist of a training camp with several likely to hone form ahead of the World Championships in Innsbruck. We might question the motivations but it makes for a more lively race and increases the chance of surprise amid a field packed with strong contenders. Here’s a look at the GC contenders for the next three weeks…
Route summary: not as wild as recent editions but all the same we get two time trial stages totalling a meagre 40.7km and nine uphill finishes of which eight are either goat-path rampóns or achingly long… or both meaning a pure climber can hope to win this by opening a few gaps and collecting some time bonuses of which 10-6-4 seconds await at the finish line and 3-2-1 for the intermediate sprints. There are seven possible sprint finishes with an advantage to more versatile riders over the bulkier drag strip specialists.
Miguel Ángel López took two summit finish stage wins last year and made the top-10 on GC albeit nine minutes down. He was closer in this year’s Giro where he stood on the podium in Rome and if he didn’t get a stage win he was close and more consistent which matters for a GC contender. Now he looks back on form after finishing second in the Vuelta a Burgos, the best guide to form pre-Vuelta which makes him a more assured pick for the podium. But how to win? The two time trials are not his thing so he’ll have to outclimb everyone and this is a tall order. He’s still 24 and so there’s no rush and comes with a decent team for the mountains where Pello Bilbao, Omar Fraile, Jan Hirt and Davide Villella can all offer support and also snipe for stage wins.
If Movistar have El Tridente then Mitchelton-Scott have the BBQ fork with the twin prongs of the Yates brothers. Simon Yates is presented as the leader, the Vuelta has been a goal soon after he recovered from seeing the Giro slip from his grip. If he can show up with the form from the Giro in his legs and the lessons in his head then he could win the race outright. He’s got the punchy finish to take stage wins and is decent in the time trial for someone who weighs less than 60kg but expect a different way of racing as in May he was trying to snipe every time bonus going to build up a buffer on Tom Dumoulin, now he may worry about others in the TT but will probably try to ride more economically. Adam Yates (he’s got the beard) by contrast seems to be a late entrant and there’s less talk about him, partly because of expectations but also because his Tour de France was a flop so there’s less of a buzz around him but if he makes amends he could thrive here too. Jack Haig who could try for a top-10 too but Mitchelton-Scott and Damien Howson is a valuable support while the team will compete on two fronts with Matteo Trentin goes for the sprints and has a small train in support.
Nairo Quintana will want to pick up where he left off in the Vuelta, he won it the last time he rode in 2016 but ever since he’s lacked fizz, especially in the last two editions of the Tour de France. Of all the riders with stories of redemption and revenge Quintana probably has the strongest need to show he can still be a grand tour winner, a podium finish would be reassuring but anything worse would be awkward. Movistar bring a strong team with Alejandro Valverde still going strong but probably finding grand tours victories beyond his reach while Richard Carapaz was one of the revelations of the Giro and now faces the tricky second album test to back up his Italian ride.
Richie Porte has only ridden the Vuelta once and in 2012 he finished 68th overall. Given his run of bad luck simply matching this would be a start, in fact at the time of writing it’s not so much a run of bad luck as the runs of bad luck as gastric grief forced him to skip last night’s team presentation and his start in the race isn’t certain because of illness so he gets docked a chainring below. The bedevilled Tasmanian crashed out of the Tour de France but the saving grace was that his injuries were relatively light so he’s had winning the Vuelta on the mind for weeks now. It’s a legitimate goal, if he can get over the illness he’s excellent on the shorter climbs and the 32km time trial on Stage 16 gives him a comparative advantage over the purer climbers. Once again luck and regularity are his concerns but can he really be so unlucky, for so long? His BMC team are strong on paper but loyalties and ambitions may vary, for example will Dylan Teuns want his chances for the snappier uphill finishes and is Rohan Dennis here on a pre-Worlds training block?
Wilco Kelderman gets a shot at team leadership, a rare chance given he looks bound to be a lieutenant for Tom Dumoulin in the years to come. The smooth-pedalling Dutchman will look forward to the time trial but can he climb? Yes given he finished fourth overall here last year. The concern is form because after crashing out of the Dutch championships he’s undergone surgery and would probably prefer to have more time to prepare and this is his first race since June. Sunweb team mates Jai Hindley and Michael Storer will be worth watching in the mountains too.
Another rider who isn’t on the radar but ought to be is Ilnur Zakarin. He made the podium last year thanks to some consistent riding, no stage wins but no collapses either. The whole Katusha-Alpecin team, management included, will be under pressure to deliver a result after Zakarin salvaged a top-10 in the Tour de France and finished in Paris with only three team mates.
Vincenzo Nibali is talking down his chances and if all contenders like to do this, it’s worth hearing the Sicilian because his back injury in the Tour de France has kept him off the bike for some time and if he’s famously a rider more suited to the final week this time he may well be training for the World Championships as well meaning he goes into the race not thinking about winning overall and plans to leave it without winning either. But Bahrain-Merida bring a strong team with Ion and Gorka Izaguirre as outsiders for the GC and more likely stage winners, plus the unheralded Hermann Pernsteiner who has been climbing well plus the impressive Mark Padun, a Ukranian neo-pro who was all over the Tour of the Alps back in April but seems to be in the deep end having done Pais Vasco, Romandie, the Tour de Suisse and could be overcooked by now.
Thibaut Pinot is back to good health having made the podium in the Tour of Poland on his comeback from pneumonia after he finished the Giro in hospital. Health is an issue, can he complete three weeks without breaking down… and does he want to? He’s a rider who often enjoys the cold and rain given he lives at altitude in eastern France but his home has had a long heatwave so scorching weather may not be so problematic for him. He too has the Innsbruck Worlds on his mind, the Vuelta GC would be nice but not essential. Still he’s got the talent to thrive in this race and packs a punch for a sprint in a small group.
Fabio Aru won the 2015 Vuelta but since then his palmarès has got the glory we and he might have expected. He’ll find the time trials difficult but if he’s finally back to his best then stage wins and a high place overall could happen. He might have had a lacklustre start to the season but so did Dan Martin who turned things around for the Tour de France and now the Irishman can hope for stage wins and a high place on GC but the TT is probably a roadblock to the win.
Rigoberto Uràn crashed out of the Tour de France but has quickly changed focus for the Vuelta. He’s potential podium material as he can climb well and is handy in a time trial too but has been irregular. EF Education First-Drapac team mate Michael Woods is recovering from a crash in the Tour of Utah and seems on track, he was in the top-10 overall here last year but for all the climbing potential a podium finish is a tall order.
George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk (pictured) lead Lotto-Jumbo, the form team of the moment. Kruikswijk had a strong Tour de France and Bennett is a lively rider with a good chance of a stage win. Can they win outright? Probably not but this will make the race all the more lively as they hunt for stage wins. Sep Kuss is worth watching too after his rampant Tour of Utah but don’t assume he’ll boss the Vuelta, the field is much deeper and so the Vuelta is a bonus for the neo-pro.
We’ve got this far and haven’t mentioned Team Sky and the team is less likely to try and put the race under a tactical curfew. David de la Cruz is their leader and capable of a top-10, he’s been seventh two years ago and could crack the top five. He’s having a strong season and has a strong team behind him. Michał Kwiatkowski will be one to watch in the mountains, can he string a bid for the GC together, or more likely test himself on a couple of days ahead of the worlds? Sergio Henao can make the top-10 and Tao Geoghegan Hart gets his first grand tour test, as does neo-pro Pavel Sivakov.
Enric Mas is an underrated stage racer because he’s at Quick Step, a squad not often associated with this branch of the sport but finished an impressive fourth in the Tour de Suisse earlier this year and won the Arrate stage of the Tour of the Basque Country and now the Vuelta is his goal. He won’t win and at 23 barely ineligible for the concurrent Tour de l’Avenir instead, and has time to work on his time trialling. Look out for stage wins and to see how long he can stay high on GC.
Bora-Hansgrohe bring Emmanuel Buchmann for the GC and the German climber has finished in the top-10 of all the five World Tour stage races he’s done this year, a consistent performance he’ll hope to translate into a grand tour now. He’s got Davide Formolo who’s in form and could crack the top-10 too and Rafał Majka had a stage win last year. Obviously Peter Sagan is the star name and we’ll see how he’s climbing ahead of Innsbruck, presumably he’s also going to quit before Madrid.
Lastly Bauke Mollema says he’s not racing for GC but the Trek-Segafredo team said he is and even if he isn’t he could. Dimension Data bring Louis Meintjes who needs a result and if he can rediscover his form from previous years he can crack the top-10.
|Simon Yates, Richie Porte|
|Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez|
|Thibaut Pinot, Wilco Kelderman, Rigoberto Urán|
|Zakarin, Aru, De la Cruz, Buchmann|