A star-packed field contenders and pretenders for the Vuelta with seven grand tour winners and a long list of rivals. But as any astronomer knows, look up at the stars and you’ll see powerful blue giants also a few white dwarfs.
We watched the Tour de France to see a duel between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador but were denied, now they’re back and there’s Nairo Quintana to contend with. Time to point the telescope to Jerez for a look at who can win the Vuelta.
There are seven summit finishes… one in every three stages is for the climbers. Among these are a mix of steady climbs, the “ski station” variety that are open to many but there are also days where the final climb features double-digit gradients with 10%, 14% and even 24% gradients which tilt the race to the mountain climbers. There are three time trial stages making this the most rouleur friendly tour of the year but that’s only because of a low baseline set in Italy and France, the Vuelta’s 36km and 10km solo TTs won’t allow the GC to change too much. Finally there are time bonuses every day except the TTs so the race suits punchier riders.
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.
Nairo Quintana is the prime pick. Second in the 2013 Tour after making a couple of mistakes along the way he won the Giro this year with ease, albeit with help from a freeze despite being sick for the first half of the race. The Stelvio neutralisation polemica still annoys him and the Colombian will be looking to take a second grand tour in a season. He’s just won the Vuelta a Burgos and impressively too, taking the mountain stage with a late attack and displaying his trademark forceful style, always turning a bigger gear than the others.
Movistar come with two leaders but it’s hard to see Alejandro Valverde as superior to Quintana. He had a good Tour de France until things went catabolic in the third week. Now if was on the down early in the Tour it could be spun that he’s had more time to recover and rebuild although his performance in the Clasica San Sebastian shows he’s been going hard too. None of this is to knock his chances, just that relative to Quintana he might not have it in the mountains. He can still sprint for the time bonuses though. Movistar are riding their home grand tour and come with a strong team but they might be lacking support in the high mountains but have enough to protect their riders before.
The Vuelta saved Chris Froome‘s career when his performances in 2011 convinced Team Sky to re-sign him and now the story goes that he needs to save his season and even that of his team. But the Sky way is to race day by day rather get subsumed by season-long narratives. We know little of his form, he’s been training in the USA and has not raced. So he’s a pick by reputation and the need for revenge alone, if he’s in form he can match and even beat Quintana on the climbs and will look to the time trials to take time. He’s just crashed in training but the team say he’s fine but it’s a reminder of the “Crash Froome” nickname he cites in his biography. Note the approach is different to the Tour de France, there are no stage recons and Froome’s participation is a late change of plan; all this and the Vuelta is a very different race to the Tour with time bonuses and a field that could be hard to control. It’ll be interesting to see how the whole team rides, Peter Kennaugh is said to be strong while Ben Swift is targetting the Worlds. The squad seemed burned out during the Tour yet Mikel Nieve and Vasil Kirienka are here.
It’s been a year to forget for Joaquim Rodriguez. A crash in the spring classics, a withdrawal from the Giro and when he decided to ride the Tour de France for training he found himself watching the most open edition in years. So here’s someone who really needs something because the Volta a Catalunya was a good win but the former World Number One can do more. The question is whether he can win or is another podium place likely? He’s in his 15th season as a pro not so zippy when it comes to taking time bonuses. Katusha body-double Dani Moreno has just some great results in Burgos. The two ride well together and after a quiet year Moreno seems back to his best, meaning a top-5 all while supporting Rodriguez is possible.
Alberto Contador‘s condition is unknown but he has form for understating his condition prior to major races, famously coming off the beach to win the Giro, an exaggerated tale perhaps. Now it’s a broken leg although don’t get images of a bone that was snapped like a twig, this appears to have been an incomplete fracture, a partial crack. No fun either but recovery is faster. He says he wants a stage win in the third week but for this he’ll have to be climbing with the best. If he’s climbing with the best he could be a GC contender. We’ll get an early glimpse in the opening stage, is he driving his team on or does he have to miss a turn?
What of Rigoberto Uran? Since his second place in the Giro is Twitter account’s portrayed him sockless on Colombian celebrity circuit and I was ready to think he’d spent little time on the bike or at least been distracted. But he showed up at the Tour de l’Ain with fourth place in the prologue to show some form and remind us of his improvement in time trials. OPQS don’t bring him much support but he’s long ridden this way. A win seems improbable but a podium’s possible although his riding in the mountain stage in the Ain wasn’t storming.
There’s no Chris Horner as he’s just been pulled by his team after cortisone use via a Therapeutic Use Exemption caused his cortisol levels to fall and under MPCC rules he’s got to rest. It’s not been his year but last year wasn’t until August either. Lampre-Merida team mates Przemysław Niemiec and Winner Anacona are in form and with some risk-taking can win a stage and both can make the top-10.
What about Fabio Aru? A revelation for some in the Giro, a confirmation for others, the Sardinian is back for more. He showed he could climb with the best in the Giro but not every day. With the Giro he landed a big new contract and his motivation for the next few weeks is uncertain. His form is too, he was a modest 64th in the Tour de Pologne. Mikel Landa could be Astana’s rider to watch, the Basque climber can take his pick of stages.
Another Giro star who had a quiet time in Poland was Julian Arredondo. The Colombian was great in May and I’d been looking forward to his riding in the Vuelta. But he seemed off the place in Poland. This doesn’t mean he’s out of form, it could be jetlag or he raced right after a hard training block. But his approach to the Giro saw several promising results before, there’s less to go on now.
Another on that transatlantic conveyor belt of exciting Colombians, Orica-Greenedge have GC ambitions with Esteban Chaves. A gifted climber and the route suits him. But his form’s unknown and he’s inexperienced, this is his first grand tour. A stage win seems more likely than a high GC place. Adam Yates is worth watching but surely too young even if he’s proved to be one of the best neo-pros in a long time with his results in California, Turkey and the Dauphiné. One to watch and any results are bonus.
The saying “you’re only as good as your last race” comes to mind for Andrew Talansky. After his win in the Dauphiné he was a tip for the Tour but left the race by the back door after injury live TV images of his suffering on the road to Oyonnax. Every time I hear someone mention him it’s because of this incident. Some say won the Dauphiné thanks to a lucky break but he could only win because he was in a strong position after the stage to the Emosson dam. Put another way he was climbing with the best when it mattered. Another podium outsider he’s also a rider keen to save his season. Team mate Dan Martin could be suited to the route but is he suited to grand tours? He seems very able at winning stages and is prepping for the worlds. Perhaps this relaxed style means he’ll be there when it matters and so ride high on GC? Garmin-Sharp also bring Ryder Hesjedal and if his form’s unknown his reputation for attacking or serving a stronger team mate is known, the team has plenty of options.
Wilco Kelderman also had a great Giro and carried on into the Dauphiné – look closely at the image above and that’s Froome and Contador in the background. He’s back in form with fifth place in the Tour of Utah. He’s a very promising talent and will be one to watch. It’s great to see Robert Gesink back in action after heart surgery and De Condor van Varsseveld always rides better when there’s someone else on the team to soak up the pressure. Belkin also bring Laurens Ten Dam.
Warren Barguil is doing that tricky second album. He had two chart-topping singles last year or rather two stage wins and returns with ambitions for the overall. He is good and promising but this could be a learning experience. An exciting rider he’s often willing to attack and take risks and was in good shape in the Tour of Poland although the time trial went wrong. There’s no best young rider prize in this race but he’d be a good pick.
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.
Cadel Evans is in form. The incident in 2009 when a puncture saw him stranded by the road while Valverde attacked and this lost him the race might still rankle. Recent wins in the US suggest he’s ready to compete but like the Giro the risk is he fades in the final week. We might think he’s got little left to prove but that’s the whole point, he probably wants to prove to everyone retirement isn’t imminent.
If this is a race for climbers then Thibaut Pinot should be thereabouts. But he’s after stage wins and has been relaxing after his Tour de France including a victory lap of post-Tour criteriums. To downplay his chances further he’s just fallen ill and stayed in his hotel room rather than train with his FDJ team mates. He learned valuable lessons about positioning in the Tour but since he’s not aiming for the GC he’s likely to be found at the back, sipping a can of cola del pelotón.
There are more names but not for the win or stage win certainties. Romain Sicard is said to be in great shape, MTN-Qhubeka’s Louis Meintjes and Merhawi Kudus could be exciting to watch. Carlos Betancur could have been a contender but is overweight and finished last in Burgos, you wonder if Ag2r are making him ride the Vuelta for punishment.
A galaxy of stars but by the end of the first week and two summit finishes we’ll know who’s radiating energy, who is pulsing form and who is vanishing into a blackhole of fatigue and failure. The repetition of summit finishes could entrench a hierarchy based on watts/kilogram so hopefully we’ll be treated to some surprises and risk-taking and this should be more likely given the number of riders keen to salvage something from the next three weeks.
For what it’s worth Nairo Quintana gets the tip because he’s in form while Chris Froome’s state is unknown and the Vuelta is a late addition to his programme.
|Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde
|Dani Moreno, Alberto Contador, Rigoberto Uran,
|Cadel Evans, Andrew Talansky, Fabio Aru