As Nairo Quintana enjoys some deserved rest and recovery the 2017 Vuelta a Espana podium is open to many with a very strong start list assembling in Nimes for the annual race of surprises and contrats where many line up hoping to win yet few have been on stage recons, where everyone says the Gir-Tour double is impossible but the Tour-Vuelta approach is a well-beaten path. Here’s a brief look at the course and run through of the overall contenders.
Route summary: the usual Vuelta course with regular uphill efforts, depending on your definition the term there are eight “summit finishes” and there’s more with some stages descending off a mountain to the finish and the climbs build during the race going from steady ascents into Andorra before the likes of the Sierra de la Pandera in the final week and the Angliru on the penultimate day. The 40km time trial to Logroño on Stage 16 is hardly going to balance the repeat tests of climbing ability but it is still significant, just as the time trials proved crucial to the Tour de France.
It’s hard to see beyond Chris Froome. He’s a regular in this race and has been targeting it for some time, albeit as a secondary plan after winning the Tour. But this is race that made him, that saved his career even and he seems fascinated and perhaps indebted to it and a win would significantly expand his palmarès. Yet if nobody thinks the Giro-Tour double is possible, how is the Tour-Vuelta combo achievable? The answer is found in the practice rather than theory, see last year’s contest where the Briton could have won last year were it not for a tactical blunder and an uncharacteristically weak team around him on the stage to Formigal. The other question is his form, he’s won the Tour de France and done a few criteriums as well as a training camp in the French Alps but if this evokes doubt perhaps it’s more reassuring than last year’s attempt to squeeze in the Rio Olympics too. Sky bring a strong team with Wout Poels capable of a high overall place too, arguably the race made him too when he climbed with Froome, Wiggins and Menchov in the 2011 race. Sky also have the likes of Diego Rosa and Mikel Nieve as mountain helpers. Better still for Froome is the Logroño time trial, a 40km insurance policy to claim back time against those who would attack him in the mountains.
Vincenzo Nibali returns to the Vuelta after his 2015 disqualification but he ought to be more famous as the 2010 winner, back in the days when he was a promising 25 year old battling bizarre characters like Ezequiel Mosquera, a sign of just how much the Vuelta has changed, how the startlist has become much richer. He’s come off a perfect Tour of Poland, a top-10 finish suggests the form is coming back after his successful Giro. But like his Giro the problem is going from contender to overall winner? He’ll have to climb faster than Froome and face the flat time trial later in the race and he’s never got the better of Froome since the Briton joined Team Sky. But it’s watching Nibali try that can enhance the race. Bahrain-Merida bring a strong if ageing team built around him, a similar core that Nibali had at the Giro.
Fabio Aru is playing poker with his career. He could have folded his hand and signed a new contract but has preferred to use the Vuelta to boost his status. This implies confidence and the 2015 Vuelta winner finds a course to his liking with many uphill finishes. But he remains an erratic rider, capable of searing accelerations on a summit finish one day, yet collapse the next. We saw this in the Tour but perhaps his defeat only puts him in a better place now? Possibly but this is conjecture and story-telling rather than science. Astana team mate Miguel Ángel López is one to watch too and the workplace politics could be a theme too, with the Colombian tied to the team and therefore, everything else being equal, surely the more protected of the pair? El Superman has had a good summer with strong riders in the Tour of Austria and the recent Vuelta a Burgos and remember that last year he won the Tour de Suisse and even won the final stage with a solo attack while wearing the yellow jersey. Done right and Aru’s presence should ease the pressure of him.
Alberto Contador has announced his retirement and prepares for a valedictory lap of Spain. If the retirement speech was a surprise perhaps it was done knowing that he is in form, he seems the kind who only wants to bow out on a high and if the form was off now perhaps he’d have tried one more year to ensure he could end on a high rather than leave via a backdoor. His Tour de France was discreet but crash-riddled for all the talk of being a fading force, some of it worthy, his racing and results in the Basque Country or Paris-Nice this year show what he is capable of. Still the impression is he’ll settle for a high profile stage win rather than the maillot rojo in Madrid. He shares the Trek-Segafredo team with John Degenkolb but still has a collection of helpers for the mountains.
Orica-Scott bring three genuine GC contenders and better still they’ll bring plans to use them in inventive ways too. Esteban Chaves had a quiet tour after returning from injury and then grieving the death of a close friend and now returns to a race that suits his climbing abilities but if he’s got his best form the 40km time trial is still a big concern. Adam and Simon Yates brothers link up and Adam is the fresher of the two but it’s the tactical combos on offer that make them all an exciting prospect, the team tried this year last year and it put Chaves on the podium.
Quick Step bring four riders who can shine in this race. Bob Jungels continues his progress but as we saw in the Giro he’s a rouleur who can still be limited by the biggest climbs even he is closing the gaps all the time. Julian Alaphilippe is the big interest, he has shown he can hang with the best on a mountain stage and beat them in the time trials but can he do it consistently over three weeks? Maybe not yet but it’ll be fun to watch and he looks likely for a stage win and he should be as fresh as a bowl of gazpacho after a season spent on hold following a knee injury in the spring. Local hopes are David de la Cruz who has been steadily improving and is in form following some great results in the Vuelta a Burgos. Enric Mas was also doing very well in the same race and is one to watch too in the mountains although he could be on team duties.
Another team with options is Sunweb. Wilco Kelderman is the leader and still a promising rider while Warren Barguil gets to do as he pleases, targeting a mountain stage. If the Frenchman has similar legs to the Tour de France he could take several but that’s a big conditional statement. There’s also Sam Oomen who could be on team duties but is also very promising.
BMC Racing’s management will be hoping for an opening stage win in the team time trial to bury Samuel Sanchez’s concerning positive test. Looking to the GC they have Tejay van Garderen, Nicolas Roche and Rohan Dennis for the GC with the American sitting quietly in the last chance saloon but still capable of a big win while the Australian is in a more comfortable position, able to use the Vuelta as a sandbox for future tilts at the GC in grand tours. Dennis is back for a crack at GC after crashing out of the Giro but this could be a selective approach as he tests himself on selected summit finishes and the Stage 16 time trial rather than trying to focus on the overall classification every single day.
Romain Bardet rides the Vuelta for the first time, the first time he’s started two grand tours in a season in fact and you wonder if starting and finishing is the main aim, to bank a huge block of racing in the legs. But if he’s climbing like he did in July he’ll feature on the climbs. His Marseille time trial in the Tour was almost a disaster but remember he was feverish so if he’ll worry about Logroño’s 40km test it need not be ruinous. Domenico Pozzovivo also rides and can climb high if he’s got over a recent bug. Ag2r La Mondiale bring a useful support team but are unlikely to shake things up, or try, as much as they did in July.
Rafał Majka is one of those riders starting the Vuelta to save their season after he crashed out of the Tour de France. He lost a lot of skin but the early exit should have given him time to recover and refocus on the Vuelta and the hilly course suits. An overall win seems unlikely but stage wins, the mountains jersey and a top-5 seems realistic.
Steven Kruijswijk is another in need of a result after his Giro didn’t go to plan and he returns to the Vuelta to haunt non-Dutch commentators and typists alike. His form is unknown but when on top of his game he’s unshakeable. George Bennett is a new name to add to our list of contenders but he was climbing with the best in the Tour de France until he fell ill. In his own words he was on the limit doing this but he gets better and brings Lotto-Jumbo more options and is capable in a time trial too.
UAE Emirates have Rui Costa and Louis Meintjes and might sign for a top-10 overall and a stage win along the way? One to watch is Anass Ait El Abdia, hardly a household name and his recent ride in the Tour of Poland was unremarkable but he was climbing well in the Tour de Romandie and the 24 year old Moroccan is promising.
Finally Katusa-Alpecin bring Ilnur Zakarin who enjoyed an excellent Giro and should come at the Vuelta fresher than most. Will the sharp climbs be too much for him? A win seems unlikely but he’s good in the time trials. Cannondale-Drapac’s Michael Woods is good on the sharp climbs the Vuelta offers but how is the form, he had a busy spring, did the Giro and then the Tour de Suisse so he could be frazzled when he needs to be fresh while Joe Dombrowski is a contender for the mountain stages with longer climbs late in the race. Movistar look orphaned but Marc Soler and Ruben Fernandez are local hopes while so is Jaime Roson for Caja Rural.
|Fabio Aru, Miguel Ángel López, Ilur Zakarin, Adam Yates, Alberto Contador
|Esteban Chaves, Romain Bardet, Julian Alaphilippe, Wout Poels, Wilco Kelderman
|Kruijswijk, Jungels, Barguil, Simon Yates, de la Cruz, Majka, Bennett, Meintjes