Looking for La Vuelta a Espana

Adam Becket previews the 3rd Grand Tour of the year.

Everybody knows about Le Tour, even those whose eyes glaze over when you talk about professional cycling. At a push, the Giro d’Italia is quite well known, and many think of it as the toughest grand tour. That leaves one more three week race, the Vuelta a España, the last of the year; and this year’s race is shaping up to be one of the best ever.

Following the Tour de France, all three of the podium are coming to Spain, along with another from the top five: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali respectively. Add two of this year’s Giro to the equation, Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa, plus Tejay van Garderen and Joaquin Rodriguez, and it makes quite the race. With this many star riders, this Vuelta can’t be unexciting; the competition for the Maillot Rojo will see sparks fly.

Can Froome and Quintana carry their form across from the Tour to the Vuelta? Froome appeared to be flagging towards the end, whilst Quintana only grew stronger.

Froome is targeting a Tour-Vuelta double, something only Jacques Anquetil in 1963 and Bernard Hinault in 1978 have achieved. Furthermore, no one has managed the feat since the Vuelta moved to after the Tour in the 1990’s, Carlos Sastre being the only Tour de France champion to even start the Vuelta a month later. If Froome does achieve it, it will be a historic feat, and Sky’s 4th grand tour in as many years.

After a Tour de France where Team Sky and Froome appeared hard to get even close to, it is Astana that seem overwhelmingly strong for the race; they boast previous winner Nibali, plus young general classification prospects Aru and Landa. Movistar have Spanish national champion and former Vuelta champion Valverde, and the former Giro champion, hot favourite to win, Quintana. La Vuelta suddenly has a new dimension to it, a clash of the titans, a line-up that beats those at Giro.

To add even more spice, the race will also feature four-time Tour de France points winner, Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), as the Slovak goes for the Vuelta’s equivalent.

This star-studded race has the potential to be one of the best ever, especially if one adds Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Garmin), Rafael Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Tom Dumoulin and John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin).

The race is 3,300km long, the longest for 16 editions, so it will be a tough three weeks. This year’s Vuelta doesn’t just seem exciting because of its line-up, the route is also radically different. Tough climbs feature early in the course, with mountains in the opening week, and the toughest stage of the race featuring as early as stage 11.

Just after the rest day, riders face 5,200 metres of climbing in the Pyrenees, as the stage takes place entirely in Andorra. The queen stage of the race will surely sort out the leading contenders and give some indication of where the Maillot Rojo will be ending up. What’s more, all of the summit finishes are brand new to the Vuelta, meaning experience of the race won’t necessarily matter. The particularly violent course will surely benefit an out and out climber like Nairo Quintana. The second week features three summit finishes back to back, which could be the point the race is won. Make sure your diary is clear on the 4th, 5th and 6th September.

If the favourites all make it to the second rest day, through the toughest of the mountains, expect the individual time trial to be crucial. If Froome is in good form and survives to that point, one suspects that this will be his chance to put the hammer down and gain time on his rivals. This is the second time trial of the race, after the team time trial on the opening day, and its length of 39 kilometres means that it could end a leading contender’s Vuelta. Quintana will hope that he has enough time in the bank to lose time in the TT, the Colombian being a notorious underperformer in a skinsuit. Last year Quintana crashed in the TT, and he can’t afford to lose too much time to those who perform well in a time trial, Chris Froome or Alejandro Valverde.

The green jersey, Maillot Verde, will be Peter Sagan’s target, but he will face stiff competition from last year’s winner John Degenkolb, along with Cofidis sprinter Nacer Bouhanni. Degenkolb will hope to dominate the sprints as he did last year, and with Bouhanni there as well, there may be little opportunity for anyone else on the flat stages.

It’s hard to look past the leading GC contenders for both the King of the Mountains and combination jerseys, although Rafael Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) or Rodriguez may well be up there, especially if their challenge for overall victory doesn’t work out.

The Vuelta promises to excite right through to the final days, the punchy terrain of the last week should mean that no GC contender can relax. It’s a gamble packing the mountains early into the race but the hilly parcour of the penultimate stages towards the capital should mean the Vuelta remains lively, and the man on the top step of the podium will deserve it.