Much like it is for the riders, the Vuelta is the last chance saloon for journalists and bloggers to save their seasons. Whereas for those riders it’s mostly about coming back from underwhelming Grand Tours, for us it’s because we didn’t pick out Greg Van Avermaert as the favourite to win the Olympic Road Race. So here we all are in the final throws of Summer, all trying to save our seasons on the roads of Spain.
It’s not strictly true that all of the GC contenders in the Vuelta are trying to save disastrous seasons. Some of them, like Chris Froome, have had great seasons, hitting pretty much every target he has aimed at. For him the Vuelta is often the first step in preparing for the following year’s Tour. That’s what makes the Vuelta such a fascinating proposition, some riders are there with absolutely no pressure at all, others with absolutely loads of it, and plenty more of them with motivations that will be impossible to fathom until the first few mountain stages are out of the way. Here I’m going to try and make sense of the final Grand Tour of the season.
So what is the Parcours like? Well it looks like someone has been asked to draw the longest straight line they can, using their wrong hand, whilst sat on a belt sander. There’s barely an ounce of flat in it. At least 8 of the stages finish on an uphill, 5 of those at the top of mountains. In fact only 4 of the stages are listed as being flat, and the first of those has a big lump just 9kms out from the finish. There was a time when the Vuelta offered a more balanced profile, a balance that meant riders like Sean Kelly could win the race. These days it’s one for the pure climbers. The pure climbers and Chris Horner.
So it’s not a race for the sprinters, which means the teams are mostly coming armed with climbers, rouleurs, and breakaway specialists. The sprinters that are here, awaiting their potentially 4 chances to win, are not the superstars of sprinting. A lot of them don’t even spend the best part of their seasons in service of one of the superstars of sprinting. Tinkoff are bringing Daniele Bennati, Giant-Alpecin have Niklas Arndt, BMC have Jean-Pierre Drucker, Trek-Segafredo have Bonifazio and Reijnen, Dimension Data have Sbaragli and Farrar, and that’s about it. There are other names like Gianni Meersman and Jelle Wallays that I could mention too, but neither is an out and out sprinter, much like some of the other names I’ve listed. What this means is that we won’t see too many lead out trains, the ones we do see probably won’t be that long, and that gives other riders all the more reason to attack, even on the 4 so called flat days. Bunch sprints are definitely not going to be assured at this tour. Hopefully that means fewer crashes and some really exciting finishes.
When looking at who the main contenders are, and how many of the big GC riders are at the race, it’s easier to look at who’s not here. The Asatana pair of Aru and Nibali are absent. Aru won the race last year but had a pretty dreadful tour, and Nibali is presumably winding down his Astana commitments before heading over to an even more ethically challenging situation with the Bahrain-Merida team. Bauke Mollema is not going to be at the race, but up until this year’s tour we would not have seemed much of a loss. Sky have lost Landa, who would have been a protected rider, and they’re not bringing Thomas or Poels. Orica-BikeExchange have left Adam Yates behind but do have his twin brother Simon, and then there’s the French contingent of Bardet (AG2R) and Pinot (FDJ) who are also absent. Other than that the big names are all here. Now we just have to work out what they’re here for.
When Contador is faced with adversity he comes back and wins the Vuelta. In 2008 his Astana team were barred from the Tour De France and so he went and won the Vuelta. In 2012 he was banned for 6 months following his positive test for Clenbuterol. His contract with Team Saxo-Bank was annulled, but he was resigned once his ban was completed and he went on to win the Vuelta, taking the race after a thrilling ambush of Jaoquim Rodriguez on the stage to Fuente De.
In 2014 he crashed out of the Tour and “broke his leg”. Guess what happened next? Yup, a few weeks later he was winning the Vuelta.
This year he quit the Tour following two crashes on the opening two days, compounded by a fever before the start of stage 9. You know what that means.
Froome crashed out of last year’s Vuelta and has previously finished second twice (2011 and 2014), as well as being fourth in 2012. He says he has ‘unfinished business’ with the Vuelta, but I’m not expecting him to hit the race in top form. His showing in both the Olympic Road Race and Time Trial seemed to suggest he was coming down from his tour peak, and there’s definitely not been enough time for him to reach another one here. The best hope for Froome is that his form builds throughout the race. Not a bad tactic as the final week is heavy on the climbing, plus it features an individual time trial. With Froome under no pressure we may even get to see more of the exciting, opportunistic riding he showed us in the Tour. This time Sky don’t come with their strongest line up so don’t expect a line of sky boys controlling the bunch up every climb either. Despite not having their strongest line up they still feature riders like, luxury signing Michael Kwiatkowski, and team-leader anywhere else Peter Kennaugh so we can definitely expect them to go after a few stage wins that animate the race, rather than just sitting on the front and shutting it down.
Froome may have no pressure on him but Quintana has at least some. Probably quite a lot. He may underperformed at the Tour, or we may have just got him wrong. Maybe he’s not the pure explosive climber we want him to be, and actually he’s more of a diesel engine. Personally I still believe he’s somewhere in the middle, but he definitely needs to start delivering on his promise. For all that we consider him one of the top Grand Tour riders, he’s only managed to win one three-week tour, the Giro in 2014, and that one he took with the help of a controversial attack on the stage to Val Martello when many of his rivals thought the race had been neutralised. Next season he’ll be 27 too, so we can’t keep thinking of him as a young rider to be nurtured. He’s a mature rider who should be ready to deliver. Nairo wasn’t himself at the Tour, whether that was down to illness or just to lack of form, so maybe the fact that he’s yet to peak in 2016 will be to his advantage. He’s also avoided the hassle of the Olympics so could be coming into the race fresher than riders like Froome. Remembering back to the 2015 Tour, when Quintana was the strongest rider in the final week, would suggest that if his form heads upwards throughout this race then he could well be on the top step of the podium. He comes with a strong team too. Alejandro Valverde, mr consistent, lines up for his third Grand Tour of the season, hoping to be one of the few riders to finish in the top ten of all three in a single season. That’s not a burden that is likely to weigh heavy on the Spaniard, and the punchy uphill finishes are likely to really interest him. Stage wins and attacks will be on the menu for Alejandro.
Even more so than Valverde, Tejay Van Garderen comes to the race with a different agenda to usual. After two disappointing Tours De France, one thanks to illness, one to complete lack of form, TVG comes to this race to have some fun. If he’s to ever trouble the top step of a podium he needs to hunt out seconds and wins rather than limiting losses, here he’s promised to hunt wins above a podium place. If it works out then that might give him something extra to take into next seasons campaigns. It should be well worth watching. BMC seem well set to hunt down stages with a line up that also includes Philippe Gilbert and Darwin Atapuma, although the latter has had his fair share of success this season and so may test himself as an overall contender. Sammy Sanchez is their team leader but I can only see him getting one of the top ten positions that is closer to ten than it is to one.
Cannondale-Drapac bring a team that is definitely going to be worth watching. Pierre Rolland is coming along but he almost always ends up in the ‘lose loads of time, go for stage wins late in the race’ role. The two protected riders for the team in green will be Andrew Talansky and Joe Dombrowski. Dombrowski was supposed to lead the team at the Tour Of Utah but the two swapped roles with Talansky proving to be the stronger of the two on his way to second place. Talansky actually seemed to be enjoying himself which is strange for a rider known for being ridiculously grumpy. His form and mood bodes well for a high placed finish here. The same goes for Joe Dombrowski who was super impressive at the Giro, and was by far the strongest on the team after Rigoberto Uran failed to deliver. It’s early in Dombrowski’s career so he’ll go into this race with very little pressure. Expect him to be Talansky’s last man in the mountains and then the two will take it from there. Joe’s got a good chance of winning a Grand Tour in the next 3 years, but for now a top ten would be a very significant step.
Vying hard for my heart and mind alongside Joe Dombrowski, is Orica-BikeExchange’s Esteban Chaves. Absolutely magnificent in defeat to Nibali in the Giro, it was at the Vuelta last year when he emerged as a serious Grand Tour contender. He spent six days in the red jersey, in two stints, before finishing fifth overall. We’ve barely seen anything of him since the Giro so who knows what shape he’s in. He was present in the Olympic Road Race, finishing in 21st place, but that result was shaped by the fact that he had a rider, Sergio Henao, at the front of the race. Whilst his twin brother, Adam, was riding to fourth place and the white jersey at the Tour De France, Simon Yates was sat at home serving a doping ban that should technically be called an administrative error ban. When he was finally allowed to race again he duly went and won the Prueba Villafranca de Ordizia. Despite subtle difference in styles and specialities to his brother, the overall effect is said to be pretty much the same. He’ll be targeting a top ten finish and with it the young riders jersey.
My final rider to watch may not figure in the top ten come the end of the race, but it will be interesting to see how Caja Rural-Seguros’ Hugh Carthy figures over three-weeks. He’s from the same region as Adam and Simon Yates, and is a couple of years younger. He’s taken a different approach to making it as a pro to other British cyclists. He’s not been part of the British Cycling factory that seems to churn out riders, rather he opted for a ride with a Spanish pro-continental team after a spell with Rapha Condor-JLT in the UK. It’s been the move to Caja Rural-Seguros that has seen his climbing talent come to the fore, and has earned him a move to Cannondale-Drapac next year, just another reason for me to love that team. This year Carthy has won the Vuelta a Asturia overall, and was up there with the best at the Volta a Catalunya where he finished ninth.
The Vuelta remains the hardest Grand Tour to predict, Chris Horner anyone? But it has firmly established itself as the one with the most exciting racing. The other thing going for the Vuelta is that it now looks good on TV. Since ASO got involved in the race they’ve seen that it has become much more photogenic, vitally important to TV audiences, even if that means it has to go uphill, seemingly for most of the race. I can’t wait.
Incidentally if you're looking for some great coverage and analysis of the race, then check out The Cycling Podcast. They’ll be putting out a daily show covering the Vuelta, for the first time. I’ll be producing quite a few of them.