Three weeks in the boiling Spanish sun beckon. Long transfers, short stages and the traditional short, steep climbs that characterise the race will be the fare for the third Grand Tour of the season.
The stage profiles are interesting and don’t necessarily lend themselves to the same type of rider that can win the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France. The ‘rampes inhumanes’ (just what it sounds like) at the end of some of these stages are more suited to some of the punchier riders, cyclists who have a bit of pedigree at the classics.
Tired riders can’t perform to the same level of the ‘Team Sky train’ at the Tour de France, shorter stages encourage more attacking riding and the fact there’s slightly less attention means that you have more teams going for the win, rather than simply maintaining a top 10 GC place.
Add in the fact that La Vuelta isn’t your traditional Grand Tour in terms of preparation – riders are either coming off the Tour de France or limited racing after a lengthy spell out of racing – and you can see why the Vuelta often throws up unexpected winners.
Chris Horner and J.J. Cobo are past surprise victors here. They out-duelled Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome respectively to take their wins, proof that it’s not just the big favourites who can wear red in Spain.
That said, the rider that everyone is talking about is Chris Froome and whether he can be the first man to complete the Tour/Vuelta double since Bernard Hinault in 1983.
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Whilst he has every right to be ecstatic with his Tour de France victory, it wasn’t the most convincing triumph from the British star. He looked vulnerable at times, struggled on the steepest sections of the climbs and hasn’t actually won a single stage this year. Not the peerless climber he used to be, he found that he couldn’t shake the likes of Bardet and Uran, but still managed to bloody-mindedly find himself a way to victory on the back of strong time trialling.
The good news for Froome is that there are a 13.7 km team time trial and a 40 km individual time trial for him to establish an advantage if he can’t do so on the climbs. Brings a very strong team, with Mikel Nieve, Diego Rosa and Wout Poels good enough to be GC leaders in their own right. It’s also the first time he’s specifically targeted the Tour/Vuelta double and one thing we know about Froome is his ability to hit targets.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
The Shark of Messina is back and likely to be hungry after coming so close in the Giro d’Italia. Finishing third there by 40 seconds, Nibali was in the race right up until the final day, when Tom Dumoulin completed his time trial blitz to take pink. Nibali has won the Vuelta before, he knows what it takes to conquer the steep roads and he is better suited to do it than most with his classics pedigree.
Time-trialling isn’t a forte of his, but it’s also not a glaring weakness, he’ll be better than the majority of GC favourites, but will concede time to Froome. His team will be one of the weaker ones, expect to see him relying on Giovanni Visconti if things go pear-shaped, and his Bahrain-Merida teammates might have trouble controlling the race if he does end up in red.
His current form is a bit anaemic, coming off ninth overall at the Tour of Poland, but for Nibali it’s pretty normal to have a fairly anonymous build-up before a big result.
Rafal Majka (BORA-Hansgrohe)
Majka was the second high-profile transfer of the off-season to BORA-Hansgrohe, but it’s safe to say he’s been outclassed by the world champion, Peter Sagan. Not entirely his fault, he crashed out of his big objective of the season, the Tour de France, on the same stage that claimed Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas.
He’ll need to justify his status as a team leader with a strong performance at the Vuelta a España. He has a history at the race, he finished third in 2015 and looks well-suited to the course here. Majka has a sneakily good classics pedigree, he’s not an automatic favourite for the one-day races, but that didn’t stop him taking bronze at the Olympics after looking to be the winner at one stage. A good time-triallist and in solid form at the moment after second at the Tour of Poland.
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo)
The swansong for the controversial and spectacular career of Alberto Contador is finally upon us. It’s hard to expect more from him than we saw at the Tour de France, where he was at his best in terms of ambitious, attacking riding but at his worst in terms of strength.
‘El Pistolero’ will be remembered for a great many things, but the Vuelta will be the last chance to see his swashbuckling panache in action live.
Fabio Aru (Astana)
Aru returns for the first time to the scene of his only Grand Tour victory, where he had the world at his feet after overcoming Tom Dumoulin late on to take the win as just a 25-year-old in 2015. Now more experienced and with a few more agonising defeats behind him, will it again be a triumph for the Italian?
It seems unlikely, he was visibly tiring towards the end of the Tour. While his form was superb at the start, winning up to the Planche des Belles Filles and even taking yellow a few stages later, it wasn’t to last. He also hasn’t done the back-to-back Grand Tour effort before, something that requires experience and a certain type of rider to work well.
The Orica-Scott three (Esteban Chaves, Adam and Simon Yates)
It will be the first time that all three of the general classification candidates are together on the start line for a Grand Tour, and after not living up to the lofty standards they set for themselves in 2016, the Vuelta a España represents the last chance to take that coveted first massive win.
Adam Yates would have had big expectations going into the Giro this year, his fourth last year at the Tour showed that he could have been a winner in the Italian race. An untimely crash and a team split between supporting him and Caleb Ewan meant that the best he could do was ninth overall. He’s been rested and after warming up with a promising Tour of Poland showing, he will be primed to go here. Has the classics pedigree and punch necessary to win here and has improved his time-trialling markedly.
Simon Yates was sixth last year at this race, seventh at the Tour de France this year and will come into the race with the unknown of trying to do his first successive Tour/Vuelta back-up. Very similar in ability to Adam and it will be interesting to see how the twins interact on the road. It's hard to see him outperforming his more rested brother, but Orica-Scott could use him in an attacking fashion to stretch out the race.
Esteban Chaves is the great unknown. Already struggling with injury and coming into the Tour de France this year under-done, he was then hit with the emotional blow of the death of a close friend. That he completed the Tour de France says something, but he was unsighted for almost the entire race.
If he is in a position where he can focus on racing to the best of his ability, he is a genuine contender. The short, sharp climbs suit him perfectly. Very similar terrain in the 2015 Vuelta had him in the race lead early as he consistently left the more high profile names in his wake. He went on to finish third at that race, and together with his second at the Giro, he just needs that elusive win to complete his set of podium positions.
With the parcours for the Vuelta, it opens the race up to more than the traditional winners of Grand Tours, so it would be remiss not to mention a few that might upset the apple cart.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) rode to a fine fifth at the Giro d'Italia this year and has the time-trialling ability and climbing legs to be a candidate for the win here. Has lacked the consistency in the past and had some injuries but the Russian is capable of taking the win.
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) will probably be working for Aru, but if let off the leash, the young Colombian has the ability to surge clear on these steep climbs.
Louis Meintjes and Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) will be the joint leaders of the struggling squad, with both targeting the Vuelta GC. If push comes to shove, Costa will be favoured over Meintjes, with the South African set to head to Dimension Data when the season’s over. Also, Costa has already won a red jersey this year, taking out his sponsor's home race in Abu Dhabi.
Steven Kruijswijk was disappointing at the Giro d’Italia this season after being so impressive the year before. He’ll need to recapture that 2016 form to be a factor here, but he does come in fresh, a big advantage.
Have a go at picking the podium from that lot, there are even a few others that could jump up and surprise as well. Here’s my effort, more than happy to be proved wrong by what should be one of the most entertaining battles for a Grand Tour GC in living memory.
- Vincenzo Nibali
- Rafal Majka
- Rui Costa