Among the GC contenders, there is a huge variation in form and their raison d'être in Spain: just because one can ride GC doesn't mean they will, or have the urge to. As for the rest, many have announced a change of team or are in search for a new one, or are preparing for the upcoming road world championships in Innsbruck, Austria, which begins a week after the end of the Vuelta, making outfits less cohesive than at the Giro d'Italia or Tour de France.
Five days before the start in Malaga, Richie Porte made it abundantly clear his form was a mystery, unlike the whereabouts of his team for the next two years (Read: Porte confirms move to Trek-Segafredo): "I would like to do well in my last Grand Tour for BMC Racing Team but you never know where your form is when you haven't had an ideal run into a race," he said.
"After crashing out of the Tour de France, I had to have some time off and it took me a while to get back to work due to my injuries. I have put in some good training since then but I won't be lining up in the shape I was in before the Tour de France."
Added the 33-year-old Tasmanian: "There's definitely also a carrot dangling in front of me at the Vuelta with the UCI World Championships being a climber's course, so it will be good preparation for that."
The bookmakers weren't convinced, calling Porte's bluff as to his real motives. "Richie Porte is down with the bookies as the outright favourite for the Vuelta a España overall title," read Cycling Weekly the following day, "despite having never won a Grand Tour and having not finished one since 2016. His shortest odds are 5/2 but you can get him at 3/1 from some bookmakers."
On the eve of the race he got hit with tummy troubles, compounding his woe since Stage 9 of the Tour, and was forced to miss the team presentation. Yet that was still not enough for a large cohort of the punditry. I mean, what's a man gotta do to tell you he's not riding GC? Go to the team prez and poo in his bib shorts while conducting a live interview?!
Finishing midway in the pack in the time trial opener, 51 seconds adrift of team-mate Rohan Dennis who won the stage, it was not till the first road leg to Caminito del Rey that the beleaguered Porte shed his favourite status, finishing in the last group on the road, 13'31" behind stage winner Alejandro Valverde of Movistar.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) was another who didn't disguise his overall ambitions. He too crashed out of the Tour and required back surgery after incurring the wrath of a spectator's camera strap on Alpe d'Huez, having not raced since the incident. "A successful Vuelta for me would mean being a protagonist in some nice stages as I'm still in a recovery process," burbled The Shark of Messina the day Cycling Weekly published its story on the bookies' favourites. "It's hard for me to think of the overall classification with so few days of training behind me. Ideally, for me personally, I'd love to win stages in the last week of racing."
While paying nowhere near the odds of Porte, last year's runner-up was nonetheless awarded roughly the same pre-race odds as Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac). The day Valverde won, the Sicilian lost a touch over four minutes while the latter pair is nicely placed at 19th and 20th overall, 47 and 48 seconds adrift of race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky).
When it comes to honesty and credibility, relative to some of your low life bookmakers who would sell their own mother if they could, Porte and Nibali have got it in spades, so you've only got yourself to blame if you put any more than a dollar dazzler on either finishing first in Madrid on September 16.
The Vuelta parcours is also notorious for not allowing riders aiming for GC to ease their way into condition or contention: the first nine days include three medium mountain stages and, on day nine, before the first rest day, a high mountain test to La Covatilla, 1,965 metres above sea level and after 15.3 kilometres' ascending. And as you may have seen on Stage 2, even those marked 'flat' by organisers Unipublic can be anything but: in Caminito del Rey only Valverde and Kwiatkowski finished on the same time; behind them, a group of 10, then a group of 15, then 1, then 5, then 1, then 2 and so on and so on.
Maybe not decisive, but certainly selective. Reports are that the weather's as hot as it's ever been this summer in Spain, and just like the race for the final Grand Tour crown this season, it's unlikely to abate till Madrid.