The third and final Grand Tour of 2016, the Vuelta signals the start of the final phase of the 2016 season and is the final throw of the dice for Grand Tour contenders who missed out at the Tour and the Giro. It’s also been used as key preparation for those targeting the World Championships in October, but, with this year’s course set to be a sprint fest, the harsh parcours of the Vuelta (with ten summit finishes and only the final stage into Madrid a guaranteed bunch sprint) has seen few sprinters sign up. (The organiser has gone on record to say that he doesn’t want his race to be used as a warm up event for something else…). The Vuelta’s loss will be the Tour of Britain’s and Eneco Tour’s gains, in respects to sprinting.
The youngest of the Grand Tours, the Vuelta was first run in 1935, and, like its sister Grand Tours, it was originally devised to promote the circulation of a local rag, the daily Informaciones. It’s a race that has gone through many changes in the past, with the race only being run ten times between 1935-1955, due the Spanish Civil War and World War II. During the 60s and 70s the race grew in prestige and credibility amongst the peloton. When Jacques Anquetil won the race in 1963, he became the first rider to win all three Grand Tours.
During the last decade, Alberto Contador (in 2008), and Vincenzo Nibali (in 2010) achieved the ‘Grand Tour Treble’. Contador also won in 2012, one month after returning from a doping suspension. Alejandro Valverde won his one and only Grand Tour in 2009 and 2011 was the race that supposedly saved Chris Froome’s career at Sky, when he finished 2nd behind Juan Jose Cobo and ahead of Bradley Wiggins in 3rd. In 2013 we saw Chris Horner become the oldest ever winner of a Grand Tour at the ripe old age of 41!
With the almost complete lack of purely flat stages the teams have gone all out on choosing their best climbers to fill their 9 slots. We’re slightly concerned that the race’s brutality might actually hinder the abilities of the riders to perform at their best. Remember the profile of stage 11 from last year’s Vuelta? Billed as the hardest stage ever, it actually resulted in a fairly unenjoyable race for both riders and viewers as the brave cyclists did all they could to haul themselves over the finish line. We’re hoping this isn’t going to be indicative of this year’s Vuelta and we are able to see some proper racing, not the peloton (rightly) struggling day in day out with the non stop climbs that greet them.
Last year’s race was surprising, dramatic, and went down to the wire. It was our pick of the the Grand Tours, and we are hoping for more of the attacking and tight racing that the race has been known for over recent years. We mentioned previously that the Vuelta is the final chance for those who missed out at the previous two Grand Tours, so that is the way we are going to lay out our main G.C. contenders:
2015 was a breakthrough year for Chaves, first at the Giro and then at the Vuelta. At the latter, he stormed the first week, winning two stages and wearing the leader’s jersey. He wasn’t able to keep up this performance and faded towards the end of the race, but still finished 5th overall. Like last year, his focus has been a Giro-Vuelta double, and prior to the Giro he had only raced at two stage races — his best positions on G.C. being 30th at Tirreno Adriatico before heading to Colombia to train before the Giro. The reduced level of racing and training at altitude obviously worked for him, and he finished second. Since then he has only raced the Olympic Road Race, and he has been in his native Colombia preparing for the Vuelta. The course suits him more than the Giro. He prefers the longer, steeper climbs and will also be the rider to beat on the short steep finishes we’ll see here. He will also benefit from a very strong team. Simon Yates has returned to racing and will be keen to keep pace with his brother Adam’s success at the Tour. Chaves will be the leader, but Yates will support and be ready to take over should the Colombian falter. The young Aussie climber Jack Haig will also be a key man for Chaves in the mountains. Anything but a podium finish will be seen as a disappointment, and that is a sign of how far Chaves and his team have come over the last two years.
Dutch G.C. riders are having a stellar period at the moment. Dumoulin’s performance at last year’s Vuelta and Mollema’s revival at this year’s Tour have given the Dutch fans some real hope, and the promise of a first Grand Tour win since Joop Zoetemelk at the 1980 Tour. Kruijswijk is a rider similar to Chaves in the sense that 2015 was a break through year for him. But he has also been around on the World Tour scene a lot longer, with an 8th place finish on G.C. at the 2011 Giro. At this year’s Giro he was arguably the man who should have won in many people’s eyes. A momentary loss of concentration on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello cost him the lead and ultimately a place on the podium. Before that he was by some stretch the strongest man in the race, and he will need to recapture that same level of form and fitness if he is going to compete at the Vuelta. Like Chaves, he hasn’t raced much since the Giro, only taking part in San Sebastian and the Olympic Road Race, in neither of which did he show great form. He has also recently been ill, so that will also have an effect on his final preparations. However, he will be better supported at the Vuelta than he was at the Giro, with Robert Gesink, George Bennett and Koen Bouwman his main men in the mountains. Enrico Battaglin could make a valuable workhorse on the flat and in the early stages. The climbs at the Vuelta should suit Kruijswijk, and he will look to target the time trial to gain seconds on his rivals. A podium is a serious possibility, and, after his Giro heartache, he will be even more determined. It all depends on post-illness form.
Valverde has once again been Mr. Consistent this year, and is now aiming to be only the third rider to have top 10 G.C. finishes in all three Grand Tours in one season. Valverde didn’t go into the Giro aiming for the win, but he came out of it with a stage win and 3rd spot on the podium. He was also key for Quintana at the Tour and worked hard for the Colombian, though his leader never quite delivered. He followed this up with a 3rd place at San Sebastian and was then fairly invisible during the Olympic Road Race. The Vuelta is the only Grand Tour Valverde has won, and the short steep finishes should suit him well, but he might struggle on the longer climbs in the final week. He will be Movistar’s leader for this one, and expect Quintana to return the favour shown to him at the Tour by taking up super-superdomestique duties. A podium finish could be a bridge too far for El Bala (it would be an astonishing achievement), but a top 10 is definitely possible.
Moving on to the big loser of the Tour de France, Alberto Contador’s Tour ended before it had really begun after he crashed twice in the opening two stages amidst the disharmonious dismantling of the Tinkoff team. This is now no longer a farewell race for him, as he is continuing until at least 2017 with Trek-Segafrado. He looks to have put the Tour setbacks behind him, and, whilst the likes of Froome, Chaves and Kruiswijk were in Rio, he was winning the overall at the Vuelta a Burgos and looks to be in good form coming into the race. He’ll have good support in the mountains with Robert Kišerlovski, Jesús Hernández, Ivan Rovny, and Yuri Trofimov. He is guaranteed to light up any race he enters, something that was greatly missed in the later stages of the Tour this year, and you can never write off Contador.
Much was talked up about Quintana before the Tour and he failed to make his mark on the race. His one meaningful attack on Mont Ventoux was easily reeled back in by Sky, and after that he didn’t look like challenging for the win. He still managed to finish 3rd behind Froome and Bardet, though he never lived up to the pre-race hype. He hasn’t raced since, and he withdrew from the Colombian Olympic squad and return to his homeland to do some soul searching, which means he’s coming into this race relatively fresh. However, he is also riding in support of Valverde, but his experienced teammate has never ridden three Grand Tours in one season before and so could suffer from fatigue come the final week. Daniel Moreno will be another key support to both riders and it looks like team leader status could ultimately be decided out on the road. On his day, Quintana is the only man to take the race to an in form Froome, so we’ll be hoping that he comes to this race in fine fettle.
Tejay Van Garderan
Tejay is another rider who had a very disappointing Tour, however, his fall from the group of main contenders was more spectacular than was Contador’s. He lost nearly 20 minutes to his rivals on Stage 17, and, despite his teammate Richie Porte being victim to horrendous bad luck throughout the race, Richie still managed to finish higher than Van Garderen. On paper, the nature of the Vuelta is less likely to suit the American, and his team have said that it will be Sammy Sánchez who will be the race leader, but that Van Garderen will be protected. Darwin Atapuma, who finished 10th at the Giro, could also be a plan C.
Part of the young generation of French G.C. hopefuls, Barguil was one of the riders to watch going into the tour, but it soon turned out that he either didn’t have the form or the motivation. We think the latter, as he was on leadout duty for John Degenkolb into Bern on Stage 16, which showed he had strong legs but perhaps not the G.C. ambition. Previously he has gone well at the Vuelta; he won two stages in 2013 and finished 8th overall in 2014. It also looks to have been his target for the year. On his day he is capable of challenging for the G.C., however, his team has stated that stage wins for Barguil as well as Chad Haga and Nikias Arndt are the goal.
There is one rider that absolutely nailed his target this year and that’s Chris Froome. He and Sky were dominant and, in truth, unchallenged during the Tour, despite Froome’s attempts to turn it into a duathlon event. He then went on to double up on his bronze medal in the Olympic time trial. After his failed attempted at the Vuelta after the Tour in 2012, he stated that the feat of contesting both was too great; however, he has unfinished business at this race and would be the first rider since Carlos Sastre to be the only reigning Tour de France champ to go on to win the Vuelta since its move to September. His approach this year has been different, and, due to the Olympics, has been about recovery rather than insistent training camps and stage reconnaissance. Also, the fact that he wasn’t challenged as much as his previous Tour victories means he should be fresher coming into the race, despite the trip to Rio. His team is equally as strong with Leopold König and the young American Ian Boswell acting as his support in the mountains. Peter Kennaugh, Michal Kwiatkowski and Salvatore Puccio will be there too, to drive or control the pace in the early stages. On paper, he goes into this race as the man to beat, though we hope it’s a closer affair than we saw at this year’s Tour.
Other riders that we haven’t mentioned but who will also be capable of a top 10 in G.C. are Astana’s Tour de Suisse winner Miguel Angel Lopez, Caja Rural’s young British climber Hugh Carthy, The Cannondale-Drapac trio of Joe Dombrowski, Davide Formolo and Andrew Talansky (who would like a big result here to save their dismal season), Louis Meintjes (who must surely be shattered after an astounding ride in the Tour de France), and AG2R’s young French G.C. man Pierre Latour, who finished 3rd in the recent Tour de l’Ain. With all this talent on show, it looks set to be another vintage Vuelta. But here’s who we think will end up wearing the red jersey in Madrid:
Andy – Nairo Quintana. Mainly because he has something to prove after the Tour and that the gradients and number of climbs will suit his style. It might be a toss up between himself and Valverde for leadership of the Movistar team, but as soon as the mountains take their grip on the race, Andy thinks Quintana will show the form his Tour performance lacked and zoom off, up and away.
Chris – Alberto Contador. Others on Team Marmeladrome don’t rate Contador’s chances so highly, but Chris feels he knows an in form favourite when he sees one, and Contador looks like he’s soaring at the moment. His Tour was a write-off, his training schedule went out the window, but Bertie is hardly the kind of rider to let a little thing like that perturb him. If he doesn’t win this one, he won’t be far behind.
James – Esteban Chaves. It’s only a matter of time before Chaves and Orica-BikeExchange take an overall win at a Grand Tour, and this year’s Vuelta is their best chance to date. Following on from a supreme Giro, where it was a case of one stage too far, Chaves can use the support of Yates and Haig in the mountains to keep pace with the likes of Sky and then show the explosive riding that he did in last year’s race to take stage wins and the overall. Vamos Esteban!