There were no huge surprises from stage one, but here’s a couple of things to take note of after the TTT. One is that the race leader, Sky’s Peter Kennaugh, shares his lead with nine other riders — crucially, these include his own team leader Chris Froome, and all the important Movistar riders, including Quintana, Valverde, and Castroviejo. Dani Moreno is only a further second back, Orica’s main men are 6 seconds back, and BMC lag by 7 seconds. But the big bit of news is that Tinkoff, and Alberto Contador in particular, have already lost 52 seconds on Froome and Valverde/Quintana, and 46 seconds on Chaves. This is the sort of time Contador could easily take back on a single climb if it were behind a second-rate climber in any sense, but those guys are all the best of the best. This means Bertie will have to be on the attack from early on in this Vuelta, and his campaign has really not got off to the best of starts.
Stage 2 is about as sprint-friendly as we’ll be seeing things in the Vuelta this year, so no real chance for Contador just yet. The organizers themselves have been making jokes about how even some of their ‘flat’ stages actually end on horrendously steep climbs this year, which is one reason why so few sprinters are signed up to this tour. Regardless, 160.8km is short enough for the pace to be kept high, and the only serious climb on offer is the cat 3 Alto de Fontefria at around the stage’s mid-way point. Mind you, it’s cat 3 in the continental sense — it rises over 600m, it’s 8.2km in length, and its average gradient of 3.2% conceals the intensely steep opening kilometres. There’s no double-figure gradients on offer, but it certainly takes the riders above 3%. The stage ends with an intermediate sprint at 20km to go, and then a little bump with 10km to go. Nothing to shake off the sprint teams, we think, so let’s look at the sprinters who will fancy a stage win here.
In honesty, it’s a mix of second-tier sprinters and the faster puncheurs here, with the best of the fast men taking their pre-world champs warm ups to flatter pastures. However, this might well make for some exciting, hard-to-predict racing. One of the best must be Niccolo Bonifazio, the Trek man with a recent Tour de Pologne win to his name. He’s got multiple second place wins this year, but he was behind riders like Matthews and Kittel — a class of sprinter absent from this race (he was also third, right behind Kristoff, on that bonkers day in the Dauphiné when Aru went on a late charge and beat the sprinters to the line). He’s got a really good chance of taking some big grand tour stage wins here, though the points jersey will be a hard one to keep. Trek also have Fabio Felline, and it’ll be interesting to see how the priority is divided between them, or if Felline will ride with dedication for Bonifazio.
Right behind Bonifazio is Nikias Arndt for Giant-Alpecin. Arndt has really performed this season, with a spectacular final stage win in Turin at the end of a hard Giro d’Italia, and plenty of strong top 5 placings throughout the year. He’s beaten some great riders, and the ones that have beaten him aren’t around in this Vuelta. It’s an excellent chance for him to get another big Grand Tour win, so expect Giant to ride hard towards the finish in Baiona.
In honesty, we expect the stage win to be fought between Bonifazio and Arndt, and there’s a notable step further down the sprint ladder to the next riders. Foremost amongst them must be Jean-Pierre Drucker, who has also had some good showings this year, and managed a decent win in the Tour of Luxembourg. Whether BMC will put much firepower into a sprint train remains to be seen, so he might end up fighting to find wheels on his own. Kristian Sbaragli might make a nice outsider; the Dimension Data rider doesn’t get a superabundance of chance to sprint, given the likes of Cavendish and Boasson Hagen on their squad, but when he does he tends to be a solid top 5 rider, and the men who beat him to the podium, we remind you, won’t be seen in Spain. Gianni Meersman might like a go here, though he’d prefer it tougher in the finish, and this might be too clean a sprint for his punchy style to have much effect; that said, he’s sure to be amongst the fastest finishers in this race, so Etixx will be sure to support him well.
We also rate Magnus Cort Nielsen for this. He’s had no blindingly brilliant results to speak of this year, but he won a stage as recently as last month in Denmark, ahead of riders like Moreno Hofland. He’s certainly got the pace at the finish, and we’d expect Orica to be riding on a pretty good high after their team time trial performance. He was amongst the first riders to hit the line for Orica in the TTT, so he’s only 6 seconds off the red jersey at the moment — surely a reason to be motivated.
For other options, look to riders like Daniel Bennati, Jose Joaquin Rojas, and Tosh Van Der Sande.
We think this one’s Niccolo Bonifazio‘s to lose, just ahead of Arndt. For an outsider, we’ll take Magnus Cort Nielsen.