Can it really be? We’re two Grand Tours down and one, imminently, left to go, and with the storylines that both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France wrote for us this year, the lap around Spain starting this Saturday, has a lot to live up to. Here are the catalytic stages for the GC battle to look out for, which riders are aiming for the podium and those who are trying to salvage their season.
The Key Stages
This year’s Vuelta will be the 73rd time the race has navigated its way around Spain. The parcours is set to travel 3254.7km over the 21 stages, with around eight of them with sprint potential and nine summit finishes.
Starting in Málaga with an eight kilometre individual time-trial, the race then weaves its way along coast and inland, a relatively placid start in the way of difficulty of parcours, many of these stages favouring the sprinters.
Although stage two and stage four could throw a slight curveball, the former – mostly flat but with an uphill finish to Caminito del Rey – could be one for the climbers, as it was for Esteban Chaves in 2015. Stage four, a mid-mountain stage, has a summit finish with two category one climbs. A leg tester with potential to catch riders off-guard.
The first real mountain stage comes in over a week into the race and just before the rest day. With four categorised climbs and the first of the summit finishes, this is a stage that GC contenders who lack time trialling ability should be looking at to try and gain some valuable seconds. As the last kilometre flattens out, it will require any escapee having plenty of gas still left in the legs to power to the finish and maintain any gap.
The Asturian Mountains
As the race hits the Asturian mountains, this is where we will see the drama start to crank up. Stage 13 has an incredibly tough summit finish to La Camperona, featuring leg-mashing gradients of 19.5% – a good tester stage for the likes of Nibali to show what form he has following his Tour de France crash.
Stage 14 from Cistierna to les Praeres de Nava, the middle day of the three back-to-back mountain stages, throws in three category one climbs, with Alto Les Praeres again packing a punch with gradients averaging at 12.5% and topping out at 17%. The terrain’s twists and turns are there to entice attacks.
You only need to mention Lagos de Covadonga to know what stage 15 has in store for the peloton. With over 4000m of elevation, the jagged stage profile will round off the third of these mountain days and will be the last chance for the pure climbers to gain some time ahead of the second rest day and the individual time-trial on stage 16.
The last test between claiming La Rioja in Madrid comes on stage 20. A short stage with just under 4000m of elevation covered in 105km. Expect to see fireworks in a last ditch attempt to create havoc on the final GC standings. Defense and attack will be el menú del día in Andorra. The Col de la Gallina – or ‘Hen Mountain’ as a direct translation has it – will certainly leave the peloton clucking.
The riders to watch
This year, 176 riders will take to the line on Saturday. It’s a mixed bag, as the Vuelta so often is. There’s the usual crop of riders coming back from injury or illness after a disaster of a Tour de France trying to salvage a season, along with riders who have targeted the Giro and Vuelta double. This year the Vuelta also serves as great preparation for the brutal World Championships course in late September in Innsbruck. With no Chris Froome on the start this year, here are the riders to keep your eyes on over the next three weeks.
The GC contenders
Having crashed out of the Tour de France on stage 9, 10km into the stage and before hitting the cobbles of Roubaix, Porte is back at the Vuelta. It could be hit and miss with how well he’s managed to keep his form from the Tour de France, but not to be ruled out.
With a disappointing 10th place this year at the Tour due to crashes and mechanicals, La Vuelta is a chance for salvation, not only for Quintana but for Movistar as a whole who haven’t won a Grand Tour since Quintana won the Vuelta in 2016.
Movistar take another multiple leader approach at the Vuelta with Valverde being called up to the roster. It would have been another triple-prong attack but unfortunately Mikel Landa is still recovering from a fractured vertebra and broken rib after his horrendous crash at the Clásica de San Sebástian the weekend after the end of the Tour.
Another victim of the Roubaix stage on the Tour, he finally succumbed to his injuries and didn’t start stage 12. Taking sixth place at the Clásica San Sebástian shows that he has potentially kept some form and could be a podium contender.
Crashed out of the Tour when unfortunately a mixture of flare smoke and a fan’s camera strap took him down on Alpe d’Huez. Suffering a fractured vertebra, he came out saying that he doesn’t think he will be in contention for the GC but he’ll be looking for stage wins. Then again, this is Nibali who has a remarkable ability to bounce back.
An eighth place at the Giro d’Italia and having had some time to build up to the Vuelta, he definitely has podium potential.
Images of the Frenchman wobbling all over the road on his bike on stage 20 of the Giro d’Italia was a sorry sight. Falling foul to pneumonia and fatigue meant a late withdrawal from the Tour de France. After two months recovery, Pinot managed to secure third place at the recent Tour de Pologne. The Vuelta could be salvation if he can withstand the Spanish heat.
Aru goes into the Vuelta as Team UAE’s main man over Dan Martin, although if Martin is still on his Tour fighting form it could be an interesting leadership battle.
After the daily fireworks he let off during the Giro d’Italia which eventually lead to his own capitulation, Yates will hopefully still have the fight in him but with a bit more knowledge when to hold back. Having brother Adam by his side in support should boost his confidence as will his recent second place at the Tour de Pologne.
Miguel Ángel Lopez
This mountain goat not only has the legs for the Vuelta parcours but has had one heck of a season – third at Abu Dhabi, second at Tour of Oman, third at the Tour of the Alps, third at the Giro d’Italia and, last week, second at Vuelta a Burgos. Some season so far for the 24-year-old, La Vuelta could be his first Grand Tour GC.
Others not to be overlooked for GC potential are Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto-NL-Jumbo), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Sky).
The stage hunters
It was announced, with great excitement by La Vuelta, that Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) will be taking to the start line in Málaga with prepping for the World Championships firmly in his mind. Other stage hunters will be Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Ion and Gorka Izagirre (Team Bahrain-Merida), Omar Fraile (Astana), Rohan Dennis (Team BMC).
As always there’s not a huge sprint lineup for the Vuelta, Elia Viviani (Quick Step) will be sure to knock Quick Step’s phenomenal 2018 win tally up a few more notches and there’s even a chance that Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) could put an end to his four year Grand Tour win drought. Whilst it’ll be interesting to see what Max Walscheid – Germany’s up and coming sprint talent has in him on his Grand Tour debut.