There will be two races in this year’s Vuelta a España, man against man and man against the virus. What happened in the Giro, in which two teams dropped out as a result of COVID-19 infections and some riders and teams asked for the race to be halted, should make everyone aware of the risks, especially as the general coronavirus situations was much better in Italy than it currently is in Spain. Hopefully, lessons have been learned and proper precautions will be taken to ensure that the 2020 La Vuelta is run safely and to its scheduled conclusion.
The other race – which has been shortened to 18 stages – will certainly be won by the best climber, given the many difficult mountain stages. There is an individual time trial at the start of the third week but time lost there could be made up on the difficult climb to the finish line atop La Cotavilla on the 17th stage.
A lot of attention will be focused on Chris Froome and his Ineos Grenadiers team. Ineos had apparently tried to win all of this year’s Grand Tours, and have suffered a little embarrassment from their failures at the Tour de France and the Giro. So, they will be doubly motivated and are putting all their eggs in Froome’s basket.
Or are they? I agree with Philippe Gilbert and Sean Kelly, both of whom told Eurosport that Froome does not have the form to win such a challenging race. “I don’t think Froome is ready for the GC,” Gilbert said. “I think people forget the crash he had 18 months or so ago. I still believe it’s a miracle he’s already racing. It’s going to be hard for him to challenge the best.”
“He is not going to have enough time or enough racing,” Kelly said. “If he had been racing all year, Froome might have been in the form to win the Vuelta but I don’t see it this time around.”
That’s why Ineos have Richard Carapaz in the Vuelta lineup too. The 27-year-old Bolivian won the Giro in 2018 and looked very strong at the end of the Tour de France. I think it will be Froome helping Carapaz up the mountains as a farewell thank-you to the team that enabled him to win seven Grand Tours, including the Vuelta twice. Froome will leave Ineos and race for Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021.
Carapaz will have a formidable rival in the hard-luck Slovenian Primož Roglič who came within a stage of winning this year’s Tour de France. He will be super-motivated to prove himself and erase the bitter memory of struggling to the finish line in the Tour’s 20th stage, an individual time trial, well beaten to the big prize by compatriot Tadej Pogačar.
Roglič will again have the excellent Tom Dumoulin at his side. He will be essential to his leader’s hopes on the climbs but if the Slovenian falters, Dumoulin would be a strong candidate for the GC win. However, the impressive Wout van Aert who was so important to Roglič’s Tour run is not in the Vuelta.
These are the favourites to win the 2020 La Vuelta. The outsiders include two French riders, Thibaut Pinot and Guillaume Martin. Like Roglič but for very different reasons, Pinot has something to prove – again. At 30 and with his now famously fragile body, this may be his last chance to win a Grand Tour. He almost certainly won’t, but he could make the podium if he doesn’t crash or lose heart.
Martin was in the thick of the GC fight for much of the Tour but faded badly in the latter stages to finish 11th. That was Team Cofidis’s best showing in a Grand Tour since 2013, which doesn’t bode well for Martin’s chances but suggests that the team will be hungry to finally make its mark again.
Other credible outsiders include Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde, two Spanish Movistar riders at opposite ends of the age scale: Mas is 25, Valverde is 40. The latter won the Vuelta GC in 2009 and the points classification title in 2018 (at age 38!) while his young teammate finished second in the 2018 Vuelta (at age 23!) and fifth in this year’s Tour. Barring accident or illness, Mas should be close to the lead – if not wearing the maillot rojo – when the race reaches the locked-down Madrid.