Year after year, the Vuelta seems to get a wonderfully stacked field, packed with the finest Grand Tour talent on the planet. This year is no exception, but before we look at the field, let’s take a run through some of the route highlights. Unsurprisingly, it’s another race for those who can climb!
Host city Barcelona in Catalonia provides the setting for the opening 14km Team Time Trial, a recent theme of the Spanish Tour. Following that, there’s a rolling stage for the few puncher/sprinters, then on stage 3 we have our first mountain-top finish at Arinsal/Andorra, which will be climbed for the first time. The hills continue with very little respite through stages 4 and 5, although these aren’t necessarily going to be GC days. Stage 6 sees yet another mountaintop finish at the Observatorio Astrofisico de Javalambre. I should mention at this point that there are 10, yes, 10 mountaintop finishes in this year’s race. Makes you exhausted just thinking about it!
Stage 7 sees one of the few chances for any sprinters, as we head to Oliva in Valencia, before a couple of brutally hilly days to Xorret de Cati and Caravaca de la Cruz respectively, taking us into the welcome first rest day.
Hopefully refreshed, the field then tackle the only Time Trial of the Vuelta on stage 10, a 25.8km flat test in and around Valladolid, the capital of the autonomous community of Castilla y León in Northwest Spain. Stage 11 sees a flat run to the bottom of La Laguna Negra, Vinuesa before yet another uphill finish. Stage 12 is hilly but with no categorised climbs, so could see a group finish, before the GC battle resumes on the epic stage 13 and its foray into France, with a summit finish atop the mighty Col du Tourmalet in the Pyrenees. Another hill-top finish awaits the riders on stage 14 before a lumpy run and a probable breakaway day from Pamplona to Lekkunberi.
The final rest day will be needed as the last 6 days of this year’s Vuelta are truly punishing. Starting things off is another hill-top finish on stage 16 to Bejes, but this is a mere warm up for what lies ahead on stage 17 and another visit to the top of the infamous Agliru, one of the most feared climbs in the world. Incredibly, the mountains aren’t finished yet, as we have yet another high finish at La Cruz de Linares to end stage 18.
There’s a brief pause for breath and an opportunity for any remaining fast cyclists to Iscar on stage 19, then it’s climbing for the last time on stage 20 and the final chance for any GC movements on the 207km journey from Manzanares El Real to Guadarrama, punctuated by 10 short but steep climbs that looks as if it will be very difficult to control and has the profile of a crocodile’s teeth. Stage 21 will see the usual sprint procession in and around the streets of Madrid, where the deserved winner will be crowned. Who will it be? Read on.
Let’s start with defending Vuelta champion and new World Time Trial Champion Remo Evenepoel. He’s had a tremendously successful year, but it was a case of ‘what could have been’ at the Giro, where he was forced to withdraw due to illness. His Soudal Quick-Step team are solid, but don’t have quite the strength as Jumbo Visma or UAE Team Emirates and this year’s climbs contain some far steeper, longer ascents which will thoroughly examine Evenepoel’s ability on this sort of climb, especially against this year’s opposition.
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Who, in no particular order are as follows: Jumbo Visma, to my mind, have the strongest team in the race, filled with talent. The big question still remains: who will be their leader? Giro winner Primož Roglič or Tour Winner Jonas Vingegaard? The Slovenian just won the Vuelta Burgos and is clearly in good shape, but we know less about the Dane, although he’s bound to hit the ground running. Will they ride as a unit with a singular plan? Or let the road decide? Sepp Kuss, Attila Valter, Dylan van Baarle and Wilco Kelderman are their likely lieutenants who have the capacity to tear the race apart.
UAE Team Emirates also come with dual leadership in the form of João Almeida and Juan Ayuso. Both of these riders have proven Grand Tour credentials, but to me it’s the young Spaniard who I think will pose the most realistic, potent threat. Third overall last year and still only 20, he’s incredibly versatile and importantly he’ll be fresh, having only started racing this season at the end of April. With Jay Vine and Marc Soler also in the wings, this team are a real force.
Ineos Grenadiers are all about one man, the evergreen 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas. Now 37, he’s showing no signs of slowing down, as his epic battle in this year’s Giro with Primož Roglič showed. He’s got more Grand Tour experience than anyone in the field, plus a strong team to back him up, including Egan Bernal, Laurens de Plus, Fillipo Ganna and Jonathan Castroviejo. He knows how to peak for the biggest moments and arguably he’s more focussed than ever.
Other GC contenders to consider include Enric Mas of Movistar, who’s been 2nd no less than 3 times in his home Grand Tour, including last year behind Remco Evenepoel. Alexander Vlasov is riding well at the moment and he’ll lead the Bora Hansgrohe GC hopes. British rider Hugh Carthy, 3rd in the Vuelta in 2020 and winner up the Angliuru, leads EF Education Easy Post, whilst Colombian hopes rest on the shoulders of Santiago Buitrago of Bahrain Victorious, ably backed by the likes of Damiano Caruso and Tour de France stage winner Wout Poels. Expect Romain Bardet of Team DSM Firmenich to also feature, although I think he’d be happier with a stage win than just focussing on a top 10 overall.
There aren’t many options at all for the sprinters, but the few of them who will line up in Barcelona include Juan Sebastien Molano of UAE (who won the final Madrid stage last year), Giro stage winner Alberto Dainese of Team DSM Firmenich, Dane Casper Pedersen of Soudal Quick Step, Lotto Dstny’s Belgian fast man Milan Menten, Australian Kaden Groves of Alpecin Deceuninck who also took a Vuelta sprint last year, Ed Teuns of Lidl Trek, and Frenchman Bryan Coquard of Cofidis.
This year’s course is as classically ‘Vuelta’ as you can get and I can’t wait to see how the race unfolds. For the first two weeks I’ll be taking over the WLC Instagram account to give my take and insight on each stage, before Cameron Jeffers takes over for the the final week into Madrid.