The Vuelta a España starts this weekend. Normally relegated to a fairly distant gruppetto in terms of importance compared to the peloton of the Tour de France and the breakaway of the early season Giro d’Italia, events have conspired this year to elevate the last Grand Tour of the year to give it a much higher profile than normal.
It’s often said that one man’s loss is another man’s gain. That’s certainly been true for the Vuelta organisers and sponsors this year whose collective hands must have been worn smooth with all the gleeful rubbing that has been going on since late Spring. Nairo Quintana’s decision to target the Giro and Vuelta had already brought some joy to the race but a series of crashes and withdrawals across May and July has raised the stock enormously of the peloton who will set off on Saturday evening’s pan-flat Team Time Trial in Jerez.
Unexpected additions to the startlist include Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Dan Martin; all of whom crashed out of Grand Tours earlier in the season. Expectation that Contador would not be able to recover from his Tour de France injury in time was high but the recent news is that he will take part, making a new Quintana-Froome-Contador face-off a reality. Add in Rigoberto Uran, Cadel Evans, Joaquin Rodriguez, Peter Sagan, Thibault Pinot and Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde and the field is the strongest for many, many years.
Each new adjustment to the affected riders’ racing programme has added another unexpected element to the Vuelta roster, and raised the stock of the race over the past few weeks and months. It has been like enjoying a tapas-style meal where new delights are continually introduced as the meal goes on. Unlike the staid statement of á la carte dining, this quintessentially Spanish style of dining is continually surprising and exciting – just as we hope the racing will be.
Traversing Spain from South to North in a roughly counter-clockwise arc, the Vuelta routing looks remarkably similar to the Tour’s downward curve by omitting the entirety of the western part of the country. It’s an ‘easier’ Vuelta than the mountain-fests of recent years and the main Pyrenean stages come at the end of the second week with 3 stages over Saturday 6th, Sunday 7th and Monday 8th September. The 8th is a public holiday in the local Asturius region so the second rest day will be held on the Tuesday leaving just two further mountainous stages in the final week.
The biggest change though is that the final day is an Individual Time Trial. This is a major change for Grand Tour planning and harks back to the infamous finish in Paris in 1989 when Greg Lemond took over a minute out of of leader Laurent Fignon to win the Tour by just eight seconds, but also (less favourably) to the last Vuelta final day TT 10 years ago when Tyler Hamilton’s Phonak teammate Santiago Perez won two final week mountain stages and then the final Time Trial to get within 30seconds of overall winner Roberto Heras. Perez was later banned for testing positive for EPO in the race. The location for the final day has also been moved and the race will not finish in Madrid for the first time in many years, ending instead in Santiago de Compostela.
This is the first Vuelta run since ASO – the owners of the Tour de France – took over completely earlier year and one senses that they will use the Vuelta in future as a test bed for ideas as well as looking at ways of just re-invigorating the race. Time bonuses for the top three finishes in each stage (except time trials) are again a feature which adds extra spice to the denouement of each day’s riding. Chris Froome lost to Juan Cobo on time bonuses in 2011. He will not want to finish second in this way again and despite his time trialling proficiency will, I think, wish to stamp an authority on the race in order to regain some wavering respect.
Team Sky will be desperate to save a desperately poor season and have a very strong line-up in support of Froome. The Spanish contenders always go well in their home race and Dan Martin will be looking to rebuild the form he was showing earlier in the year. He will just be hoping that, unlike Dublin where he came a cropper in the Giro, it’s dry for this opening day Team Time Trial. Meanwhile Contador is currently playing down his chances, saying he will just be looking for a stage win in the last week if possible but we know that Tinkoff-Saxo can think on the fly and he will exploit any tactical weakness from the other main players.
We’ve already talked about one man’s loss being another man’s gain and the extra unexpected riders taking part in the race.. So who are the loser’s to our gain? Oddly enough Nairo Quintana heads this list by dint of being a red hot favourite who had suddenly had a host of fired-up, high-quality rivals suddenly parachuted down on top of him. One gets the feeling that this will not unduly bother the Colombian too much but until Froome and Contador started getting acquainted with the tarmac of Northern France he must have felt exceptionally confident about doing the Giro-Tour double. Whether he can achieve a double spike in form is yet to be seen (Nibali came up short on a similar race programme last year) but it’s certain that he will have to find that great form to win now whereas the feeling might have been that he could beat the opposition as less than full strength before. In his favour are two things – he has no need to prove anything else this season and he can shadow the leaders ‘in service of Valverde’ if he wishes to for the first couple of weeks.
Cycle style watcher alert! Dave Millar has been confirmed by the Garmin-Sharp team and will be riding his last Grand Tour. This will be only a small consolation to the Scot, who really wanted to take his curtain call on his beloved Champs Elysees. Fizik – his shoe sponsors – have had enough time since his TdF ommission to knock up something new for the Vuelta for his ongoing charity auction that has been running all year. These ones will benefit the World Wildlife Fund (a close affiliate of Garmin-Sharp ever since Dan Martin was chased by a panda costume wearing fan back in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2013) rather than his usual Small Steps Project, which aims to rescue children who have to survive by trawling rubbish dumps but Fizik suggest that David will be wearing a range of shoes throughout the Vuelta. Keep your eyes peeled.
Another notable shoe-wearer will also be lining up but his involvement was as about as sure a bet as one could hope for in sport. Adam Hansen of Lotto-Bellisol will be hoping to complete his own 3,181.5km pilgrimage to the sacred city of Santiago del Compostela to complete his 10th consecutive Grand Tour. Chapeau as always to the Aussie.
Chris Horner also deserves a mention. He is the reigning champion and was to wear the number 1 dossard but his last minute omission from the squad due to an illness causing his cortisol levels to fall below those required by a the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), of which his Lampre-Merida team are a member, as yet another blow for the ill-fated veteran who missed the Giro due a training accident with a car.
Despite showing live coverage for the past couple of years ITV4 are only showing an evening highlights package this year, which, given the turn of events with the startlist, is a real shame. Perhaps it’s time to invest in the Eurosport Player app if you haven’t done so already to get the full experience. If you are not able to watch live, Blazin’ Saddles will be doing live daily updates on the Eurosport website and blogging about the race throughout. Always worth a few minutes of your day.
Prediction: Froome, Quintana, Uran.
One to watch: Fabio Aru shot into the limelight with his stage win and podium finish at the Giro. He comes to the Vuelta as Astana team leader and will want to grasp the chance with both hands.
Don’t miss: The final day time trial. History has shown us that anything could happen.