As August draws to a close, it’s time for the third and final Grand Tour of the season: the Vuelta a España.
The Vuelta might be the least-hyped of the three Grand Tours, but don’t let that distract you: the Vuelta is always a hard-fought contest, on a challenging course, featuring some of the best riders in the sport.
The race starts in the south of Spain and ends in Madrid.
The 2018 Vuelta kicks off in the city of Malaga on Spain’s southern coast before heading east in the days that follow. From the south-east of the country, the race cuts through to the north-west, with stage 12 finishing at the Estaca de Bares lighthouse — Spain’s northernmost point. Over the following days the riders make their way east, passing through the Cantabrian mountains on their way towards Andorra. It’s the 73rd edition of Spain’s biggest race which this year will cover 3,254km and will be contested by 176 riders from 22 teams.
Stages 19 and 20 visit the mountainous Pyrenean principality, after which the riders take a flight to Madrid for the traditional final stage in the Spanish capital.
There are eight mountain-top finishes to help shape the GC.
Unlike this year’s Tour de France, which had just three uphill finishes, the Vuelta has many stage-ending ascents to help define the race — eight in all:
Stage 4: The first summit finish with a 12.4km climb at 5.4% to Puerto de Alfacar.
Stage 9: Finishes with 9.8km at 7.1%.
Stage 13: An 8.3km ascent at 7.5% to end the day. The final 3km are very steep, with sections approaching 20%.
Stage 14: A very steep final 4km, averaging 12.5%. Sections of 17%.
Stage 15: 11.7km at 7.2% with another ramp of 20%. More than 4,000m of climbing all up.
Stage 17: Roughly 3,000m of climbing. 7.3km at a painful 9.7% to the finish.
Stage 19: Flat for 134km then 17km at 6.6% to the finish line.
Stage 20: Nearly 4,000m of climbing in roughly 100km of racing. 3.5km at 8.7km to finish this Andorran stage — the final day for the GC contenders.
Note that stage 2 looks like an uphill finish too, but it’s a gentle enough climb that race organisers predict it might be a reduced group that contests the finish, rather than the GC men.
The sawtooth profile of La Vuelta’s 20th stage.
There are two individual time trials but only one should affect the GC.
The first stage of the Vuelta is actually a prologue — a mostly flat 8km individual time trial in Malaga that will determine who will be the first to wear the leader’s red jersey. There’ll be some small time gaps between GC riders, sure, but those gaps are unlikely to be meaningful in the grand scheme of things.
The stage 16 individual time trial, however, could be more decisive. It’s also very flat, but at four times the length of the prologue — 32km — we should see some bigger time gaps between overall contenders. Then again, with so many summit finishes on the menu, expect stage 16 to have less of an impact than it might otherwise.
There are four former winners on the startlist.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won the race back in 2009. It’s his only Grand Tour victory but he has been on the Vuelta podium three times since then. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) won the year after Valverde, in 2010 — the first of his four Grand Tour victories.
Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates) stood on the top step in 2015 — his only Grand Tour win — and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was the victor in 2016. Last year’s winner, Chris Froome (Sky) isn’t in attendance. Likewise Alberto Contador (see feature image) who retired after last year’s Vuelta, ending a career that included three Vuelta victories.
Fabio Aru won the Vuelta back in 2015, ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez and Rafal Majka.
The Vuelta is the least popular of the three Grand Tours but it’s consistently a great race.
The Vuelta is much like the Giro d’Italia — it’s more unpredictable than the Tour de France and has a bit of a ‘wild’ feel to it. It’s also a tougher race to control — the parcours tends to be tougher than the Tour, given the additional summit finishes, and teams usually send their B- or C- grade teams to the race, making for a more open, less predictable race.
Where the Vuelta suffers, however, is in its timeslot. It comes late in the season, after the Tour de France, at a time when almost all of the season’s biggest races are done. But again, that doesn’t mean the racing isn’t entertaining. And with the star-studded line-up taking part this year, it’s hard to imagine the race not grabbing our attention.
It’s a race of redemption for many riders.
Richie Porte (BMC), Vincenzo Nibali and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) — that’s three strong contenders who are racing the Vuelta after crashing out of the Tour de France, looking to make amends.
Then there are the Yates brothers, Adam and Simon (Mitchelton-Scott). It will be Simon that leads the team’s GC tilt after what was a rollercoaster of a Giro. He dominated for the vast majority of the race, winning three stages and leading overall for nearly a fortnight, before blowing up spectacularly and finishing outside the top 20. He’ll be hoping to show that his dominance wasn’t a one-off, and that, more importantly, he has what it takes to hold on for three weeks.
His brother Adam, too, has had Grand Tour frustrations this year, falling well short of his goals at the Tour de France.
Simon Yates dominated the first 18 days of the Giro before blowing up.
And then there’s Nairo Quintana who had another sub-par Tour de France by his lofty standards. The stony-faced Colombian will want to show the cycling world that he’s the Grand Tour contender he was a few years ago.
There’s a very long list of favourites, and they’re hard to separate.
Often a Grand Tour will start with one stand-out favourite, or maybe even a handful of riders with great chances. At this year’s Vuelta, there are arguably 10 riders that could be standing on the top step of the podium in Madrid.
By his own admission Richie Porte won’t be at his best in the opening week of the Vuelta, given he hasn’t raced since crashing out of the Tour with a broken collarbone. But he should get stronger as the race goes on. Assuming he can stay upright throughout the race, he’ll be a genuine contender, particularly given the abundance of uphill finishes and the steep grades the riders will have to contend with.
The form of Vincenzo Nibali is also something of an unknown. He had surgery after breaking a vertebrae in a crash caused by a spectator at the Tour and will likely take a while to get himself back into racing form. That said, he’s one of the strongest third-week riders in the world so look for him to be strong when it counts.
Nairo Quintana might have been some way off his best in recent years, but he’s won the Vuelta before and is capable of doing so again. He’ll need to be considerably stronger than he was at the Tour (where he finished 10th) but it’s not beyond him. Note that he’ll have the evergreen Alejandro Valverde in support.
Rigoberto Uran has finished runner-up at three Grand Tours since 2013 but his best at the Vuelta is 27th (in 2013). As mentioned, he’ll be looking to make amends for a frustrating exit from the Tour but it also remains to be seen where his form’s at. Of note: his teammate Michael Woods is also on the squad after finishing seventh last year. Another team with multiple good options.
Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates) hasn’t shown nearly the same form he had in the lead-up to his Vuelta win in 2015. In fact, the last race Aru won was stage 5 of last year’s Tour de France — more than a year ago. It would be something of a surprise were he to land on the top step but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility. Aru will also have the support of Dan Martin who was eighth at the recent Tour de France. The Irishman has finished seventh at the Vuelta before so he’s a great option if Aru isn’t up to the task.
Simon Yates has done just two races since his tumultuous Giro, both of which he finished second in (the latter being the Tour of Poland, where he won the final stage solo). It will be intriguing to see whether he and the team do things any differently at the Vuelta than the Giro in an attempt to prevent another final-week implosion. On his day though he’s one of the best climbers in the world and this year’s course suits him wonderfully.
Speaking of final-week implosions at the Giro, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) will be hoping he can stay healthy at the Vuelta. He was sitting third at the Giro before illness saw his podium aspirations evaporate on stage 20. Pinot has finished the Vuelta just once before: in 2013 when he was seventh. He’ll enjoy the abundance of uphill finishes and the minimal time-trialling.
Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) has shown great signs over three weeks, finishing third at this year’s Giro d’Italia (winning the young rider classification) and eighth at last year’s Vuelta (where he won two stages). He’s had a good year with some strong results and should factor heavily in the mountains.
Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) was fifth at the Tour de France recently and ninth at last year’s Vuelta. In fact, the Dutchman has five Grand Tour top-10s to his name now and another at the Vuelta would be little surprise. Like so many teams, LottoNL-Jumbo also has a great second option: George Bennett, the 10th-place finisher in 2016 and eighth-place finisher at this year’s Giro.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) was third overall at last year’s Vuelta and is probably capable of the same again this year. He’s been a little off his best for much of the year though, and he’ll need to improve to better his ninth at the Tour. Thankfully for the Russian, there are more uphill finishes at the Vuelta than the Tour, so his shaky descending might not make him as vulnerable as it did at the Tour with its several stage-ending descents.
It’s worth keeping an eye on Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), too. He had a grip on the overall podium at last year’s Vuelta for five stages but eventually fell just behind Zakarin to finish fourth. Still, it was confirmation that the Dutchman has great promise over three weeks. Another third place would be a surprise this year given he’s had an injury-affected year, but a top-10 is certainly a possibility.
Don’t discount Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) either. He was third overall back in 2015 and, all going well, could challenge for the podium again.
There are five stages that should end in bunch sprints.
While the Vuelta doesn’t traditionally provide as many opportunities for the pure sprinters as the Tour de France, the fastmen do have some chances. There are at least five stages that seem destined to end in bunch gallops (stage 6, 10, 12, 18 and 21) and another four that, depending on how the race plays out, could suit a reduced bunch (stages 3, 5, 7 and 8). These are stages with climbs to overcome in the lead-up; climbs that will likely thwart the pure sprinters.
As mentioned earlier, stage 2 is a long uphill drag to the line but it’s gentle enough that it could suit a reduced bunch as well.
Elia Viviani headlines a good sprint lineup.
Given the parcours, the Vuelta doesn’t attract the same calibre of sprinters as the Tour, but there is still a decent line-up this year. Elia Viviani (QuickStep Floors) is the stand-out favourite for the fast finisher. The Italian has been the world’s best sprinter this year and with 15 victories to his name, no road racer has been more successful in 2018.
Viviani won a stage at the Tour Down Under in January and has only continued to impress since then.
His biggest rival will be the three-time reigning world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). Sagan is arguably the most versatile rider of his generation and can win on anything from flat sprints to tough uphill drags, to small climbs. On those tough days where most of the other sprinters get shelled in the hills, expect Sagan to stick around and fight for the win. He’ll certainly be the favourite for the points classification, assuming he completes the race (there’s some talk of him leaving early to freshen up for Worlds).
Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) isn’t a pure sprinter by any means, but he’s definitely got a fast finish and, like Sagan, is capable of winning on a variety of finishes. He’s in good form, having just won the European Championships road race, and he’s a proven performer on the big stage. He won an impressive four stages at last year’s Vuelta and has stage wins at all three Grand Tours.
Danny van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) won a stage at the 2015 Vuelta and is a fair chance of repeating that effort this year. He won’t have a full team built around his sprint, given Kruijswijk and Bennett’s GC aspirations, so he might have to look after himself a little in the fast finishes.
Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) is yet to win a Grand Tour stage but he has a chance at this year’s Vuelta. He’ll need to improve on the form he’s had so far this year (just one win with several podiums) and he’ll also need to find a way to get around Viviani. But, on his day, he’s capable of doing so.
It’s been a quiet year for the controversial Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) who is yet to win at WorldTour level in 2018. He was left off the Tour de France squad and will come into the Vuelta with a point to prove. He’s a two-time stage winner at the Spanish Grand Tour, with both wins coming in 2014 and should be in the mix again for years later.
The Vuelta tends to be the Grand Tour where young sprinters can take a breakthrough victory and that might be the case for Max Walscheid (Sunweb). The 199cm-tall German hasn’t won at WorldTour level but he’s been close, most recently with a second place at the 2018 Tour of California. Don’t underestimate the 25-year-old.
The Vuelta will provide plenty of chances for the opportunists.
As with any Grand Tour, there will be several stages at this year’s Vuelta that will have the stage-hunters licking their lips. The mountain stages of the second and third week will have particular appeal — on some days the GC will certainly let the breakaway battle it out for victory.
For breakaway victories, consider riders like Omar Fraile (Astana) — a stage winner at the recent Tour de France — Steve Cummings (Dimension Data), Rafal Majka (if he’s out of the GC race), Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) and Mr Breakaway himself, Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal).
Of course, whenever a break gets up the road, we can expect it to be replete with riders from the local Spanish teams: Euskadi-Murias, Caja Rural-Seguros and Burgos-BH. TV time will be a big goal; a stage win will be a very welcome bonus.
And then there are the riders that can be counted on to liven up the racing with well-timed late attacks — Strade Bianche winner Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) and Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale), for example.
Speaking of opportunities, the Vuelta is the Grand Tour for young riders.
The Vuelta is often used by teams who want to introduce their young riders to the rigours of Grand Tour racing. There’s less pressure than at the Tour and the Giro, giving riders a chance to find their feet without so much attention. For that reason, it can be a great opportunity to see what up and coming riders are capable of.
Last year’s Baby Giro winner, Pavel Sivakov (Sky), is making his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta and will be well worth keeping an eye on. The 21-year-old Russian will likely be on support duties for Michal Kwiatkowski and if he can be half as good as Egan Bernal was in a similar role at the Tour, it will be a job well done. A similar thing can be said of Tao Geoghegan Hart who makes his Grand Tour debut after a strong season, including a stellar support ride for Bernal at the Amgen Tour of California.
Geoghegan Hart rode strongly in support of Bernal in California.
Twenty-three-year-old American Sepp Kuss (LottoNL-Jumbo) is also racing his first Grand Tour, after winning the Tour of Utah in dominant fashion. He was in a league of his own uphill and it will be interesting to see what sort of impact he can have in support of Kruijswijk and Bennett.
Richard Carapaz (Movistar) isn’t racing his first Grand Tour, but the 25-year-old Ecuadorian was terrific at the Giro and will be one to watch again at the Giro (even if Quintana and Valverde will be ahead of him in the pecking order).
And finally, Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) is a long way from a Grand Tour debutant but he is still one of the most interesting riders at this year’s Vuelta. After becoming one of the best super-domestiques in the world in recent years, the former world champ now gets his chance to lead Sky at a Grand Tour. Has he got what it takes? It will be fascinating to see.
The Vuelta is a vital lead-in to the Road World Championships.
The proximity of the Vuelta to Worlds always makes the Spanish Grand Tour an important lead-in, but that’s particularly the case this time around. With so much climbing in the men’s road race at Worlds — nearly 5,000m — the Vuelta and its many uphill finishes provide a great way of preparing for Innsbruck.
Richie Porte has made no secret of the fact he’s using the Vuelta as a tune-up for Worlds, and Peter Sagan seems to be doing the same, to name just two. The strongest riders of the Vuelta (particularly in the third week) will be of particular interest come Worlds, which falls just two weeks after the Vuelta wraps up.
A modified version of this article originally appeared on CyclingTips. Imagery Courtesy of CorVos