Hola amigos de ciclismo.
La Vuelta a Espana starts on Saturday and is the final and most unpredictable Grand Tour of the season. But why should I care? I hear you asking yourself. It isn’t the Great Circus of the Tour de France, it doesn’t have the prestige and history of the Giro d’Italia, the season finished when Kristoff won in Paris. ¿No?
Here are some reasons why La Vuelta is, in some people’s eyes, the best Grand Tour (its my second favourite behind the Giro):
- Future World Champion?
The World Championships are in a month, some riders here will be using the race as a warm-up for a very hard route in Innsbruck – riders going well in the final week will be on fire for the Worlds.
- The fans are actually fans
They are passionate but are not a drunken rabble like in the Tour (:-( Nibali).
- The race directors hate sprinters
The Vuelta is not a sprinters friend, there are traditionally very few sprint opportunities outside of the final stage. This year there are a few more, probably to lure in big names because of the World Championships being impossible for sprinters.
- Summit finishes
Around a decade ago, the Spanish race organisers realised the usual long boring motorway stages were not interesting – plus given an amazing crop of home-grown talent (Contador, Rodriguez & Valverde) – they decided hillier summit finish stages are fun. This year there are no less than 10 uphill finishes, TWICE as many as the Tour. To compound the misery fun, the Spanish have a ‘direct’ method for building roads uphill, straight and up, no long Alpine style 4-6% 20km climbs, these are brutal and gradients over 20% are at home in La Vuelta.
- The routes are notoriously awfully planned
Sometimes small hills are given odd climb categories (e.g. the Cote de Keyworth), other time brutal tests are not even classified! Sprint points are not uncommon to find halfway up a mountain too. The old school planning of the stages adds some spice to the race as many riders don’t know what’s coming.
- The good roads and magnificent weather usually favour this race as a viewing spectacle
The arid eroded landscape and olive groves of the south give deep canyons and beautiful Moorish hilltop fortresses, they pass into the green mountains of Galicia, the Cantabrides and spectacular Pyrenees of the Basque country to the north.
- Unpredictable Results
The Vuelta is often never targeted at the offset of the season. Many riders here are looking to salvage their season and in some cases their career. A good ride here could result in a new contract for next season. This often results in some odd results and surprises. This race was the breakthrough for both Dumoulin and Froome! In the past it hasn’t stopped the old riders giving a swan song – Chris Horner in 2013 won at the age of 41!
The Vuelta a Espana 2018 Route
OK so you’re on board, a convert, welcome To Our Cult! It’s an epic race. But where is it going?
You know the drill. 3 weeks, 21 Stages, 2 Rest Days. This year the race starts in Overseas British Territory on the Costa del Sol, hopefully the pesky locals won’t ruin the event. It then traverses westward across the Central Plateau (Meseta Central) towards Galicia, where it turns eastward through Cantabria, into the Basque region and Andorra before the final sprint stage in Madrid.
- 1x Prologue
- 1x Individual Time Trial
- 5x Flat Stages
- 4x Rolling Stages
- 10x Summit Finishes (including 8 Summit finishes at Category 1/HC Climb)
Awesome. What stages should you look forward to? Is it wrong to say all of them? Like a breakfast buffet at a fancy hotel – you want it all; full English, cereal, fruit, cold meats, pastries, waffles, croissants, ?fermented fish – yes, I’m looking at you Norway. But for the weight (and time) conscious among us here are some highlights, a light Eggs Benedict shall we say:
Stages 1-9: Costa del Brit & the Arid Hinterstoisser Traverse
Stage 1: The race starts with a flat 8km ITT Malaga. Nothing spectacular, racing around the re-developed harbour and around the fort, it will be nice to watch. My tip: Rohan Dennis. The Aussie ITT machine could hold the Maillot Rojo until stage 9!
Stage 4: Starting on the coast heading towards the Sierra Huetor, the first mountain test passes near Granada, with the final test on La Alfaguara a Cat 1 12.4km @ 5.6% avg (up to 20%!). Perfect for the punchy climbers and first re-shuffle of the GC. My tip: Alejandro Valverde. King of the short steep climbs.
Stage 9: After 5 stages trundling across the Semi-Arid heartland of Central Spain, this stage finishes on the HC Category Alto de la Covatilla, one of only two HC climbs in the whole race. The climb up to a ski resort – it’s got nothing on the Cairngorms – is 19.7km @5.6%, with a final 4km section >10%, topping out at 1,962m. The first big showdown for the climbers. My tip: Richie Porte to take the jersey off his teammate.
Stages 10-15: Green Galicia, Léon and Cantabria – short nasty climbs, again and again and again.
Stage 13: A nasty finish to this stage at the beginning of the series of mountain stages to seal the tour. The final ascent is the Category 1 Alto de La Camperona. 8.3km @ 7.5% including slopes up to 20%! Although not a long climb, small gaps can leak a lot of time. My tip: Simon Yates does well on sharp gradients, expect him to attack a couple of kms out.
Stage 14: A profile almost identical to the modern toblerone – seriously, who thought changing that was a good idea. This stage could whittle down the front group severely before another tough finish, Alto Les Praeres 4km @ 12.5%, getting steeper up to sections of 25% before the line. One for the purer climbers. My tip: A breakaway. One for the local riders. Sergio Pardilla to claim a surprise win.
Stage 15: Relentless climbs. Day 3 of torture for the sprinters and domestiques. A summit finish on the final HC climb of the race, the famously beautiful Lagos de Covadonga; 12.2km 7.2% doesn’t tell the complete story – false flats and minor descents in the climb mean the slopes are more brutal than the numbers suggest, with the last 200m at 17.5%. My tip: Nairo Quintana. The Colombian has good memories of this climb, winning here in 2016.
Stages 16-21: The Race to Madrid, via Spain Cycling Heartlands – Mountains!
Stage 16: The standard ‘day-after-rest-day-ITT’. 32.7km on the flat will suit the powerful riders. Light climbers could lose a minute or two on the more proficient ITT GC riders and specialists. My tip: Victor Campenaerts. European and Belgian TT champion, he will be fresher than rival Rohan Dennis, and will have targeted this stage.
Stage 17: Into the Basque country, ergo let’s climb a silly climb and show off our new infrastructure – probably actually paid for with EU money (damn unelected bureaucrats doing Europe no good)! The narrow Alto del Balcon de Bizkaia, 7.3km @ 9.7%, with the last 4km at 11% (including slopes at 24%). Ouch – especially considering the plethora of climbing before the final test. A hard day out. My tip: A breakaway. Local rider Gorka Izaguirre to win.
Stage 19: Out of the Ebro foreland Basin and into Andorra! With a stage profile more akin to global CO2 emissions since 1900, the stage finishes on the Coll de la Rabassa at 2,015m. A more traditional mountain climb of switch backs and wonderful scenery welcomes the riders, 17.5km @ 6.3%. My tip: Pierre Rolland. A man can dream no? The Frenchman to give EF Drapac a fond farewell before his move to Vital Concept next season.
Stage 20: Short and sharp. Only 105.8km of racing with no less than 6 categorised climbs (1xCat3, 1xCat2, 4xCat1) AND a summit finish. This will be chaos. If there was any stage to watch this race, this would be it. Usually La Vuelta is decided on the last mountain stage, so this could shake the GC up dramatically. My tip: Vincenzo Nibali. A profile like sharks teeth, the Shark of Messina will relish the attacking riding, proving his WC form.
Stage 21: The procession in Madrid and final hurrah for the sprinters. For many it will be the end of their season (via the odd race here and there across the globe). My tip: Elia Viviani. No competition if he makes it over the mountains.
In general, the first two weeks are a prelude to a brutal final week. That’s not to say they will be easy, Stages 4 and 9 will mix up the GC a little before the heavy weights do battle in northern Spain.
The Vuelta Contenders & Jerseys
- Maillot Rojo (Red Jersey) – Overall race leader.
- Maillot Verde (Green Jersey) – Overall points category leader (sprints)
- Maillot Lunares (Polka Dots; Blue dots on White) – Overall mountains classification leader
- Maillot Blanco (White Jersey) – Combined classification leader (NOT Young riders – this is a combination of GC, Sprints and KOM leader – it is almost always awarded to someone on the podium in the GC – basically it is useless).
The jerseys in La Vuelta are less clear cut in who will win it. With so many summit finishes, it is possible – as Froome did last year, for the race leader to win 2/3 jerseys. This year with more sprint stages the Green Jersey might return to a sprinter for the first time since Degenkolb in 2014. The mountains classification is unpredictable as always. And we won’t mention the White jersey, what a f8*king complete waste of time, why not give it to a young rider, encourage their development and racing (see Giro this year) it is great….. relax.
Once again the GC guys assemble to do battle. As I mentioned before, this race throws up surprises. Here are some of the ‘favourites’:
Richie Porte: Once again his ability to not stay on his bike was his downfall in the Tour. The more relaxed style of racing in La Vuelta and hot conditions should suit him, as do the punchy finishes and flat time-trial. A strong squad around him with Dylan Teuns and Rohan Dennis means Porte is the favourite (if he can stay upright). His lack of racing since his collarbone fracture is a worry but he is experienced enough to know how to peak for a grand tour.
Simon Yates: Already had a good season and dominated the Giro – until the final week. The stages here suit the punchy Yorkshireman, he is in good form after a brilliant solo attack on the last stage of the hard Tour of Poland. However, he just needs to measure his efforts in the first two weeks so he can survive the final week. His brother is here to support him so that’s nice – perhaps they might do a switcheroo for one stage – who would know?!
Movistar: The Spanish Teams home race, they are looking to salvage something from a Grand Tour this year, especially after the disaster of the Tour de France (Triple leadership does not work). Learning from their mistakes, they come here with only two (perhaps 3) leaders. Former winners Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde (who has finished top 10, – 10 times, including 6 podiums…). Quintana should have a better shot at this as Valverde has admitted he has one eye on the Rainbow Jersey. The short steep finishes however suit the Spaniard – don’t be surprised if he picks up a stage win or two. If those two fail, keep an eye on Richard Carapaz the young Ecuadorian impressed in the Giro, who knows his limits.
Miguel Angel Lopez: Superman! A great nickname received fighting off muggers on his bike after being stabbed in the leg 5 times… So he doesn’t mind pain – or steep gradients. He set the race alight in the final week last year and won two stages, he hasn’t raced much since his 3rd place at the Giro but should be in good form. The hot conditions suit him and with a strong Pello Bilbao riding alongside him, expect him to go well.
David De La Cruz: Sky can’t enter a Grand Tour and not have a rider (or two) considered favourites. De La Cruz is a consistent – if not unspectacular – Grand Tour rider. A good time-trialist in his home race he should definitely be in the mix for a Top 5. He can count on co-leader Pol Michael Kwiatkowski for support in the mountains, who himself might grab a stage or two given his dominant win in the recent Tour of Poland.
George Bennett: LottoNL Jumbo come here with a good squad lead by the diminutive Kiwi, Bennett. He is unproven over 3 weeks but his recent form over hard 1 week races suggest he should go well. He can count on the support of the human coat hanger Steven Kruijswijk who was 5th at The Tour, and the super talented climber Sepp Kuss who singlehandedly obliterated the hardest 1 week race in the world in the Tour of Utah 2 weeks ago.
Rigoberto Uran Uran: A man looking to salvage his season. Uran typically goes well later on in the year, and after his Tour de France disappointment he will be looking to impress and be selected for the World Championship favourite Colombian squad. A faster finish than most he will be up there on the harder stages, and has support from a strong Team EF Education First Drapac p/b Cannondale squad.
Fabio Aru: The man, the myth, the legend. The facial contortionist is here to salvage his hugely disappointing season, he has traditionally done well here, winning in 2015, but given his season I’d say a Top 5 will be a good result. His team bring along Dan Martin, who no doubt will be aiming for some stage wins and riding into form for the World Championships.
Tis but a scratch, just a flesh wound: So lining up to race this year’s edition are three riders who would normally be considered potential podiums. The great Vincenzo Nibali, rangey Frenchman Thibault Pinot and Dutchman Wilco Kelderman. All have admitted they are not riding for the overall and looking for stage success and form ahead of the World Championships. Nibali has barely touched the bike since his vertebrae fracture in the Tour. Pinot has had a torrid time, his spectacular Giro collapse due to illness and dehydration caused him to contract pneumonia, after which a tick bite nearly infected him with Lymes Disease. A recent 3rd in Poland suggests his legs are good, but Pinot in the hot Spanish sun is like a snowman in the desert. Kelderman is like Porte and can’t stay upright, he fractured his collarbone in April, returned did well, then fell and fractured his shoulder just before the Tour – the reigning 4th place hasn’t raced since 1st July.
Other notable racers (For top 10):
As I mentioned before there are plenty of riders who could surprise or fail miserably. Bauke Mollema and Ilnur Zakarin both have podium potential, with the latter finishing 3rd here last year – with the Tour in their legs it might hold them back. Emmanuel Buchmann another consistent rider, Buchmann can regularly finish Top 10 in the hard 1 week races – it could be time for him to step up to the next level. Ion Izaguirre, the Basque rider in his home race, he could go well and has a good squad, but I think others with outshine him.
Ok these guys won’t win, but it is worth keeping an eye on the fresh young talent. Enric Mas and Bjorg Lambrecht were very successful in U23 racing and are looking to step up, they have no pressure on them and could surprise. Enric Mas riding for Quickstep especially, he has been touted as a Contador 2.0, so keep your eyes on him.
This year this *should* go to a sprinter, but as the recent Binckbank Tour across the Netherlands has shown just because it is flat, a sprinter isn’t guaranteed to win. A richer sprinter field than usual here are some of the favourites to win the Maillot Verde:
Peter Sagan: Doesn’t need much explaining. Struggled since his crash in the Tour and illness in Glasgow 2 weeks ago. Might be slow to start, but you can’t write him off.
Elia Viviani: Can’t stop winning this year. Won last week in Germany and has a very strong squad around him. Can he survive the mountains?
Alejandro Valverde: Can sprint on the flat and win in the hills. He could sneak the jersey if he is on form.
Michal Kwiatkowski: See above.
Matteo Trentin: Newly crowned European Champion, after a hard rainy day in Glasgow. He won 4 stages here last year and only lost the jersey after Froome finished top 10 on the final sprint stage (what a dick). Will want to win this year.
There are many more sprinters than usual. Some names to watch: Danny van Poppel (LottoNL), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), Jon Aberasturi (Eusakdi-Murias), Giaccamo Nizzolo (Trek), Max Walscheid (Sunweb), Simone Consonni (UAE), Marc Sarreau (FDJ) and Ryan Gibbons (Dimension Data).
Maillot Polka Dottos Azul
All-in at the roulette table. The mountains classification. Following my shocking prediction in the TdF ( I completely forgot Alaphilippe was racing… sack me), I have lower confidence than usual in this one. Anyway, here are some names of riders who like going up hills:
Some young climbing talent who might be up for the challenge. Enric Mas, Bjorg Lambrecht, Alex Aranburu.
From smaller teams in home races, Jesus Herrada, Sergio Pardilla, Eduardo Prades and Igor Anton will all be aiming for success in the breakaways.
Rafal Majka, Gianlucca Brambilla, Wilco Kelderman, Alexandre Geniez. Majka especially has said he is going to La Vuelta with a special goal in mind [not GC]… whatever that means (obviously a blue spotty jersey).
*See Maillot Rojo.
Summary Table of Vuelta Contenders:
De La Cruz,
Now you are super-hyped for the race. ITV4 and Eurosport will be showing the race and highlights – plus the intro music on ITV4 is epic.
If you have any questions fire them my way in the comments below.