Could the best Grand Tour of the season be last? This year’s Tour De France teased and tantalised cycling fans with a dream duel between Chris Froome and Alberto Contador but the injury gods robbed us f both leaving Vincenzo Nibali to come home. Now both arrive at the Vuelta with Nairo Quintana also in toe – the matchup that hasn’t taken place since the Tour last year.
With many of the Giro top 10 present – including the young starts that lit up the race – and also several notable names from the Tour De France, on paper the potential is there for a fantastic battle over Spain during the next month.
The route is a typical Vuelta mountain fest, with 7 summit finishes mixing the deadly super steep gradients the race has become famous for along with the traditional ski station finishes that are seen in the Tour and Giro. There are 46km of individual time trialling – along with the opening team time trial – that balances the route finely although the climbers are heavily favoured and Nairo Quintana can take his second Grand Tour within a year to prove himself king of the uphill men.
Quintana was a distant second to Chris Froome in last year’s Tour but left himself vulnerable to the Sky man and his train in top form with overzealous attacks on the climb to Ax-3 Domaines and on Mont Ventoux – he also lost time on the flat time trial to Mont St Michel – but he finished in tremendous style to take second and has since grown in stature and performance, taking a first Grand Tour with a comprehensive Giro win earlier in the year.
That was tainted with controversy in the eyes of some as the message for neutralization on Val Martello didn’t reach the whole Peloton eventually but there are reasons to think that wasn’t the whole reason behind the victory. In the two summit finishes and mountain time trial he didn’t lose any time to the main favourites, taking 1.27 out of everyone but Fabio Aru on the climb upto the mountain, and he had been improving through the race in the same fashion that he did at last year’s tour – it’s worth nothing he’d had a cold before the last week.
His victory margin of 3 minutes over Rigoberto Uran was a fair margin based on his form to end the race and if anything there could be even more to come on the route that should suit him most of the three grand tours – he has four career wins in Spain. His time trialling has improved notably and there should be ample opportunity for him to make up any lost ground.
Key to the confidence in his selection, however, is the promise of peak racing form. Quintana has proven to be an expert at preparing himself from a layoff but he comes here having won Vuelta a Burgos, winning the single summit finish to prove his form and posting a strong time trial, and he deserves favouritism ahead of the next three weeks.
Chris Froome should arguably have won this race already – his supporting duties for Bradley Wiggins surely cost him the title – and next year he arrived here after playing a huge part in Wiggins’s Tour win and then gone full tilt into the Olympics afterwards.
This is a retrieval mission for the Sky man but one that is well within his reach with the time trialling an exclusive advantage he will have over the rest of the top favourites and a deep and well balanced squad which includes Dario Cataldo and Phillip Deignan coming from strong efforts in Poland while Peter Kennaugh comes from his Tour of Austria win as a British road race champion.
In theory he has plenty of time to find any fitness that he might be missing before the first time trial – it’s on Stage 10, and the first summit finish is “’just’ 4km – although guessing his level of form is hard; His Dauphine finishing effort came when reeling from his crash but the three crashes that he suffered in France knocked him out and another crash in training does not send positive vibes. Even if he was to be on top form – he can more than reach it – he is facing a smarter, better, Quintana on his turf and that promises to be one of the hardest tasks he’s faced during his career, and he has also not reached anything close to the form he had last year.
The market has the race as being between those two but that has more to do with the likely conditioning of the first two ahead of the rest of the field. Alberto Contador’s presence is just about the best thing that could have happened to the profile of the race but after an almost miracle recovery from his fractured tibia in the Tour.
All his form from this year would make him close to favourite; Either first or second in his four stage races, an emphatic winner of Quintana at Tirreno-Adriatico and a comprehensive one at Pais Vasco before good seconds at Volta A Catalunya and in the Dauphine when the race got away from him on the final stage.
However he’s removed all talk of winning ambitions and his participation is a shock; On July the 23rd he’d announced he wouldn’t ride the Vuelta and on the 1st August he announced his intention to participate; He’s likely to have had just 20 days training and has told the media he’s looking to peak and take a stage in the third week.
Joaquim Rodriguez has had a dreadful year so far, with the polka dot jersey within his reach but never really his for the taking once Rafal Majka reached top form. His form is extremely hard to rate – it’s impossible to know if was the Tour the perfect conditioning for his challenge as he finished it so weakly and it’s hard to know how much to read into his San Sebastian third. An extra training block should help but there’s a great deal of uncertainty around him. His team mate Dani Moreno, a noted performer on short, zippy summit finishes, is likely to be on hand and is an interesting triple priced contender.
Alejandro Valverde is next best in the betting but he was a tired man when losing a podium spot in France and looks likely to be lieutenant towards Quintana. Rigoberto Uran is a steady choice and good time trialist but was clear second best to Quintana at the Giro – the second time he’s finished runner up – and other make more appeal for the win although he should be well upto challenging for a top 5 finish.
Fabio Aru looks to have a great future in Grand Tours following his breakthrough Giro third. If he’s fit and firing he’ll challenge for the top 10 but that’s not a certain question and one we’ll see within the race.
A really interesting flyer could be Andrew Talansky, who was fancied for the Tour before a horrendous crash ruined his chances. Previously eighth in this, he is an improved rider now but is form is impossible to guess as to how fit he’ll be. Team mate Dan Martin is one for stages but not a high general classification placing and Ryder Hesedjal looks a better long range option.
Wilco Kelderman makes the biggest appeal of the outsiders for a bold showing. The young Dutchman was 11 minutes behind in the Giro but will only improve and to post such a strong effort in the Dauphine afterwards was a remarkable effort. His fifth at the Tour of Utah confirms he’s in form and we can expect to see a bold showing from him, so look to him for a top 10 placing. Thibaut Pinot’s third at the Tour De France was the fine effort of a rapidly maturing rider and this parcours would just suit more but he’s savoured that win a lot and is now aiming for stages and the King of the Mountains jersey, for which he looks value even at a cut price 6/1.
Cadel Evans is in form but he fades badly in the final week of grand tours, Jurgen Van Den Broeck did not impress in France and is best suited by long grinds rather than these steep slopes and Warren Barguil is a promising young rider who may be best for stage wins rather than the overall.
Przemysław Niemiec and Winner Anacona are in form but none were close in the Giro and it’s hard to see a total change; Carlos Betancur just hasn’t had the condition all year and better youth prospects, of which there are many, may come in the form of Estaban Chaves and Adam Yates, both of whom will show their faces plenty over the course of three weeks.
The points jersey has equal scoring for all stages, which makes the competition for the jersey as open to the mountaineers as it is the sprinters. As an example of this, think to 2012 when John Degenkolb won 5 stages but still finished second to Aljeandro Valverde, and with Nairo Quintana’s form confirmed, the makes the most appeal at 11/4 given the seven summit finishes with a number likely not to reach top level before the second or third week.
There are only 4 real flat stages so puncheurs, with a number of finishes in their favour, may be suited by what’s coming ahead and maybe one of the Basque classics specialists, like Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez making most appeal although Dani Moreno and Peter Sagan are also two for the shortlist. Rating the four is hard but Valverde’s win at San Sebastian suggests he has much to offer before final week tiredness steps in and he’s backed up the Vuelta well from the Tour before too.
In the king of the mountains competition, I’ve already stated my intention to follow Thibaut Pinot, but with the summit finishes not offering the huge amount that the Tour had, a chaser makes most appeal and Julian Arrendondo is chanced after winning the jersey in the Giro. He’ll be no threat to the main men but can climb with the best too if on top form.
5 pts Nairo Quintana (6/5 Bet365, Boylesports)
Advice – Points Competition
1 pt Nairo Quintana (11/4 general)
1 pt each/way Alejandro Valverde (7/1 Boylesports)
Advice – King of the Mountains
1 pt each/way Julian Arredondo (18/1 Bet Victor)