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The Vuelta GC battle

Michael Steele/Getty Images

Oh god, another GC battle in another Grand Tour. Aren't they all the same? Sure feels that way, doesn't it? At least I felt that way until guess who showed up...

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Our favorite clam! Txirla! Yay Txirla! What's that? Where was he during San Seb? It would tell you but this year Txirla is on a silent retreat, having a Cave Experience. (Supposedly there's nowhere better for a Cave Experience then off the coast of Washington, preferably in Hood Canal. Ask any Seattleite.) But Txirla took the Bolt Bus south to Portland last weekend and passed me its thoughts on its favorite stage race. I present them to you unedited.

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For the GC you got five types of riders in the Vuelta:

Type 1: Kids

Remember last year? Aru (age last year: 25) overtaking Doom (24) on the penultimate stage? Esteban Chaves (25) wearing the red jersey through stage 4 and eventually coming in 5th? Louis Meintjes (23) serving notice that this kid will become a serious GC guy by finishing 10th? Every year there's a couple of kids in the Vuelta who have a breakthrough race and surprise us all by growing up faster than expected. Actually I have no idea if that's true but it certainly was last year and to a lesser extent in 2014 when Aru (24) finished 5th on GC and Barguil (22) 8th. And this year looks like the kids will serve notice once again. Here's a list in order of how likely they will contend for the overall win. Remember these are Txirla's notes so if you disagree take it up with the clam:

  1. Superman aka Miguel Angel Lopez, Astana. Superman is exactly what I'm talking about. He's fresh having raced only 46 days this year. He was dominant in his Suisse tour win. Astana has given him savvy and undivided support: Scarponi (who guided him around Switzerland) Lulu Sanchez, Cataldo, Malacarne, Zeits, Gruzdev, Smukulis, and Vanotti. Folks, that is one serious team for a GC contender. The fact that he's never raced a Grand Tour is a mark against him and keeps him from being mentioned as a serious contender. Don't be fooled. Kid is for real and we'll see it happen here.
    Miguel Angel Lopez Agence Zoom
  2. Esteban Chaves, Orica. Like Lopez this year, was Chaves last year: no one expected Chaves to do what he did in last year's Vuelta. Since then he backed up his quality with a 2nd place on GC in this year's Giro, falling victim only to Nibali's fantastic last weekend. Since the Giro he's only raced once, in the Olympics so he's only got 38 days racing in the tank. He's got an odd team behind him (odd as in not so supportive) but he's shown twice now that he can contend without the strongest backing. One guy who will be right there with him come business time is...
  3. Simon Yates, Orica. Unlike Chavez and Lopez, its hard to see him actually win this race-which is just perfect. Simon of course has had a weird year with that doping mini-suspension thingy and for awhile you;d have to wonder if this year was lost to him. But since coming back he's been impressive: after getting his feet (and everything else) wet in Poland, he finished an impressive first in a san Seb warm-up race, then ending up 7th at San Seb , 2nd to Ulissi at the third Basque one day race and finally 4th on GC at Burgos. He's ready and with Chaves Orica might have the best one-two combination of GC riders in the race because of their freshness. (Sorry Movistar.) Oh right-and Simon has just 29 days racing this year.
  4. Joe Dombrowski of Cannondale. For those of you who watched the Tour of Utah you witnessed a truly weird performance by Vaughters' team. Possibly the most telling stage though was the last where Talansky lost his lead up Empire Pass-and where you also saw Dombro nursing Talansky up that very Vuelta like climb, patiently playing the helper but obviously having the legs to contest the stage win. From what we've seen of Joe he's got the talent to become a real GT GC rider but will it ever come out? Will it come out in this race? Probably not but he's worth watching.
  5. The rest of these kids have a longer shot at making a dent in the GC-which means that probably one of them will. Who are we talking about here? Louis Vervaeke of Lotto Soudal, Pierre Latour of AG2R, Hugh Carthy of Caja Rural plus Louis Meintjes of Lampre and Warren Barguil of Giant-Alpecin. I am separating Meintjes and Barguil here for reasons explained below but for this paragraph let's say that all of these riders will be going for stage wins more than GC. They all have oodles of potential though so this race could be filled with surprises from this pack. Just like last year.

Type 2: Vets who did not ride the Tour

After writing about the kids, this group, well let's get them out of the way. The positive thing about these guys is that these riders have been targeting this Grand Tour all year so on paper these guys could shake up the GC if not win the race. That's on paper. The reality is we are talking about Samuel Sanchez of BMC who probably is riding for Tejay but may show on a stage or two, Robert Gesink of Lotto Jumbo coming off yes another injury! and is probably riding for Cruise Ship, and Andrew Talansky of Cannondale who may or may not be rounding into shape.  Perhaps not being the guy on the team that's supposed to win the race and where he can just follow wheels will make it easier for him. Okay, let's move on to more interesting GC groups....

Type 3: Giro riders
Chaves wins Dolomite stage Luk Benies, AFP/Getty

We're talking Steven Kruijswijk of Lotto Jumbo, Esteban Chaves of Orica, Joe Dombrowski of Cannondale, Al Geniez of FDJ, and Darwin Atapuma of BMC. Rein Taaramae of Katusha and Igor Anton of DDD are also here but outside of Jens who else sees them doing anything? Anton's 9th place at Burgos and Taaramae's fade on the final "climb" in the Arctic Race were hardly encouraging.

Its interesting. The Vuelta has been raced in late August/September only since 1995 but until recently GC guys have not thought about doing the Giro-Vuelta double much, probably because the Tour is such a %^$#^^%# whale on the cycling calendar.  With Contador in 2008 not being allowed to ride and defend his Tour crown and then winning a Giro/Vuelta in response, things have changed. Nibali came within a Horner of doing the double himself in 2013. Aru last year finished 2nd at the Giro before winning the Vuelta.  It seems like this Giro/Vuelta double is gaining some popularity and above I listed five guys who could make a major impact on this race after featuring in the Giro.

Of those five guys you gotta like Cruise Ship and Chaves as most lively to have a serious impact. Dombro is a wild card while Geniez and Atapuma would be entering new territory if they become players in the GC race, though top 10 is not beyond of their abilities. But seriously: it says here that Cruise and Chaves are very serious contenders. They are rested and proven good. This Vuelta is more wide open then it seems like the hype is suggesting.

Type 4: Riders who seriously competed for the GC at the Tour.

Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana are the headliners here plus Warren Barguil of Giant - Alpecin and maybe Tejay Van Garderen of BMC. Also Meintjes and Barguil. Surely Froome and maybe Quintana are the riders to beat, right? Hmm. I suggest you have a fainting couch while we discus the odds. Comfy? Okay, let's begin.

The Vuelta moved to its present spot on the calendar in 1995. Since then no one has done the double of Tour/Vuelta GC wins. Now let's pan out a bit and include any serious Tour GC contender who finished the Tour (as opposed to say crashing out in the first week like Froome and Contador did two years ago). So with this wider focus do we catch any such riders who went on to win the Vuelta?  Yes we do. Two riders in fact: the first was in the first year of the Vuelta's new calendar slot: Take a bow Laurent Jalabert! 1995 winner of the Vuelta after finishing 4th on GC at the Tour! Jaja! His only Grand Tour GC win! Jaja also won the points and KOM competitions in 95. To my mind though I got to wonder: was this a fluke win because riders and teams weren't sure how to deal with this new calendar? Jalabert definitely was one of the top 90's riders but Grand Tours were not his sweet spot. Sort of like Al Valverde. Plus the courses of those Vueltas were heavy on long boring slogs along big highways: nothing like the last five years or more with 10 MTFs etc. Anyways YMMV.

The second guy to finish high on GC at the Tour then win the Vuelta was Roberto Heras in 2000 who finished 5th at the Tour then took his first of four Vuelta wins. What happened in his other four wins? 2003: 34th at the Tour being Lance's domestique. 2004: DNS stage 17 while being Lance's caddy. 2005: 45th on GC get the picture. Only his in 2000 was he actively competing for a Tour win and then went to claim victory at the Vuelta. Pop quiz! How many stage races did Heras win in his career?

So you get want I'm trying to say I hope: I'm not saying it can't be done cause its been done twice in 21 years but its really hard to finish high in GC at the Tour then win the Vuelta. And both of the exceptions happened when the course was easier than the climby monsters of recent times. But let's take a look at recent years.

Last year Quintana finished 2nd at the Tour then 4th at the Vuelta-and honestly can anyone say he looked really dangerous at the Vuelta? It was obvious he didn't have his top gear. Tour winner Froome crashed out at the Vuelta.  Oh and Valverde finished 3rd at the Tour then 7th at the Vuelta. 2014 saw a great Vuelta with Contador beating Froome-but both had week one crashes at the Tour. Valverde did finish the Tour in 4th place then 3rd at the Vuelta where he faded in the last week as Froome overtook him. 2013 saw Valverde finish 8th then 3rd. J-Rod finished 3rd then 4th. 2012 saw Valverde finish 20th than 2nd. Myself I don't see a 20th place at the Tour as really contesting the race. Froome did though, he won the Tour but finished 4th at the Vuelta over 10 minutes back. Faded by week three. I have to keep going? The only time Valverde won the Vuelta he did not compete in the Tour. etc. etc. etc.

Contador and Froome at Netherlands Coast

Perhaps Froome can do the double. Perhaps Quintana can find that spark he was missing in the Tour. Perhaps Van Garderen can...nah. Given that Froome also competed in the Olympics too, you got to be thinking that he's here for stage wins while hoping in the back of his mind that maybe he could contest the GC win here. He'll sure try. Look to see how he is after the four in a row MTFs of stages 8-11. In fact for all the riders look to see how they are doing post stage 11.

Type 5: GC guys who crashed out at the Tour or did not race for GC

Two guys here. First is Mathias Frank of IAM. Top 10 here? Possible.

Second guy? Alberto Contador. Guy who has entered the Vuelta three times previously and won each time. (None of those wins happened after a high GC placing at the Tour.) The last time he won here, 2014, he was on equal footing with Froome and beat him.

Speaking of Froome and Contador, that's one of the sad things about stage racing the last several years: a possible great rivalry between the two has never really taken off. That just sucks as these two could have gone down in the history books as one of the great rivalries. But here's what we are left with: in 2012 Contador was suspended and Froome escorted Wiggins around the Tour, finishing 2nd on GC. So when the Vuelta came along Contador, not 100%, was still better than Froome who was tired after that Tour. 2013 saw Froome beat Contador at the Tour. That's one for Froome. 2014 saw us all disappointed when they both crashed out at the Tour. But then they recovered for the Vuelta where they gave a great battle. Bert scores one. 2015 saw Contador tired at the Tour after winning the Giro. 2016 Contador crashes out early in the Tour and is more rested for the Vuelta. As far as rivalries go, this one has never quite taken off.

So who's gonna win?

Contador in red (2014)