Is this a fun Vuelta a España? Nonsense. All Vueltas are fun. That's the whole point of having a third grand tour, after the Tour de France. Nobody is in training (except maybe for worlds) and nobody has anything left to lose. In the short run, anyway.
But the Vuelta's real place in the sport is defined by what it means to riders' careers. For a while now, it's been the grand tour to go to for young riders looking to get a three-week race in their legs. The Tour de France is hardly for the uninitiated, and the Giro is crazy enough to frighten most people out of the sport entirely, at least until they get their legs under them. By all contrast, racing at the Vuelta is calm, uses lots of very nice roads that don't, by themselves, tend to cause mass pileups. It's good clean fun, and a chance to start building the strength in your legs that you'll need in the future, be it to get you over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix, or through day after day of sprinting at the end of a long, hot stage, or better still, to turn you into a legitimate grand tour threat to win.
Another thing you can gain at the Vuelta is equally hard-won confidence. Before last September, Tom Dumoulin was a nice rider who could clean up at lots of middlin' one-week stage races, what with his time trialling and general competence in climbs... up to a point. Now he's a guy for whom nobody knows the limit. Dumoulin will probably never sniff yellow in Paris, but he's a pretty good bet to do more than sniff it -- like maybe wear it -- early on in any Tour that starts with a prologue. He's already got several maglie rose in his closet, to go along with all those red jerseys he collected in Spain a year ago. For Dumoulin, his achievements won't be what he wants until he can finish off some of those big stage races, but his Vuelta experience enhanced his stature to the point where Sunweb-Giant would be crazy not to back him whenever he has a makeable goal in his sights.
Back in 2010 Vincenzo Nibali was a person of interest who looked to challenge in a variety of races, but probably not a major grand tour threat. Liquigas had brought him along slowly, and when he secured seventh overall in his Tour de France debut, people rightly began to wonder what his ceiling would be, but Nibali was a guy who didn't seem to be exceptional in any one discipline, besides descending, even though he was clearly quite good in most of them. Still, he had ridden very well in support of Ivan Basso in an exciting and successful Giro d'Italia that spring, so the team had no trouble letting him off the leash, at last, at the 2010 Vuelta. The race proceeded to fall in his lap when Igor Anton -- who had relieved Nibali of the Red Kit -- crashed out, leaving the Sicilian to defend a slim lead against a hard-charging Zeke Mosquera (and his special blood contents). Nibali prevailed in a gutty final mountain stage, and went on to rack up all three tours, carrying himself like a grand tour leader. A similar story is being written by his fellow Islander, Fabio Aru.
Less profound but maybe not to be overlooked is how one Chris Froome also ascended to grand tour leadership in the Vuelta, this time over two such races, in 2011 and 2012. Wiggins had been expensively imported to Team Sky in 2010, only to flop in his first Tour for the Brits and crash out of his second one in 2011. But his collarbone had healed in time for that year's Vuelta, and he and Froome went to Spain to salvage the season. Froome went into the overall lead on the first big time trial, only to set up his captain Wiggins for the lead the next day in the mountains. Clearly Froome, who had developed slowly and fitfully in his career to that point, was set to work for Wiggo. But his tart-tongued leader lost the race to JJ Cobo on the cruel slopes of the Angliru, where Froome alone remained in shouting distance and ended up second in Madrid.
The arrangement stayed in place for the 2012 Tour, where Wiggins made his breakthrough, though again it was only Froome who seemed up to the task of challenging Wiggins as Cadel Evans, the Schlecks and other potential rivals melted away, and the domestique role began to feel rather constrained. Wiggins himself was getting long in the tooth by cycling standards, and his 2012 Tour win wasn't viewed as the start of something big so much as a final, crowning achievement. So when the team sent Froome to Spain a month later, without Wiggins, it was Froome's chance to take over the team. The Tour had cooked his legs too thoroughly for Froome to do better than fourth overall, and he eventually stood down while the three Spanish stars Valverde, Contador and Rodriguez contested the overall. But the torch was passed.
Among Spaniards, the race has a similarly special meaning for Alejandro Valverde. Long viewed as an all-around talent but maybe not a grand tour guy, Valverde defied his supposed limitations at the Vuelta quite often in his younger years, finishing second, third, fourth and fifth by age 27 before finally ascending to the top step in 2009. This, meanwhile, while never starting the Giro and dropping out of two of his four Tour starts, with mere top ten results in the other two. Valverde will almost certainly never win the Tour, and probably not a Giro either, but the Vuelta will always be his "Yes I Can" grand tour, and his current grand tour prowess is more along the lines of "podium challenger/super domestique". He's also in the process of completing all three grand tours in a single season, with a treble of top tens still within his reach. The Vuelta is where he got his palmare, as well as his mojo.
So what does a strong showing -- likely a winning one -- mean to Nairo Quintana? Unlike the other examples here, Quintana came to Spain with a grand tour win in his pocket, from the 2014 Giro, which he won rather decisively. He also has three podiums in as many starts at the Tour. Winning the Vuelta would give the Colombian a second jewel for his crown, and give his nation a second victory in the race's history... assuming all goes well this week. And that caveat is perhaps the real unfolding story. Quintana has to go well this week, under significant pressure from his very own bete noir, Froome. Two years ago he crashed out of the race, watching Froome and Contador slip from his grasp, shortly after he had made a major statement in seizing the race lead. Last year he wilted to fourth overall, after a hard Tour. Now Quintana comes to Spain with some slight advantages, having foregone the tiring trip to Brazil for the Olympic road race, and has a large enough lead to win simply by riding within himself. He achieved this lead over Froome with some strong racing, against a relentless pursuit and even occasional attack from the Brit/Kenyan. But Saturday's tactical aggression set him apart in a way Quintana has never been able to do when racing against Froome. If he holds it to Madrid, the win will mark a possible turning point in this one-sided rivalry that, for now, defines the top end of the world's greatest race.
There is a lot to be gained by finishing off sporting events strongly. There's always another match or race or what have you, and the physical and mental strength one can take away from the end of the last one is a tool for everyone's toolbox. Maybe the eventual story will be that Froome wasn't at his best, but remains unbeatable (by Quintana) when he is. The Tour rewards the very best, and if that's still Froome, Quintana's efforts will be for naught, or for second, same thing? Still, the way the rivalry has played out over the last few years suggests that Quintana is the better man in the mountains, and Froome against the watch, suggesting a fair fight going forward. Froome's mental strength is beyond question. Quintana's is not... but a win here in Spain may vault him into the top category of smart, tough cyclists, worthy of the chance to win the sport's highest honors.