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Winning the Vuelta

Vuelta podium 2016 Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Vuelta goes through a particular cycle. For most of the year it’s the Grand Tour about which nobody cares, short of the occasional Caja Rural DS or, no, it’s pretty much just Caja Rural directeurs. Then, however, comes the Tour, where by about stage eleven, everybody remembers that actually, the Vuelta is the far superior race and they didn’t care about the yellow jersey anyway. As people crash out of the Tour and begin to regret their disappointing Giri, the startlist inevitably grows until it seems to consist wholly of spindly GC contenders. After this, the race actually starts, and to be quite honest with you I rarely find myself disappointed. The eight out of ten purported GC contenders who fall out of contention early on are a different story, but the Vuelta can rarely be called boring. Any race with an insane summit finish on more days than not would find that difficult.

Someone’s got to win those summit finishes — the path to the maillot rojo almost invariably leads through them. It also takes a detour through Logroño, with its forty kilometre time-trial. Does that detour make this a balanced race? In my experience, ‘balanced’ races are a little bit of a fiction — time-trials will almost always have a huge say in their running, and when one of the best climbers is also a fiend on an aero bike, any amount of time-trialling can counterbalance quite a few mountain stages, especially given the specific conditions of the Vuelta: it is almost impossible to make a good attack on climbs as steep as you will find in this race — accelerating on a fifteen per cent gradient is a pretty bad idea if you want to hold that pace for any length of time. This leads to the top contenders riding tempo on the steepest climbs until they come in together, with only the seconds found in a glacial sprint to the line to really contend for.

Here’s another specific condition of the Vuelta: practically no one wants to win it, or practically no one wanted to in April. Then, the Giro and Tour stretched ahead of all the GC riders, but now there are seasons to be salvaged and sponsors to woo. Anyone targeting the Vuelta has likely gone through a little bit of recalibration after missing a primary target. That is, with one notable exception.

The Favourite is...Chris Froome, obviously

Why will he win? This is not the most inspiring startlist in the Vuelta’s recent history, so when you get the Tour winner turning up to a Vuelta containing forty kilometres of his time-trialling speciality it’s hard to bet against him. The murmurings from behind the non-soundproof door of Sky’s service course sound awfully like they’re saying “Tour-Vuelta double” and a vocal school of thought during Froome’s conservative July made the case that that he was conserving for a reason, namely the Angliru. Even if Froome was taking it one race at a time, he’s made numerous tilts at this race and it surely must smart that he’s never quite made the top step of the podium. This looks like his best ever chance of reaching that step.

Why will he lose? There’s always a reason why someone could lose the Vuelta, and in Froome’s case it’s not hard to find — have you ever seen him race in Spain? It’s a world apart from his racing in France. I don’t know if it’s his defence mechanism when his legs lose their July zip or it’s just his reaction to the steeper gradients, but to see Froome get dropped on those gradients and winch his way back up to the lead group has become a staple of this race. It’s not as though this is an ineffective strategy — a stage on which it worked perfectly came in 2014, when he was dropped on La Camperona and worked his way back to finish in front of all the GC contenders. Whether he’ll be strong enough to avoid using this technique remains to be seen, but the fact remains that Tour Froome and Vuelta Froome are very different riders.

The Challenger (and there’s always a challenger now, it’s a rule) is...Vincenzo Nibali

Why will he win? The Vuelta field is never really as strong as it looks — when it comes down to it, Nibali is the next best GT rider in it after Froome. This in a race where Froome has at different times failed to finish, ridden off form and met his match. Nibali could prove to be that match.

Why will he lose? I had the opinion, before the Giro, that Vincenzo Nibali was done. I’m still not completely convinced that I was wrong. Sure, he came third in that race, only forty seconds off his third maglia rosa but I challenge you to name one moment in it where he looked remotely like winning. His recent tendency to start slowly and come to the fore late on (a strategy that got him a win in the 2016 Giro, sure, but he wouldn’t have been close without that snowbank) is going to be about as much use in this race as a leadout train. If Nibali is to make any kind of a challenge for this, he’ll have to be around the front as early as the second weekend. I don’t think it’s likely he can match Froome then, or at any time.

The Next Most Likely Candidate is...Fabio Aru, probably

Why will he win? Does “he’s done it before” still count as an answer to that question? That win was certainly in circumstances more favourable to him — Froome didn’t make it to Madrid and Aru had a Giro in his legs, not a Tour. Then again, if Froome’s the favourite, you can’t count out someone who rode the same most recent race. Aru would probably have finished higher than his eventual fifth had he not been hampered bronchitis, but now that he has recovered he cannot be discounted as a challenger to Froome and Nibali, especially if he brings any approximation of the climbing legs that propelled him to victory on La Planche des Belles Filles.

Fabio Aru Wins Vuelta Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty

Why will he lose? Aru started the season expecting to ride the Giro, but instead he’s ridden the Tour and is going onto the Vuelta. That probably means that he’s further along a peaking curve than anyone can be expected to manage. He can also be prone to the occasional couple of bad days and him outclimbing Froome consistently is something I’ll have to see to believe.

Well, how about...Adam Yates?

Why will he win? After a Giro marred by his stage nine fall, limiting him to the lower reaches of the top ten, Adam Yates goes into this Vuelta the same rider who pushed Froome at the 2016 Tour. We know his form is certainly kicking around where he’d want it to be, with a fifth in the Tour de Pologne thanks to second place on the Queen Stage. I’d be the last person in the world to underestimate him. I also think he’s the best prospect in the insanely strong Orica side.

Why will he lose? It’s here where we get to the guys who haven’t really shown themselves capable of beating Froome in a GT. Yates has never won a stage race, a statement which is false until you realise that the only thing that makes it so is the Tour of Turkey. Sure, his Giro was ruined by a crash, but he went on without making a huge impression. Also, that double is harder than it’s given credit for and there are plenty of people who disappear in the first week of the Vuelta.

While we’re at Orica, where’s...Esteban Chaves?

Why will he win? Natural progression? (Clue: that’s never the answer). The big impression he made in the 2015 race was followed with a podium finish last year, accompanied with second in the Giro. While of course it’s always a mistake to predict improvement based on nothing but the progression of time one would have more of an excuse for doing so with Chaves than with most others. Then there’s the fact that out of all the established GC contenders in the race, Chaves has probably gone least deep into his reserves.

Why will he lose? Chaves turned up to the Tour de France, in case you excusably didn’t notice him. His performance was apparently down to weight gain and mental problems after the tragic death of his friend and soigneur Diego Casas in a cycling accident. In the knowledge of this it is easy to understand his lack of form, but I’m in the industry of having to say what he’s going to do in the future. I can’t say how badly he’ll be affected in this race. He’s a wildcard here.

Chaves wins Dolomite stage Luk Benies, AFP/Getty

A weirdly small number of people seem to be talking about...Romain Bardet

Why will he win? This is the same guy who finished third in the Tour de France, sticking on Froome’s wheel as well as anybody in the mountains. I don’t think the shorter, steeper climbs are going to be any more of an impediment as they will be for the British rider. If Froome can do the Tour-Vuelta double, so can Bardet, right?

Why will he lose? I mentioned Logroño, didn’t I? Bardet isn’t going to improve his chances of winning in a forty kilometre time-trial and there’s really not enough space in the mountains for him to make up the three minutes he will lose. Still, he’s certainly a prospect for a podium.

Sagan’s not on Bora for this? Okay. For the GC they’ve brought...Rafał Majka

Why will he win? Majka’s one of those guys who have a GT podium without that fact really being all that reconcilable. He went into the Tour with what looked like a good chance at another one, but a crash on stage nine brought down his race weight dramatically, even if it was all in skin and jersey form. However, he should have recovered for this race and you should never underestimate the power of relative freshness in the Vuelta.

Why won’t he win? He’s never quite shown the climbing ability to make attacks when it counts — the thought of him attacking off the front in the red jersey seems about as realistic as the next Bora advertisement involving someone who’s ever owned one of their products. A podium contender.

This is the last preview in which I’ll have to mention...Alberto Contador

Why will he win? He won’t, nor will anyone below him in this preview but I’m under obligation to talk about him. He’s going to go all out and make attacks, but you didn’t need me to tell you that. When he gets dropped on the second summit finish, it’s not going to matter much, he’s going to go around Spain racing like he wants to, as well as he can.

Why will he lose? Did you watch the Tour? It’ll be like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s not going to tarnish his legacy, most of that’s already been done. I warred with myself about even mentioning him, but I thought this tiniest of hat tips was due.

Hanging around somewhere is...Ilnur Zakarin

Why will he win? He can really climb and he’s not the worst of time-triallists. That’s how to win the Vuelta, right? It’s more complicated than that? Okay. Zakarin finished 1:56 off the pink jersey in the Giro, losing basically all of that on one bad stage, that to Blockhaus. He avoids that bad day and he’s already in the game for a GC challenge.

Why will he lose? Shall I stereotype? I’m sure someone from Tatarstan will love a Vuelta that spends more time in the south of Spain than I’ve ever seen before. Additionally, he’s never raced the Vuelta and the only previous time he did two Grand Tours in a year he devoted the race to ultimately successful stage hunting.

You know who might deliver by now? It’s...Miguel Ángel López

Why will he win? Christ, that bit of bold writing was so easy to follow when I was writing about Froome. Now I can either pretend he can win, patronise you by listing his achievements or just abruptly stop writing. It’s looking good for the Colombian, who hit form by winning stage five of the Vuelta a

Why will he lose? He crashes more often than a Formula One car in a living room. Also, he probably can’t climb as well as Froome and Nibali just yet. If he makes it to Madrid or wherever the hell this race finishes, he might be in the top ten.

Hey, is that Valverde or Quintana in that Movistar jersey? No, that’s...Marc Soler

Why will he win? Oh, Conor from the past, why did you decide on this format?

Why will he lose? Because despite working for Valverde on a summit finish on the Tour of Catalunya, he still finished fourth on the stage and went onto a podium finish? That’s the most impressive recent performance I’ve seen from anyone on the Movistar team, so he should lead them. And maybe put in a performance that exceeds expectations.

I didn’t forget to mention Tejay van Garderen. I did, briefly, forget to mention Wilco Kelderman, but he’s not going to win — Sunweb’s luck doesn’t stretch that far. Steven Kruijswijk lost my trust in the Giro, so if he does something I’ll be eating these non-words. De la Cruz and Jungels probably can’t manage all the steepness.

So to conclude then, this is Froome’s race to lose and that’s something about which I can’t be happy. I don’t think that he’s going to set the race alight, I just don’t think that this is quite a field that can challenge him and if he drops out, the battle for the red jersey will be about as inspiring as one involving Roberto Heras. Something is making me think that this Vuelta isn’t quite as competitive as those from the last couple of years. Predicting Froome to win is a cop-out, it’s like saying “cobbles are probably uncomfortable” or “I predict that a motor will make a bicycle easier to ride” but I can’t think of anyway around it. Froome to win. Nibali second. Majka third. Enjoy.