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Seeing red: A Vuelta Preview

A countdown of the top eleven contenders for overall glory

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Here, in my mind, is how a grand tour season should go. At the start of the season, all the big riders pick between the Giro and the Tour. They ride a couple of prep races, then their main target. They have a rest, then they come back for the Vuelta. The Giro guys ride a prep, the Tour guys don’t. We get to watch a race between the winner of the Giro and the winner of the Tour, and decide who’s best.

Reader, it doesn’t work like that. Cycling, it turns out, is complicated, and planning an entire season with the assumption that injuries and illnesses won’t happen, that form is predictable and constant, that teammate support is unvarying, and that everyone recovers at the same speed… that’s pretty dumb.

On the other hand: whilst it is more complicated than “Tour’s best guy vs Giro’s best guy” history suggests that, if you’re looking for the Vuelta winner podium, you should start with a long look at the top of the classification from France and Italy. Witness:

2017 – 1: Tour 1st, 2: Giro 3rd, 3: Giro 5th

Froome doubled up for the first time in his career, holding off Nibali and Zakarin, who both showed markedly better form than they had in Italy.

2016 – 1: Tour 2nd, 2: Tour 1st, 3: Giro 2nd

Quintana and Froome renewed their rivalry from France, albeit with the places reversed as Quintana held onto better form. Chaves’ Giro was backed up with a similar Vuelta in his career year (thus far).

2015 – 1: Giro 2nd, 2: Tour 29th, 3: Tour 28th

Fabio Aru helps to prove my point. J-Rod and Majka demonstrate what a battle for the ages we saw over 28th place in the 2015 Tour… okay, let’s call this the exception to the rule.

2014 – 1: Tour 9th, 2: Tour DNF, 3: Tour 4th

This would look a lot stronger if Froome had completed the Tour. Still, a returning Contador and a Valverde seeking form for a home World Champs are a logical pair to improve in their second GTs of the season, whilst Froome’s “redemption story after injury” points to another, and relevant, route to success.

2013 – 1: No prior GTs, 2: Giro 1st, 3: Tour 8th

AFP/Getty Images

Thank goodness for Nibali, saving the narrative. Chris Horner and Alejandro Valverde… no, I can’t be bothered. I’m moving on.

What I take from all of that is simple. The best way to spot a likely Vuelta winner is to find guys who have raced one (but not both) of the previous GTs, with success. If you can point to a likely reason for improved form, bonus points. There’s nothing about this year’s calendar or the parcours for this year’s Vuelta that leads me to think that approach is wrong.

What is unusual, however, is the paucity of riders who’re taking the start line with one successful GT in the legs. This is due to a combination of riders attempting the Giro-Tour double, young riders not trying two GTs in a year, and a few key injuries. Consider:

Giro Top ten:

  • Froome – raced Tour, not riding
  • Dumoulin – raced Tour, not riding
  • Lopez – starts Vuelta
  • Carapaz – starts Vuelta
  • Pozzovivo – raced Tour, not riding
  • Bilbao - starts Vuelta
  • Konrad – not riding
  • Bennett – starts Vuelta
  • Oomen - not riding
  • Formolo – starts Vuleta

As for the Tour…

  • Thomas – not riding
  • Froome – rode Giro, not riding
  • Dumoulin – rode Giro, not riding
  • Roglic – not riding
  • Kruijswijk – starts Vuelta
  • Bardet – not riding
  • Landa – injured in San Sebastian, not riding
  • Martin – starts Vuleta
  • Zakarin – starts Vuelta
  • Quintana – starts Vuelta

So we have one guy with a podium to his name, two with a top five, and six who scraped a top ten and are coming back for more. I would further add that only two of those riders (Zakarin and Lopez) are certainties to be team-leaders at the Vuelta.

Anyway, let’s give those guys due consideration, and add in some names that were unlucky to miss previous top tens. From that, I’ll produce my countdown of the ten guys most likely to win the race. A couple of housekeeping points: I’m limiting myself to one guy per team, so if your favourite isn’t mentioned, that might be why. Also, there are only ten names in a top ten. Please don’t tell me there are more than ten guys with a chance; I know. On the other hand, if you think someone should be chucked out to replaced with your guy, now we have the basis for a debate.

Particularly unlucky to be left out are:

  • Tiesj Benoot. No, he isn’t really unlucky. But this is a long column and I want there to be something for everyone. Hi, Jens! How are you?
  • The Izagirre brothers –I can them see riding well, but I can’t see either of them sticking with the bigs in the high mountains.
  • Bauke Mollema – good, but just isn’t getting it done at this level over three weeks and has had more than enough chances to prove that narrative wrong.
  • Davide Formolo and Rafal Majka have chances but missed out because there are too many names (maybe Buchmann did , too). Any of the Bora trio could do well but a top five would be a superb result. Anyone on the list below could exceed that.
  • Michael Woods and Rigoberto Uran really got done by numbers, and I wish I could have got one of them into the top ten. Ah, let’s go 11 deep. Whatever.

11. Rigoberto Uran

What’s the support? Michael Woods, coming off a decent ride in Utah, Pierre Rolland and Dani Moreno. Pretty good, no?

What’s he done so far? Crashed out of the Tour after a run-in with some cobbles left him nowhere. That was a shame, because his ride in Slovenia made him look like he was finding some good form.

How’s his form? Won my respect and proved his form with a fighting 6th in San-Sebastian. Like many on this list, will be thinking about the World Champs as well as the Vuelta.

Why might he soar? He’s a very good climber and a solid all-round rider, only one year removed from a Tour podium. That’s not too shabby.

Why might he flop? He showed the form for a one-day race, but whether he can produce 21 stages of solid to excellent riding is an open question. We know he can hit the podium in a grand tour, but we also know that he can miss it by a distance. He’s a real wildcard.

No pesky cobbles in Spain
AFP/Getty Images

10. Michael Kwiatkowski

What’s the support? We don’t know yet, but it is Team Sky, so unlikely to be four fat guys and some kids on trikes. David de la Cruz and Tao Geoghegan Hart are the start of a mountain train. They’ll be fine.

What’s he done so far? Rode as a luxury domestique in the Tour, finishing 49th as his teammates grabbed the top two spots on the podium, but was out-climbed by Bernal as well. That followed wins in Algarve and Tirenno-Adriatico.

How’s his form? Proved his current form with a win in Poland, which was mighty impressive. Would be a surprise if he wasn’t thinking about winning rainbows for a second time.

Why might he soar? He’s one of the best all-round bike riders in the world, and can excel on all parcours. Has proved he can climb with the very best on his day.

Why might he flop? This is his first time really going for a GC, and he’s doing it with a long season in his legs and a big target still to come. Would be a surprise if he had the top-end power to time-trial or climb to a lead over his rivals, but not a total shock.

9. Thibault Pinot

What’s the support? Doesn’t look great, but no worse than other FDJ outfits that have supported him to success. David Gaudu will be helpful if he has anything left in the tank.

What’s he done so far? Rode nicely in the Giro until a horrendous and hard to watch stage 20, when he was dry heaving on his bike as he fell from 3rd overall to 16th, before not starting in Rome. Was on course for a deserved podium.

How’s his form? Turned out he had pneumonia and a temperature in the low 40s, so understandably skipped the Tour. Proved a return to form with 3rd in Poland on terrain that wasn’t ideal.

Why might he soar? He’s a solid time-trialler, an excellent climber, and an experienced GT leader who would be far higher on this list under normal circumstances. Another wild-card based on questionable form.

Why might he flop? It is hard to imagine him on top form for three weeks after the season he’s endured so far. Could lose time in buckets at any stage, or could be fine.

8. Simon Yates

What’s the support? Good enough that this is the first team where I had to think about who the leader is. Brother Adam will bring identity confusion and quality support, and Jack Haig is looking better and better.

What’s he done so far? He finished 21st in the Giro. On the other hand, he came pretty close to winning it and got me pretty excited. What you make of his performance there determines what you make of this ranking, really.

How’s his form? Returned with 2nd in Poland. Rock solid.

Why might he soar? The first 17.9 stages of the Giro tell you how good he can be.

Why might he flop? The last 3.1 stages of the Giro will be in his mind, and everyone else’s. Needs to prove he can get through a three-week slog as leader. He’ll have learned from that race, but needs to have learned fully, and fast. There’s also a question of how much it took out of him physically.

7. Dan Martin

What’s the support? Fabio Aru is here. It is up to you whether you think he’s helping Dan or vice versa, but I am assuming this is the arrangement. The team isn’t official yet but there’ll probably be a couple more useful helpers, without this becoming the strongest squad in the race.

What’s he done so far? 8th in the Tour. As unlucky as ever, he survived the cobbles but suffered badly in an early crash. Was still able to prove that adding Andorra to the potent Birmingham-Dublin mix has turned him into one of the peloton’s elite climbers.

How’s his form? Grabbed 12th in San-Sebastian, and that’s all he’s done since the Tour. He knows how to prepare, though.

Why might he soar? He’s a really good climber, and the Vuelta has lots of climbing.

Why might he flop? The Vuelta also has two time trials. That’s before we even think about the storm drains of misfortune that beset him too often.

Martin Mur de Bretagne Stage 6 TDF 2018 Jeff Pachoud, AFP/Getty Images

6. George Bennett

What’s the support? Lotto-NL Jumbo have somehow turned into a damned efficient GT squad. I’m as surprised as you are. After success in both Tour and Vuelta, there’s support here, beginning with Steven Kruijswick. I suppose he could be the leader, after success in the Tour (5th) and San-Sebastian (9th). Still, in years when he’s completed a prior GT he’s finished 41st and DNF in the Vuelta. I think they’ll be riding for George within a week.

What’s he done so far? Parlayed solid form from the Alps (5th) to a solid 8th in the Giro.

How’s his form? Rode to 4th in Poland on his return and should be ready for this.

Why might he soar? He’s emerged over the last couple of years as a late-blooming star, and a great climber. A repeat of his Giro form would make him competitive.

Why might he flop? There will be some team politics to negotiate if he does emerge as leader, and there’s a question over whether he’s able to ride at his best twice in a season. At some point, we’ll also have to consider whether we’re seeing his ceiling in the 5th-10th range.

5. Wilco Kelderman

What’s the support? Not the strongest, but Sunweb are stretched quite thinly and have been looking after Dumoulin for two GTs now. He’ll be doing this with less help than most of his teammates.

What’s he done so far? He hasn’t ridden a Grand Tour yet. After shoulder surgery following a crash in Adriatico, he re-injured the same shoulder in the Dutch Nats and missed the Tour.

How’s his form? Hasn’t ridden since that DNF in Hoogerheide in June, so it isn’t a matter of public record.

Why might he soar? Appeared similarly undercooked coming into last year’s Vuelta, but that turned into a strong 4th. No real weaknesses.

Why might he flop? The first thing to mention is the lack of racing. The second is the lack of team support. The third is more nebulous… I just don’t see him getting any better. I mean, Wilco Kelderman, Vuelta winner? It doesn’t sound right to me. On the other hand, I would absolutely have said the same thing about Geraint Thomas, Tour winner, so I’m trying to overcome my prejudices. Like Pinot and Uran, anything from 40th to podium would sound reasonable to me.

4. Nairo Quintana… Richard Carapaz… Alejandro Valverde… sod it. Movistar.

What’s the support? We’re re-running the “trident” approach from the Tour, but replacing Landa with Carapaz. I don’t have a clue who the leader is, but any of the three could compete. The rest of the team actually looks quite good too, though there’s a question of what is left in the tank for many of them.

Cycling: 52nd Tirreno-Adriatico 2017 / Stage 7
Quintana with a trident... which isn’t exactly what I meant.
Corbis Sport

What’ve they done so far? Carapaz astounded many of us by grabbing 4th in the Giro and looking good doing it. Quintana was last seen finishing 10th in the Tour, where he never looked like contending but flashed moments of his climbing brilliance, winning stage 17 and improving as the race went on. Valverde won in Abu Dhabi and Catalunya and somehow didn’t win an Ardennes race before finishing an insipid 14th in the Tour.

How is their form? Carapaz was 12th in Poland when tuning up for this. The other two prongs, as it were, haven’t ridden since Paris. Valverde is sure to have an eye on the World Championships and can be expected to have left something in the tank.

Why might they soar? Three excellent climbers, plenty of home support, and a pleasing parcours. Movistar tend to go well here and both Valverde and Quintana are previous winners.

Why might they flop? Carapaz will have to prove he can ride two competitive GTs in a season, which is a big ask (but then, I didn’t think he could ride one, so take that with a pinch of salt). Quintana has looked below his best for a couple of years whilst Valverde has, whisper it, looked mortal this year. I am still astounded he couldn’t get a win in the Ardennes. Then there’s the question of team politics and the possibility of internal strife.

Oh, who am I kidding? Valverde’s going to emerge as the team leader and he’s going to do well.

3. Ilnur Zakarin

What’s the support? It isn’t great, but it is probably as good as Zakarin’s ever enjoyed. Goncalves is a useful lieutenant in the mountains.

What’s he done so far? He was 9th in the Tour. Which wasn’t as good as I expected coming into the season, and reflected a fairly weak start to this season by his standards.

How’s his form? 37th in San-Sebastian isn’t exactly setting the heather alight, but he showed he was still race fit.

Why might he soar? I suspect I have Ilnur much higher on my list than most people would, if forced to make a list. It is a bit of a gut call, but there’s some logic to it. He reached the podium last year after finishing 5th in the Giro, a long year where he improved the more he raced. In this year’s Tour, he looked better as the race went on and I can see that trend continuing. Perhaps most importantly, he’s well-suited to this parcours. Lots of long, steady climbs will reduce the importance of the “walls” and suit his diesel, whilst he’ll cope better than many of these guys with the time trial.

Why might he flop? I don’t think he’ll flop. He might finish towards the bottom of the top ten if his climbing form doesn’t improve. Ultimately, to get a podium he’ll need to climb like he did in 2017. If he climbs like he did in the Tour, this will look like a wildly ambitious pick. Still, it is hard to see him really failing unless he crashes or gets sick, and he might just be the most reliable name on the list.

2. Richie Porte

What’s the support? Solid. He’s got a good team around him with Dennis and Roche among the most useful. On the other hand, he’s on his way to Trek after a fractious finish to the Tour, so there might be some discord on the bus.

What’s he done so far? Stop me if you’ve heard this before. He started the season in good form, and won the Tour de Suisse, and began July among the Tour favourites. Before we reached the mountains, he crashed. This time, he cracked a collar bone and was out of the Roubaix stage before the cobbles.

How’s his form? Hasn’t ridden a race since he left the Tour.

AFP/Getty Images

Why might he soar? He’s one of the best GC riders around. He climbs very well, time trials very well, and wins races. Although he hasn’t ridden the Vuelta since 2012 (68th after crashing on an early mountain stage, after which he supported Froome and snagged second on the final competitive stage) I suspect the slightly lower-key atmosphere, wider roads and longer mountain passes will suit him.

Why might he flop? His form is a question after a long lay-off. There is definitely some rancour between him and management and he’ll have an eye on the exit. Also… no, don’t make me say it. I just really hope he gets through the three weeks and we can judge him after that.

1. Miguel Angel Lopez

What’s the support? Good. Pello Bilbao is back for more after an anonymous top ten in the Giro, with Hirt, Fraile, Villela and Cataldo providing plenty of goats for the mountains.

What’s he done so far? Rode well in the deserts en route to second in Oman and third in Abu Dhabi, underperformed in Tirenno-Adriatico (16th) before grabbing third in the Giro. He was undoubtedly helped towards the podium by the late misfortunes of Yates and Pinot, but he still had to deliver.

How’s his form? An old-school approach, he took a break after the Giro before returning for San-Sebastian (DNF) and Burgos (2nd). Has no excuse if he isn’t ready.

Why might he soar? Demonstrated in last year’s Vuelta that the race suits him and he can climb away from anyone in the world on his day. If he can return to that form and maintain it, it is hard to see him being matched by this field on this terrain.

Why might he flop? Simply, because he never has maintained that form for three weeks. His Vuelta took a while to get going (partly because of team distractions with Fabio Aru’s aborted leadership attempt) whilst in this year’s Giro he was solid but never climbed well enough to get separation. It requires faith to believe he can be both brilliant and consistent (though it is worth mentioning that he’s only 24). He’ll need time in the mountains to cushion himself for a non-disastrous but mediocre time trial, and he’ll need to avoid shipping time on innocuous stages. The latter problem should be fixable but is starting to look like a habit.

Corbis via Getty Images

Despite all of that, he’s my choice of winner. Let’s be honest, picking the Vuleta is a nightmare, as there are so many competitors and they all have question marks. Lopez’s season fits the pattern of riders who’ve won in the past, and he’s a superb climber with good support. That’ll do for me.