The Vuelta fell into a pattern for a few years. Generally, previous Grand Tour would see a lot of big-name dropouts. These dropouts would target the Spanish race and lead to a hype-filled GC battle. While they might not always have quite lived up to the billing, they would always be close enough: look at the podiums from the races of 2014, ‘16 and ‘17: as star-studded as can possibly be expected. Of the nine possible places, three are taken by Froome. Contador, Nibali and Quintana have one spot each. This year however, I feel the Vuelta is being viewed as less of a clash of the titans. It makes sense: there are fewer titans. The last four Grand Tour winners were winning their maiden three-week race. There’s a good chance that’s going to happen again: to take a look at the GC contenders, not so many of them have won Grand Tours before. Richard Carapaz is going for a Giro-Vuelta double, but most of his rivals are short of a single. The oddsmakers think Primoz Roglic is the favourite, narrowly ahead of Miguel Angel Lopez. The odds on both of them are ludicrously short.
Taking a look at the route, if you go in expecting the brutality we have come to associate with this race, you will be overwhelmed. There are ten flat or harmless transition stages to go with eight uphill finishes, some pretty tame. The 2012 race, the one I use as a benchmark for what defines a Vuelta, had eleven uphill finishes. Not that I should complain: there’s plenty of terrain for the favourites to fight on. A few slowish transition stages in the second week however, and I reckon none of us will be too happy with the entertainment on offer.
There’s no famed Vuelta climb this year: no Lagos de Covadonga, no Angliru. The two highest-rated (whatever that counts for) summit finishes are two newish ones. Los Machucos is the first. You remember, where Stefan Denifl won, and we were all happy for him? He was riding for Aquablue, that team that was guaranteed to stick around and was so easy to root for? No? Oh well. It is, pause for effect, incredibly steep. Two stretches of it are listed as being 25% and they are not exaggerating. Time gaps do not hesitate to open up if you are struggling even slightly. The other big summit finish is tackled only two days later and though it’s never been used before, it just screams Vuelta. Eight kilometres, much of it at eleven per cent, it deserves its Especial categorisation.
Those look like the climbs on which it looks most likely that the GC battle will be won but we cannot forget the all-important time-trial. Thirty-six kilometres is a heck of a long way, especially when you have a guy like Roglic in the race against, shall we say, lesser lights of the time-trialling world. There is up to three minutes to be gained there, an amount of time which is hard to pull back, especially in the Vuelta.
As for the sprints...the race is uncontaminated by them. I am not exaggerating when I say that only two stages look guaranteed to the sprinters, with most having a pesky little climb towards the end to ruin Sam Bennett’s chances of increasing his GC stage win count. And it will be him who does win any sprints, he’s easily the fastest guy in the race.
Instead, this Vuelta will be dominated by transition stages and if we had a Giro della fuga then this could go even further in the direction of the cabeza de carrera: almost every day looks suitable for a breakaway. Specialists like Thomas De Gendt have to be licking their lips.
Anyway, a GC preview is to come but I’m glad to get coverage started on what looks like an unusual, exciting Vuelta.