It’s taken twenty editions in its current slot on the calendar but the Vuelta a España can finally boast a list of contenders to rival – or perhaps even better – those who lined up at the Tour de France.
When the race was persuaded to move from late spring to September in 1995, it was on the understanding that the quality of the field would improve significantly. Miguel Indurain’s fleeting 1996 participation notwithstanding, that was not always the case during the first decade, but since the dawning of the ProTour in 2005, at least, the depth of the field has strengthened with each passing year.
Over time, too, the Vuelta has established itself as something of a do-over for those who fell short in July, but that has been taken to extremes this time around. Indeed, as a direct consequence of this year’s crash-laden Tour, the Vuelta now has the feel of a main event.
In particular, this Vuelta sees Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) resume their duel after both of their Tours were cut short by untimely crashes, and it may also serve as a precursor for next year’s Grande Boucle, as Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) returns to the fray after a summer off duty.
That trio tops the bill but there is no shortage of starring acts at this Vuelta. Last year’s winner Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) returns, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) is on hand after an injury-hit season, and Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky and Dan Martin aim to make amends after crashes ruined their targets earlier in the summer, while Giro podium finishers Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Fabio Aru (Astana) have built diligently towards this race all summer. The only major absentee, indeed, is Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali himself.
The subplots are numerous. There is Alejandro Valverde’s coexistence with Quintana on the Movistar team, for instance, while BMC will field two Australians, Cadel Evans and Rohan Dennis, at opposite ends of their careers. Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) has plenty of motivation after missing out on selection for the Tour, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) will be aiming to follow his podium finish in Paris with a stage win (or two) in Spain, while Wilco Kelderman and Robert Gesink lead a solid Belkin line-up.
Beyond the general classification contenders, there is the usual plethora of riders preparing for the world championships, which this year take place in Ponferrada. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Fabian Cancellara (Trek), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) and Philippe Gilbert (BMC) will all be honing their form and looking to send out a message or two on the road to Santiago. In the sprints, Nacer Bouhanni will certainly want to leave his mark as he bids farewell to FDJ.fr.
The Vuelta has been high on suspense in recent years yet curiously short on truly memorable stages, a product, perhaps, of sheer repetition. In 2012 and 2013, in particular, the race boasted a seemingly interminable procession of short, sharp summit finishes – there were no fewer than twelve last year – and by the third week it often resembled something of a slugging match, as the same riders eked out similarly small gains on one another.
In 2012, of course, Alberto Contador turned the race on its head with a surprise attack en route to the seemingly benign finale at Fuente De, and with that in mind, perhaps, the organisers have delivered a far more balanced route than those of the past few seasons. There is still a healthy quota of summit finishes – 8 in total – but there is a little more time trialling and the (ostensibly) toughest days are concentrated in the second half of the race.
The stage one team time trial in Jerez is long enough (12.6km) to command respect but short enough to ensure that any deficits will not be insurmountable. The heat ought to be a wearying factor in the opening days in the deep south of Andalucia, but while there is scope for fractures in the peloton the sinuous coast roads, it would be a surprise to see the overall contenders show their hands before stage 6’s short but sharp summit finish at La Zubia. After his restricted build-up to the race, expect Alberto Contador’s credentials to be given a robust test by his direct rivals here.
Conditions allowing, there could well be scope for echelons on stage 8 through the Meseta Central to Albacete, while the following day’s summit finish at Valdelinares presents the favourites with another opportunity for early gains ahead of the first rest day. Hostilities resume with one of the major rendezvous of the race – the rolling 36.7km time trial to Borja could provoke significant gaps, and it will be interesting to see if Uran can repeat his Giro form here.
From there to Santiago di Compostela, the keys to the race are handed over to the pure climbers. Stage 11 sees an exacting finale atop the Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar, before a demanding troika of summit finishes on successive days in the Picos de Europa– at La Camperona, Lagos de Covadonga and La Farrapona – ought to see Quintana and Froome among those battling it out for supremacy.
After the second rest day, the Vuelta reaches its final chapter in Galicia, where, mercifully, the surviving pilgrims’ final days of penance are interspersed with a brace of flatter stages. Even so, the punchy second category finish at Monte Castrove on stage 18 and the rolling sting in the tail en route to Cangas do Morrazo offer scope for attacking, ahead of the grandstand finale on the concluding weekend.
The summit finish at Puerto de Ancares is not quite the Angliru, but it does boast slopes of up to 18% and an average gradient of some 8.7%, more than enough to cause problems after three weeks of racing. And the same may yet hold true of the short concluding time trial in Santiago di Compostela. Just 9.7 kilometres in length, the flat closing stage seems an underwhelming one, a mere epilogue, but if the destination of the Vuelta is still in the balance, it might well punch above its weight.
Regardless, given the strength of the field and the nature of the parcours up to now, the man in the red jersey on the podium seems certain to be among the biggest of hitters.