With just one day to go until the 2019 Vuelta a España gets under way in Salinas de Torrevieja, Cyclingnews takes a look at ten riders to watch at this year's race.
We've already ranked the biggest favourites for the overall victory, but with 176 riders taking the start on Saturday, there will be far more than just the general classification to track over the next three weeks. From sprinters and stage hunters, to climbing specialists and a number of promising young riders, there are plenty of intriguing names to follow. Here are ten of them to keep an eye on at the final Grand Tour of 2019.
There should be no real pressure or expectation on a 20-year-old starting his first Grand Tour. And yet… so good has Tadej Pogačar been in his neo-pro season, it's difficult not to get a little excited.
After winning the Tour de l'Avenir last year, the Slovenian has made the jump to WorldTour level seem like the smallest of baby steps. A stage win and the overall title at the Volta ao Algarve in February was followed in May by a stage and the overall at the Tour of California in May, while his sixth-place finish at the Tour of the Basque Country, widely regarded as one of the hardest week-long stage races, was a remarkable result in its own right.
The Tour de l'Avenir title comes with a degree of expectation and attention, but that has now been taken to new levels. As such, it's only natural to wonder if the usual Grand Tour debutant's mantra of being 'there to learn' applies to Pogačar. Fabio Aru is the nominal team leader at UAE, but it's still not clear if he's back to his old self after his artery surgery, and Pogačar could emerge as something more than a mere understudy, and we could learn more about his potential as a Grand Tour rider than anticipated.
UAE's own team manager Joxean 'Matxin' Fernandez summed it up neatly recently: "The choice was also made that the talented Tadej Pogačar would make his debut after proving this year that he is not only a contender for the future, but for the present, too."
Sam Bennett gets his Grand Tour. Despite missing out on the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France, the Irishman has arguably established himself as oner of the best sprinters in the world in 2019.
Julian Alaphilippe is the only rider who has won more than Bennett this year and while Bennett's tally of 11 is matched by Dylan Groenewegen, nine of his wins have come at WorldTour level, compared to four for the Dutchman.
While Groenewegen, Caleb Ewan, Elia Viviani and Pascal Ackermann have all won at Grand Tours this year, Bennett hasn't had the opportunity. He always knew he wouldn't go to the Tour de France, given the presence of Peter Sagan, but was frustrated to miss out on the Giro d'Italia to Ackermann, despite winning three stages there in 2018.
Bennett hinted at his displeasure when that decision was made early in the season but, to his credit, he has got his head down and let his legs do the talking. If he carries his form from last week's BinckBank Tour, where he won three stages, he could enjoy a fruitful three weeks in Spain, with seven bunch sprints on the cards and only two top-tier rivals in Fernando Gaviria and Fabio Jakobsen.
After so much success in the week-long races, this is Bennett's chance to make a Grand Tour statement. With no Groenewegen, Viviani, Ewan, or Ackermann present, a decent haul would give him a strong claim to being 'the' sprinter of 2019.
In the interests of variety, we're limiting ourselves to one rider per team for this list, but EF Education First could really have had multiple. It's a dynamic line-up with Rigoberto Urán at the helm, and the likes of Hugh Carthy – 11th at the Giro and a stage winner at Suisse – and Sergio Higuita, second at Tour of California and fourth at the Tour de Pologne in his first two races with the team. But we're going for Higuita's compatriot, Daniel Martínez, one of the number of youngsters starting to shine on this remarkable conveyor belt of Colombian talent.
After a debut WorldTour season in which he finished fifth at Colombia Oro y Paz, seventh at the Volta a Catalunya, 12th at Tour de Romandie, and third at Tour of California – as well as finishing his first Tour de France – much was expected of Martínez in 2019.
His season was thrown into disarray when he crashed on a training ride in Colombia in June, breaking bones in both hands. He had been set to play an important role in the Tour de France but was unable to take to the start.
Martínez, who won a stage of Paris-Nice earlier in the year, hit the reset button and turned his attentions to the Vuelta. His preparation, however, hasn't been too reassuring, given he has hardly raced since the crash. He won the individual time trial at the Pan-American Games in early August but was forced to pull out of the Tour of Utah pre-race after coming down with illness. That said, his team feel he is in good enough shape to not only support Urán but also show what he can do himself should the opportunity arise.
"Dani is going to be an integral part of the support for Rigo, he can be his shadow until the real finale of the stages. It's good to have him as another card to play too, almost like another leader," said director Juanma Garate.
"We have a clear leader, which is Rigo, but at the same time to have one rider like Dani in the final, especially in the second part of the race is going to be crucial."
Grand Tour leadership opportunities are notoriously difficult to come by at Team Ineos but Tao Geoghegan Hart has managed to wind up with two in one season. Egan Bernal's collarbone break opened the door for him to lead alongside Pavel Sivakov at the Giro d'Italia and now, with Bernal – who went on to win the Tour de France – and Geraint Thomas both absent, along with the injured Chris Froome, the 24-year-old has another chance to show his credentials.
Geoghegan Hart's Giro was derailed by crashes. After a strong opening-day time trial, he hit the deck twice on stage 3 and began to lose time, before another crash forced him to abandon on stage 13.
Geoghegan Hart returned to racing at the Tour de Pologne in early August, a race that recalled his pre-Giro preparation in that Sivakov won the race while Geoghegan Hart finished fifth, having gone one-two at the Tour of the Alps in April.
At the Vuelta, he shares leadership with Wout Poels, a rider who has finished top 10 in Grand Tours in the past but has been largely deployed as a super domestique by the British team.
Having been talked about as a talent for a number of years now, the Vuelta is Geoghegan Hart's chance – a second chance, if you like – to test his credentials as a Grand Tour rider. We thought we'd know more after the Giro, but after shining in the service of others in his early years at Sky, the Vuelta could show us how far he can go himself.
Movistar once again go into a Grand Tour with a trio of leaders and a sense that anything could happen. Giro d'Italia champion Richard Carapaz and 2016 Vuelta winner Nairo Quintana were included in our overall favourites' feature, but we can't expect Alejandro Valverde to ride quietly around Spain for the next three weeks.
Movistar's management stated that the aim for the world champion will be stage wins, rather than the general classification. However, in the same breath they almost contradicted themselves and hinted at the chaos that so often reigns at the Spanish team.
"It will be difficult for us to disconnect him from the general classification," admitted director José Luis Arrieta. "At the Tour, that was the idea, and at the end, due to circumstances and because of his quality, he took a top ten."
Indeed, Valverde, who won the Vuelta in 2009, has made a habit of worming his way into a strong GC position in recent Grand Tours. At last year's Vuelta, the leadership question marks surrounding him and Quintana lasted until the final few days, with Valverde eventually coming out on top, placing fifth after going into the final mountain stage in second.
What's more, with Carapaz out of Vuelta due to injury, Movistar's plans will surely change. Quintana, suddenly, finds himself as the only GC leader, but that's all the more reason why Valverde may not end up 'disconnecting' himself from the battle for the overall title after all.
Óscar Rodríguez was very much a surprise package when he triumphed on stage 13 of last year's Vuelta. Euskadi-Murias, in their first season as a fully professional team, were largely expected to make up the numbers and make up the breakaways in their first Vuelta and first Grand Tour.
However, Rodríguez claimed a huge scalp with victory atop one of the marquee summit finishes: La Camperona. Having made it into the break of the day, he convincingly put away the likes of Rafał Majka and Dylan Teuns on the brutally steep gradients.
"Actually I'm surprised by this guy because in the end, when he caught me with Teuns, I still had good legs, but this guy when he was coming, he was coming really fast," Majka said at the time.
Twelve months on, Rodríguez won't be a new name to anyone anymore, and not just because of La Camperona. This year he has assumed leadership at Euskadi-Murias and has some solid results, including top tens at the Vuelta a Murcia, Tour du Finistère, Route d'Occitanie and the Mont Ventoux Challenge. The best of all, however, came last week at the Vuelta a Burgos, where he finished second overall behind Iván Sosa (Team Ineos). The Spaniard, it seems, is heading into the Vuelta in top shape.
Some have speculated whether 24-year-old Rodríguez can try his hand at riding for the general classification, and even the white jersey for best young rider. However, he told Ciclismo a Fondo recently that the focus is for stage wins.
"I don't want to go for GC but if, at a given moment, I get into a break and find myself high up on GC by accident, I will take advantage," he said. "If not, I prefer to go for stages like last year, which went well."
Like Geoghegan Hart, Pierre Latour has also been hampered by injury this season. The Frenchman fractured both wrists in a training crash in February which took him out of action for the best part of four months. Despite returning in June to ride the Tour de Suisse and French nationals, he didn't make it into AG2R's final Tour de France line-up due to his form still not being where it needed to be.
It was a particular shame given his breakthrough performance at the previous year's Tour de France, where he won the white jersey as best young rider and placed 13th overall. Latour has made waves ever since turning pro in 2015 but that Tour – where he was working hard in support of Romain Bardet – was evidence of a future as a Grand Tour contender.
For Latour, the Vuelta represents, as it does for so many, a second chance. With Bardet's season already over, he has full leadership at AG2R in Spain and could target a top ten overall finish. The big worry is the lack of racing, with the Tour de Pologne his only outing since the French nationals in June. However, he placed sixth at that race, indicating the form is good. By all accounts, he completed a good block of training in July.
Latour is far from a favourite for the Vuelta title but, having slipped from the forefront of our minds this year, he could be something of a surprise package.
The three-year plan unveiled by Dimension Data to put Louis Meintjes on the Tour de France podium by 2020 is well behind schedule now. The South African finished top ten in 2016 and 2017 and his return to his 'home' team was accompanied by a long-term roadmap for success. However, things have veered off track, with the planned assault on the Giro last year ending on stage 17 and his return later in the year at the Vuelta yielding only 58th place overall.
This year, Meintjes has bounced between illness and injury, leaving Paris-Nice with a groin problem before breaking a wrist at the Tour of California in May. Having planned to race the Tour de France, he wasn't included in Dimension Data's team, although he has since put a string of races together: Ionica Adriatica, Clásica San Sebastián, and the Vuelta a Burgos.
The Vuelta will give us a chance to see if Meintjes can remind us of his old self. That said, his prospects were hardly talked up by Dimension Data's roster announcement. They outlined him as one of 'a trio of climbers' in a team that heads to the race with 'stage hunting goals'. Meintjes was not among the riders quoted in the press release.
Perhaps Meintjes is still not ready to perform anywhere near the level he showed in 2016 and 2017, but the Vuelta could yet prove an opportunity to get himself back on track. Either way, we should get a better idea of his future prospects, and whether he can return to being a Grand Tour contender.
Sep Kuss was one of the stars of the 2018 Vuelta, sparkling as a mountain domestique as he guided Steven Kruijswijk to fourth place overall. In the first week in particular, he helped shred the peloton with a couple of monstrous turns. The then 23-year-old came into the race off the back of two stage wins and the overall title at the Tour of Utah, and seemingly came of age.
However, in 2019 he is yet to really kick on. After a string of unspectacular early stage races in Spain, he received a late call-up to Jumbo-Visma's Giro team and struggled. Far from his showings at the Vuelta, he was regularly dropped from the peloton before the action had really intensified, leaving Primož Roglič exposed.
At the Vuelta, he needs to rediscover his old self. Kuss has only ridden the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Clásica San Sebastián since the Giro, so has been managing his resources in his first season with a Grand Tour double.
He'll have an important role to play, with Jumbo-Visma taking a particularly strong squad to Spain with two leaders in Roglič and Kruijswijk. Along with George Bennett and the more experienced Robert Gesink, Kuss will be expected to step up and help his team take the fight to Movistar and the rest. Keep an eye out, too, for another young American on Jumbo, Neilson Powless, who's making his Grand Tour debut.
The king of the breakaway takes aim at his third Grand Tour of the season, doing 'the triple' for the first time in his career. It's a new challenge for the 32-year-old, who likes to keep it interesting. His only race between the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France was the Belgian nationals, and he has once again been resting up in a bid to stay as fresh as possible, with his only post-Tour appearance being the European Championships mixed relay time trial in early August.
There are relatively few transition stages at this year's Vuelta but the break is surely going to go all the way on more than one of the mountain stages. Indeed, last year, there were no fewer than eight successful breakaway days. Jumbo-Visma and Movistar have strong squads, but a start list containing relatively few big-name favourites could play into the hands of the baroudeurs.
De Gendt will be licking his lips, having pulled off what he felt was his finest work in Saint-Étienne at the Tour de France. If it's not from a break, De Gendt also stands a very good chance of victory in the rolling 36km time trial in Pau on stage 10, having placed third in a similar test at the very same location at the Tour.