The Vuelta a España – the final Grand Tour of the 2021 season – is almost upon us, with nine uphill and summit finishes awaiting the peloton across 21 days of racing in Spain.
But away from the tough stages on which the general classification contenders will do battle, there are plenty of days for the sprinters to take their chances, too.
There could be six or seven chances for the fastmen to fight for victory across the three-week race, and with the sprint field not packed with top names, there are opportunities for those who might not usually win the pure sprints to emerge and bolster their palmarès in Spain.
Here, we take a look at five of the men to watch at the Vuelta, along with several more honourable mentions.
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
The Frenchman is the biggest sprinting name on the start list with seven Grand Tour stage wins to his name – his five most recent coming at the 2019 and 2020 Giro d'Italia.
The 29-year-old – making his Vuelta debut – has eight wins on his palmarès 2021, though none at WorldTour level.
His sub-par performance at the Tour de France, where he took a sole fourth place before missing the time cut on stage 9 in the Alps, was concerning, and he and his team will hope that he is past whatever problems he was having in July. Their goal is to make up for their Tour de France disappointment.
Démare will be supported by trusted lead-out man Jacopo Guarnieri, with riders like Tobias Ludvigsson and Ramon Sinkeldam also able to contribute in the Groupama-FDJ train.
Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange)
Australian Matthews returns to the Vuelta after six years away as he looks to win stages and build up to the Flanders Worlds next month.
He has three stage wins to his name across two participations in 2013 and 2014 and will hope to add another this time to show his form ahead of the battle for the rainbow jersey.
This season, his first back at BikeExchange following four years at Team Sunweb, hasn't gone fully to plan so far. Matthews doesn't yet have a win on the board, though nine top-five placings in races ranging from Gent-Wevelgem to Amstel Gold Race to four stages at the Tour de France confirm his consistency.
He'll be joined in Spain by Slovenian sprinter Luka Mezgec, who has a Giro stage win to his name and who can certainly hold his own in the sprints.
Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix)
Philipsen heads to the Vuelta off the back of a frustrating Tour de France debut which saw him finish in the top three some six times without crossing the line first, with three second places coming along the way.
The Belgian has wins at Scheldeprijs and the Tour of Turkey to his name so far in 2021, and took his first Grand Tour stage win at last year's Vuelta, beating Pascal Ackermann to the line in Puebla de Sanabria.
He has the speed to add more this time around, and his team – who aren't focused on any general classification bid – can support him along the way with the likes of Eddy Planckaert, Sacha Modolo and Alexander Krieger.
Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
The 24-year-old returns to the Grand Tour stage for the first time since his horror crash at last year's Tour de Pologne, and a year on looks to be approaching his best once again.
It understandably took time for the Dutchman to get up to speed following his return to the peloton at the Tour of Turkey, but he's already back winning again having taken two victories at the Tour de Wallonie in late July.
He has a good history at the Vuelta, too, having won two stages ahead of Sam Bennett at the 2019 edition, and has every chance of adding to those wins this year.
He won't have lead-out man extraordinaire Michael Mørkøv by his side, instead being supported by Josef Cerny, Zdenek Stybar and Florian Sénéchal, with the Frenchman able to challenge in the sprints himself, too.
Juan Sebastián Molano (UAE Team Emirates)
The Colombian is the last man on our list, and he's in top form having taken two stage wins at the recent Vuelta a Burgos.
Usually a lead-out man for compatriot Fernando Gaviria, Molano will be able to grasp his own chances over the next three weeks for the first time in a Grand Tour.
At Burgos – the biggest wins of his career to date – the 26-year-old beat several of the riders he'll be lining up against at the Vuelta, including Meeus, Aberasturi and Dainese, though it remains to be seen how he'll fare against the bigger names listed above.
Molano will be joined in Spain by fellow fast man Matteo Trentin, who has four podiums to his name this year but hasn't taken a win since 2019.
Jon Aberasturi (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) is in good form after taking a second place at the Vuelta a Burgos. Back in June he won a stage of the Tour of Slovenia, his sole triumph of 2021 to date.
Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) makes his Grand Tour debut alongside Arctic Race of Norway stage winner Martin Laas. It remains to be seen how the German team will dole out sprint chances during the race, though the promising 23-year-old should be the main man.
Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo) isn't a pure sprinter but does have three Vuelta stages on his palmarès, including the final sprint stage to Madrid in 2016. The Dane is a versatile rider who can succeed on a wider range of stages then just the flat sprints.
Alberto Dainese (Team DSM) is another Grand Tour debutant and will be aiming for his first win of the season after finishing second behind Molano on stage 2 in Burgos. The Italian's sole pro win so far came at last year's Herald Sun Tour.
Davide Cimolai (Israel Start-Up Nation) has a free role in his team, who are hunting for stage wins in Spain. The Italian picked up three podium spots at the Giro and is often in and around the top 10 on sprint stages though rarely the fastest. His last win came at the 2019 Tour de Wallonie.
Daniel joined Cyclingnews as staff writer in 2019 after working as a freelancer around pro cycling media for the previous seven years.
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