Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), race leader
Race so far: The Spaniard has ridden a great race so far and has come into his own over the past three stages. It looked like Fabio Aru was taking command of the GC with his displays on the summit finishes on stages 7 and 11, but Rodríguez has turned things around on the three mountain stages that preceded the second rest day. He stole a second on stage 14 and then asserted himself the following day with a stage win thanks to an attack on the steep closing kilometre of the final climb. That gave him 12 seconds and a bonus of 10 over Aru, to which he added a further two seconds on the hors-catégorie summit finish on stage 16 to take the race lead.
What could happen? It could be heartbreak once again for Rodríguez. The race lead at the 2012 Giro d’Italia was cruelly snatched away from him on the final-day time trial by Ryder Hesjedal, and over several years he has made a name for himself as something of a nearly man.
Rodríguez is far from the strongest time triallist and the history books make it hard to predict how he’ll fare in Burgos. In the 2013 Tour de France he lost 1:45 on Dumoulin on the 33km time trial to Mont Saint Michel, but the Dutchman was just 22 at the time. They clashed most recently at the Vuelta al País Vasco, where Dumoulin won the final day time trial and Rodríguez snatched the overall win with second. Over the 18km course he lost just four seconds to Dumoulin, though it was a fairly hilly course.
There is a good chance that Dumoulin will overhaul him on Wednesday, and if so he will have to get inventive over the final stages, which don't really lend themselves to big time gaps. There is a tricky punchy finish on stage 19, and some dangerous climbs on stage 20, but that's if he just has Dumoulin to dispose of; going faster than Aru in Burgos is a must if this Vuelta is not to be another near-miss.
Fabio Aru (Astana), at 1 second
Race so far: Aru is the only rider at the top end of the GC to have made an out and out priority of the Vuelta. Rodríguez, Majka, and Dumoulin were all at the Tour, while Aru barely raced since the Giro so as to train at altitude and prepare most effectively for Spain. He has been impressive in what is his second proper attempt at going for the overall at a Grand Tour and predicted in-house Astana tensions have failed to materialise, with Vincenzo Nibali ejected from the race and Mikel Landa losing time early on. The Italian laid down a marker with a stinging attack on stage 7 and took the race lead with an impressive display on the brutal Andorran stage to take the red jersey, but he hasn't looked quite as strong over the past few days, with Rodríguez outshining him to leave things delicately poised.
What could happen? Aru has spent most of his time since this year's Giro at altitude in Sestrière. How much time has he spent on the TT bike up there? And has he been able to put in the miles on the kind of flat roads that will greet the riders in Burgos? Aru is still developing as a GC rider and improving as a time trial rider is an important part of that. The last time trial he did was at the Tour de Pologne in early August, and his display was fairly solid over the 25km course, up there with his rivals for the overall. He did, however, lose almost three minutes to Alberto Contador at the Giro over 60km.
Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), at 1:35
Race so far: It has been an encouraging Vuelta so far for the 25-year-old, who is testing himself as a GC rider for the first real time. He came into the race thinking that top-five would be a solid showing but has since raised his hopes to a podium berth.
He led the chase when Aru attacked and gained time on the race’s first mountaintop finish on stage 7 and he has been solid in the mountains ever since. While he has outperformed the likes of Quintana and Valverde, he has largely had the match of Aru over the recent mountain stages, though he has lost 40 seconds to Rodríguez over the last three days. His team have looked strong, with Poljanksi performing particularly impressive domestique duties.
What could happen? Majka is probably a stronger time triallist than Rodríguez or Aru and as such is something of a dark horse. A good reference point is this year’s Tour de Suisse, which featured a final-day time trial of 38.4 kilometres – almost exactly the same distance as the Vuelta’s. The stage winner that day? Tom Dumoulin. Majka was ninth and 1:26 behind.
It seems certain that Dumoulin will overtake Majka, but the Pole will hope to gain time on the other two. Whether he can overhaul either of them is doubtful, though, and it may well be that he arrives in Madrid just off the podium.
Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) at 1:51
Race so far: Dumoulin’s Vuelta thus far has been nothing short of remarkable. Noted primarily for his time trialling capabilities, beating Chris Froome and others on a steep summit finish was mightily impressive. If few saw that coming, even fewer envisaged the Dutchman staying up there on GC over the brutal Andorra stage, let alone over the three other high-mountain, summit finish stages that preceded the second rest day. But he has continued to surprise us, his team, and probably himself. As a 24-year-old just scratching the surface of his potential, the Vuelta has already been a roaring success, whatever happens next.
What could happen? Tom Dumoulin could win the Vuelta a España. Who’d have predicted that as the race got underway in Puerto Banús? The Dutchman is a time trial specialist and is likely to put serious time into the three men above him on GC on Wednesday. He’s 1:51 back on the race lead but over a 38km course, against relatively weak time triallists in Rodríguez and Aru, that is certainly feasible.
It will be close, but if he can take the red jersey then he has a fantastic chance of winning the race overall. There are a few minor complications on the three stages that lead up to the final day but such has been the resilience shown by Dumoulin already, you’d back him to defend it to Madrid.
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