By David Hunter
The Vuelta is nearly here. A race that some believe is the best Grand Tour, while others think it’s the worst! If you like climbing ridiculous gradients, this is the race for you. What do I think? I think it can be the best. I love watching riders, crawl up hills that most can only walk up. I love Spain. I love the weather, the people, the mountains. This is a race I look forward to and the start list has gradually improved, over recent years. 2015 is a bumper edition, featuring most of the elite riders. Only Contador is missing.
Stage 1 is a 7.4km, TTT. This should have been a very easy start, beginning in the affluent, Puerto Banus. However, the riders have to tackle sand and very narrow roads. This is a crazy start to a 3 week race.
Most races shy away from tough finishes, at the start of the race. The Vuelta seems to embrace such challenges. It’s stage 2 and we finish on a hilltop. The other thing I love about the Vuelta, is the classification of hills. Category 3 usually means a short, easy hill. In Spain, it means a leg breaker! This cat 3 climb is 3.7km at 8.4%, in some races, that’s a cat 1! Straight away, we will see who has good legs. Quite a few Spaniards will be excited about this stage and the possibility of taking the red jersey.
Stage 3 and the climbing continues. The stage begins with another one of these cat 3 climbs, this time it’s 4km at 8%. In the middle of the stage, we have our first cat 1 climb of the race. It’s a bit of a monster, 16km at 5.2%. It crests with 82.4km to go, so it’s one of those stages where anything could happen. The little “lump” at the end, certainly adds more spice to the stage.
Stage 4 is long and flat, until the finish. The last 4km is very challenging, with a kilometre at 10% and the final 500m at 6%. This is another day for the puncheurs, with the final 2.1km at 8.5%.
Stage 5 is the first day, where a sprint is certain. However, it’s not an easy sprint, as the final 750m is at 6%. The uphill sprint is a unique talent and suits a few riders, like John Degenkolb.
Stage 6 and we head back to the leg breaking, cat 3 climbs. The first one is 11.8km at 4% and the finish is 3.3km at 6.4%, but features a kilometre at 8% and a 10% ramp. The Ardennes riders will certainly love the opening week of this race.
Stage 7 and it’s time for the high mountains, with the stage finishing at 1565 metres. The last 7km is at 7% and the full climb is 18.7km at 5%. This is the first “big day” where some GC riders will show us they are not going to win the race. Often, a stage like this is won by a “lesser” rider.
Stage 8 looks delightful, mostly downhill except for two cat 3 climbs. Yet again, the cat 3 climbs are tough. This time it’s around 4km at 7%. The climb is repeated, the final crest just 17km from the end. Another stage that’s impossible for sprinter teams to control. Expect a reduced sprint, or breakaway to succeed.
Stage 9 and another hilltop finish. This cat 1 climb is 3.7km at 10%, with a maximum of 23.3%. Yes, 23.3%! Another day for GC riders and puncheurs.
Stage 10 and another day with a challenging climb. With just 17km remaining, the riders tackle 5.4km at 6.3%, with a maximum of 10%. It’s the day before the rest day, so a great chance for the break.
Stage 11 is the dream of a very evil man! 138km of ascending and descending, featuring 1 cat 2 climb, 4 cat 1 climbs and an especial climb. This is going to be hell and coming after a rest day, it’s going to end the hopes of many. The Gallina is a beast, and the final climb is 15km at 6.8%. A huge day for the GC riders.
Stage 12 and eventually another day for the sprinters. The cat 2 climb is situated early in the stage, ensuring a big bunch sprint.
Stage 13 is another quiet day. It does feature a cat 1 climb, 8.1km at 5.3%. A long descent follows before final climb of the day. It’s 8.5km at 4.6%, so on the easy side for this race. The stage ends with a 4% ramp for 1.4km, before a flat final kilometre.
Stage 14 is our first finish, on an especial climb. 18km at 5.5% doesn’t sound too hard, but that includes an easy opening 5km. It’s the first time the climb has featured in the race and the final two kilometres will really test the riders. I always like to see new climbs, hopefully this is a good one.
Stage 15 is another mountaintop finish. This time it’s a long climb with plenty of easy sections, but a brutal finale. The closing 3km rises at over 11%. This is a very demanding finish.
Stage 16 is another day full of climbing. It ends with another especial, mountaintop finish. The climb is 7km at 11.2%, wow! Halfway up the climb, the riders have to tackle a 22% ramp. This is the Vuelta!!!
After the 2nd rest day, comes the ITT. It’s 38.7km, which is long enough for big gaps. Due to the demanding race, only men with good form, will post a fast time.
Stage 18 has a cat 1 climb cresting 13km from the end. This looks like a wonderful day for the break. The climb is 10km at 5%, so not hard enough to split the GC riders.
Stage 19 offers another chance to the breakaway riders. The cat 2 climb is 17km at 4%. Once into the city of Avila, the riders have to tackle the cobbled climb to the finish. Niki Sorensen won here in 2005 and Phil Deignan in 2009.
After a couple of easy stages, the last proper stage is a beauty. 4 cat 1 climbs and a chance to make one last move. The final climb is 13km at 5%. That might sound easy but try it after 3 weeks of the Vuelta!
Stage 21 is a reward for any sprinter who has managed to make it through the hell!
We are blessed with most of the best riders in the world. Not only do we have the top 4 riders from the tour, but we also have 2nd and 3rd from the Giro. The big stars are : Froome, Quintana, Valverde, Nibali, Aru, Landa, Henao, Rodriguez, Pozzovivo, Van Garderen, Chaves, Dan Martin, Majka, Torres, Sanchez and Rolland. That is one hell of a startlist!
With so many riders coming from the tour, it will be interesting to see how they cope. Riders like Valverde and Rodriguez are used to this type of racing schedule, but the others are not. They might find themselves performing below what they would normally expect, due to tiredness.
The Giro riders are certainly fresh, but that doesn’t guarantee success either. This battle is going to be fascinating. Some teams are embarrassing strong, but others are embarrisingly poor. The race is bound to be dominated by Astana, Sky and Movistar. They have teams that most can only dream of:-
Astana – Nibali, Aru, Landa, LL Sanchez, Cataldo, Rosa, Tiralongo, Vanotti, Zeits.
Sky – Froome, Roche, Nieve, Kiryienka, Knees, Boswell, Puccio, Thomas, Henao.
Movistar – Valverde, Quintana, Amador, Ventoso, Sutherland, Erviti, Rojas, Amador.
The Astana squad looks frightening. They arrive with 7 of the riders that detroyed the Giro, plus Nibali and Vanotti. It would not be a surprise to see them have 6 riders in the top 20, they are that good. Having secured 2nd and 3rd in the Giro and 4th in the tour, they will want to take top spot. We will have to see who leads the team, but it looks like Nibali. However, if he shows any sign of weakness, they will quickly switch to Aru.
Sky also have multiple options. Of course, Froome is their top dog, but Henao provides an excellent back-up option. Froome had to dig deep, in the tour, it will be interesting to see how he has recovered. Doing the double, is not easy feat! I’m surprised to see Thomas here. He’s another that just about killed himself, in the tour. Both Roche and Henao will be in good form. Roche has a good record here and the Colombian is back to his best.
Valverde will be on form, he always is! Quintana should do well, but like a few others, it will depend on his recover period. Amador had a brilliant Giro, but I can’t see him repeating that here. Movistar have a strong team but it does look weaker than Sky and Astana. Riding on home soil, they will be keen to impress.
Rodriguez is used to riding the tour and Vuelta. Having won 2 stages, he clearly has some form. Dani Moreno is back by his side, but they will miss Caruso, after he was found to be a cheat. The route seems good for Rodriguez and he will expect to win a couple of stages. The TT will kill off any chances of winning the race.
Despite all the big stars, I’m excited by the presence of 2 riders: Pozzovivo and Chaves. The Italian has returned from his horror crash and is starting to look like his normal self. A tremendous rider, he has all the attributes needed for a big race. He arrives fresher than the other riders and hopefully this gives him a little edge over his challengers.
Esteban Chaves is a rider destined for greatness. This is his first grand tour, focused on the GC. The TT is bad news for him but he has plenty of mountain stages to take back time. He is an outstanding climber and a rider who will win stages in grand tours, in the future. I think he’ll be at a high level and capable of a top 7 performance.
2010 was the last time Van Garderen was here. Since then, he has favoured doing the tour and then the USA Pro Challenge. He seems very good at maintaining his form as he won the Pro Challenge in 2013 and 2014. It’s a fairly easy, one week race, so hard to compare it to the Vuelta. He had to abandon the tour, so should be nice and fresh here. Racing in the heat won’t be a problem for the American and this has to be taken into consideration for the rest. The race starts in the south of Spain, where they’ve had the hottest summer on record. You need to cope well with extreme heat, one of the reasons why the Spaniard’s do well here.
Away from the GC battle we have plenty of riders capable of winning the big stages. The likes of Landa, Gougeard, De Marchi, LL Sanchez, Meintjes, Gerrans, Txurruka and Plaza are all top riders and capable of big things. Keep an eye out for them!
What about Rafal Majka? He’s followed up a brilliant 2014, with a disappointing 2015. Has he been waiting to peak for the end of the season? If he has, then he must be a contender. He can climb with the best and post a respectable TT. An in-form Majka, is a big threat.
The TT will be important, but coming after 16 stages, the riders in form will perform the best. Riding a TT after 2 weeks of racing is totally different from just riding a normal TT. With so many mountain stages, a solid TT is all that’s required to keep you in contention for the overall win.
This is the hardest grand tour to predict. Common sense would tell you that the riders coming from the Giro, stand a better chance of winning. Problem is, the quality of the riders coming from the tour. Froome, Quintana, Valverde and Nibali are all better riders than Aru, who is the best from the Giro. Both Froome and Nibali are capable of a big ride in the TT, but this isn’t guaranteed. Froome has not looked at ease, on his TT bike, since the 2014 Vuelta.
Pozzovivo and Van Garderen might have a little advantage due to lack of racing but I don’t see them as potential winners, but they could make the top 5.
I think that Sergio Henao could be the “surprise”. Riding for a very strong team, he’s had a great year. He didn’t ride the Giro or tour, so will be fresh. He was looking good in Poland, a good sign of form. A podium is possible but winning it might just be a little beyond him.
Quintana finished the tour in great form. At 25 years old, I’m not sure if his body will cope with the demands of the tour/Vuelta double. This is one of the great aspects of the race, more questions than answers!
I will play it safe and go for the best rider here. Chris Froome will win the Vuelta!
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