By David Hunter
We head to Spain for the final grand tour of the season. Easily my favourite of the three, I simply love the route the organisers continue to provide. If you love steep climbs, this is the race for you!
The 1st of the wall finishes. The stage ends with 3.4km at 9.7%, but the final 400m actually averages 21%. Despite the relatively short length of the climb, those still suffering a Tour hangover will lose considerable time.
The 8th stage is the first time we have a cat 1 climb near the end of the race. The peloton must climb Xorret de Cati, 5km at 9%, before a 3km descent to the finishing line. This will show who the serious contenders are.
The next day follows the same script, with a brutal climb to finish. Alto de Puig Llorenca is 4km at 9.1%, with a maximum gradient of 21%. This is where Tom Dumoulin beat Chris Froome back in 2015.
The 11th stage sees an increase in the difficulty level, with two cat 1 climbs at the end of the stage. Alto de Velefique is 13.2km at 8.6% and the final climb to the observatory is 15.5km at 5.9%. This is a totally different proposition for the bunch, as these climbs are longer than the past couple of mountain stages.
The first of the especial climbs in the race. Sierra de La Pandera is 12km at 7.3%, making it a tough mountaintop finish.
The following day, we have the toughest stage of the whole race. Just 130km long, it features 3305m of climbing, most of which comes in the final 60km. Alto de Hazallanas is 16.3km at 5.5%, this is followed by Alto del Purche, 8.5km at 8%, which leads directly into the final climb of the day and the 2nd especial finish. Alto Hoya de la Mora is 19.3km at 5.6%. This is a day with serious climbing.
A 40.2km ITT at this point of the Vuelta? We will see huge gaps.
The third especial finish of the race. The final two climbs are tough, 10km at 6% and 7.2km at 8.7%. Alto de Los Machucos features ramps of 26%, it is an absolute beast of a climb.
It might not look hard, but this is one of those Vuelta stages that can catch out a GC rider. The cat 1 climb at the beginning is a perfect launchpad for chaos!
The final mountain stages takes us back to the mythical L’Angliru, one of the best climbs in the world. With the Basque fans creating a unique atmosphere, the riders will be ready for one last effort. The stage is only 117.5km long, but still features 3500m of climbing, most of which occurs in the final 50km. This is a crazy stage! The climbs are 8.1km at 8.6%, 5.7km at 8.6% and 12.5km at 9.8%. Epic!
The weather cannot be underestimated in this race. The problem is the nine stages in the South, where temperatures will be around the forty degree mark, this is not great news for the riders from the North of Europe. In the last 10 years, Denis Menchov is the only winner coming from a cold country. It is a race that favours riders who come from a warm climate.
Alberto Contador – his last race, this makes me sad. Such an amazing career, I’m sure we all have our favourite Contador moment. My favourite was him and Andy Schleck track standing, whilst the other GC riders went past them, in the Tour de France. His Tour de France wasn’t great, finishing down in 9th and never really looking like challenging the main GC boys. He did manage some impressive attacks, but I hope we see more from him in his last race. In recent years, he has been much better in the Vuelta, winning the red jersey in 2014 and finishing 4th last year. No doubt he will go down all guns blazing, something I cannot wait to see! Winning the title is still going to be very difficult.
Rafal Majka – as soon as he crashed out of the Tour, his sights were set on the Vuelta. His 3rd place in 2015 remains his best result in a grand tour, something I think he’ll want to improve on. The Pole is a brilliant climber, but I get the feeling he still has a slight weakness of the most difficult of climbs, something that the Vuelta could expose.
Fabio Aru – a stage win and the yellow jersey was a reward for his good form in the Tour, but Aru picked up an illness in the final week and couldn’t hold on to a podium spot, finishing down in 5th. That still represented a big step forward for him, in the Tour, a race he has struggled in. He has fond memories of the Vuelta, winning the red jersey back in 2015, a brilliant victory. He’s never attempted the Tour/Vuelta double before, this is a concern for me. We’ve seen a rider like Chris Froome struggle with this effort, we shall have to wait and see how Aru’s body responds.
Miguel Angel Lopez – arrives as a key part of Aru’s train, but he will also harbour his own ambitions. Lopez only managed to complete five stages in the 2016 Vuelta, abandoning due to a crash. The Colombian does seem to carry a lot of bad luck with him, something he has to get rid of if he wants to compete in a three week race. Astana seem fully behind Aru, Lopez will need to wait for his chance.
Ilnur Zakarin – the Russian was strong in the Giro, finishing in 5th place, his best result in a grand tour. This is his first attempt at riding the Vuelta, something I am slightly worried about. He is a brilliant climber, but challenging for the red jersey will be a big ask. Can he beat his 5th place from the Giro?
Vincenzo Nibali – the Shark is looking hungry! Nibali’s grand tour record is utterly outstanding. 17 grand tours, 4 wins, 2 seconds, 3 thirds and 3 top 10s. He had a bad time in the 2016 Tour, but that was when he attempted the Giro/Tour double. His only failure was when he was sent home from the 2015 Vuelta, after hanging onto his team car. Simply put, the Italian is the most complete grand tour rider of his generation. His 3rd place in the Giro was impressive and he also looked good in the recent Tour of Poland. His team is looking weak, they will really miss Ion Izagirre, but Nibali has all the experience required. I expect another superb performance.
Chris Froome – he’s spoken about his dream of winning the Vuelta, after going close on a number of occasions. After crashing out of the Tour in 2014, he was 2nd, he abandoned the Vuelta in 2015, before finishing 2nd in 2016. Arguably, he could have won in 2011, but Sky made him try to support Wiggins and Froome finished 2nd overall, he also finished 4th in 2012. You can see he has been close on a number of occasions, but I thought he would have rested after the Tour. Instead, he’s been off getting paid big money for riding in pointless criteriums, something I found a bit strange. He arrives with a strong team, we will have to see what his legs say.
Wout Poels – comes as a loyal domestique for Chris Froome, but is there if the opportunity presents itself. Form is good, but I expect him to be working for his team leader.
David De La Cruz – one of those really likeable guys that continues to improve. He made the jump from NetApp to Etixx in 2014 and he hasn’t looked back. He was 7th here in 2016, a massive result in his career. This season has seen another step forward, winning stages in Paris-Nice and the Basque Country. He climbed very well in the recent Vuelta Burgos, a good indicator for this race. He will be looking to improve on his 7th place from last year.
Romain Bardet – it looks like the French sensation is just here to chase some stage glory, it doesn’t look like he’ll be targeting the GC. He’s never done two grand tours in one season before and has never raced the Giro or Vuelta. I think this will be a learning experience for Bardet and AG2R will be riding for Alexandre Geniez and Domenico Pozzovivo. The Italian has enjoyed one of his best ever seasons, can he continue to impress?
Wilco Kelderman – 7th in the 2014 Giro raised expectations for the Dutch rider, something he’s not been able to live up to. He went to this Giro as a helper for Dumoulin, but a police motorbike ended his race. His 4th place in the recent Tour of Poland was very impressive and I think he looks capable of challenging for the top 10.
Steven Kruijswijk – brilliant rider, but he’s a red head! Dutch riders don’t traditionally do well in the Vuelta, they don’t handle the heat. If Kruijswijk can manage to overcome this, he has a chance of competing for the red jersey. Bad luck haunted his Giro campaign, after abandoning just before the finish, he owes his team a big performance in the Vuelta.
Esteban Chaves – the death of a close friend hung over him at the Tour, a race where he never looked in contention. Hopefully he is in a better place mentally and can focus on winning his first grand tour. Orica have one of the best teams here, not only do they have Chaves but also both Simon and Adam Yates. This is an embarrassment of riches and I have no idea how they will line up. Simon just finished 7th in the Tour and Adam was 9th in the Giro, but neither can actually win the Vuelta. Chaves should be their main man, he has the potential to win the red jersey.
Ruben Fernandez – Movistar arrive without a real contender for the red jersey, as both Valverde and Quintana are not riding. They have a number of options in their squad, but I hope to see Fernandez as the protected rider. He had a day in the red jersey in 2016, but this year hasn’t exactly gone to plan. If Fernandez doesn’t have the form required, Movistar have Dani Moreno, Betancur and Soler.
I see it as a battle between Chaves, Froome and Nibali. I really should pick Froome, it’s about time he won this race, but something in my heart is shouting Nibali! Time to decide …
Another grand tour victory for Vincenzo Nibali.
NOTE: As some of you know, aside from writing previews I also sell betting tips. It costs £100 to buy these tips for the Vuelta, if interested please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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