The Vuelta a Espana has a reputation as a revenge race for riders that have had little success in the first part of the season, mainly in the Tour de France. Alberto Contador, Tejay van Garderen and Nairo Quintana are looking for redemption after their disappointments earlier in the year but this year the Spanish grand tour is more than a race for the losers. Chris Froome is the first rider since Carlos Sastre to chase the Tour-Vuelta double and Alejandro Valverde aims to become the first rider with the current structure of the grand tour schedule to finish in the top 10 in all three-week races. They will be joined by Giro d’Italia heroes Steven Kruijswijk and Esteban Chaves, a resurgent Andrew Talansky and a host of talented climbers that are ready to proves themselves as future grand tour stars. As it was the case last year, race director Javier Guillen has had a hard time believing the formidable start list that will make the third grand tour highly contested. CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.
With its position at the end of the season, the Vuelta a Espana has always been different from the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. While the first two grand tours are the big objectives for most riders, the Spanish race is often the chance for redemption and many riders usually make a late decision whether to do the race. Often that has led to less spectacular start lists and less motivated riders, with many using the race to prepare for the World Championships.
However, things have changed and for the last three years the race has had a much stronger field than the Giro. In 2014, it was the misfortune of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome that suddenly meant that the race could boast no less than three riders from the Fabulous Four in addition to a huge talent like Fabio Aru and the usual veterans Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde. After Nairo Quintana had crashed out of the race and Chris Froome had slowly ridden himself into form, it came down to a thrilling battle between Froome and Contador in a match that allowed us to get what we never got in France during the summer.
Last year the line-up was even stronger. Three riders from the Fabulous Four – Froome, Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali – took to the start alongside the likes of Fabio Aru, Esteban Chaves and Rafal Majka – three of the most promising grand tour talents – and veterans Valverde and Rodriguez and even though Nibali and Froome were ultimately taken out of the race, it came down to a hugely exciting battle that was turned on its head on the final big GC day.
Race director Javier Guillen must still be pinching himself to see if he is dreaming as this year’s field is at a similar level. With a mountainous course for the Olympics, there was a big risk that many of the big names would skip the race. However, Chris Froome has fallen in love with the Vuelta which was the scene of his breakthrough as a grand tour contender and he has embarked on an ambitious Tour-Olympic-Vuelta campaign. Contador’s and Quintana’s misfortune in the Tour means that they will both be at the start with even more motivation and so the field will again include three of the four dominant grand tour riders.
At the same time, Tejay van Garderen, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Mathias Frank will try to get his revenge following a disappointing first gran tour and the riders that dominated the Giro will almost all be at the start too. Vincenzo Nibali will be missing but his key rivals Esteban Chaves, Steven Kruijswijk and Alejandro Valverde have all included the race on the schedule. For the latter, it is a hugely ambitious project as he will be doing the first grand tour treble of his career and he aims to become the first rider in history to finish in the top 10 of all of them since the Vuelta was moved to its current autumn slot.
The Vuelta as Espana has often been the scene of some of the greatest grand tour breakthroughs. Last year Chaves and Tom Dumoulin impressed the entire cycling world and this year there is a big chance that we will see something similar. Miguel Angel Lopez, Simon Yates, Hugh Carthy, Joe Dombrowski, Davide Formolo and Pierre Latour are all among the biggest talents in the world and they will all be present in the final grand tour. If one adds the fact that the race is the big goal for reinvigorated riders like Andrew Talansky and Samuel Sanchez, it is evident that the scene is set for a huge spectable.
CyclingQuotes.com has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to 5 of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the big 5-star favourite.
Chris Froome (*****)
Since the Vuelta a Espana was moved to its current Autumn slot, no one has managed to win the Tour-Vuelta double. In fact, Carlos Sastre is the only reigning Tour de France champion who has been brave and motivated to take on another three-week tour just weeks after stepping down from the finest cycling podium. However, after a first attempt in 2015, Chris Froome has again taken on the daunting task of making history by becoming the first rider to do this double after the restructure of the grand tour calendar.
It is a remarkable turnaround of stances. When Oleg Tinkov started the debate about doing the grand tour treble, it was the general consensus that Alberto Contador was brave and innovative while Chris Froome was regarded as conservative. However, the Brit has really taken on an ambitious project in 2016. Last year he already tried the Tour-Vuelta double and after a slow start, a strong ride in stage 10 had suddenly put him on track for a great result. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to see what he could achieve as he crashed in the early part of the queen stage just two days later and a broken foot forced him to leave the race.
This year the addition of the Olympics has made his project even more audacious. As said, no one has managed to do the double since the Vuelta got its new slot on the calendar and so it is very brave for Froome to embark on a campaign that includes both grand tours and two Olympic events in less than three months. However, it has always been the plan for the Brit to try this unprecedented campaign and even though the official confirmation of his participation in Spain was delayed until the end of the Olympics – after all he had to see how well he had recovered from the two first goals – it was always part of the plan to do all three races.
The decision is also remarkable if one remembers what Froome said when he first tried the Tour-Vuelta double in 2012. Having just finished second in the Tour while riding in support for Bradley Wiggins, he was extremely keen on getting his own chance to be a leader in a grand tour. He got the opportunity in Spain where he rode strongly in the first week but he faded dramatically in the final two weeks. He ended the race in fourth but was far behind the Spanish trio of Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez and the final part of the race was a matter of pure survival. Afterwards, he made it clear that the daunting task had taught him that his body was not able to go for glory in two grand tours so close to each other. When he won the Tour less than 12 months later, he again underlined that the French grand tour would be his full focus in the foreseeable future.
However, Froome is a fierce competitor who simply loves to compete and there is no doubt that he has been inspired by his critics to try to make history. To back a Tour de France win up with a Vuelta victory will immediately enhance his status significantly as the only rider to have made that double and silence the pundits who have hailed Contador’s courage and Froome’s conservative approach. After an overall victory in the Tour and a bronze medal at the Olympics, a Vuelta win would make it one of the best seasons of any rider in this century.
When he went into the Tour de France, Froome was evidently the favourite and he fully lived up to expectations by taking a very dominant win. Being the best grand tour rider in recent years, he again stands out as the man to beat in the Vuelta but his position atop the hierarchy is a lot less obvious than it was for the French grand tour.
First of all his level of preparation has been very different from his meticulous build-up for the Tour. There has been no pre-race reconnaissance of the stages, high-altitude training camps and careful building of a peak shape for the race. Instead, it has all been about recovering for the Olympics and he has had his eyes fully on Brazil. Only in the last two weeks has he turned his attention to the Vuelta and done some real training but h it would be unfair to expect him to be at the marvelous level he had in the French grand tour.
That lack of preparation raises several questions. First of all Froome was not his usual dominant self in the Tour. In 2013, Froome was by far the best stage race rider in the world and he dominated the week-long races he did in the build-up to his first Tour de France victory. Back then, he seemed to be unbeatable but that is no longer the case. In 2014, he was set back by several health issues which meant that he never really reached peak condition before he lined up at the Criterium du Dauphiné where he was clearly the strongest rider. However, he was not at his usual level in most of his other races. He came back from injury to deliver a below-par showing in the Volta a Catalunya and even though he managed to defend his title in the Tour de Romandie he was not in his usual superior class.
Most importantly, he rode pretty poorly in the Vuelta. Of course he still managed to finish second and put up a fight, mainly in the third week, but it was not the attacking Froome. Instead, he rode his own defensive race and was very fortunate that Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez failed to agree enough to give a significant time loss on one of his many days of suffering.
His performances in the 2015 are even more noteworthy. He managed to win the Vuelta a Andalucia against a below-par Alberto Contador but the rest of the first part of his season was a disaster. In the Volta a Catalunya, he was riding worse than he has ever done since he emerged as a grand tour contender and he failed to win the Tour de Romandie. He managed to win the Criterium du Dauphiné but he was not in the same superior class as he had been when he conquered the race for the first time in 2013. In the Tour de France, he was closer to his best but he still suffered in the third week, partly due to illness.
This year his results have been even more low-key. He won the Herald Sun Tour in February but that hardly counts as a victory as it would have been a major disappointment if he hadn’t won the relatively small event. His return to Europe was a bit of a failure as he was off the pace at the Volta a Catalunya. He had hoped to return to his best at the Tour de Romandie but a puncture in the first mountain stage took him of out GC contention. He bounced back with a solid time trial and victory in the queen stage where he attacked from afar but we never got the chance to see what he could do in a direct battle with the favourites.
Froome finally got his season back on track when he won the Dauphiné where he won one of the mountain stages and proved that he was the best climber in the race. That set him up for his overall victory in the Tour where he showed new aspects of his versatile talents. Instead of making the difference on the climbs as he has done in the past, he got the win by attacking on the descent and in the crosswinds and gaining time in the time trials. For the first time ever, he failed to win a single mountaintop finish. At the same time, his Sky team controlled things so impressively that many wrote his victory down to a question of team strength more than a result of Froome’s own class.
The lack of domination in the mountains have caused some to regard the 2016 Tour as another step in the downward trend for Froome who still doesn’t seem to be at his 2013 level. However, it would probably be a big mistake to underestimate the Brit based on his performance in France. In fact, there were signs that Froome was a lot more comfortable that he had been in the past but his ambitious plans seemed to have a big impact on his approach to the race. Knowing that he had goals later in the season too, Froome seemed to be very keen to win the race without having to go too deep. All year, he has planned for his ambitious triple goal and so he has done very little racing in the spring. That allowed him to arrive in France a lot fresher than usual and his goal was to end the race less fatigued than he has been in the past where he was clearly suffering in the third week.
It was mission accomplished for Froome. As soon as he had built a comfortable lead after the first time trial, he put the handbrake on and barely made an attack. From that moment, it was all about controlling the race and he used his strong team to do so. A small crash in stage 19 briefly put him in difficulty but apart from that incident, he was never under threat. In fact, it is hard not to have the impression that he never really went into the red zone in the mountains. He dug deep in the time trials and during his two surprise attacks but on the climbs, he only made some small attacks and never went all out in a big attack to drop his rivals.
Even though he has done the Olympics in between, that approach means that Froome is probably in a much better position to try the double than he was 12 months ago. Back then, he was very tired at the end of the Tour and he had full focus on recovery in the few weeks between the two grand tours. Hence, he was far from his best level in the first part of the Vuelta. Nonetheless, his level was on the rise when he crashed out of the race. In fact, reports from the Sky camp claim that he was very confident that he was going to ride himself into red in the queen stage. Unfortunately, his crash derailed his plans.
This year Froome seems to enter the race in much better shape. He may not have been at his best in the Olympics but he was still at a very good level. He finished third in the time trial and his attack in the road race was still good enough to leave all his Tour de France rivals behind. Hence, we can’t expect him to be at the same poor level in the first week as 12 months ago and this will be important as the first uphill finishes come on stages 3 and 4 and the most important block of mountain stages comes in the second weekend.
The big challenge for Froome will be to maintain his level. Unlike last year, there are tough mountain stages throughout the entire race and this means that the winner has to be good during all three weeks. Froome can’t allow himself to fade too much in the third week and this will be a challenge. After all, this year’s Tour was the first where he didn’t show any signs of fading in the final part of the race. History shows that he doesn’t recover as well as the likes of Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador and those two riders even arrive at the Tour a lot fresher than Froome.
Nonetheless, we still believe that Froome will win the race. The distribution of mountain stages may not be in his favour but apart from that, the course suits him extremely well. There are no less than 10 summit finishes and four of them – Mirador de Ezaro, Camperona, Pena Cabarga and Alto Mas de la Costa – end on short, extremely steep climbs. History shows that Froome is usually stronger than Contador and Quintana on such climbs. Last year he delivered his best performance in a similar finish on stage 10 and in 2014, he suffered on the long climbs and excelled on the shorter, steeper ascents. He is more explosive than his two biggest rivals and so these finishes should suit him well.
The same goes for the climb of Lagos de Covadonga which has a steep first part and a flatter finale. That makes it similar to La Pierre Saint-Martin where he laid the foundations for his victory in the 2015 Tour. On such climbs, he can use his climbing skills to make a difference in the steep part and his bigger power to increase his lead in the flatter sections. The stage comes relatively early in the race where Froome should still be fresh and if he can gain some time here, he may have comfortable buffer when we get to the first rest day.
Like in the Tour, Froome is backed by a superior team which is by far the strongest. Mikel Landa and Leopold König are podium contenders in their own right and if one adds the likes of Ian Boswell, Peter Kennaugh and Michael Kwiatkowski, the level of support in the mountains will be great. If he can use his post-Tour form to build a solid advantage in the difficult first half of the race, Froome and Sky can turn into control mode in the second half and then their stranglehold will be hard to break.
Furthermore, the time trial is a huge advantage for Froome. At one point, there were questions about his TT skills. In 2014 and 2015, he was far from his usual level but with a bigger amount of time trialling in this year’s Tour, he has again worked a lot on his TT bike. That has clearly paid off as his Tour win was mainly based on his gains in the TT and at the Olympics he beat some of the biggest specialists too. The flat course may not be ideal for him when it comes to battling for the stage win but compared to all his GC rivals, it is a huge advantage. He can possible gain massive amounts of time on Quintana and Contador on that day and knowing that he will have that ace up his sleeve, he can allow himself to ride a lot more defensively in the mountains.
That’s exactly the key for Froome to win this race. Everything will depend on his ability to recover and maintain his level throughout all three weeks. He knows that this will be the main challenge so he will go into the race with the same approach as he had in the Tour. It will be all about saving energy and only make the efforts when they are really needed. In France, he proved that he masters that exercise excellently and in Spain he will try to repeat. His team is definitely strong enough to allow him to save energy whenever it’s needed and the nature of the finishing climbs suits him down to the ground. The longer team time trial and the flat TT in the third week are another two aces and this gives him every chance to win the race.
There is no doubt that Sky and Froome have done everything to make it possible for him to make history in three weeks and it seems that it will all come down to question of recovery. Will Froome be able to reach his high level for another three weeks of very mountainous racing? And more importantly, will he be able to avoid his usual drop in form in the final week where the race will be decided?
Apart from Alberto Contador, all his main rivals already have a grand tour in their legs and Nairo Quintana probably went deeper than Froome in the Tour. Hence, most of the GC contenders are on an equal footing and Valverde and Carlos Sastre have both proved that it is possible to be in podium contention in both grand tours. Of course it is a different matter to actually win the race but if anyone can do it, it has to be Froome.
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