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 4-star riders that may be seen as the main challengers to the race's biggest favourite.
Alberto Contador (****)
The Vuelta a Espana should have been the big farewell to Spain’s most decorated grand tour rider since Miguel Indurain. At the start of the year, Alberto Contador was embarking on his final pro season and he only had one goal: to win the Tour de France. The Vuelta was not confirmed on his calendar but many found it unlikely that the Spaniard wouldn’t end his career by waving goodbye to his home public on the back of a hopefully successful Tour.
However, everything has changed since January and when Contador heads down the ramp in Ourense on Saturday, he finds himself in a very different situation than he had expected. A solid spring season made him realize that it was a bit too early to end his career so after his victory in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he declared that he was ready to spend another year in the pro peloton. That didn’t change his focus and he still had his full attention on the big three-week race in July.
At the start of the year, Contador said that his retirement plans could only be changed if he had bad luck in France. With that in mind, 2016 season was never going to be his last season. A crash on the first stage was followed by another tumble just one day later and from there, nothing went as planned. Contador lost time whenever the road pointed upwards and he soon realized that he made no sense to continue. His only chance to save his season was to turn his attention to the Vuelta and he left the race on stage 9.
Hence, the Vuelta has suddenly gone from being a farewell race to being the overwhelming goal for Contador. Second places in Paris-Nice and Volta a Catalunya and overall victory in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco mean that it has been a solid season for the Tinkoff star but ultimately the results of a rider of Contador’s calibre will always be based on what he achieves in the three-week races. His only chance to salvage his final year at the helm of the Tinkoff team will be to ride into Madrid with the red jersey on his shoulders.
Looking at his history in the event, the odds couldn’t be any better. Despite his Spanish origins, Contador has never had his home race as one of his big season goals apart from in 2012 when he had just returned from injury. Nonetheless, he has managed to win the race every time he has done it. He made his debut in 2008 when ASO refused to invite Astana for the Tour and after winning the Giro, Contador took his first grand tour win on home soil. He made a remarkable comeback with a memorable attack in Fuente De to win the race in 2012 and two years ago he bounced back from his abandonment from the Tour by beating Chris Froome in an exciting duel. Last year he skipped the race on the back of his tiring Giro-Tour double but this year he will be back to try to add a fourth win to his palmares.
With his crash in the Tour, Contador’s preparation has been far from ideal and it has been a race against time to be ready for the three weeks in Spain. However, Contador still finds himself in a much better position than most of his rivals. The two other big favourites Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana both arrive in Ourense just a few weeks after stepping down from the podium in Paris and after three weeks of very hard racing in France. Froome has even done the Olympics in the time between the two grand tours. All th other main contenders all have at least one grand tour in their legs and so Contador will be the freshest of the best GC riders.
That’s a huge advantage in the Vuelta which is a very special race. Coming towards the end of the season, freshness and recovery are usually the key skills at an event which is almost always a bit of an appendage to bigger goals earlier in the season. Hence, it is no surprise that Contador has such a great track record in this race as he is probably the rider with the best ability to recover. This year his lack of racing will give him an even bigger advantage as he has only done 23 days of racing since he ended his spring season at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
At the same time, signs are good for Contador when it comes to his recovery from injury. He was already back in training a few days after his abandonment from the Tour and he lined up for his first race at the end of July in the Clasica San Sebastian. That race proved that he was still not at 100% yet as he was far off the pace on the final climb but just a few days later he proved his return to form at the Vuelta a Burgos. Having tested his legs with an attack in stage 3, Contador turned out to be the strongest rider on the final climb of the queen stage and second place was enough to take the overall victory in the race that is usually the key indicator of form for the Vuelta. Only the tactical battle prevented him from winning the stage as Sergio Pardilla exploited a moment of hesitation from the isolated favourites to make a successful solo attack.
The race proved that Contador is at a high level but it still showed that there is still a long way to go before he gets to the top of his game. After all, he only managed to put a few seconds into Ben Hermans. With all due to respect to the strong Belgian, there is a vast difference between the BMC rider and the rivals he will face in the Vuelta and this is exactly what makes us a bit concerned about Contador’s ability to actually win the three-week race in Spain.
In 2009 and 2010, Contador was in a class of his own and clearly the best stage race rider in the world but since he came back from suspension he has not been at the same level. Of course he has still won two Vueltas and one Giro since 2012 but he has never been close to matching Froome on the biggest scene, the Tour. He won his first grand tour after his return but his 2012 Vuelta victory was more based on braveness and ingenuity that pure physical strength. However, it was in 2013 that it became apparent that there was no return to his former level. Contador suffered massively at the Tour and could only manage fourth in what is probably one of his worst grand tour performances ever.
In 2014, Contador seemed to be back on track. He had a great spring season where he won both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and for the first time, he was able to follow Contador in the mountains at the Dauphiné. In fact, he claims to have been just as strong as he was in 2009, maybe even better. Unfortunately, we never got the chance to see what he could really do in the Tour as he crashed out of the race in the first big mountain stage.
Less than two months after the crash, Contador proved that it is still way too early to write him off by claiming a third Vuelta title after an exciting battle with Froome. The Spaniard clearly felt that he was back to his best and so made the big gamble of going for the Giro-Tour double in 2015. The mission was only partly successful as he had to dig very deep to take the expected win in the Giro and that left him clearly fatigued for the Tour. For the first time ever, he spent the entire race on the defensive and he rolled into Paris with a rather anonymous fifth place.
The gamble was a bit of a surprise. Since his comeback, it has almost seemed like an obsession for Contador to prove that he can again win the Tour and the double clearly cost him a shot at victory. With lessons learned, he was adamant right after the final stage of the 2015 edition of the race that 2016 was all about the Tour and he even made it clear that it would be his final opportunity as he was set to retire at the end of the current season.
As he started the year with the expectation that this would be his final Tour de France, he did everything possible to get ready during the winter. He even had a hard time hiding his confidence and playing down expectations in his usual way when he made his debut in Algarve in February. In that race, he had a surprisingly bad day in the first mountain stage but with a resounding victory in the queen stage he proved that he was on track for great things.
Since then, things have been fairly mixed for Contador. On one hand, he won the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and would have won Paris-Nice if the hardest summit finish hadn’t been cancelled due to bad weather. On the other hand, he was unable to match Quintana in the Volta a Catalunya and he was not the dominant figure in Pais Vasco that many had expected. Nonetheless, he has continually expressed great optimism, claiming that he has had similar feelings to 2014 when he was at maybe his best level since 2009.
The final big Tour de France test for Contador was the Criterium du Dauphiné and he set an unusually optimistic tone at the start of the race. In the past, he has always played down expectations but again he underlined how well he was feeling. He seemed to be right when he beat Froome convincingly in the mountain prologue but as soon as the going got tough in the mountains he was nowhere near the best. In the end, he could not even finish on the podium and a fifth place was the disappointing outcome. The race was never going to be all about the result but it was definitely an unpleasant surprise that he was so far off the pace. In any case, it is now evident that there is no return to the 2014 level for Contador.
The poor showing changed the mood in the Tinkoff camp. Last year the entire team was built around Contador’s yellow campaign but this year things were different. Climber Jesper Hansen was left at home due to a late decision to give more domestiques to Peter Sagan and unlike last year, the team went into the race with two official leaders. Contador’s own confidence had clearly declined too and he openly admitted that it would be very hard to beat Froome.
This also means that Contador’s success in the Vuelta will probably depend more on Froome and Quintana than on the Tinkoff leader himself. If his two biggest rivals can recover enough from the French race to return to their best form, it is hard to imagine that Contador will come out on top. However, if they fail, Contador is in prime position to strike. After all, his spring season showed that he is still one of the best climbers in the world and he will be ready to exploit every sign of weakness from the two best grand tour riders in the world. With his excellent recovery skills and less racing, Contador is in a much better position than his biggest rivals and there is very little chance that he won’t be riding at a high level throughout the entire race.
That ability to recover is a massive advantage in a race that has big mountain stages throughout the entire three weeks. Unlike last year’s race which had a pretty easy third week, the winner has to be good from stage 1 to stage 20. This should suit Contador as there is a big chance that Froome and Quintana will start to fade in the third week which offers two tough mountain stages where Contador can try to turn things around.
Apart from that, the course is not ideal for Contador. The Tinkoff leader excels on long, grueling days in the mountains but this year there is only one big climbing day, the Aubisque stage in the penultimate weekend. The rest of the summit finishes are either relatively easy or held on short, excessively steep climbs. History shows that Froome is generally better than Contador on such climbs. In 2014, Contador had the upper hand on the big mountains while Froome beat the Spaniard on the steeper, shorter climbs. This year the finishing climbs generally suit Froome.
At the same time, the flat time trial in Calpe is huge advantage for Froome. Before his suspension, Contador was one of the best time triallists in the world and he even beat Cancellara on an almost completely flat course at the 2009 Tour de France when the Swiss was at his very best. Since his comeback, he has not been at the same level in the flat TTs but he has proved that he is one of the very best on hilly courses. Last year’s Giro victory was based on a dominant ride in the long time trial which he would have won convincingly if the late starters had had the same conditions as the non-GC riders. This year he has won the time trials in both the Dauphiné and Pais Vasco and even in 2013 when he was far from his best level, it was probably only the lack of a bike change that cost him victory in the hilly TT in the Alps. However, he has lost lots of time on the flat power courses and this is exactly what he will face on stage 19. With Froome having returned to his best in the discipline, it is hard to imagine that he won’t lose time here.
Secondly, there is the question of the team. At the time of writing, the final roster hasn’t been announced but the provisional line-up of the Tinkoff team is far from scary. There will be no Roman Kreuziger or Rafal Majka at his side and instead he will rely on Yury Trofimov and Robert Kiserlovski. None of them have been at their former level in 2016 and even though the Russian is showing signs of improvement, Contador is likely to be isolated at points where Froome and Quintana will have numerous domestiques at their side. This will make things much harder for Contador who has to make the difference in the mountains. Even if he turns out to be the strongest rider in the race, he will be very vulnerable to attacks.
Contador has every reason to be concerned about the course, the team and his general level in 2015. Nonetheless, this year’s Vuelta offers him a great chance to add to his impressive grand tour palmares. The Vuelta is a race about recovery and freshness and the circumstances and the natural abilities all favour the Tinkoff leader. In 2014, Contador bounced back from one of his biggest disappointments by winning his home race for a third time. If Froome and Quintana are not at 100%, history could easily repeat itself in 2016.
Nairo Quintana (****)
Nairo Quintana must have had some sleepless nights since he stepped down from the podium in Paris, asking himself what went wrong during those three weeks in France. Everything was on track to turn Suena Amarillo into reality. Quintana had been the dominant rider in the spring where he had been on the podium in every stage race he had done. He had beaten Contador in the Volta a Catalunya and Chris Froome at the Tour de Romandie and taken his first ever TT win at the Route du Sud just a few weeks before the Tour. It seemed that nothing could stop the Colombian who was ready to put up his sternest fight against Chris Froome on the French roads.
To make things even better, the first seven days went just as Quintana had hoped for. There were no issues in the crosswinds and his Movistar team showed impressive strength on the first hard stage in Massif Central. He got safely through the first stage in the Pyrenees and was following his pre-race plan perfectly. The goal was to stay with Froome during the first two weeks and then make his lethal attack in the third week in the Alps at a point where the Colombian had traditionally been stronger than his British archrival.
Things started to unravel when an inattentive Quintana let Froome ride away with a surprise attack over the top of the Col du Peyresourde. However, the time loss in that stage was more a result of a lack of concentration than bad legs and after all his time loss was insignificant. One day later he stayed with Froome in the first big summit finish in Arcalis and he headed into the first rest day in a comfortable situation.
From there, nothing went as planned. An aggressive Froome attacked Quintana in the crosswinds but it was the stage to Mont Ventoux that ultimately proved to be the nail in the coffin. Quintana was keen to take back time and so attacked in the steepest section. However, Froome’s domestique Wout Poels barely raised an eyebrow and in a matter of seconds he had reeled the Colombian in. A little later, he was unable to follow Froome and Richie Porte and from that moment, it was evident that Quintana was not at his usual level.
Quintana still did a solid Tour that most would have been dreaming about. He limited his losses well in the time trials and even though he soon realized that he was not able to attack in the mountains, he was still one of the best. He ultimately finished the race in third and for almost every other rider that would have been a dream result. However, Quintana’s dream was yellow and it had been broken already on the Mont Ventoux.
Quintana was clearly broken in the third week of the race and at the start of the final stage, he made it clear that he needed to find out what had gone wrong. The trip it he Rio Olympics got canceled and instead he returned to Colombia to recover and undergo some tests. Quintana had mentioned allergy as a possible explanation for his poor showing and he wanted to find out whether any health issues had caused his sudden drop in form.
Since then, nothing has emerged from the Movistar camp which has been completely silent. The press release announcing their roster for the Tour did nothing to elaborate on Quintana’s condition or his goals for the Vuelta. However, the mere fact that he stays with his pre-season plan of doing the Spanish race is an indication that he should be back on track and ready to go for his second grand tour victory.
Already at the start of the year, it was a big ask for him to go for the Tour-Vuelta double. The general wisdom is that it is too much for a young rider in the early phase of his career to go for glory in consecutive grand tours. No one has ever managed to make the Tour-Vuelta double since the Spanish race got its new autumn slot and this speaks volumes about the difficulty of the challenge that culminates at the end of a long season for most of the riders. However, Quintana and Movistar have never been afraid of bucking the trend and for the second year in a row, the Colombian will try to do both grand tours in the same season.
His first attempt was not the success he had dreamed of. Quintana was clearly not at his best level in Spain 12 months ago. After Froome crashed out of the race, he emerged as the big favourite but it was evident that he was not at his Tour de France level. For most of the time, he was able to follow or stay close to the best but he was not able to attack like he had done in France. Things were only made worse when he fell ill in the second week and he was very close to abandoning the race. However, like he did in the 2014 Giro, Quintana fought through his health issues and showed signs of improvement in the third week to end the race in fourth overall, thus proving that he has the skills to be competitive in two grand tours.
This year Quintana arrives at the race in a much different situation. His Tour was not the success he had expected and there is the lingering question about his health. Even though he didn’t achieve the same kind of results, it is hard not to have the feeling that he was more fatigued at the end of the French race than he was 12 months ago. Already back then it was hard for him to find his best form in Spain and it definitely won’t be any easier with this kind of preparation.
However, there are other factors that speak in favour of Quintana. First of all, he has been better than ever for most of the 2016 season. With the 2016 season being loaded with big goals at the Tour, the Olympics and the Vuelta, he followed the same script as most of the grand tour riders and opted for a calmer winter. That meant that he was far from his best level at the Tour de San Luis in January and as he opted to ride in support of his brother Dayer who claimed a breakthrough win in the race, he settled for third overall.
He returned to his native Colombia to prepare for his European campaign and history shows that this formula works very well for Quintana. Unlike many of his rivals, he doesn’t need any racing to be competitive and that was evident when he made his first European appearance at the Volta a Catalunya. With a stinging attack on the queen stage, he dropped Alberto Contador and rode to victory and into the race lead which he defended in the final three stages. The result made him the big favourite for the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but a bout of illness in the week before the race prevented him from reaching his best form and he had to settle for third.
Quintana quickly recovered from his health issues and was back at his best level when he lined up for the Tour de Romandie. Unfortunately, a puncture took Chris Froome out of GC contention in the first mountain stage and so we never got the chance to see the two Tour favourites in a head-to-head battle. Nonetheless, Quintana again showed his impressive class. In the first mountain stage, he rode away with Ilnur Zakarin and then got the stage win when his Russian rival was relegated due to irregular sprinting. One day later he did the time trial of his life, finishing in the same time as Froome, and then he in a controlling manner in the queen stage to help his teammate Ion Izagirre finish on the podium.
Since Romandie, Quintana followed his usual formula of preparing for the grand tours in Colombia and unlike the other Tour favourites, he didn’t do the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. Like last year, he only did the Route du Sud to find his racing legs and that event proved that he is on track. He surprised the entire cycling world by spending the flat first stage in a suicidal breakaway but it was the time trial that really proved his form. In the discipline that has generally been regarded as his weakness, he beat specialist Sylvain Chavanel to ride himself into yellow. Team tactics prevented him from making his planned attack in the queen stage where he opted to give teammate Marc Soler the chance to get the win but he looked comfortable on the climbs and easily took the much expected overall victory.
The spring season has clearly given two indications. First of all, Quintana seems to be climbing better than ever. He has never been so strong in the first part of the year. His attack in the Catalunya queen stage was impressive and it was only an in-form Zakarin who could follow him in Romandie.
However, the biggest change is his improved TT skills. Quintana has never been a bad time triallist but he has always lost time to many of his GC rivals. The first big indication of his improvement came when he did a surprisingly good TT on a completely flat course at last year’s Vuelta and this year he has taken another step. In Romandie, he lost less than a second to Froome and he did a fantastic time trial in Pais Vasco where he was only beaten by 5 seconds by Contador who is one of the best riders in the world for hilly time trials. If one adds his victory at the Route du Sud and the fact that he actually did some reasonable TTs in the Tour despite his general travails, it is evident that he is a much different rider than he was at the 2013 Tour where he lost massive amounts of time to Froome.
On paper, Quintana should find a course with 10 summit finishes to his liking but the nature of the climbs aren’t necessarily very good for him. Quintana excels on long, grueling days in the mountains but only the Aubisque stage has repeated climbs. Instead, four of the uphill finishes end with short, steep walls and history shows that Froome is more explosive and better suited to these efforts.
Secondly, the time trial will still be a problem. Quintana may have improved a lot but so has Froome who has returned to his time trialing best in 2016. Quintana lost plenty of time on the hilly courses in the Tour and he will lose more on the flat course in Calpe, especially if it’s windy. He needs to take back that time in the mountains and to beat Froome and Contador there, he needs to be close to 100% of his abilities. Last year he failed to reach his Tour level in the Vuelta and it won’t be any easier to do it this time.
Quintana will be supported by a strong team but even the presence of Alejandro Valverde and Daniel Moreno can’t make up for the fact that Sky are again superior. Still Valverde could be a key component in Quintana’s red campaign. The veteran is embarking on a maiden project as he has never done three grand tours in a single season but it would be stupid to bet against Valverde being in top 10 contention. In the Tour, he proved that he is ready to sacrifice himself for his Colombian teammate and he is likely to do so again in Spain. He knows that he won’t win the race so his main goal will be to win a stage and secure a top 10 finish. Those goals can easily fit into a Movistar plan that has an overall victory for Quintana as his main goal and a strong Valverde will be able to able to put Sky on the defensive, especially as the Brits are not as strong as they were in the Tour.
However, in the end it will all be decided by Quintana’s own legs and how well he has recovered from the Tour. It is hard to imagine that he will reach his best level but less may be enough. With his great spring season indicating that he has taken another step, he is now a better climber than Contador. If he can come out on top in the battle of fatigue against Froome, it may finally be time for him to prove that he can beat the Brit in a grand tour. After all, he hasn’t done the Olympics and history shows that he recovers better than the Sky leader. The Vuelta is a race about freshness and recovery and this could be what tips the balance and allows Quintana to make up for what was a hugely disappointing month of July.
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