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 1-star riders that may finish on the podium if everything goes their way.
Samuel Sanchez (*)
When Euskaltel folded, it looked like one of Spain’s most accomplished riders would have an unworthy end to his career. For some reason, no one wanted to sign the undisputed leader of the team and for most of the winter it looked like Samuel Sanchez’ glorious career was over. Only in early 2014, BMC decided to throw him a lifeline as they signed him as a key domestique for Philippe Gilbert in the classics and Cadel Evans in the Giro.
The contract allowed him to continue his career but it also marked a complete change of role. At Euskaltel, he had been the centre of attention for a decade and with podiums in the Tour and Vuelta, excellent classics results, an overall win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and most importantly an Olympic gold medal, he had fully deserved his captaincy role. At BMC, however, he was more of a road captain who played an instrumental role in Gilbert’s Amstel Gold Race win.
In the Giro, Sanchez never really reached his best condition and as he also failed to reach his best level when he had a rare personal chance in Pais Vasco, it looked like the time when Sanchez could achieve personal results was over. However, the Spaniard has always been a bit of a diesel engine and it is no coincidence that his best results have come at the tail end of the season. That has made him somewhat of a Vuelta specialist and since 2006 he has made it into the top 10 whenever he has finished his home grand tour.
That looked set to change in 2014 when he was given the chance to lead BMC but he managed to turn his poor season around. Ultimately he ended the race in sixth place which is of course far from his former results but it proved that he still has what it takes to mix it up with the best in the grand tours. He went on to finish fifth in Il Lombardia and play a key role for Philippe Gilbert in the Tour of Beijing where he would probably have been on the podium if he had not been riding for his teammate.
Despite the excellent results, Sanchez was again without a contract for most of the winter and it wasn’t until late January that BMC announced that they had renewed the deal. The role was again clear as he was expected to support Gilbert in the classics and Tejay van Garderen in the Tour while he would be given his own chance in the Vuelta. He did his job for his captain in the Ardennes and used his condition to take a fine second in the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire before he turned his attention to the Tour. Here he proved to be riding a lot better than he did in last year’s Giro and when van Garderen suddenly left the race, he took over the leadership role. He was never able to keep up with the best and so rode pretty anonymously but still managed to end the race in 12th.
The sudden change of role apparently took its toll when Sanchez headed to the Vuelta where he had been promised leadership. The veteran suffered right from the start and he was already out of contention when an infected toenail forced him to abandon the race for the first time in a career. As the poor performance came on the back of a disappointing season, it again looked like it was time to write Sanchez off.
However, history has repeated itself. The 2016 season has seen Sanchez returns to a level that is very close to what showed in his heydays. He had his usual slow start to the year but by the time we got to the Vuelta al Pais Vasco, his first big goal, he was absolutely flying. Sanchez emerged as one of the best climbers in the highly competitive field and even took his first win in BMC colours with a gutsy attack in the finale of a tough stage. He failed to do his best time trial and so slipped to sixth in the standings but the result was still a remarkable turnaround.
Sanchez even went on to do even better in the Ardennes. When it became clear that injury prevented Gilbert from performing at his best, Sanchez took the leadership. A solid sixth place in Fleche Wallonne set him up for Liege-Bastogne-Liege where he made the race-winning break of four. In the end, he was too tired and finished last in the sprint but it was a remarkable performance by the veteran to emerge as one of the strongest in what turned out to be a brutal edition of the classic.
Sanchez maintained his form for the Tour of California where he finished sixth despite working for Brent Bookwalter and Rohan Dennis. The Tour de Suisse was the last race of the first part of his season but injury forced him out of the race after the third stage. Since then it has been all about the Vuelta which has been his big goal.
Sanchez has been preparing himself by riding in San Sebastian and Burgos but a 16th place in the latter race is his best result. However, there is no reason to be concerned. Sanchez has a huge experience in preparing for grand tours and he has always been far off the pace in his preparation races. He knows how to time his form and there is little doubt that he will be ready when the race kicks off later this week.
With van Garderen’s late decision to do the Vuelta, his role as undisputed BMC leader has been lightly challenged. Now the team goes into the race with a two-pronged attack but Sanchez is still on top in the internal hierarchy as he is the safe bet. However, the team is not expected to carry the weight of the race so both riders should be allowed to go for GC.
Sanchez hasn’t been fighting for the podium in a grand tour since the 2010 Tour and the time when he can realistically hope for a top 3 is over. However, the 2014 race proved that he still has what it takes to do a consistent ride over three weeks and this year he is riding better than he has done for years. At the same time, he hasn’t done the Tour so his preparation is very similar to the one he had in 2014. He is one of the select few that haven’t done a single grand tour yet and this is a massive advantage in a race where fatigue is crucial. Furthermore, Sanchez is famously known for his ability to recover and always gets better at the end of the grand tours. If anyone can maintain his level after a long, hard season, it has to be Sanchez who should be up for the challenge of keeping his top 10 streak alive.
The Vuelta climbs have always suited Sanchez well. In the past, he was pretty explosive and delivered good performances in the puncheur finishes. He doesn’t seem to have the same kick and now he is more suited to the longer climbs where he is able to gauge his effort perfectly. While he has rarely been time trialling well outside his home country, he has always been doing excellent TTs in the Vuelta, most recently in 2014 when he was fifth in the long TT. Earlier this year he was seventh in the Ruta del Sol TT and he was fifth in the race against the clock in Pais Vasco. This year’s course is a lot flatter and less suited to him but compared to the climbers he should be able to gain time.
In the past, Sanchez was a very spectacular rider who often went on the attack and was a prolific winner. Nowadays, he is a lot more anonymous and he was barely in the spotlight when he finished sixth in 2014. In 2016, there is a big chance that we won’t see much from Sanchez but with a fantastic spring season, he is set to again put in a consistent performance that should see him make it into the top 10 and continue his impressive run of success in his home race.
Tejay van Garderen (*)
One year ago, the future looked so bright for Tejay van Garderen. The talented American was in podium contention after a perfect first half of the Tour de France and was on his way to firmly establishing him as the future for American stage racing. However, the race ended up as the biggest disappointment of his career when a bout of illness forced him to abandon just a few days before the race arrived in Paris.
In the world of sport, things can change dramatically quickly and van Garderen couldn’t find himself in a more different position when he takes to the start of this year’s Vuelta. A hugely disappointing Tour de France and the emergence of Richie Porte as a potential grand tour winner has put van Garderen on the defensive and he now finds himself in a position where he has to prove his status as one of the clear leades for future editions of the Tour de France.
There is no reason to envy van Garderen the position of having been announced as the rider to fill Lance Armstrong’s shoes as the leading American grand tour contender. However, the American has apparently been unfazed by the pressure and with a very gradual and steady progress, he has arrived at a stage where he can realistically aim for the Tour de France podium.
Already at a very young age, van Garderen showed that he had the versatile skills to become a great stage racer. Son of a Dutch immigrant, he followed the unusual path for an American bike rider of learning the trade at one of the finest cycling schools in the world, the Rabobank Development team. In 2009, he finished second in the big mountainous stage races Tour de l’Avenir and the Tour de Pays de Savoie but also showed his versatility by taking third in the Olympia’s Tour which is an almost completely flat race in the Netherlands.
The performances earned him a contract with the HTC-Columbia team where he impressed in his first year at the pro level. Most notably, he finished third in the Criterium du Dauphiné behind Janez Brajkovic and Alberto Contador. He got the chance to test himself as a GC rider in a grand tour at the Vuelta but after a solid start he faded in the final week.
One year later he made his Tour de France debut without any GC aspirations and worked hard on the front for Mark Cavendish while also taking his chances in a few breakaways. However, his final year at the HTC team was a disappointing one and his progress seemed to have stalled slightly.
With the demise of his team, it was no surprise that he was picked up by BMC that were looking for a long-term replacement for Tour de France champion Cadel Evans who was getting close to retirement. After strong rides in the spring, van Garderen was immediately given the important role of being lieutenant for the reigning champion at the 2012 Tour de France. As Evans suffered from illness, van Garderen ended up being the strongest BMC rider by claiming a surprise fifth place and winning the white jersey. He even humiliated his captain when he passed him in the final time trial.
2013 seemed to be an excellent year for van Garderen who finished 4th in Paris-Nice, 3rd in the Criterium International, 7th in the Tour de Suisse and won his first major stage race at the Tour of California before he lined up for the Tour. This time he was on an equal footing with Evans but both of them delivered surprisingly poor performances. Van Garderen was at a loss to explain his mediocre showing but bounced back with a strong ride to win the USA Pro Challenge at the end of the year.
In 2014, BMC decided that it was time for a generational change. Evans was asked to lead the team in the Giro and for the first time ever, van Garderen was given the clear leadership role in the Tour. Things didn’t look good at the start of the race as he rode poorly in the Dauphiné after he had fractured his hip at the Tour de Romandie. That was a major setback at the end of a spring season during which he had clearly stepped up his level a further notch. In the Tour of Oman and the Volta a Catalunya he had been climbing better than ever but his injury made him uncertain about what to expect.
However, van Garderen rode a splendid Tour to equal his career-best fifth place finish and if it hadn’t been for a hunger knock in the long stage to Bagneres-de-Luchon, the podium would have been a realistic target. However, the result was much more remarkable than the one he had achieved two years earlier. Back then he had hugely relied on his excellent time trialling skills on a course that was tailor-made for rouleurs and included very little serious climbing. In the mountains he had been far from the best but that had changed in 2014. Van Garderen was not quite at the level of Nibali, Peraud and Pinot in the mountains but he wasn’t far off the mark.
Remarkably, van Garderen took another step up in 2015. Again he rode strongly in Oman where he only missed out on the win because he underestimated a surprisingly strong Rafael Valls. The Volta a Catalunya got off to a bad start as he crashed out of the GC contention. However, one day he later he put his improved climbing skills on show by launching an attack from the bottom of the final climb in the queen stage and holding off Richie Porte and Alberto Contador to win the stage.
Those results are all solid but it was the Dauphiné that really proved how far van Garderen had come. Unfazed by the hard competition, he went head to head with no less of a figure than Chris Froome and nearly upset the major favourite. He was favoured by an advantage gained in the team time trial but in the Pra Loup stage he delivered a remarkable feat when he clawed his way back to Froome at a point when everybody thought that he had ridden away from the rest. In the end, he even managed to distance the Sky captain. He was unable to follow Froome in the final two mountain stages but he was much closer to Froome than anyone had expected. In fact, no one has probably been so close to beating Froome at the Dauphiné since the Brit emerged as a grand tour contender – if we omit the 2014 edition where the Sky leader suffered a bad crash.
The performance made van Garderen hugely confident for the Tour and he was on track for a podium finish for most of the race. Great riding in the classics stages in the first week, a fantastic team time trial from BMC and solid climbing in the Pyrenees left van Garderen in GC contention as he arrived in the Alps. That’s when it all turned sour and he suffered the biggest disappointment of the Tour.
Van Garderen had more misfortune later in the year when he crashed out of the Vuelta and he also had to deal with internal adversity in the BMC team. Even though he has publicly embraced the arrival, it must have been frustrating for van Garderen to learn about the signing of Porte. Even though the two captains still have an equal status within the team, it’s a small sign that the management doesn’t fully believe that their American star is a potential Tour winner.
However, van Garderen has been unfazed by the internal rivalry and has been determined to prove that he is still a podium contender at the Tour. He silenced his critics by winning the time trial at the Ruta del Sol and even though he lost out to an outstanding Valverde in the queen stage, his second place in the Spanish race was a clear indication that he was on track. A TTT win in the first stage set him up for potential victory at Tirreno-Adriatico but it all came to nothing when the queen stage was canceled due to bad weather before he was taken out of GC contention by misfortune in the final road stage.
The Volta a Catalunya was the first chance for van Garderen and Porte to work together and they proved that they complement each other well. They both rode aggressively in the mountains and both finished the race in the top 5, with Porte beating his teammate by a few seconds. They again teamed up for the Tour de Romandie but that race ended as a disappointment. Porte left the event due to illness and van Garderen lost time in the first mountain stage. He bounced back with a brave attack in the queen stage and nearly managed to keep up with Chris Froome as the pair went on the offensive from afar.
However, it was the June races that were the ultimate test for both Porte and van Garderen. The fact that Porte headed to the Dauphiné was probably already a small sign that the Australian has the most confidence from the management as the French race is widely regarded as the best preparation. On the other hand, van Garderen got a big chance to take his first WorldTour stage win at the Tour de Suisse where he lined up as arguably the biggest favourite.
Unfortunately, June didn’t end as van Garderen wanted. While Porte rode splendidly in France, the American suffered in the cold on stage 6 which saw him drop out of contention for the win. He still bounced back with a great win in the queen stage and together with eventual winner Miguel Angel Lopez, he was clearly the best climber in the race. On the other hand, he did a surprisingly poor time trial, just like he did earlier in the year at the Tour de Romandie.
History repeated itself in the Tour. Van Garderen looked solid in the first week and he survived the Pyrenees in a good position. He was confident that he would improve for the third week but a poor time trial indicated that things were going in the wrong direction. He cracked completely in the Alps and ended the race in a huge disappointing 29th place.
Already before the Tour, van Garderen had made it clear that it was time for him to try to finish two grand tours in one year. He opted to skip the Olympics due to the risk of Zika virus to fully embrace the idea of going for the Vuelta. With the Tour disappointment, the Spanish race has become even more of a goal and a very important test of his status as a future GC contender.
All year, Samuel Sanchez has been promised leadership in the Vuelta and the team has stuck to their word. On paper, Sanchez will be the number one rider but van Garderen will have a protected status too. The team first talked about stage wins but there is little doubt about van Garderen’s personal ambitions. The American wants to prove himself in GC and that will be his focus in Spain.
The poor time trials that he has done recently reflect van Garderen’s development. In the early part of his career, the TTs were his bread and butter while he always had to limit his losses in the mountains. Now he is a much better climber. What is remarkable about his performances is his maturity. Honestly, we have never had too much belief in his climbing skills. Obviously, he has always been a talented climber but in the past he gauged his efforts very poorly and almost always blew up because he had tried to follow the best. That has clearly changed. Last year’s Dauphiné was a prime example of how to just riding up the climbs at your own speed and that approach has turned van Garderen into one of the best climbers in the world.
The improved climbing seems to have come at a cost as he no longer seems to be time trialling as well as he did in the past. He may have won that TT in Ruta del Sol but apart from that he hasn’t been at his former level. Luckily, that may not be a massive disadvantage in this year’s Vuelta. Most of the GC riders are non-specialists and van Garderen should be able to gain time on most of his rivals in the flat test in Calpe.
Unfortunately, the Vuelta climbs suit him pretty badly. Van Garderen was looking forward to the Alps whose long, regular ascents are tailor-made for his steady climbing. The Vuelta mountains are characterized by their very steep gradients and irregular natures and so are much more suited to more explosive riders. This year there will even be four finishes on short, very steep walls and they are far from ideal for a rider with van Garderen’s characteristics.
However, the Vuelta a Espana is usually decided by the level of fatigue and that will be the big test for van Garderen. He has never completed two grand tours in one season and even though he eased off in the final part of the Tour, he still dug deep all the way to the end. At the same time, it is hard to know how he has handled the disappointment from a mental point of view and whether he has been able to maintain his motivation. Last year he rode pretty poorly in the Vuelta until he crashed out of the race and it could very well be a bit of the same here.
On the other hand, van Garderen at least has a reason to be more motivated than ever. He faces a drop down in the pecking order within his team if he fails to confirm himself in this race and he can definitely not be ruled out. After all, he has proved that he can climb with the best and he has done so this year too. If he can find his best legs for the Vuelta, he is one of select few that can realistically aim for the podium and a top 3 finish in Spain could be what ultimately saves his status as the future of American grand tour racing.
Rein Taaramae (*)
Based on his previous grand tour performances and early-season results, the name of Rein Taaramae may not be the first that springs to mind when discussing the 2016 Vuelta a Espana. After all his best result in a three-week race is 12th in the Tour de France and that result was achieved more than five years ago. However, the 29-year old Estonian is one of cycling’s biggest talents whose past proves that he has what it takes to compete with the best stage racers in the world and it’s a very special history that has made his palmares less glorious than it should have been
Taaramae’s potential is huge and he had one of the most remarkable pro debuts of this century. Before turning 20, he had already finished in the top 10 in the 2008 Circuit Cycliste Sarthe and one year later, he made himself known on a larger scale by finishing 3rd in the Tour de Romandie, 8th in the Tour de Suisse and winning the Tour de l'Ain - at just 21!
He made similar impressive results in 2010 - 7th in the Paris-Nice, 3rd in the Volta a Catalunya - but somehow he failed to make an impression in his first two grand tours, the 2009 Vuelta and the 2010 Tour. He claimed fatigue to be the reason for his below-par performance at the latter event and so limited his early-season racing in 2011. He still finished 4th in the Paris-Nice and 3rd in the Criterium International before going on to finally contest the GC at a grand tour, finishing 11th in the world's biggest bike race. Later that year he took the biggest win of his career by claiming a solo victory on a mountain stage in the Vuelta.
In 2012 Taaramae suffered from mononucleosis and a fractured elbow during the early part of the season but it was his performance in the early part of the Tour that revealed the true extent of his potential. In the first summit finish to La Planche Des Belles Filles, he finished an outstanding 5th behind Froome, Evans, Wiggins and Nibali and left almost the entire field of Tour favourites behind. As often before, he faded later in the race but his performance in the early part will not be forgotten.
Unfortunately, that race started the downward trend for the talented Estonian. For some reason, he failed to return to his best level and the 2013 season ended as a real disaster. He struggled to find the reason for his travails and for a long time, he believed that asthma was the reason for his poor performances. However, the medication failed to have an effect and there were no signs of improvement until he finally discovered the real cause. Taaramae had trouble breathing and surgery fixed the issue in the early part of the 2014 season.
Since then, Taaramae has been back on track. Unfortunately, he has been his usual inconsistent self but on select occasions he has returned to the level that made him one of the most promising stage race talents a few years ago. It all started when he won the queen stage at the Tour of Turkey that year and even though he was unable to match Adam Yates in the more explosive finale later in the race, his second place overall marked the start of his turnaround. The Tour was another disappointment but he returned to form at the end of the season where he won the hard one-day race Tour du Doubs.
For the 2015 season, Taaramae joined Astana, telling CyclingQuotes that he had realized that he was not suited to the role of being a team leader. He was prepared to work for his leaders and that’s what he did for most of the season. However, he kicked his year off with a bang by delivering a masterful solo ride into a strong headwind to win the Vuelta a Murcia, his first race with his new team, and later taking sixth in the Volta ao Algarve.
However, what really makes us optimistic for Taaramae is what he did in the late summer. After having withdrawn from the Tour, he delivered a magnificent performance at the Vuelta a Burgos. His teammate Miguel Angel Lopez had taken the overall lead in a punchy, uphill finale on the penultimate stage and Taaramae went into the queen stage with the job to work for his leader. That’s what he did as he rode on the front all the way up the final climb of Lagunas De Neila. Unfortunately, Lopez was dropped when Daniel Moreno attacked but Taaramae just kept going. The Estonian finished second on the stage and that was enough to win the race overall. One week later he brought his good condition to Norway where he took his second overall victory in less than two weeks at the Arctic Race of Norway.
The good results probably made Taaramae realize that he still has what it takes to be a leader so he decided to move to Katusha for the 2016 season. Here he was set to share the leadership with Ilnur Zakarin at the Giro but when the Russian showed outstanding form in April, Taaramae’s role changed to that of lieutenant even before the race had started. He had a few bad days but he did his job excellently and when Zakarin crashed out of the race, the Estonian responded in the best possible way by winning the final mountain stage of the race.
Taaramae carried his good form into the Tour de Slovenie where he was in a class of his own in the queen stage and took the overall win. Since then, it has been all about the Vuelta and with Rodriguez’ premature retirement, he is now the clear leader of Katusha. With an attacking ride in Rio, he showed that his form is good and even though he failed to defend his title in Norway, the huge responsibility he took on the final climb indicates that he is ready for the challenge.
No one can deny that Taaramae had the top level to compete with the best and if he has the legs he had in Burgos last year, he will be a very strong contender during the three weeks in Spain. His main asset is his climbing skills and he is never afraid of taking a risk by joining a breakaway in the mountains. He is not a TT specialist but he is a better time triallist than many of the GC contenders in this race. He hasn’t done the Tour so he will be much fresher than many other contenders and he will have the full backing of his team.
The big question mark is consistency. On his best days, Taaramae has been absolutely flying but on his worst days, he is very poor. As everybody knows, a grand tour is all about consistency and one bad day can destroy three weeks of excellent work. No one knows whether Taaramae has what it takes to ever become a grand tour contender. However, his 12th place at the 2011 Tour indicates a hidden potential and it is worth remembering that he hasn’t been riding for GC in a grand tour since he fixed his breathing problems. During the last two years, he has indicated that he is back on track and no one can forget what an outstanding start he had to his career. Consistency will be the key but it Taaramae can maintain his level for three weeks, the 2016 Vuelta could be the place where he finally fulfills the potential he showed as a youngster.
Pierre Latour (*)
For decades, the Frenchmen have been in desperate search of a new grand tour winner. The desperation has reached enormous heights and every rider showing just the slightest sign of potential has been hailed as a future grand tour winner. Even a classics rider like Sylvain Chavanel found himself under the pressure of being described as the man to finally break the long drought in the Tour de France that goes all the way back to Bernard Hinault fifth and final win in 1985.
However, something has changed. Nowadays, new French talents arrive constantly and they are up there in almost every department. Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Demare and Bryan Coquard have made the country a force to be reckoned with in the sprints but the biggest change has come in the grand tours. In 2014, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot both finished on the podium in the Tour, Pierre Rolland was fourth in the Giro and Warren Barguil was in the top 10 in the Vuelta. Last year Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot both won big mountain stages in the Tour and this year Bardet surprised the entire cycling world by taking an impressive second place in the Tour.
To make things even better there is no sign that the talent pool will dry out. The country had two riders, Kevin Ledanois and Anthony Turgis, on the podium at the U23 Worlds in Richmond and they have excellent climbers like Nans Peters and David Gaudu coming through the ranks. However, the biggest talent of them is probably already in the professional ranks.
Pierre Latour turned pro with the Ag2r team for the 2015 season and after an excellent start to his career, he is now ready for his grand tour debut. Based on his performances during his first two years on the pro scene, the next three weeks could very well reveal the next French grand tour star to a wider audience.
Latour was already one of the best riders on the junior scene but it was the 2013 season that convinced us of his potential. After a solid start to the year with top 10 results in the big French U23 stage races, he was given a chance as a stagiaire with the Ag2r team. We couldn’t believe our eyes when we watched the Giro dell’Emilia, one of the hardest Italian semi-classics. On the day he turned 20, the Frenchman battled it out with the best climbers on the San Luca climbs and ultimately reached the top in 13th place.
Latour and Ag2r decided that it was better for him to take another year at the U23 level and the 2014 season just confirmed his potential. Again he was up there in all the hard French U23 races and it culminated with a fifth place at the Tour de l’Avenir and a third place at the Piccolo Giro di Lombardia. At the mountainous Tour de l’Ain, he again showed that he could climb with the pro riders as he finished 9th overall.
Latour turned pro for the 2015 season but the start to his career was pretty low-key. However, he gradually found his legs and at the Route du Sud, he showed what an excellent climber he is. Latour finished an impressive third behind Contador and Quintana after a marvelous ride on the Port de Bales. He used a seventh place at the Tour of Austria to build form for the late summer and here he confirmed his class by taking fifth in the Vuelta a Burgos – if it hadn’t been for the TTT he would have been on the podium as he was third in both uphill finishes – and third in the Tour de ‘Ain where he took his first pro win in the queen stage.
This year has been all about a Vuelta debut for Latour but he has shown glimpses of his potential on select occasions. In March, he was an impressive second behind an in-form Thibaut Pinot in the Criterium International and he also finished second overall. He showed himself at WorldTour level with 14th in Pais Vascon and 12th in Romandie where he was also the best young rider. In between those races, he took 19th in Fleche Wallonne.
However, it was the Tour de Suisse that really showed his class. With a fantastic third place in Cari he rode himself into the race lead and he suddenly looked like a potential winner of one of the biggest races in the world. Unfortunately, he was forced to abandon due to illness but the race showed that he has taken another step.
Since then, Latour has been preparing for his grand tour debut and last week he showed that he is ready. In the Tour de l’Ain, he was probably the best climber and it was only disappointing sprints and the tactical game that cost him the win. He was still in the top 3 in both mountain stages and finished the race in third overall, proving that the form is excellent as he goes into his first grand tour.
Latour is set to share the leadership with Jean-Christophe Peraud and that’s a great position to be in for his three-week debut. The veteran will take off some of the pressure and provide him with much needed guidance as he embarks on a new adventure. However, he still finds himself on untested territory and no one knows how he will handle the strains of a three-week race.
Hence, it is a bit of a gamble to mention him an outsider for the race but Latour is the kind of talent who can deliver one of those rare surprises in a grand tour debut. He has proved that he can climb with the best at WorldTour level and usually the Vuelta is the best place for a young rider to for GC for the first time. The race is less stressful, the stages are relatively short and many of the big stars are tired as most of them have already done a grand tour. Latour is a lot fresher and has barely raced since June and this puts him in a great position.
Latour should be suited to a mountainous Vuelta that has 10 uphill finishes. He is a great climber and he can do well on both long climbs and in the explosive finales. The big challenge will be the time trial as he has never been a specialist and there is little doubt that he will lose some time here. However, his goal is not to compete with the very best and for the riders at his level, the race will be decided in the mountains. This is where Latour excels and if he can return to the level he had in Switzerland and maintain it for three weeks, there is a solid chance that the next French grand tour star will shine in Spain.
Hugh Carthy (*)
No other country has had a cycling boom like the one Great Britain has experienced during the last decade. It all started with as domination on the track that really culminated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics but very soon it transitioned to the road. Bradley Wiggins made road cycling hugely popular when he won the 2012 Tour de France and since then Chris Froome has taken over at the top of the grand tour hierarchy. Geraint Thomas has had success in both classics and stage races and Team Sky have firmly established themselves as the best grand tour team in the world.
There seems to be no end to the depth of the British cycling scene and new talents constantly emerge. Simon and Adam Yates have had most of the attention but far from the home country, a lanky climber is emerging as another future grand tour star. After two years with the Rapha Condor team, Hugh Cartyhy made the unconventional move for a British talent to move to Spain as he signed a contract with Caja Rural. The move was a risky one but during the last two years, the Brit has proved that the gamble paid off and he has fully established himself as one of the most exciting talents on the pro scene.
The start to Carthy’s career was slow but in 2014 he started to show what he can achieve. A sixth place at the South African Mzansi Tour was the first indication of his talent but it was in Asia he really shows hi class. Second places in two of the hardest stages at the Tour of Japan allowed him to finish sixth overall and win both the best young rider’s and the mountains jerseys and a few weeks later he won both a stage and the overall at the Tour de Korea. Those were the results that convinced Caja Rural to give him a chance and he made the brave move to travel to Spain.
Unfortunately, it looked like the gamble wouldn’t pay off. The first few months at the pro level were marked by a huge number of DNFs but 26th in Trentino and 16th in Asturias were small indications of improvement. His big breakthrough for a larger cycling audience came at the USA Pro Challenge where he finished 9th overall and if it hadn’t been for the time trial he would even have been in the top 5. He ended the year with a solid ninth place in the mountainous Tour du Gevaudan.
Those achievements were solid but it is the 2016 season that has been the real breakthrough for Carthy. Few had even mentioned him as a contender for this year’s Volta a Catalunya. After all, they were almost all there: Contador, Froome, Quintana, Bardet, Porte, Aru, Rodriguez, Martin, van Garderen, Chaves, Pozzovivo, Gesink, Kelderman and Uran were just some of the names that made it the most star-studded line-up for a one-week WorldTour race. However, Carthy defied all expectations and when the race reached its conclusion his ninth place saw him beat most of the established stars.
The result must have been a huge confidence boost for Carthy and he backed it up with 8th places in the hard one-day races GP Miguel Indurain and Giro dell’Appenninno. His next big goal was the Giro del Trentino but unfortunately ad luck took him out of contention. He got his revenge a few weeks later when he won the queen stage and the overall at The Vuelta a Asturias and then finished third behind Soler and Quintana in the Route du Sud queen stage.
Even though the official confirmation only came last week, it has always been evident that Carthy was destined to make his grand tour debut at the Vuelta. Caja Rural have had a hard time hiding their excitement for their talent and they already spoke about the Vuelta when he stepped down from the podium in Asturias in May. He proved that his form is solid when he finished sixth in the hard Klasika Ordizia but unfortunately his preparation hasn’t been perfect. He was off the pace in San Sebastian, abandoned in Getxo and had bad luck in the team time trial at the Vuelta a Burgos where he crashed out of contention. That set him back for the queen stage where he could only manage 19th.
Despite the troubled preparation, Carthy is one of the most exciting talents in a field that is loaded with huge grand tour potential. Most notably, it is his excellent climbing in Catalonia that indicates that he has what it takes to finish in the top 10 in his first grand tour. Carthy is a pure climber and so he is suited to a race that has no less than ten uphill finishes. Unfortunately, he lacks the explosiveness for the four walls on stages 3, 8, 11 and 17 but the long climbs to Lagos de Covadonga and Aubisque suit him down to the ground.
A big challenge will be the time trial. Last year’s USA Pro Challenge proved how costly his poor TT skills are and nothing suggests that he has improved much. Caja Rural will also lose a bit of time in the TTT and Carthy is a very likely victim if we get the usual crosswind spectacle in some of the exposed areas in Spain.
However, Carthy is not here for the win and in his fight for a top 10 spot, the differences will probably be minutes, not seconds. The big gaps will be made in the mountains and this is where Carthy will come to the fore. He is part of an excellent Caja Rural team with numerous climbers and as David Arroyo and Sergio Pardilla will also be riding for GC, he won’t be under a huge amount of pressure.
Catalunya showed that Carthy has the top level to match the WorldTour climbers but as it is the case for every grand tour rider, the big challenge will be consistency and recovery. He has been a bit inconsistent in his first few years and we have some doubts about his ability to maintain his best level for three weeks. We won’t be surprised if he has a bad day of cracks completely in the second half but Carthy still deserves to be mentioned as one of the riders with the potential to create a massive surprise. If things come together throughout all three weeks, Cannondale-Drapac could be celebrating the fact that they have signed the big grand tour revelation of the year.
In addition to the 15 riders mentioned in our preview, it will be a good idea to keep an eye on Leopold König, Mathias Frank, Bart De Clercq and Sergio Pardilla whom we all have great confidence in. Other potential top 10 finishers are Davide Formolo, Joe Dombowski, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Darwin Atapuma, Gianluca Brambilla, Ben Hermans, Alexandre Geniez, Igor Anton, Matvey Mamykin, Louis Meintjes, Romain Sicard, Fabrice Jeandesboz, Stephane Rossetto, Pello Bilbao, Jaime Roson, David Arroyo and Maxime Monfort.
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