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 2-star riders that should all be solid podium candidates.
Simon Yates (**)
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. Most of them are quickly picked up by Sky but the two brightest stars have chosen a different path. Twins Simon and Adam Yates were unfazed by the fact that everybody expected them to join the British powerhouse after their excellent 2013 season but surprisingly they opted to turn professional at Orica-BikeExhange.
Their decision may have been unexpected but few can deny that their gamble has paid off. Instead of spending hours on the front of the peloton in Sky colours, they have quickly emerged as leaders in the Australian team which is ready to build the team’s future around the British twins, Esteban Chaves and Caleb Ewan. Already in their neo-pro season, they had the chance to lead their team in major races and they have quickly established themselves as leading contenders in classics and stage races.
Their rapid progress culminated this summer when Adam rode to a breakthrough fourth place in the Tour de France while also becoming the first British rider to win the white jersey. However, there was a fly in the ointment for the British twins. While Adam basked in his glory on the podium in Paris, a frustrated Simon sat a home, watching from afar after his promising career had been dealt a heavy blow.
In 2013, few would have expected Adam to become the leading Yates brother. At that point, Simon enjoyed the best results and British Cycling had even opted not to select Adam for their programme. While Simon followed the traditional path for a budding British talent within the framework of the national federation, Adam was forced to move to France to try to establish himself as a future professional.
Now things have changed completely. With his Tour de France success and a big classics win at the Clasica San Sebastian, Adam has had the best results on the pro scene. Meanwhile, Simon has suffered several setbacks and has disappeared a bit from the spotlight. During the next three weeks, he aims to prove that he is just as good as his brother when he lines up for his first Vuelta a Espana as one of two potential GC contenders for the Australian team
Simon had the most promising start to his pro career in 2014 when he finished 12th in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he did much better than Adam. As a result, he was expected to be the leader at the Tour of Turkey but this is where things changed completely. After Simon had crashed out of the race, Adam rode to his first pro win when he won both a stage and the overall.
While Adam confirmed his potential at the Criteriumdu Dauphiné, Simon slowly recovered from his injury before being unexpectedly selected for the Tour de France. The race probably came a bit too early for him and he didn’t show much during the three weeks in France. The strains took their toll and he failed to achieve much during the rest of his neo-pro season.
However, Simon fully proved his potential in 2015. While Adam’s win in San Sebastian and second place in Montreal got most of the attention, Simon actually did better than his brother in the stage races. He was fifth in Pais Vasco and the Dauphiné and sixth in Romandie and won the white jersey in the former two races. In fact, he was one of the most consistent riders in one-week WorldTour races and fully proved that he can match the very best on the hardest climbs.
Adam and Simon both lined up for the Tour where they both chased stage wins. They both achieved top 10 results in some of the hard stages, with an 8th place on the Mur de Huy being Simon’s best result during the three weeks. That set the brothers up for 2016 and they were both secretly hoping to go for GC in this year’s Grande Boucle.
With a seventh place in Paris-Nice, things were looking promising for Simon until everything fell apart in April. Orica-BikeExchange confirmed that Yates had tested positive for an asthma medication after an administrative error meant that he had failed to apply for his TUE. A short suspension meant that he was forced to miss the Tour and so he could only return to racing at the Tour de Pologne, far from the spotlight that Adam enjoyed in France.
However, Simon has returned to the racing scene with a bang. Like many others, he suffered in the Polish cold but just one week later he took his first pro win in the hard Klasika Ordizia where he dropped everybody on the final climb. A few days later, he turned out to be stronger than Adam in the Clasica San Sebastian where he made a big gamble by trying to follow Joaquim Rodriguez. That probably cost him a better result but seventh place in one of the hardest classics was a great result in his 8th day of competition since his long break. One day later, only Diego Ulissi could beat him in the tough puncheur finish at the Circuito de Getxo.
Yates finalized his preparations at the Vuelta a Burgos where he again showed his good form with a fourth place in the queen stage and the GC. Now he is ready for his third grand tour and for the first time he goes into a three-week race with his eyes on the overall standings. As usual Orica-BikeExchange try to take off the pressure and they have said nothing about the goals for their British talent. However, the official press release from the team clearly indicates that the GC is a goal for Yates. Of course Esteban Chaves is the natural leader given his impressive history in grand tours but Yates will be free to chase his own success as a solid plan B.
It’s a bit of untested territory for Yates who has never gone full gas every day for three weeks and so no one knows how he will handle the strains. However, Adam was in a similar position at the Tour and everybody knows how that panned out. Nothing suggests that it will be any different for Simon and he could very well be on track for another Yates breakthrough in Spain.
As said, Adam has had the most remarkable results but when it comes to consistency in stage races, Simon has actually been stronger. That’s a bit of a turnaround compared to their U23 days. Back then, it was Simon sprinting to the wins in the puncheurs finales while Adam shined in the big mountains with his second place at the Tour de l’Avenir. In the pro ranks, Adam has done well in the classics while Simon has been the best in the one-week stage races.
Several factors indicate that Simon will be really strong in the Vuelta. First of all, he has proved that he is in excellent form. Secondly, the Vuelta is all about freshness and so Yates’ suspension could very well be a bit of a blessing in disguise during three weeks in Spain. While most of the GC contenders have done either the Giro or the Tour, Yates has raced a lot less than his rivals and this could pay dividends in a race that is often decided by fatigue in the third week.
Finally, the Vuelta is probably the grand tour that suits the Yates brothers best. Even though they have both showed their abilities on long climbs in the high mountains, they prefer relatively short, explosive ascents. That’s exactly what characterizes the Vuelta which only has three uphill finishes on really big mountains. At the same time, there are four finales on short, steep walls and they should suit a punchy rider like Yates down to the ground.
However, Yates still has some challenges too. First of all, there is the presence of Chaves. If he is again flying in the first half of the race, the Colombian could ride himself into the race lead and if that happens, Yates may have to sacrifice himself. Secondly, there’s the time trial. Yates has done decent time trials in the past but it has always been on lumpy courses. Like his brother Adam, he is no specialist and he could lose considerable ground in the individual test on stage 19.
However, the biggest test will be his ability to recover. Simon has never gone for GC in a grand tour and no one knows whether he can handle all three weeks as Adam did in France. However, nothing suggests that he can’t and his brother’s success will only serve as extra motivation. In July, the Yates name featured prominently everywhere in the cycling world and with a desire to get his revenge after the suspension, Simon could very well highlight the name again during the next three weeks.
Andrew Talansky (**)
Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters has never been the kind of leader that builds his team entirely around a single rider. Since 2003 when he founded the junior team that has since developed into the best teams in the world, he has always had a broadly-based approach to racing and has rarely gone into a race with a single focus and a clear leader. In the grand tours, he has usually had a focus both on the GC and stage wins and several riders have had their opportunities. The one exception is probably the 2013 Giro d’Italia where he lined up the defending champion Ryder Hesjedal who naturally deserved to have a team fully at his disposal.
Going into the 2014 Tour de France, Vaugters deviated from his usual approach. For the first time ever, he lined up for La Grande Boucle with a team that was fully devoted to a single leader. This time the captain was not a proven grand tour contender or one of the world’s biggest stars. On the contrary, the rider that has convinced him to have a single-eyed approach to the race was a 25-year-old American who had only done the Tour de France once.
It speaks volumes about Andrew Talansky’s talent that he earned himself this position in the Garmin-Sharp team in just his fourth year as a professional. In his final year as a U23 rider, he made the world aware of his talents by finishing 10th in the Baby Giro, 3rd in the Ronde de l’Isard and 2nd in the Tour de l’Avenir and showed that he could mix it up with the professionals by taking 6th in the Tour of the Gila that was won by Levi Leipheimer ahead of Tom Danielson. The results earned him a contract with Garmin-Sharp but in his first year his results were mixed. While he failed to be up there with the best in the climbs, he first marked himself out as a great time triallist with several top 10 results in WorldTour TTs.
He took the step from talent to serious contender in the biggest races when he finished second in the 2012 Tour de Romandie. What made his performance even more impressive was the fact that he had finished less than a second behind Bradley Wiggins in the final uphill time trial at a time when the Brit seemed almost unbeatable. Later that year he won his first major stage race, the mountainous Tour de l’Ain, before taking 7th in the Vuelta, the first grand tour he did as a team leader.
In 2013 he stepped up his game another level when he finished 2nd in Paris-Nice behind a very strong Richie Porte and went on to make his Tour de France debut later that year. His first outing of the world’s biggest race was not too impressive as he finished 10th and rode an anonymous race.
However, it’s another performance that really shows how much potential Talansky has. Our admiration for this youngster is based on the flashes of climbing prowess he has shown on two occasions that prove that he has the level to seriously contend for a top result in grand tours.
Based on his performance in Paris-Nice, he went into the 2013 Criterium du Dauphiné with big expectations on his shoulders. However, suffering from illness, he fell out of GC contention and devoted himself fully to teammate Rohan Dennis who did surprisingly well in that race. In the final mountain stage, Talansky was allowed to play his own cards at a time when Dennis’ white jersey was no longer in danger. At that point, Chris Froome and Richie Porte had left everyone else behind them and the Brit was trying to drag his teammate up to lone escapee Alessandro De Marchi in a quest to give the Australian a teammate. However, Talansky flew past several established grand tour stars and reached the Sky duo just before the line, forcing Froome to forget about Porte and sprint ahead of Talansky to take second behind De Marchi.
That performance was the first sign that Talansky is an extraordinary talent and in 2014 he confirmed it in that same race. Having had a disappointing spring season where he failed to make too much of an impact in both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya and had had bad luck in the Tour de Romandie which was his big goal for the first part of the season, Talansky came into the Dauphiné with all guns blazing. In the opening time trial, he finished fourth and then climbed solidly in the first mountain stage to take fifth.
However, it was his performances in the final weekend that really marked him out. In the queen stage, Alberto Contador had dropped Chris Froome who was suffering from injuries sustained in a crash but the Brit made a final desperate acceleration in a quest to rejoin his main rival. Initially, he dropped everyone but slowly Talansky and teammate Hesjedal clawed their way back to the world’s best climber. One day later he and Hesjedal blew the race apart on one of the earlier climbs and after the Canadian had sacrificed himself for his young teammate, Talansky – with just a bit of help from Jurgen Van Den Broeck – almost single-handedly held off no less of a figure than Contador to take the overall victory in one of the most prestigious races after having been on the attack all day.
More than anything else, those two Dauphiné performances elevated Talansky from top 10 candidate to podium contender in the 2014 Tour. With a team fully built around the American, his confidence was at an all-time high and things were looking promising until he was involved in a crash when he somewhat strangely mixed it up in a sprint where he had no role to play. He hurt his back and a few days later his suffering made for some of the most unforgettable and dramatic scenes of the entire race. He made it to the finish within the time limit but decided to abandon the race after his heroic ride.
Talansky’s withdrawal put Garmin-Sharp on the back foot for the remainder of the race and it was only a remarkable solo effort by Ramunas Navardauskas in the penultimate road stage that saved the race for the team. Hence, it was no surprise that Vaughters has slightly changed his approach for 2015. Talansky was no longer the sole leader for the Tour and he went into the race in a shared captaincy role with Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin.
The race ended as a disaster for Talansky who was nowhere near his best. Already in the Pyrenees, he dropped out of podium contention and he set his sights on stage wins. As usual, he got better in the third week where he was close on a number of occasions and he gradually moved into 11th that would be the final outcome for the American.
His performance in the Alps was solid, albeit far from spectacular. Unfortunately, his poor Tour came on the back of a bad spring season. He had aimed at strong rides in Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco but those races all ended as huge disappointments. He hoped to bounce back in the Tour of California but had another setback when he had to abandon on the first stage due to illness. However, he showed progress when he won the American time trial championships and rode a solid road race a few days later.
Talansky had hoped to defend his Dauphiné title but he had to settle for a disappointing 10th place. He was far from the level he had shown one year earlier and was never really a contender in the race. Still it was a clear progress compared to his spring season but he didn’t come out with all guns blazing like he did 12 months earlier.
Talansky’s 2016 spring season was a real disaster and his poor results prompted most to write him off as future grand tour contender, ourselves included. However, things have suddenly turned around. In June, Talansky revealed that he had undergone a course of antibiotics to get rid of a virus that had been the reason for his poor showings in 2015. As soon as he stopped the medicine, the results were evident. At the Tour of California, he returned to his former level as he finished second in the time trial and fourth overall. In fact, he had done almost all the work on the final climb in the queen stage, working for Lawson Craddock, and few will deny that Talansky had been a serious rival for race winner Julian Alaphilippe if he had been allowed to ride for himself.
The result made Talansky confident for the Tour de Suisse and here he again showed that he is getting closer to his best. Consistent riding throughout the race saw him emerge as a potential winner. Unfortunately, he descended poorly in the rain on the final stage and so slipped from second to fifth but the race was another step in the right direction.
Garmin and Talansky made a pre-season plan of focusing on the Vuelta as the Tor probably came too early after his illness and his success didn’t change their plans. Hence, Talansky has been preparing meticulously for the Spanish grand tour where he will be the clear leader of his team.
Recently, Talansky proved that he is ready for the challenge. At the Tour of Utah, he went into the race with the job to support defending champion Joe Dombrowski. However, as it happened in California, he turned out to be stronger than his leader and after winning the queen stage, he looked destined to win the race overall. Unfortunately, he had a bad day on the final stage and so slipped to third but the unexpected result still proved that he is one track.
What makes Talansky exciting is his versatility. While his Dauphiné victory was based on his climbing skills, he first made himself known as a time triallist. He briefly seemed to have lost a bit of his TT prowess whil he had improved his climbing but this year he has been close to his best level. On the flat course in California, he beat Taylor Phinney and finished second behind a specialist like Rohan Dennis, confirming that he should be able to gain time on most in the flat ride round to Calpe on stage 19.
At the same time, Talansky is an excellent climber who is a master in limiting his losses. His past performances in the Dauphiné have proved that he can match the very best and in this race he will even have one of the best teams at his side. Joe Dombrowski and Davide Formolo are both among the most exciting climbing talents and this will provide Talansky with one of the best support crews. Even though the more gradual climbs in the Tour suit him better, his 2012 performance proved that he can do well on the steep climbs in Spain too
However, his biggest asset should be his freshness. Most of the GC riders have at least one grand tour in their legs but Talansky hasn’t done a three-week race. He is one of the select few to have been fully focused on the Vuelta and this is a massive advantage in a race that is usually decided by the level of fatigue. To make things even better, there are hard mountain stages right until the end and this suits the Talansky diesel engine excellently.
It will take some time to return to the level he showed in 2014 but everything suggests that he is fully on track. His past results show that the potential is there. He has the ability to recover in a three-week race and he is a lot fresher than his rivals. Everything suggests that it is time for Talansky to put years of suffering behind and continue on the path he started with that big Dauphiné win in 2014.
Alejandro Valverde (**)
There aren’t many guarantees in the unpredictable world of cycling but one thing is as close to certainty as it gets. Every year Alejandro Valverde finishes in the top 7 at the Vuelta a Espana. In fact, he has done so almost every year since he first emerged as a grand tour contender by finishing third in just his second gand tour back in 2003. He skipped the race in 2007 and missed the 2010 and 2011 editions due to suspension but apart from those three misses, he has been among the seven best every year. In fact, his statistic could have been even better if he hadn’t finished a relatively disappointing seventh in last year’s race as he has been in the top 5 on every other occasion.
This year Valverde returns for what will be his 11th Vuelta but this year things are different compared to what they have usually been. Even at the age of 36, it is possible to try new things and this is what Valverde has done in 2016. For the first time ever, he lined up for the Giro d’Italia and in his maiden participation he finished third overall in Italy, thus joining the illustrious list of riders that have been on the podium in all three grand tours.
Valverde headed straight from the Giro to the Tour where he went into the race with the goal of supporting Nairo Quintana. He made it clear that he was ready to lose time in the first week as it was all about the yellow jersey for his captain. However, Valverde proved his huge class and when the race finished in Paris, he found himself in sixth overall. The result came after a race where nobody could question his commitment to his leader. Valverde attacked to prepare things for Quintana and rode on the front when the Colombian was on the defensive and had the chance to gain time on some rivals. He even held himself back in the final time trial to be fully ready to support his leader in the important final two mountain stages.
Valverde claimed that he was not too disappointed with sixth place but he must still be left windering what might have been if he had been riding for himself. In a race where Quintana was not at 100%, Valverde often looked stronger than his leader and it’s not impossible that he could have been on the podium for the second year in a row if he had been focused on his own performance.
However, Valverde wasn’t too concerned and soon set his sights on the Olympics which was his big goal for the year. He used a third place in San Sebastian to prepare for the big event in Brazil and he seemed to be on track. However, he soon realized that a long season was taking its toll and he sacrificed himself completely for Joaquim Rodriguez who was clearly in excellent form. As a consequence, he left Rio empty-handed and for the first time in a very long season, he looked pretty tired when he rolled across the line after his final Olympic experience.
At the start of the year, Valverde was a bit reluctant to commit himself fully to doing his first ever grand tour treble and everything would depend on his level of freshness. However, last Sunday it was rumoured that the Spanish star had opted to give it a shot and one day later the confirmation came. For the first time in his career, Valverde will be riding all three grand tours.
This gives Valverde a fantastic chance to make history. Only two other riders have finished in the top 10 in all three grand tours in one year and they both did so in the 50s. No one has managed the feat since the Vuelta got its current autumn slot and so Valverde can be the first rider to accomplish this. Carlos Satre got close in 2010 where he finished in the top 10 both the Giro and the Vuelta and was 20th in the Tour but no one has managed to break into the top 10 in all three races.
There is little doubt that this chance has played a big role in Valverde’s decision to do another Vuelta and so he will have much more focus on his personal result that he had in France. Of course Quintana is still the leader and if the Colombian turns out to be in winning contention, things will soon change for Valverde. However, even in the Movistar camp there are uncertainties about Quintana’s form and their announcement of the team clearly indicates that their two captains are on a more equal footing than they were at the Tour.
Conventional wisdom says that it will be very difficult for Valverde to finish in the top 10 again. However, common sense doesn’t always work when it comes to predicting Valverde’s performances. Probably one of the most talented riders of his generation, the Spaniard doesn’t need an awful lot of training to be competitive and this has seen him become one of the most consistent riders in the world. Valverde is simply riding for victory from his first races in Mallorca in early February until he draws the curtain on his season in Il Lombardia in late September. Valverde is competitive in every kind of race and even when he decides to do a race on the cobbles, he is in the mix. This kind of consistency is what makes it very realistic for Valverde to keep his impressive Vuelta streak alive.
That kind of consistency is a massive advantage in the Vuelta which is very different from the first two grand tours. In the Spanish race, it is much more a matter of survival and fatigue plays a huge role. Even the best riders are usually struggling to reach their usual level at this point of the season. However, the ever-consistent Valverde is never too far from his best level and this has allowed him to shine in his home race.
Furthermore, the Vuelta is clearly the grand tour that suits him the best. Compared to the French climbs, the Spanish mountains are a lot steeper, shorter and less regular. That’s perfect for an explosive rider like Valverde who is not a pure climber. While he has always suffered on the very long ascents, especially at altitude, he has achieved lots of stage wins on the short, steep climbs in his home country. Furthermore, the Vuelta has always had less time trialling than the Tour and even though he is definitely not a bad time triallist, he has always had a hard time against the most complete riders in the Tour. This year there will be four finales on short, very steep climbs which are tailor-made for Valverde’s characteristics.
However, it will be very difficult for Valverde to win the race and it won’t be his main goal either. It is definitely no coincidence that he has only won the race once. Valverde is simply not a born grand tour rider. He is a great climber, has learnt how to defend himself in the time trials and no longer has the bad days that plagued him in the past. However, he is simply not climbing at the same level as the likes of Froome, Quintana and Nibali and so they all need to fade or he needs to find time elsewhere if he wants to come out on top.
Valverde has a few opportunities to do so. The puncheur finales could allow him to pick up bonus seconds and there are stages with relatively easy finishing climbs – stages 4, 9 and 15 spring to mind – where he can potentiall sprint to victory. He has always done some outstanding time trials in his home race and even though the course in Calpe is not ideal for him, the technical nature should allow him to do well like he did in last year’s flat TT.
Furthermore, the presence of Quintana is a definite advantage for Valverde. Froome will be more worried about Quintana and may give more freedom to the Spaniard. The question is whether is ready to take the risks to go for the win. He knows that it is unlikely to pay off and for him, the big achievement would be to make history. He may opt to ride safely to secure a top 10 place and if that’s the case, it will be almost impossible to win.
Nonetheless, the big question will be the recovery. Even Mr. Consistent must have limits somewhere and even though he seemed to finish the Tour in good condition, Rio indicated some signs of fatigue. The 2014 Tour was a clear proof that even Valverde can be on the knees at the end of a grand tour and as this will be his fifth grand tour in a row, the strains must soon take their tolls. However, Valverde is a master in gauging his efforts and he knows the Vuelta like no other. That could very well allow him to make history and even the podium will be within reach for the rider that has finished in the top 5 almost every time he has done his home grand tour.
Michele Scarponi (**)
At the start of the year, it was hard to imagine that Michele Scarponi would line up as a GC contender for another grand tour. After all, the Italian hadn’t gone for GC in a three-week race since he was forced to abandon the 2014 Tour de France and he last finished in the top 10 in 2013 when he ended the Giro in fourth place. In recent year, the veteran has changed his role. After joining Astana, he has become a key domestique for Vincenzo Nibali and even though he has occasionally been riding for himself in smaller races, his main goal has been to service his captain in the biggest race.
However, Scarponi is likely to make a return to his past during the next three weeks in Spain. For the first time since the 2013 Tour, Astana go into a three-week race without Vincenzo Nibali and/or Fabio Aru at the helm. This has opened the door for Scarponi and Miguel Angel Lopez to lead the team and the pair will share the responsibility to try to keep Astana’s impressive grand tour success alive in Spain.
Based on his result in the last few years, nothing really suggests that Scarponi will be competitive in Spain. This year he has not been in the top 10 in a single stage race so a simple glance at the numbers indicates that it will be all about Lopez during the next three weeks. Of course the Colombian is more capable of delivering a surprise but it could very well be a mistake to write Scarponi off too early.
Those who watched the Giro d’Italia will know that Scarponi was one of the very best climbers in the race. He spent endless of hours on the front of the peloton in the crucial moments of the race, whittling the group down to a handful of riders, and very often he was still good enough to finish close to the best even when the attacks had started. When Nibali looked like he was out of contention and Jakob Fuglsang had faded away, the management must have regretted not to have kept the veteran in GC contention and he would definitely have been a solid podium candidate. If Nibali hadn’t been reinvigorated in the end, Scarponi would surely have won the penultimate mountain stage as he had a big lead when he was asked to slow down to wait for his leader.
Of course the lack of results meant that Scarponi’s impressive showing in Italy was a bit of a surprise but in fact it isn’t. His results may have been less spectacular but that is mainly due to his role as a domestique. When he has been riding for himself, he has mostly been very competitive. Last year he climbed with the best in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he finished sixth overall and in the Vuelta a Burgos, he was second behind teammate Rein Taaramae.
Scarponi is no longer the rider that won the Giro in 2011 and it will be a massive surprise if he is able to challenge the likes of Froome, Quintana and Contador. However, the Astana veteran has huge experience in the grand tours and he knows how to gauge his effort perfectly. After all he was one of the best grand tour riders in the world in the years from 2010 to 2014 where he consistently placed in the top 4 of the Giro four years in a row.
Furthermore, Scarponi is one of the few main contenders that haven’t been riding for GC in one of the earlier grand tours. Scarponi will arrive in Spain much fresher than most of his rivals and that plays a huge role in the Vuelta where fatigue is usually the decisive factor. At the same time, Scarponi knows how to time his form and he seemed to be on track at the Vuelta a Burgos. Knowing that he was not at his best yet, he chose to ride aggressively in the queen stage and then fell back in the finale. That’s a very similar preparation than what he had for the Giro where he was off the pace in Trentino but ended up being flying by the time we got to the key stages in the grand tour.
Scarponi’s main asset is his climbing skills and he is well-suited to the climbs in Spain. He is no longer as fast and punchy as he once was but he has always been able to deal with both short, very steep climbs and longer, more gradual mountains. The Vuelta has it all and Scarponi will be able to handle everything.
At the same time, he is backed by a formidable team and he won’t be too heavily marked. Astana know that they don’t have one of the big favourites so they will be keen to use their strength in numbers to create a surprise. Scarponi is never afraid of taking a risk and this could bring him far in this race.
The main challenge for Scarponi will be the flat time trial. Even in his heydays, he was a pretty poor time triallist and the flat course in Calpe doesn’t give him many favours. He hasn’t done a good time trial for years and there is little doubt that he will lose a huge amount of time there.
The second question is whether he still has the ability to be competitive over three weeks. After all he hasn’t given it a real try for more than three years and at 36 years of age, his ability to recover hasn’t become any better. The Giro proved that he still has the climbing abilities to challenge the best so now it is only a question of maintaining that level every day. If he can, Scarponi may return to his best during the next three weeks.
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