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 3-star riders who may be seen as outside bets for the overall win.
Esteban Chaves (***)
When Esteban Chaves stormed to victory in the 2011 Tour de l’Avenir, it was evident that the next big Colombian climber was born. The full extent of his potential was revealed just one year later when the 22-year-old climber beat all the stars in the Vuelta a Burgos queen stage and finished on the podium next to Daniel Moreno and Sergio Henao whom he had both beaten on the climbs to Lagunas De Neila. A few days later, he won the Italian one-day race GP Camaiore. It was evident that the sky was the limit for the Colombian youngster.
However, it suddenly seemed like it was all over before it had even begun. On the 16th of February 2013, Chaves crashed badly at Trofeo Laigueglia and it looked like his injuries could already have put an end to his career before it had really started. A long rehabilitation process would reveal whether he would ever be able to return to the peloton and no one could provide any guarantees.
However, Chaves had a burning desire to achieve his life-long dream of winning the Tour de France and he did everything possible to get back on his bike. He defied all expectations by making a remarkable recovery to such an extent that Orica-GreenEDGE even dared to make the big gamble of signing him even though he hadn’t done a single race since his crash.
The injuries have slowed Chaves’ progress significantly and there is no doubt that he would have achieved much more and be at an even higher level now if he had never hit the deck three years ago. The 2014 season was all about getting back to his former level and again he improved much faster than anyone expected. He was fourth at the Tour de Langkawi and went on to win big mountain stages at the Tour of California and at the Tour de Suisse, his first ever WorldTour win. He still missed the consistency to be competitive in the GCs but the results underlined his huge climbing potential.
It was his maiden Vuelta that gave him the strength to become a stage race contender. After an excellent opening week where he climbed with the likes of Quintana and Froome he faded dramatically in the final part of the race but the fact that he reached the finish gave him the foundations for an excellent end to the year. A few weeks later he finished third in the Tour of Beijing which set him up for his big breakthrough in 2015.
Chaves had a surprisingly poor start to the season and was nowhere near his best at the Giro d’Italia, his first big goal of the year. That made people question whether he could be competitive over three weeks but he firmly silenced his critics at the Vuelta later in the year. The Colombian was probably the best rider in the first week where he won two stages and wore the leader’s jersey for several stages. He was unable to maintain the same level throughout the entire race but he still rode to a remarkable fifth place in the end. Again he proved that he has the ability to recover excellently from a grand tour as he rode to 8th in Il Lombardia where he looked like the strongest rider until he was hit by cramps and he ended the year by winning the inaugural Abu Dhabi Tour.
This year Chaves has been aiming to take another step. Like last year he will do the Giro-Tour double but in 2015 he only went for C in the latter race. The Giro was mainly about getting through another three-week race to build strength for the future and this was what set him up for his marvelous race in Spain.
In 2016, it has been the intention right from the start to go for the podium in both tree-week races and as he is one of only a select few GC contenders to have skipped the Tour, he knew from the start that he would be in a great position to do so. It was a quiet start for Chaves who was far from his best level in the sprint. He did his last pre-Giro in Catalonia in March and then headed to Colombia to finalize his preparations. For many, that looked like a dangerous way to build up for a three-week race but Chaves has proved that the formula works for him. Last year he had a similarly slow start to the year and then headed to Colombia to prepare for the Vuelta without doing any racing before the race. He followed a similar formula this time around and again things worked out excellent as he was better than ever in the Italian three-week race.
In the first two weeks of the race, Chaves and Kruijswijk were clearly the best climbers and it was evident that the Colombian had again timed his build-up to perfection. Unfortunately, he lost a bit too much time in the long time trial but his excellent climb slowly allowed him to move up in the standings. He won the queen stage in the Dolomites and when Kruijswijk suffered his dramatic crash on the penultimate mountain stage, he moved into the race lead with just one real GC to go.
Unfortunately, the race was one day too long for Chaves. A cold and a general decline in form made him suffer when a reinvigorated Nibali went on the attack and he was unable to hold onto his lead. He slipped to second in the overall standings but even though it may have been an initial disappointment, he was probably pleased upon reflection. The race had marked another step compared to what he showed in Spain last year and must have given him the confidence that he can go for victory in a grand tour.
After the Giro, Chaves again returned to Colombia and since then, he has been very quiet. The desire to do the Olympics forced him to disrupt his preferred preparation slightly as he lined up for the road race but apart from that, he hasn’t done a single race since he rolled into Turin on May 29.
For most others, this would be a reason to be concerned but for Chaves, it is completely different. History shows that this formula works for him and the Olympics showed that he is on track. He wasn’t able to follow the very best on the final climb but he wasn’t far off the pace. With the Vuelta being his big goal, there is little doubt that he has added those extra percentages that he missed in Brazil and as it was the case in the 2015 Vuelta and 2016 Giro he will probably be flying right from the start.
That puts Chaves in a great position. The course for the Giro didn’t do him many favours as he is usually at his best in the first half and then fades a bit towards the end. In Italy, all the big stages came in the second half while the first half was mostly about survival.
Things will be different in the Vuelta. There will be tough mountain stages throughout all three weeks and to make things even better, the most important block of mountain stages already come in the second weekend. This makes the course design perfect for Chaves who will be ready to gain time on his rivals right from the start and he could very well ride himself into red like he did 12 months ago.
Apart from this aspect, the Vuelta is generally the grand tour that suits Chaves best. He does well on long climbs but he is also very strong on short, steep walls. The Spanish grand tour is usually loaded with such finishes and it won’t be any different this time around. In fact, stages 3, 8, 12 and 17 all finish on such excessively steep climbs and with no Joaquim Rodriguez in the race and a pretty tired Alejandro Valverde, Chaves may be the rider best suited to suited finales.
Finally, Chaves can benefit from a really strong team. For the first time ever, Orica-BikeExchange will have two GC candidates as the Colombian will line up alongside an in-form Simon Yates. He may have had a difficult season due to his suspension but the Brit is now back on track and he has a good chance to do what his twin brother Adam did at the Tour. That gives the Australian team a formidable two-pronged attack which will be backed by the huge climbing talent of Jack Haig. For the first time, Chaves can really benefit from team tactics to put his rivals under pressure.
That doesn’t mean that it will be a walk in the park for Chaves who has at least two reasons to be concerned. First of all there is the issue of recovery. There will be three key stages in the third week and history shows that Chaves always fads in the final part of the race. Last year’s Vuelta proved that he is still not able to maintain the same high level for three weeks and even though he didn’t crack like he did in 2014, he was on the defensive in the final two weeks. In the Giro, he did better but the trend was similar. As he continues his progress, he is likely to improve his recovery significantly but this race probably comes too early for him to win on a course where some of the main challenges are gathered in the end.
Finally, there’s the question of the time trial. The individual discipline has always been a huge chink in his armour and there is no doubt that he will lose time in Calpe. He showed massive progress in the long TT at last year’s Vuelta where he finished 20th on a similarly flat course that suited him a lot less than the one he faces in Italy. However, he still lost 1.35 to Valverde over a similar distance and that’s way too much if he wants to win the Vuelta, especially as he is now up against a real specialist like Froome. Furthermore, his time trial in the Giro did nothing to suggest any kind of improved.
On the other hand, he is likely to have improved even further and nothing suggests that he won’t be climbing even better than ever too. He has made remarkable progress and improved much faster than anyone expected and he is getting closer and closer to his big goal of a Tour de France victory. It won’t be easy for him to win a Vuelta that is stacked with grand tour talent but Chaves has gone from surprise to surprise ever since he won the Tour de l’Avenir five years ago.
Steven Kruijswijk (***)
The Netherlands may be one of the flattest countries in Europe but for some reason they have a fantastic ability to produce grand tour contenders. In recent years, the Rabobank Development has produced riders like Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema, Steven Kruijswijk, Wilco Kelderman and Tom Dumoulin who have all finished in the top 10 at grand tours in recent years.
Gesink was the first to establish himself as a genuine candidate for the top positions in the three-week races and Bauke Mollema quickly followed suit. While those two riders attracted all the attention, Kruijswijk calmly emerged with a steady progression. After a great 2009 season, he joined the Rabobank pro team in 2010 where he showed his potential by taking 8th in the Vuelta a Burgos. That allowed him to get the chance to lead his team at a grand tour already in his first attempt and he immediately showed his potential by riding to 8th in the 2011 Giro d’Italia whose brutal course made it one of the hardest in recent history. More than the result, it was his ability to improve throughout the race and achieve his best results in the final week that marked him out as a future grand tour contender and when he won a big mountain stage and finished on the podium just a few weeks later at the Tour de Suisse, it was evident that the next big Dutch stage racer was born.
However, nothing has gone to plan since that great 2011 season. Bad luck took him out of contention at his Tour de France debut in 2012 and since then he failed to back up his maiden Giro performance. He was a modest 23rd in 2013. Later in the year he found out that a narrowing of his femoral artery made it impossible to get the maximum power on the bike. Hence, he skipped the Vuelta and decided to undergo surgery.
2014 was all about proving that he still had the potential but when he crashed out of the Giro, he faced another setback. Instead, the Tour de France came as the confirmation that he was back on track as he finished 15th overall despite not targeting the GC and riding in support of Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam. He went on to take his first ever stage race win at the Arctic Race of Norway, proving that he was back on track.
The final confirmation came at last year’s Giro. After losing time due to attentiveness when Astana split the field in stage 4, he seemed to be out of the battle for the GC. Instead, he set his sights on a stage win and after having been on the attack in several stages and narrowly missed out on a stage win in stages 8 and 9, he slowly rode himself back into GC contention. An excellent time trial set him up for a great final week where he climbed with the best and was the only rider who could match Mikel Landa and Alberto Contador on Mortirolo. At the same time, he fought hard for the mountains jersey which probably cost him the strength to finish better than seventh in the end. However, if it hadn’t been for the time loss in stage 4, he would have been very close to the podium.
The result proved that Kruijswijk has what it takes to go for victory in the grand tours. Still he took most of the cycling world by surprise at this year’s Giro where he came very close to a hugely surprising overall win. With the first two weeks not offering many big challenges, the Dutchman flew a bit under the radar but as soon as the peloton reached the high mountains, he made his mark. Having done a solid time trial, he used a second play in the queen stage in the Dolomites to ride himself into pink and he truly showed himself to be the best climber in the race. A storming ride in the team time trial made him increase his advantage and everybody agreed that only bad luck could prevent him from winning the race.
Unfortunately, fate turned against him. A stupid mistake on the descent from the Colle dell’Agnello made him lose everything just two days before the end of the race. He was unable to make it back to the best riders and his injuries even made it impossible to defend his podium place in the final mountain stage. Kruijswijk suffered through the pain but ultimately he had to settle for fourth which was a far cry from the breakthrough win that had been on the cards just a few days earlier.
Now Kruijswijk is fully focused on revenge and confirming that his great ride in Italy was no fluke. Right from the start of the year, he has been aiming for a double GC campaign in both the Giro and the Vuelta and he has stuck to that plan. It’s his first attempt at a grand tour double since his breakthrough in 2011 when he failed to back up his good Giro with a solid ride in Spain. Since then he has done two grand tours in the same year but he has never been focused on the overall standings in both races.
Kruijswijk has had a low-key build-up to the race. He took his time to recover from his injuries and then followed the formula which has worked so well for the last two Giri. He has been training at altitude before he returned to competition in San Sebastian and then he headed to Rio for the Olympics.
Unfortunately, those two races did little to suggest that Kruijswijk is on track to reach the same heights as he did in the Giro. He was unable to follow the best in both races and he admitted that his performance in Rio had been a huge disappointment. It’s remarkably different from what he showed in the build-up to the Giro where he did surprisingly well in the Tour de Yorkshire which is a race completely unsuited to his characteristics.
To make things even worse, Kruijswijk has been set back by illness since he returned from Brazil and he has been forced to change the final part of his training. That has been hugely frustrating, especially as he faces the first big challenges already in the first week. It has been a cause for concern for both him and his team and it is evident that the preparation hasn’t been as smooth as it has been for his last two Giro campaigns.
At the same time, the Vuelta is probably the grand tour that suits him the least. Kruijswijk is a bit of a diesel engine who excels on long climbs and hard mountain stages. In this year’s Giro, only the stage to Aubisque is really made for his characteristics. Four of the summit finishes end on short, very steep walls which aren’t suited to his lack of explosiveness.
However, that doesn’t mean that Kruijswijk won’t be competitive. He has improved a lot in this kind of finishes and he did surprisingly well on the short climbs in the Giro. Furthermore, the fact that there will be mountain stages throughout the entire race is a huge advantage for the LottoNL-Jumbo leader who usually gets stronger and stronger as the race goes on.
His biggest advantage is his level of freshness. The biggest favourites for the race have all completed the Tour or are coming back from injury. Like Esteban Chaves, Kruijswijk has barely done any racing since the Giro and history shows that the Giro-Vuelta double is a great combination. Of course it’s untested territory for the Dutchman to go for GC in two grand tours but if anyone can do it, it is a diesel engine like Kruijswijk.
The time trial could be another advantage. In the early part of his career, Kruijswijk was definitely not known for his TT skills but in the last two Giri, he has done some very good time trials. He has clearly improved a lot and he may be able to gain time on the likes of Quintana and Chaves in the race against the clock. On the other hand, the course in Calpe is much flatter than the ones he has faced in Italy and he still hasn’t proved himself in this kind of test. At the same time, he will definitely lose time to Froome so in the battle for the overall win, the stage will be a disadvantage.
The question of team support was a big issue in the Giro where Kruijswijk was isolated relatively early. In this race, he will be much better supported and as Robert Gesink is likely to ride himself into form, he will be in a pretty good position if he again rides himself into the lead. Enrico Battaglin really proved his talent in the Giro, Koen Bouwman is a promising climber and if he is not too tired, George Bennett is an excellent climber. This time Kruijswijk actually has a team to back up his winning aspirations.
The level at the Vuelta will be higher than it was in the Giro but no one can deny that Kruijswijk was the best rider in Italy. It remains to be seen whether he can return to that level, especially after a less than ideal build-up. However, Kruijswijk’s engine makes him perfect for a double grand tour campaign and he even arrives fresher than most of the big favourites. If he can return to the level he had in Italy, he may finally get that victory that so dishearteningly slipped away on a snowy descent in France in May.
Miguel Angel Lopez (***)
Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Esteban Chaves have already firmly established Colombia as one of the leading grand tour nations but there seems to be no end to the string of contenders that emerge from the South American mountains. The best maybe even hasn’t arrived yet as the next big thing in Colombian cycling hasn’t even done his first grand tour yet. He will do so during the next three weeks and right from the gun he could turn out to be able to challenge the best in one of the most grueling races in the world.
The name of the future super star is Miguel Angel Lopez and he follows in the footsteps of Quintana and Chaves in an almost too obvious manner. Just like his two compatriots, he first showed his potential by winning the Tour de l’Avenir and after being picked up by a WorldTour team, he has delivered great results already in his neo-pro season.
Like many other Colombians, Lopez hadn’t done much racing in Europe when he lined up for his first Tour de l’Avenir in 2014 and so it came a bit out of nowhere when he claimed the race lead on the first mountain stage. He won the stage two days later and defended himself well to take the overall win in a race that included well-known riders like Pierre Latour, Louis Vervaeke, Alexander Foliforov and Emanuel Buchmann who have all gone on to achieve great things at the pro level too.
Unsurprisingly, Astana reacted immediately and Lopez had barely stepped down from the podium before it was announced that he had signed a contract with the Kazakh team. With only one major U23 result on his palmares, the Colombian was a bit of a gamble but he soon showed that his potential is unlimited.
A knee injury set him back but in the early part of the year but when he had returned to full health, he proved his class in his neo-pro season. After a second place in one of the two uphill finishes at the Tour of Turkey, he returned to Colombia to prepare for his big goal, the Tour de Suisse. As it has done for the likes of Quintana and Chaves too, that formula proved to be a successful one. Despite having gone into the race as a lieutenant for Jakob Fuglsang, he did an impressive race, finishing fourth in the queen stage on the brutally steep Rettenbachferner. He lost a bit too much time in the time trial but he still finished 7th in his first ever WorldTour race.
Lopez then returned to Colombia again before he headed to the Vuelta a Burgos. In the Spanish race, he confirmed that his results in Switzerland were no fluke as he beat his captains Michele Scarponi and Mikel Landa on short, steep climb to win the stage and ride himself into the race lead. Unfortunately, he suffered a bit in the queen stage on the final day and slipped to fourth overall but the race again confirmed that a new star was born.
This year has been a difficult one for Lopez. Things started really well when he won the queen stage at the Tour de San Luis by outsprinting the Quintana brothers at the top of the climb in Merlo and he was the favourite to win the Tour de Langkawi. Unfortunately, the Genting Highlands stage was cancelled but he impressed by dropping everybody in the much easier Cameron Highlands stage which has generally not been had enough to make much of a difference. Unfortunately, a puncture in a flat stage cost him the overall win.
From there, things turned sour for Lopez who was set back by health issues in the Volta a Catalunya, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Tour de Romandie but again he set his sights on the Tour de Suisse which was his first real goal of the year. Again his preparation in Colombia worked to perfection and the race turned out to be a huge breakthrough for the talented South American. After a slow start to the race, he first showed his cards with a second place in the queen stage on the Rettenbachferner and then did the time trial of his life to take a hugely surprising second place and ride himself into the lead. On the final stage, he dropped everybody on the final climb and even though he was caught on the descent, it fully confirmed that he was the deserved winner of the race.
It is a remarkable feat to win the Tour de Suisse in just the second year on the pro scene and the result must have boosted his confidence for the Vuelta a Espana which has been his main goal right from the start of the year. For the first time since 2013, Astana go into a grand tour without Fabio Aru or Vincenzo Nibali at the helm and this opens the door for Lopez to go for GC already in his first attempt. He will share the leadership with the experienced Michele Scarponi who has proved to be a great mentor for young riders and this will give Lopez the perfect environment to see how far he can get in a three-week race.
Of course Lopez has never done a grand tour before so he finds himself in untested territory. No one knows how he will handle three weeks of hard racing but everything indicates that he will do well. In the last two editions of the Tour de Suisse, he has become stronger and stronger towards the end of the race and this shows that his recovery skills are excellent. This is exactly what he needs to become a grand tour star in the future.
Furthermore, the course suits him well. Lopez is a climber and so he should find a race with ten uphill finishes to his liking. At the same time, he has the engine to do well on long climbs in the high mountains and the explosiveness to excel on short, steep walls too. The Vuelta has both kinds of finishes and with his versatile climbing skills, Lopez can be up there in all of them.
However, there are some chinks in his armour too. The time trial represents a big question mark. Lopez had never done good time trials when he suddenly defied all expectations by finishing second in Switzerland. That course had a small climb but had plenty of flat sections too. This indicates that he has improved a lot and even though the course in Calpe for stage 19 doesn’t do him many favours, he may actually gain time on some of his rivals if he can deliver a similar performance.
Secondly, his form is a bit of a question mark. Since the Tour de Suisse, he has only done the Olympic road race and he was never anywhere to be seen in that race. As he has a history of being pretty inconsistent, there are no guarantees that he will be at his best for the three weeks in Spain. On the other hand, his preparation for most of his goals has worked out well and it seems that he has found the formula that works.
Nonetheless, it is the length of the race that presents the biggest challenge. It is very hard to be competitive in GC in your grand tour debut and while no one can deny that he has the skills to challenge the best, it is a big question whether Lopez can maintain his level for three weeks. Common sense would say no but on the other hand, history shows that you shouldn’t bet against the Colombians. In 2013, a certain Nairo Quintana finished second in his maiden grand tour, the Tour de France. Lopez has followed the footsteps of his compatriot very closely and so the Colombian fans may go into a race that will reveal their next potential grand tour winner.
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