The third and final Grand Tour of the 2014 season has arrived and it should be quite the event. The Vuelta a España has a reputation as an opportunity for riders who have missed out on earlier season goals to take one last shot at glory in a major stage race. With injuries derailing the plans of so many of the sport’s biggest names who had been targeting other races on the calendar in 2014, that reputation will be taken to a new level in the year’s edition of the Vuelta. The startlist is overflowing with talent, with past winners of the General, Points, and Mountain Classifications of all three Grand Tours and multiple past World Champions in attendance. It’s shaping up to be a star-studded showdown.
The parcours of the 2014 Vuelta looks to be a bit less challenging than several recent editions have been, but that may only lead to a closer GC battle and more competition for bonus seconds at stage finishes. Most of the stages likely to have major GC implications sit roughly in the middle of the three-week period. That means that those who have arrived a bit off of peak form will take every available opportunity in the opening stages to ride themselves into shape before the real mountains appear. Once they do, the GC battle will be on, and with a few consecutive days of decisive racing packed into the second week, things could start to shape up long before the final stages of the race are underway. Still, the Tour de France should serve as a reminder of just how difficult Grand Tour racing can be, even on the stages that don’t look likely to shake up the GC, and even if the leaderboard looks set by the time the third week is in full swing, there are no guarantees in this sport; the riders will have to maintain focus all the way to the finish if they want to come out on top.
The Vuelta opens with a short, flat team time trial that is unlikely to have too big an effect on the General Classification. Stage 2 shouldn’t be much more eventful for the red jersey hunters. Stages 3 through 5 have a few hills along the way or at the finish line that could make for interesting stage battles, but probably won’t affect the overall leaderboard.
Stage 6 presents the first real mountain challenge of the Vuelta, with a summit finish. A 4.6 kilometer climb at an average gradient of 7.8% won’t decide the Vuelta by any means, but it will at least be a chance to see who is on strong form in this race. Stage 7 has hills throughout but nothing that will challenge the GC men, and the breakaway artists and more punchy riders will look to pick up a victory, while Stage 8 is almost guaranteed to end in a sprint.
Stage 9, the final stage before the first rest day of the Vuelta, will offer a major mountain showdown, finishing with the double challenge of a Cat. 2 climb followed almost immediately by a Cat. 1 summit finish.
Following their day off, the peloton will take on a stage likely to have a major impact on the overall outcome of the Vuelta: a 36.7 kilometer time trial. After an early Cat. 3, the remainder of the parcours is downhill, which will allow the real power specialists to put their skills on display, and could lead to significant gaps on the GC leaderboard. There won’t be much time for the red jersey seekers to rest after the chrono, with another mountaintop finish waiting on Stage 11.
Stages 12 and 13 should go to those riders who have come to the Vuelta looking for stage victories, but Stage 14 kicks of a trio of tough mountain days, with a difficult parcours that includes two Category 1 climbs (include the La Camperona summit finish). Stage 15 and the challenging Lagos de Covadonga climb come next, before a brutal Stage 16 that includes four Category 1 climbs, including the arduous La Farrapona climb to the finish line, 16.5 kilometers at an average gradient of 6.2%.
After a welcome rest day, a flat Stage 17 will provide the sprinters with another shot at victory. Stage 18 ends with a Cat. 2 climb that the puncheurs will love, while the a late hill on Stage 19 could set up a showdown between fast finishers and explosive opportunists.
The Puerto de Ancares climb that closes out Stage 20 will offer a battleground for a final mountain showdown among the GC contenders. It’s a harsh 12.7 kilometer ascent that averages 8.7% and includes several long stretches with gradients well over 10%. If the Vuelta hasn’t been decided already, this will be the site of a furious uphill battle.
The final stage of the Vuelta a España is a flat, 9.7 kilometer time trial that will offer those who specialize in short chronos a chance to shine on a big stage. The overall contenders will be on their toes, but only the slightest of GC gaps will be under threat with such a short route.
The General Classification Contenders
The startlist is full of GC talent, with several riders who could conceivably win this race. Many of the biggest names come with question marks. As such, it’s hard to call any one rider the out-and-out favorite to take this Vuelta a España. Still, a few riders stand out above the competition as the most likely contenders, with two in particular in a class of their own: Chris Froome of Team Sky and Nairo Quintana of Movistar.
Froome’s all-round talent speaks for itself. The winner of the 2013 Tour de France is one of the world’s best climbers and also an elite time trialist. At his best and most motivated, he is rarely defeated in a stage race. It doesn’t seem likely motivation will be much of a problem here: having dropped out of a Tour de France in which he was the favorite for a repeat success, this is the last real opportunity for both Froome and his mighty Team Sky to get any major results out of a season they entered with high expectations. Form is the only real question mark for Froome. He was back on the bike pretty quickly after injuries forced him out of the Tour, but it’s not easy to build a season around a race in July only to switch goals and hope for peak form in August and September. On the other hand, if the last three years are any indication, perhaps the biggest predictor of success in this race is a lack of Grand Tour mileage earlier in the year: for each of the past three winners, the Vuelta was the only three-week race undertaken that season. Froome’s very early exit from the Tour could leave him fresher than many of his top rivals in this race who already have a Giro or Tour under their belts. He also has multiple Grand Tour Top 10 finisher Mikel Nieve as a strong second, along with other reliable supporters like Phil Deignan (who has had a nice year for Sky), Dario Cataldo, Peter Kennaugh, and Vasil Kiryienka.
Nairo Quintana put his uphill mastery on display in last year’s Tour de France, climbing his way to 2nd place in that race despite not even being team leader at the start. He followed up that excellent performance with a victory at the 2014 Giro d’Italia, where he was clearly the strongest rider, overcoming an early illness to win rather handily. He has made big strides a time trialist over the past season, developing into a more complete rider every day, and he showed by winning the Vuelta a Burgos that after an extended break from racing following the Giro d’Italia, form isn’t an issue. The Giro mileage is there, but Quintana has obviously had time to recover, and he’ll benefit from an always powerful Movistar lineup. Alejandro Valverde makes the start as well, and while his disappointing 4th in the Tour de France (despite the absence of Contador and Froome) would suggest that his days of challenging for Grand Tour victory are coming to a close, especially with the added fatigue of having just raced in one, he’s still a consistent performer in three-week races who seems likely to put in a Top 10 result. The ability to launch a two-pronged assault on the steep stuff makes Movistar a very dangerous team, even if Froome is at 100%.
Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez had high hopes for this season, and everything looked to be going according to plan when he won the Volta a Catalunya, but injuries sustained in a nasty crash at the Giro derailed his campaign there and knocked him out of competition for a while. He decided to use the Tour de France as an opportunity to ride back into form (it should be noted that riding one Grand Tour as preparation for another is a rather unconventional plan these days), and though he was unable to come up with any big results in that race, he showed with a podium performance in the very challenging Clasica San Sebastian that followed that he was rounding into shape. With bonus seconds likely to be of some importance in this Vuelta, this is an excellent parcours for Rodriguez, who can hunt mountain bonus seconds better than most, a trait that will help him challenge for the win in his home Grand Tour. Trusted lieutenant Daniel Moreno is here as well. He has not had as strong a year as he had in 2013 (when he was 10th in the Vuelta and racked up several victories on the season), but he did just put in a great ride at the Vuelta a Burgos, finishing only 3 seconds behind Quintana on GC. Like Rodriguez, Moreno has a lot of punch in the hunt for time bonuses, and in addition to acting as Purito’s top teammate, he could land a decent overall result himself.
The nasty tibia fracture he suffered in the tenth stage of the Tour de France puts Alberto Contador a bit further down in this preview than he typically merits in a Grand Tour pre-race discussion, but he’s stil certainly worth mentioning. At full strength, he’s unmatched on the climbs and strong against the clock, and he possesses the killer instinct to deliver when the stakes are high. Unfortunately, he’s not likely to be at full strength, as an injury like the one that forced him out of the Tour is not quickly overcome. Still, Contador was flying in the run-up to the Tour and he will be highly motivated to put whatever remains of that form to good use. He has said he is targeting stage wins in this race, but Contador isn’t the type to back down if he should find himself still in the mix for GC as the race drags on. If he does manage to recover his strength and get involved in the battle, he’ll obviously be a top conteder. That’s a big ask, and as it stands, he’s certainly not the favorite he might be without the recent injury, but he also can’t be counted out.
Rigoberto Uran of OPQS showed his top-notch climbing legs and explosiveness on the way to a 2nd overall finish in the 2013 Giro, but he reached a new level as a GC rider this year, flashing great ability against the clock. Form is a question mark, as he was a bit off the pace in the recent Tour de l’Ain, his first race back from a long post-Giro break, but he has a history of performing well even after long periods out of competition. Uran has the talent to battle it out for the podium. He has a great team backing him too, with Wout Poels, who was brilliant in support of Uran in the Giro, on the squad as well. Don’t be surprised to see Poels looking for opportunities to succeed on his own either.
Last year’s winner Chris Horner, now riding for Lampre-Merida, had another difficult start to his season after being seriously injured when hit by a car while training. He was unable to follow up his strong 2013 finish with any big results in the early part of this year, but he looked strong in the Tour de France, where he rode in support of Rui Costa while still getting back to his best. He certainly looked to be closing in on that top level with his 2nd overall in the recent Tour of Utah. He’s another year older but that doesn’t seem to make much of a difference with Horner, who proved in last year’s race that he should not be underestimated when the road goes up. Lampre has a very nice squad of support riders and potential alternatives with Przemyslaw Niemiec (fresh off a 5th overall in Poland), Damiano Cunego, and the underrated Jose Serpa.
Update: In accordance with the rules of the MPCC, of which Lampre-Merida is a member, defending champion Chris Horner has been withdrawn from the Vuelta startlist due to low cortisol levels.
Giro 3rd place finisher Fabio Aru leads a strong Astana team. He thrives in the high mountains, and although this parcours may not have the grueling climbs of the Giro, Aru has the skillset to benefit from bonus seconds as well. The biggest concern for the 24-year-old will be staying strong throughout all three weeks: he has never raced two Grand Tours in one year, so it’s unclear how his body will respond. If he can hold up over the course of the Vuelta, he’ll be a dangerous contender. Tanel Kangert and rising talent Mikel Landa will also make the start.
Garmin-Sharp has several GC options. Explosive climber Dan Martin had designs of Giro glory, but crashed out on the very first day. In fact, the list of big races over the last two seasons in which Martin has crashed or come down with illness is surprisingly long. However, Martin was always planning to ride this Vuelta, and having crashed out of the Giro before finishing a single stage, he comes into this race with the major boon of not having finished another GT so far this season. It’s a good route for him, and he showed excellent form in the recent Tour de l’Ain, so if he can stay healthy for three weeks, a strong performance could be in the cards. Garmin-Sharp also sends 2014 Giro Top 10 finisher Ryder Hesjedal, who could put in a decent ride, as well as Andrew Talansky. Talansky is supposedly riding the race in support of his teammates, having withdrawn from the Tour following several crashes, but he’s been hot this year and he’s been 7th in this race in the past, so it’s not out of the question that he puts in a GC challenge in 2014.
With fewer truly brutal climbs than typically feature in the Giro or the Tour, this is a nice parcours for Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman, a strong time trialist who also has the ability to pick up bonus seconds in group finishes. The question for Kelderman will be whether he is strong enough yet (at just 23-years-old) to ride well through the second half of a Giro-Vuelta double. He was on good form at the Tour of Utah and certainly has the skillset to battle among the Top 10. Robert Gesink is another great option for Belkin. Having missed a large portion of the season with heart problems, Gesink showed good form in Poland and, of course, he doesn’t have any Grand Tour miles in his legs yet this season. This is a nice opportunity for him to get back into the mix. Laurens Ten Dam is here as well, coming off a nice 8th overall in the Tour de France. He might still have something left in the tank to challenge for the Top 10, and at the very least he’s an excellent teammate for the mountains.
AG2R sends Carlos Betancur, who spent months out of competition after the Ardennes Classics and did not look on form in his recent run at the Vuelta a Burgos. He has a lot of ground to make up if he wants to be in the conversation, but on raw talent he’s one of the best riders in the race and is worthy of a mention. BMC sends the one-two punch of Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez. Both are obviously well past their primes, but on a somewhat tamer course like this, and still packing strong finishing kicks for bonus seconds, both could have a shot at good results. FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot makes the start following his stellar Tour de France, but maintaing his great form all the way through a podium performance at the Tour and into this race isn’t easy, and he has said outright that he’s hunting stage success and possibly the King of the Mountains jersey. Still, he’s worth keeping an eye on.
Giant-Shimano’s Warren Barguil made the 2013 Vuelta his coming out party with two stage wins, and now he returns with even bigger aspirations. He has not landed many big results yet this year but he was climbing well at the Tour de Pologne and he has a strong team of young, talented all-rounders (like Lawson Craddock and Chad Haga) around him. Coming into the race fresh and without any Grand Tour mileage this season, Barguil could put in a good ride. Orica-GreenEdge enters uncharted territory in this race; for once, they have a rider with some GC potential in Johan Esteban Chaves. A terrific climber, Chaves has taken stages in the Tour de Suisse and the Tour of California this year, and he has the talent to land a decent result.
Lotto Belisol appears to be backing Maxime Monfort for GC; Jurgen Van Den Broeck is on the startlist but it seems likely that he’ll be in the hunt for stages rather than mixing it up on GC. Trek has a lot of firepower in the race, and they aim to support Haimar Zubeldia as their GC rider over other talents (like strong climber Julian Arredondo) in the squad. Actually challenging for the podium may be too much to ask for Zubeldia, but he has a knack for landing Top 10 results. Cofidis’s Daniel Navarro, FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde, MTN-Qhubeka’s Sergio Pardilla and Louis Mentjes, and Caja Rural’s David Arroyo are other outsiders who will hope to be in the mix for General Classification.
The quality of riders looking for stage wins in this race is also particularly high. Nacer Bouhanni, Giro Points Classification winner and, more recently, winner of a stage at the Eneco Tour, will hope to pick up more 2014 victories in the sprints. Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, and Michael Matthews are all in attendance as well, and they’ll look to challenge Bouhanni for the flatter bunch finishes and fight it out amongst themselves when the tougher profiles leave the heavier sprinters behind. We should be in for some great battles between the three versatile riders on the hillier stages. I like Degenkolb a lot in this race; when healthy, he’s been very fast this year, and he’ll be highly motivated after being slowed by an injury in the Tour.
Other sprinting talents making the start include Tom Boonen, Roberto Ferrari and Maximiliano Richeze, Yauheni Hutarovich, Moreno Hofland, Daniele Bennati, Gerald Ciolek, Andrea Guardini, Jens Debusschere, Fabio Felline, and Matteo Pelucchi. Philippe Gilbert will likely be in the mix on the flatter stages, and he’ll obviously be a top candidate to battle it out with the GC men for the shorter uphill finishes.
It’s worth noting that while most of the top fast men are likely to at least put up decent showings in the Points Classification, the Vuelta points jersey quite often goes to a climber thanks to the number of uphill finishes and an equally weighted points system regardless of the profile. Sagan, Matthews, Degenkolb, and Bouhanni (in that order, in my mind) all have a shot, but one will have to rise well above the others to make a legitimate run at a classification more likely to be won by the uphill specialists with the explosiveness to pick up stage wins.
Several great time trialists are in attendance hoping to pick up victories with two individual chronos on the menu. Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin headline the list, with the extremely talented Adriano Malori also among the best riders against the clock on the startlist. In addition to the many names with good time trialing ability already mentioned in the GC section of the preview, we’ll probably also see Kristof Vandewalle and Bob Jungels (who talked to VH this week about his goals for the Vuelta), Rohan Dennis, Jesse Sergent, Manuel Quinziato, and Brett Lancaster shining in the ITTs.
Many of those strong solo artists are also likely to be protagonists for long-range success in the breakaway-friendly intermediate stages, along with versatile riders like Luis Leon Sanchez, Nathan Haas, and Adam Hansen. Julian Arredondo headlines a list of climbing specialists who are ostensibly here for mountain stage wins and should be given some freedom to get up the road once they’ve dropped from the GC leaderboard. Along with whoever among the aforementioned GC riders resorts to hunting stages after falling out of contention for the overall, Adam Yates, Alessandro Di Marchi, Amets Txurruka, and Yuri Trofimov are others who could fight it out with the red jersey hunters for stage honors in the mountains.
Winner: Chris Froome
Podium: Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez
Other Top Contenders: Rigoberto Uran, Alejandro Valverde, Fabio Aru, Wilco Kelderman, Daniel Martin, Daniel Moreno, Alberto Contador
Winner: Joaquim Rodriguez
VeloHuman will be previewing every stage of the 2014 Vuelta a España, with profiles, favorites, and outsiders for every day of racing. The preview of Stage 1 is already up! There will be plenty more commentary and analysis on Twitter, so be sure to follow @VeloHuman if you haven’t already.
Photos by Tom Raftery, Manuel Quiroga, and Gerben van Heijningen.