C-Cycling - Vuelta a España 2015 Preview and Favorites

22 August - 13 September 2015

The route
This year's Vuelta a España shapes up to be one of the best editions in a very long time. Judging from the start list, we are in for a fantastic show in Spain within the following three weeks.

The race starts out with a short team time trial alongside the southern coast. We shouldn’t expect big time differences but the stage will be of big psychological value. It will dictate how the following stages will develop. The Vuelta has never been afraid of having an uphill finish early in the race. This year, it comes already on stage 2. The last 4.7 km of the stage, towards the top of Alto de la Mesa, have an average gradient of 6.5 %. This will give us the first serious indicators of the conditions of the favorites for the general classification. Since four out of the first seven stages finish uphill, the GC riders have to be ready right from the very beginning of the race.

The main talking point of this year’s parcours is stage 11, which takes place in Andorra. Despite a total distance of just 138 km, this stage is extremely hard. Too hard one could easily argue. There are no less than six categorized climbs on the menu. Four Category 1 climbs, one Category 2 climb and one ESP (HC) climb. There is barely a single meter of flat. The final climb of the day, Alto Els Cortals d'Encamp, is also the steepest one. The 8.7 km have a staggering average gradient of over 9 % with multiple parts of double-digit gradients. Even though we are only halfway through the race at this point, you can easily lose the Vuelta if you’re not on top of your game this day.

Asturias will host the next big fight amongst the GC riders with three mountain top finish-stages in a row. This is followed by a well-deserved rest day, before the riders take on a 39 km long individual time trial. The pure climbers will have a very difficult day against the clock, as the terrain is mostly flat. The next three stages include numerous tough climbs to overcome but none of the stages finishes uphill.

Last year, the final stage was a short time trial in Santiago de Compostela. This year, the traditional sprint stage in Madrid is back on the menu. 10 laps of 5.8 km in the Spanish capital will give the sprinters a rare chance to fight for glory in this year’s Vuelta a España. Remember, you can see interactive profiles of all the stages by using the “click to select other stages”-menu at the top.

The favorites
As mentioned, the start list is extraordinary this year. It means there are many riders with a chance of making the overall podium in Madrid. At least six of these riders also took part in the Tour de France. Almost everybody agreed that this year’s Tour was one of the hardest editions in many years. You need to be fresh and ready to ride hard already on stage 2 in this Vuelta. Will the Tour-riders be able to manage this? Personally, my pick for the overall is a rider who didn’t race in July.

Fabio Aru showed his huge potential on the big scene for the first time in 2013, when he worked hard for Vincenzo Nibali in the Giro d’Italia and finished 5th on the epic stage to Tre Cime de Lavaredo on the penultimate day of racing. The following year, Aru returned as team leader of Astana to finish 3rd overall in the Giro. In the Vuelta, he ended 5th after winning two stages, proving he’s more than capable of doing well in the GC in two grand tours within the same season. This year, Aru finished 2nd overall in the Giro after overcoming sickness to win the last two mountain stages, putting Alberto Contador under pressure. After that performance, he had a break from competition for more than two months before taking part in Tour of Poland earlier this month. Despite not having raced for a long time, Aru still manage to do very well and finished 5th overall.

As usual, Aru has been on altitude training camps in Sestriere, preparing for this race. His loyal teammates Paolo Tiralongo, Diego Rosa, Dario Cataldo and Andrey Zeits were with him in Sestriere. They are all joining him for the Vuelta as well. Add to that riders like Luis Léon Sanchez, Vincenzo Nibali and Giro-sensation Mikel Landa and there is no doubt that Astana brings one of the strongest teams ever seen in grand tour. Both Nibali and Landa have good chances in the GC as well. However, since Nibali wasn’t originally set to do the Vuelta, I doubt he will be able to win this race. Even though he finished the Tour on a good note, I think he will end up helping Aru to glory. The same goes for Landa. Astana clearly held him back in the Giro. Therefore, he has decided to leave the team after this season. I think Landa will be on team duty for Aru again while seeking to win a stage as he did in the Giro.

Looking at the riders taking part in the Tour de France, I think Nairo Quintana is the only rider able to win this Vuelta. The Colombian climber proved to be very strong in the last week of the Tour. It has always been the idea that Quintana would aim to do well in both the Tour and Vuelta. Therefore, he has been training specifically towards this. Not like other riders who didn’t plan to take part in the Vuelta when they started the Tour. The course suits Quintana well. It won’t be easy for him in the ITT but looking at his rivals for the GC, he’s actual one of the better time trialists. Last year, Quintana wore the red leader’s jersey before crashing two days in a row and withdrawing from the race. He must be extremely eager to come back and take revenge this year. Once again, he’ll have Alejandro Valverde at his side. The Spaniard has had a long and very successful season. According to team manager Eusebio Unzue anything ‘extra’ is a bonus. It will be interesting to see if Valverde can fight for the podium once again. He definitely can’t complain about the route.

Ever since his grand tour breakthrough in 2011, Chris Froome has had a special relationship with the Vuelta. He likes this race a lot. In 2012, he finished fourth overall and last year, he made the podium again when he was the first runner up to Contador. Froome’s big target this year was the Tour de France, which he won. Originally, winning the Vuelta wasn’t a part of his plan for this season. Now, though, he has a unique chance to do what Contador couldn’t do and win The Double. With a long time trial, Froome will be able to distance his main rivals significantly on stage 17. However, since the ITT comes so late in the race, Froome may already be too far down in the GC at this point. He suffered a lot on the last mountain stages in the Tour. In case he hasn’t been able to rest and recover properly, I think he - like most of the TDF contenders - will lack a little strength on the difficult Spanish climbs. Team Sky sends a very strong team to support the Kenyan-born Brit though. With Mikel Nieve, Geraint Thomas, Nicolas Roche and especially Sergio Henao, it will be very difficult to isolate Froome uphill. Personally, I think Henao will do very well in this Vuelta. He proved to be in great shape in Tour of Poland where he won the queen stage. The ITT doesn’t favor him but his abilities in the mountains make him a serious outsider for the GC. If Froome turns out to be too tired after the Tour, I think Henao will be ready to take over as team leader and do great in the GC. That being said, I definitely wouldn’t put it past Froome to win this Vuelta and complete The Double.

The outsiders
On paper, the course suits Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez very well with several steep finishes and the home-stage in Andorra. Despite winning two stages in the Tour, Purito didn’t do as well as he had hoped in the GC, finishing 29th overall. It will be interesting to see if he can rise and go for the podium now. The long time trial definitely doesn’t suit him. I think he will finish around Top5 overall and win a couple of stages. His teammate Dani Moreno has shown great shape ahead of the Vuelta by finishing 4th in Clasica San Sebastian and winning a stage in Vuelta a Burgos where he also ended 3rd overall. Like Purito, Moreno is very explosive on short and steep finishes. He’s not great on the long ascents but he should be able to do top10 overall. Moreno is leaving Katusha after this season. He hopes a strong performance in the Vuelta will help him land a new contract with a WT team.

My personal outsider this year is Domenico Pozzovivo. The pint-sized Italian finished 6th overall in the Vuelta back in 2013. In the Giro d’italia this year, Pozzovivo had a potential career-ending crash. Luckily, he escaped without any major injuries. Ever since this crash, Pozzovivo has had his eyes fixed on the Vuelta. It’s his only chance to save the season. The course suits him perfectly. With only 53 kg to carry, naturally, a long and flat time trial isn’t on top of Pozzovivo’s wish list. However, don’t forget that he has done very well against the clock in the past. I don’t think he will lose as much time as the other pure climbers that day. I expect the Ag2r captain to make Top5 - at least - in the GC.  If the course proves too hard for many of the tired Tour de France riders, I wouldn’t be surprised if Pozzovivo finished on the overall podium in Madrid.

For other strong climbers with a solid chance of making top10 in the general classification, look to Rafal Majka, Esteban Chaves, Fabio Duarte, Dani Navarro and the BMC trio of Tejay Van Garderen, Samuel Sanchez and especially Darwin Atapuma who I believe will have a great Vuelta.

The sprinters
Given that there aren’t many stages dedicated to the fast riders, it’s not exactly a mystery why so few of the world’s best sprinters has decided to take part in the race. The main rider for the bunch sprints is Nacer Bouhanni. After crashing out of the Tour, the Frenchman is now very eager to come back and win on the big scene. Bouhanni recently won two stages in Tour de l'Ain. Even though the level wasn’t as high as he’s used to, the stage wins were very important for Bouhanni’s confidence. With Dominique Rollin, Julien Simon and Geiffrey Soupe to lead him out, Bouhanni is bound to win at least one stage in this Vuelta. His biggest rivals are John Degenkolb and Peter Sagan. While Sagan only has Daniele Bennati and Pavel Brutt as leadout, Degenkolb has the whole Giant-Alpecin team at his service. In particular Tom Dumoulin, Luka Mezgec and Koen de Kort. The strong German has already won nine stages in the Vuelta. He didn’t have much luck in the Tour this year, but he should be able to reach double digit wins during the three weeks of racing in Spain.

For other fast riders who will have marked the few sprint stages in the road book, look to Matteo Pelucchi, Caleb Ewan, Danny Van Poppel, José Joaquin Rojas, Kris Boeckmans, Kristian Sbaragli, Carlos Barbero, Max Richeze, Tom Van Asbroeck, Kevin Réza and Jempy Drucker who won RideLondon earlier this month and did very well in Eneco Tour last week.

This year, I'm going to try out a few different things during the race. It means you won’t find the usual previews of all the stages. Some days there will be previews as you know them. Other days it will be strategy sessions, live analysis, videos etc. etc. The idea is to test and see what works and what doesn’t in order to optimize the site for next season. For additional news and thoughts, make sure to follow me on Twitter at @mrconde.

For live coverage of this Vuelta a España 2015, go to steephill.tv. Join the conversation on Twitter by using the hashtag #lavuelta.

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