First of all. Welcome back to this special Vuelta a España 2018 edition of C-Cycling. I’m truly grateful that you are here. Now, let’s get to it.
For the first time in nine years, the Vuelta starts out with an individual time trial. Usually, the GC riders have been relying on a strong team performance to get off to a good start. This time, it’s up to themselves to make sure they start out on the right foot. The opening stage is just 8 km long so it won’t create huge time differences between overall contenders – only of psychological value. A few days later however, it will be a very different story as stage 4 provides the first mountaintop finish of the race. The final ascent on Puerto de Alfacar is 11 km long and have an average gradient of 5.4 % with a couple of double digits parts in the middle sector of the climb. This early in the race, the time gaps shouldn’t be too big amongst the favorites but it will definitely be enough to see who has put in the proper training and is strong enough to fight for glory early on.
A couple of sprints stages and a few good breakaway opportunities follow in the first week before we get to see another GC showdown on stage 9. This is the last stage before the first rest day. It’s still relatively early in the race but after over a week in the Spanish heat, some may pay the price on the 200 km from Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla, which is also the second longest stage of the race. After several climbs beforehand, the day finishes with a challenging climb of 9.8 km. The average gradient on Alto de La Covatilla is set to 7 % but that is mostly due to an easy beginning and end of the climb. In fact, the actual ascent is more like 6.5 km of nearly 10 %. Whoever gets to enjoy the rest day in the red leader’s jersey will be a serious candidate for the overall victory.
The second week starts out with a day for the sprinters followed by two undulating stages. Afterwards, the riders face three mountaintop finishes in a row. First up are the steep ramps on La Camperona, last used in 2016. Then, it’s time for an even steeper finish on Alto Les Praeres, which final four kilometers kick up with staggering 12.5 %. Finally, the mythical slopes towards Lagos de Covadonga awaits the riders. This classic Vuelta stage always presents a magnificent show for the spectators. As the saying goes, you won’t win the Vuelta on this climb but this late in the race, you can easily lose it if you have a bad day.
After the final rest day, the riders take on the second and last individual time trial of the race. The 32 km from Santillana del Mar to Torrelavega are predominantly flat. Therefore, the climbers who can’t defend themselves very well on the TT bike, must have taken enough time in the previous stages to remain in contention when the day is over. The following stage is another steep mountaintop finish before the sprinters will get a rare chance to shine on stage 18. The next two days both finish in Andorra, which can only mean one thing: mountains! Lots of them. Stage 20 is only 97.3 km long but offers six categorized ascents and 4000 meters of climbing. None of the riders fighting for the overall podium – or even top10 – can be sure of anything until they reach the finishing line on Coll de la Gallina. The final stage is the traditional sprint stage in the heart of Madrid, finishing next to the Cibeles Fountain.
With no less than eight mountaintop finishes, it’s no secret that the overall winner of this year’s Vuelta a España will have to be one of the best climbers in the race. However, given the nature of the climbs, often very steep, it’s also important to pack a good kick uphill.
Therefore, I’ll point to Simon Yates and Miguel Ángel López as the two top favorites for the overall win. Both have such a good punch that they can create an instant gap on the steep gradients or win an uphill sprint. They also do very well on the long and steady climbs. Furthermore, Yates and López ride surprisingly well against the clock, taking their weight and stature into consideration. Both arrive at the Vuelta with very strong teams to support them in the mountains. While Yates can rely on his twin-brother Adam as well as Jack Haig, López has the luxury of Pello Bilbao, Jan Hirt and Omar Fraile at his side. Bilbao may even pull off a good result in the GC as well.
In Giro d’Italia this year, Yates seemed sure to win overall before his collapse on Colle delle Finestre. At that point, he had already won three stages and gifted another one to a teammate. If he’s at the same level in this Vuelta, he will be tough to beat. Just because he cracked in the Giro, it doesn’t mean he can’t cope with a three weeks stage race. Last year, he was seventh overall in Tour de France and the year before that he finished sixth in the Vuelta, while helping Esteban Chaves make it onto the final podium. As always, Mitchelton-Scott downplays their own chances overall. Supposedly, the most important thing for the team is to see Yates keeping up or improving his overall spot in the final week. After what happened in the Giro, it may seem reasonable but looking at the field and the course of this race, there is no way around Yates being one of the top favorites for the overall win.
While, Yates crumpled in the final week of the Giro, López only got better and managed to finish third overall, winning the white jersey as well. He then had a long race-break of over two months before he came back to Europe at the beginning of August. In Vuelta a Burgos, López proved to be on the right path as he finished second overall after winning the first mountain stage of the race. Last year, the 24-year-old Colombian had a strange Vuelta. After a gentle start, he was absolutely flying in the middle part of the race, winning two mountain stages and placing second and third in two others. Unfortunately, he then cracked a little on the final mountain stage where he lost nearly four minutes. López is not known for his stability nor his ability to stay with his teammates in the peloton. However, if he can follow up on the performances from the Vuelta last year and the Giro this year, he should be on the final podium in Madrid this year. Maybe even on the top spot.
If both Yates and López perform as expected and finish on the podium, the question then is; who will join them? On paper, Richie Porte is the best pick to do so. He’s actually the bookmakers top favorite to win the race overall. However, despite his huge talent and capabilities in the mountains and against the clock, Porte has never ever finished better than fifth overall in a Grand Tour. Something always seems to happen to the Tasmanian every time he gets his own chance to shine. The 32 km time trial on stage 16 will favor Porte. That day, he should be able to take a least a minute – maybe even two – on his rivals. If so, he will be in a prime position to make the final podium. He’s not the best on the short and steep ramps and he doesn’t beat anybody in a sprint uphill but in peak condition, he may drop them all on the long climbs. If – for once – Porte can stay clear of any bad luck, this might be the time that he finally wins a Grand Tour or at least make it onto the podium.
Movistar hopes to bounce back from a very disappointing Tour de France, bringing Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, both former winners of the Vuelta, to lead the team. On paper, this course is favorable for especially Valverde with several steep finishes. However, for the Spanish veteran, nothing is more important than the World Championships this year. Even though his winning mentality is second to none and that he simply can’t help sprinting whenever he sees a finishing line, there is no way he will take any unnecessary risks ahead of his biggest goal of the season. It may seem strange for a former winner of the Vuelta to think like that. However, having won as much as Valverde has done; it’s the empty spots on the palmares that draws attention now. Despite several medals, he has never won the rainbow jersey. This year, the mountainous course in Innsbruck is almost tailor-made for him. He will probably win a stage or two in this Vuelta but I highly doubt he will go too deep in the final week, unless he’s in the run for the overall win. That leaves us with Quintana as Movistar’s best pick for the general classification. The Colombian won the race two years ago and if he has been able to recover well enough after the Tour, he should be up there fighting for the podium again. On his best days, few – if any – can follow Quintana in the mountains. Unfortunately for him, those days have been very rare ever since he won the Vuelta. He seems to a lack a bit of stability nowadays. It will be very interesting to see which version of Quintana we’ll get to experience in this Vuelta.
Usually, the Vuelta produces a few surprises high up in the general classification. This year, I think the biggest surprise for many will be George Bennett. The LottoNL-Jumbo captain continues to take a step up the ladder every season. This year has been particularly impressive with Top10 places overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Alps, Giro d’Italia and recently Tour de Pologne. Bennett is consistently good but the podiums keep eluding him. This could very well change in this Vuelta. His climbing is getting better and better and in this field, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him fight it out with the best riders in the mountains – and maybe even drop them now and then. With just 57 kg to carry uphill, this year’s course suits him perfectly. The time trial on stage 16 will be his biggest challenge but as he proved two years ago, where he finished 10th overall in the Vuelta, he is also capable of defending himself against the clock late in a grand tour. For support in the mountains, Bennett can count on Steven Kruijswijk (fifth overall in Tour de France this year) and Tour of Utah sensation Sepp Kuss who just won three mountain stages and the race overall earlier this month. If anybody is to make an upset in the general classification, my pick is Bennett. He has been preparing meticulously with multiple altitude training camps and if the way LottoNL-Jumbo has been riding this season is any indicator, Bennett is not to be underestimated in this race.
On paper, Wilco Kelderman should be up there fighting for the podium as well. Last year, he proved that he has what it takes when he finished just 24 seconds behind Ilnur Zakarin in fourth place. Usually, Kelderman will be able to gain at least over a minute on his rivals in the time trial and with his strong climbing abilities, he’s bound for a strong performance in the GC. However, it’s very uncertain in what kind of shape the Dutchman starts out this Vuelta. After crashing in the national championships just before the Tour, hurting his right shoulder, Kelderman hasn’t raced since. In fact, he only has a total of 22 race days this whole season. The shoulder injury required multiple surgeries, so even though the lack of race days may mean that he’s fresher than the rest, it’s doubtful that he’s been able to put in as much training as needed. Also, looking the Sunweb lineup for the race, it’s clear that their main focus is on helping Max Walscheid in the sprints. Even if Kelderman proves to be ready to go for the GC, he won’t have much support in the mountains.
For other strong candidates, who all previously have finished on the podium in a grand tour, look to Fabio Aru, Thibaut Pinot, Rigoberto Uran and maybe even Vincenzo Nibali – depending on how well he has recovered after fracturing his vertebrae in that infamous crash on Alpe d’Huez. Like Valverde, Nibali is also extremely focused on the World Championships this season. Having already won the Vuelta in the past, he too won’t take any unnecessary risks unless he’s in a position to win overall again.
Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Team Sky’s duo of David de la Cruz and Tao Geoghegan Hart can do in the GC. For the first time in many years, Team Sky starts a grand tour without a top contender for the overall win. At least on paper. However, don’t be surprised if both De la Cruz and Geoghegan Hart end high up in the general classification. The Spaniard has previously won a stage and worn the leader’s jersey in the Vuelta and he seemed to be in good shape in Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month. For Geoghegan Hart, this may be the Brit’s breakthrough race on the big scene. Having finished fifth overall in Tour of California this year, helping a teammate to win and 13th overall in Criterium du Dauphiné, while helping another teammate to win, Geoghegan Hart did well once again in Vuelta a Burgos, supporting De la Cruz who finished third overall. Without a big-name-leader on the team, the GC pressure won’t be huge. I think this will benefit the two youngsters very well.
Additional candidates to make Top10 overall include: Enric Mas, Ion Izagirre, Gianluca Brambilla, Michael Woods, Louis Meintjes, Ilnur Zakarin, Bauke Mollema, Sergio Pardilla and the BORA-hansgrohe trio of Emanuel Buchmann, Davide Formolo and Rafal Majka. With Landa not able to start, Movistar’s Richard Carapaz might also pull off another impressive performance. He won a stage and finished fourth overall in Giro d’Italia this year. A stage win here is definitely not out of his reach.
Regarding the fast guys for the handful of sprint stages in the race, it’s important to remember that the Vuelta rarely features more than a few traditional flat sprint finishes. Usually, there are a couple of climbs to overcome before the line or it’s a slightly uphill finish. This will favor world champion Peter Sagan very well. However, he will still have to outsprint the likes of Elia Viviani – the best sprinter in the world this year – Nacer Bouhanni, Giacomo Nizzolo, Max Walscheid and the two Mitchelton-Scott riders Luka Mezgec and the new European Champion Matteo Trentin who won no less than four stages last year. Danny Van Poppel, Ryan Gibbons, Jon Aberasturi and Nelson Soto will also be ready to fight for the top positions in the sprints. For more information on the sprinters and the best breakaway candidates for each stage, read below.
Daily stage previews
If you enjoyed this overall preview of Vuelta a España, then make sure to come back for the daily stage previews during the race. Each preview will be published in the evening prior to the stage and cover all about the route, the favorites and the outsiders for the win.
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For daily live streams of the stages in Vuelta a Espãna 2018, go to steephill.tv.