The third and final Grand Tour kicks off this weekend, and as there are each and every year, the Vuelta a España has plenty of sub-plots to monitor throughout the three weeks.
The three best stage racers in the world are all competing for general classification honours, while two of Britain’s brightest climbing talents have their sights set high.
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Featuring 10 summit finishes, the race is not one for sprinters, but the few fast men who are present have an opportunity to take an otherwise unlikely Grand Tour victory.
The GC battle we didn’t get at the Tour de France?
That is the hope. Last year’s Vuelta a España was a thrilling battle right to the end when Fabio Aru (Astana) disposed Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) of the lead on the penultimate day.
This time round the men targeting the red jersey are three-times champion Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), treble Tour winner Chris Froome (Sky) and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) and Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto-NLJumbo) could also threaten.
The focus will undoubtedly be on Contador who withdrew from the Tour on stage nine and has specifically prepared for the race, winning the Vuelta a Burgos. He claims he isn’t aware of his form, but even if he is sub-par, he could still be in better shape than Froome and Quintana; the former competed at the Rio Olympics and the latter was ill during the final week of the Tour and missed the Olympics as a precautionary measure.
Whether we will see the trio at their best is probably doubtful, which could leave the door open for Chaves or someone else to sneak into the podium spots or even take top step.
There’s plenty of mountains and summit finishes to determine the ordering of the GC standings. Expect it to change frequently and on occasions quite dramatically.
How will Kruijswijk fare?
Your essential guide to the Vuelta
So close to becoming an unfancied Giro d’Italia winner in May until he went head first into a bank of snow, the form – and mental state – of Steven Kruijswijk will be most interesting.
Has the Dutchman got over his near-miss, or is he still scarred by his oh-so-close finish in the Italian three week race?
What happens if he goes into the lead? Will he be mentally strong enough to hold onto an advantage? He’s shown in previous Giros that he can climb with the best and take his chances when opportunities arise.
If the stars align, and Contador et al. aren’t on top-form, Kruijswijk is capable of springing a surprise that will last to the end.
What can we expect from Simon Yates?
This is the Bury rider’s first Grand Tour of the season having missed the Tour de France through suspension. He has been in fine form since his return, winning the one-day Spanish race Prueba Villafranca-Ordiziako Klasika in a week where he also claimed a further two top-10 finishes.
He was fourth behind Contador at the Vuelta a Burgos so is clearly climbing as well as he ever has done.
With his Orica-BikeExchange team committing around Esteban Chaves, Yates will be expected to protect the Colombian in the mountains, but if Chaves’ challenge falls by the wayside and Yates remains in contention, he would be the natural replacement as team leader.
Either way, a top-10 or a stage win isn’t beyond Yates as he looks to create more success in the family following his brother Adam’s performance in the Tour.
Hugh Carthy’s first Grand Tour
For those who have followed Hugh Carthy’s career for a number of years, it is no surprise to have seen his progression which has resulted in a move to Cannondale-Drapac next season.
His win in the Vuelta Asturias in the spring, coupled with ninth place at the Tour of Catalunya, have shown that he can compete alongside the best stage racers in the world.
How he will fare in three weeks of racing is an unknown, but a stage win is not out of the question. If you don’t know much about the Lancastrian yet, the chances are you will come the middle of September.
Who will win the sprints?
If you’re a fan who likes to bet on cycling, probably wise to save your money for the mountain stages and not the sprints.
Such is the mountain-heavy course, teams have left their sprinters at home or entered them in races that are better suited to the Qatar World Championships course, such as the Tour of Britain.
Out of the 11 riders more commonly classed as sprinters, just four have Grand Tour stage wins to their name: Giant-Alpecin’s Nikias Ardnt’s Giro d’Italia win this year, Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data) won a Vuelta stage in 2015, Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data) has six in his collection and Danielle Bennati (Tinkoff) 11.
Sprinting won’t be of the highest order, but we may see new names emerge.