The Vuelta a España “feels different” this year and open to any possible winner with few star riders aiming for the overall when the races finishes in Madrid in two weeks.
Stars like Team Sky‘s Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) are taking a break from Grand Tours after the Tour de France. Thomas topped the Tour podium ahead of Dumoulin and Froome, the latter two already raced each other in the Giro d’Italia with Froome coming out on top.
“Yeah, it actually is,” Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data) said when asked about the Vuelta being more open than ever before. “Except for Team Movistar, who has top guys coming here in good form, the race is all unknown.”
Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) leads the Vuelta classification in the red jersey. Behind the Englishman sit a variety of riders within one minute of each other.
Alejandro Valverde and his Movistar team-mate Nairo Quintana are breathing down Yates’s neck. Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), only 25 years old, sits in fourth at 16 seconds. Ion Izagirre leads Team Bahrain-Merida with Vincenzo Nibali still recovering from his Tour de France crash. Frenchman Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale) sits sixth, and New Zealander George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) rounds out the top 10.
The names are not the ones many experts would have predicted prior to the race start over a week ago in Málaga. The Grand Tour appears open to any possible script.
“Normally, there is someone coming here trying not to lose the race, but this year you can’t say that from the start,” Meintjes added. “There’s that uncertainty that Quintana and all of them have done Grand Tours before leading up to this. If Quintana was coming here and preparing only for the Vuelta, then he’d be that guy.”
Meintjes looked over to see Ben King preparing for the stage start. His American team-mate has already won two stages from escapes.
“Even the dynamic feels different you see that with breaks staying away,” added Meintjes. “And teams share the work, there is not just one team going to the front and closing it down.”
“It’s an open Vuelta, with many riders within seconds from each other,” said Sergio Henao, who is working to protect the Sky leaders like Michal Kwiatkowski.
“There’s not Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, and Vincenzo Nibali is here but is not going well after the crash. Rigoberto Urán looks good and also Miguel Ángel López. And there are strong young riders going for it, like Emanuel Buchmann. But let’s see, you can have bad days like the Covadonga and the long time trial.”
Kwiatkowski led the race for three days but crashed on Friday and on Sunday, when the race climbed to La Covatilla, he lost 2-04 minutes. However, he is still not far out of the classification battle and could play for the overall win when the Vuelta reaches the big mountain stages.
“It looks like it [is an open race], there are many riders who can win,” said Steve Cummings (Dimension Data). “You sometimes see the top 10, maybe a few days ago when there was a such a variety of guys in the top: climbers, GC riders and big riders like myself.
“There are a lot of young guys coming up. Simon Yates already showed what he can do but the younger riders are trying to find their own limits and maybe they don’t even know what they are capable of yet, and that’s really exciting for cycling.”
Dimitri Konyshev, sports director at Team Katusha, stood outside the bus at the start in Salamanca. Inside, his classification rider Ilnur Zakarin prepared to begin the second week of racing.
“We have to see when we get to the real mountains how open it is,” Konyshev said. “Yeah it’s open, but now you can’t say who is strong and who’s not.
“Even if there’s not Froome, we have Quintana as the clear favourite. He has a strong team too. Yates you can see is going strongly. It depends how he goes in the third week. We are going to see everything in the first big summit finish stage.”