Simon Yates defending the red jersey
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The second week of the Vuelta will start with a new rider in the red jersey, after Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) took overall leadership of the race by a mere one second ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) on Sunday’s stage nine.
He has of course had recent experience of leading a Grand Tour, having lead the Giro d’Italia for a whole 13 days earlier in the season, and if his approach then is anything to go by – when he attacked relentlessly, winning three stages in the process – then we could be in for an exciting, attacking second week.
His intention had apparently been to ride more conservatively at the Vuelta, wary of the way exhaustion overcame during the final few days of the Giro, but instinct got the better of him on stage four when he attacked the peloton on the finishing climb.
It was the 27 seconds he gained that day that contributed most to him now taking the red jersey.
Whether Yates chooses to mostly follow wheels to defend the jersey, or to go out on the attack in order to try and extend his lead, could be one of the intriguing storylines of the second week.
Slim pickings for sprinters
The Vuelta isn’t exactly known for its generosity towards sprinters, and the first week certainly upheld the race’s reputation with just one stage (won by Quick-Step Floors’ Elia Viviani) culminating in a pure bunch sprint.
The second week does at least open with a straightforward flat stage from Salamanca to Fermoselle, which the likes of Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Danny van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) – who won the sprint from a depleted peloton on stage six – will be desperate to make the most of.
Stage 12 at least provides the possibility of another bunch finish, but, in typical Vuelta fashion, features undulating terrain and narrow roads towards the end that could swing the advantage in favour of breakaways.
Stage 11, meanwhile, is a full-on medium mountain stage, with four classified climbs and many more unclassified rises that looks like perfect territory for the the break to succeed. Expect their to be an almighty tussle among canny stage-hunting specialists like Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Omar Fraile (Astana) to get into the day’s break.
A hat-trick of deadly summit finishes
The second week ends with three mountainous stages in Asturias that will have a huge impact on how the race will unfold.
Each ends in an especially difficult final climb, that the GC favourites will have to be on the very top of their game for in order to remain in overall contention.
First up is La Camperona on stage 13, an uneven 8km climb that features some of the steepest gradients in the whole race, and where Chris Froome successfully put time into his rivals in 2014.
Stage 14’s finishing climb of Les Praeres – a new addition to the Vuelta – only lasts 5km, but will also cause carnage with a scarcely believable average gradient of 13.5 per cent.
The best is saved ‘till last, however, with stage 15 finishing atop Lagos de Covadonga, a staple of the Vuelta for many years that always guarantees drama, and a much longer effort at over 12km.
The favourites to emerge
Although there was some semblance of a GC sort-out at the top of stage nine’s summit finish at La Covatilla, with Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Miguel Ángel López (Astana), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) breaking clear from the rest, the time gaps produced were nowhere near big enough to be decisive.
In fact, the top of the GC remains very clustered, with a total of 13 riders still separated by less than 1-30.
As a result, even though we’ve already had two official summit finishes, the race remains very open – although that’s all set to change once the riders reach Asturias and the serious climbs.
By the end of the week, it’s likely that just three or four riders will remain still in realistic contention for the overall victory. Discovering who those riders will be ought to make for some thrilling entertainment this week.
Riders hone Worlds preparations
Not every rider at the Vuelta has the priority of peaking just yet – many are building their form with an eye towards the World Championships at the end of the month.
Given its position in the calendar, the Vuelta is always considered a key preparatory race for the Worlds, but this year especially so given the mountainous nature of the course in Innsbruck.
Among those honing their form are Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who may be out of overall contention for the red jersey, but still has time to fully recover from the back injury sustained at the Tour, and improve his condition enough to enter the Worlds road race as a favourite; and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who looks to be steadily improving, and will want train his climbing legs as well as possible in anticipation of the difficult climbs on the Worlds circuit.
The mountainous stages at the end of week two will therefore not only prove fascinating in terms of who will win the Vuelta, but also as an insight as to who will be in contention for the rainbow jersey.