Chris Froome's double chances, Alberto Contador's farewell, and a lot of summit finishes
Chris Froome goes for the double
The Tour de France/Vuelta a España double might not carry the same mystique as the Giro/Tour double, but it’s proven to be even more elusive in recent years. It’s been 39-years since the former was last achieved by Bernard Hinault – in which time the latter has been done on six occasions – and no rider has managed it since the Vuelta moved to its current spot in the calendar.
Now, having wrapped up another victory in the Grand Boucle last month, the Briton will once more line-up at the Vuelta with the steadfast intention of winning.
He’ll go in as favourite, too. Sure, he didn’t look at is scintillating best at the Tour, and sure, the Vuelta a España start list is full of big names, but none of them appear to possess the lethal cocktail of form, fresh legs and Grand Tour-winning know-how as Quintana had when beating him last year, and Alberto Contador in 2014.
Froome won’t be content with another runner-up slot to add to his collection – expect him to go all out for the win.
Alberto Contador bids farewell
It’s become clear over the past twelve months that age has begun to catch up with Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). He was off colour at last season’s Vuelta, finishing fourth, and went on this year to place ninth at the Tour, his lowest Grand Tour finish in over a decade.
The Spaniard subsequently announced his retirement, but not before taking on his home Grand Tour one last time. He may not have the legs to win it for a fourth time in his career, but you can guarantee he’ll want to bow out with a bang.
His legacy will be mixed – we’ll remember him as a serial Grand Tour winner, who rode with panache and animated every race he was in, but who also as a representative of cycling’s dark generation of widespread doping.
Orica-Scott’s three-pronged attack
Having performed so well separately in Grand Tours over the past two seasons, it’s thought that together they could form a partnership similar to the Schlecks a few years ago, attacking in tandem and looking out for each other in the mountains.
In a very strong line-up, they’ll also be joined by Esteban Chaves. The Colombian has greater pedigree in Grand Tours, having made the podium twice already (including third at last year’s Vuelta), so could yet emerge as the team’s best hope for a high GC placing, depending on his fitness and form following four weeks off from racing.
In fact, Orica-Scott’s squad is arguably the strongest in the race. Climber Carlos Verona is a quality climbing domestique, Magnus Cort Nielsen is capable of winning sprints, while young rider Jack Haig – who starred at the Tour of Poland last month – looks a star in the making.
Having so far failed to live up to the standards set in last year’s Grand Tours (a seventh and a ninth finish at the Tour and Giro respectively, compared with three top four finishes in 2016), the Aussie team will be eager to push for overall victory with at least one of their star trio.
Watch: Vuelta a España 2017 essential guide
Returning Tour de France stars
As well as Froome, plenty other stars from the Tour de France will resume battle on Spanish roads.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Fabio Aru (Astana) will take part having both caused Froome problems during July, the former finishing third and the latter briefly wearing the yellow jersey, while King of the Mountains winner Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb) also lines up.
The question will be whether any of them have the form to compete for the overall. Unlike Froome, who had always planned to double up, these riders never had any such concrete plan to ride the Vuelta, and may therefore lack the necessary preparation.
Instead, GC contenders who enter the race with fresher legs – such as Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and especially Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) – could emerge as Froome’s main rivals.
If there’s one thing the Vuelta is known for, it’s summit finishes, and the organisers have upheld that reputation by including nine in this year’s race.
These climbs are spread out across the race, with three in each week. They start out steep but not particularly long, with the finishes at Ermita Santa Lucia, Xorret de Cati and Cumbre del Sol on stages five, eight and nine respectively all likely to play host to dramatic slow-mo sprints but not a full-on GC battle.
Things get serious in the second week, where riders face Andalusian summit finishes of increasing difficulty, from the category one Observatorio Astronomico de Calar Alto on stage 11 to the ‘especial’ La Pandera and Sierra Nevada on stages 14 and 15 respectively.
If that’s not enough decisively split the favourites, there are two more monstrous finishes in the final week atop Los Machucos and Angliru on stages 17 and 20, with a much more modest category three finish sandwiched in between on stage 18.
Alto de l’Angliru
If you watch just one stage of the Vuelta, make sure it’s stage 20.
Why? Because that stage finishes atop the infamous Alto de l’Angliru, a climb of such intimidating size and absurd steepness that has already been written into cycling folklore despite only first being used at the Vuelta in 1999.
It’s always an extraordinary spectacle, most recently playing host to battles between Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali in 2013, and Juan Jose Cobo and Chris Froome in 2011.
Though only one stage (to Madrid) remains after this one, whoever is in the lead cannot rest easy until they’ve reached the top of the Angliru, regardless of the size of their lead. Have a bad day here, and the slopes of 10% could potentially lose you multiple minutes.
Chances for youthful riders
In between the race’s many summit finishes are chances for sprinters and breakaway specialists.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) is the biggest name sprinter on the start list and should therefore expect to win at least one stage, but there will likely be a number of less recognisable, younger riders to compete in the opening week bunch finishes – 24-year old Magnus Cort Nielsen, for instance, won two stages last year, and has been on good form lately.
The hillier stages of the race provide plenty of opportunities for breakaways to succeed, which in recent Vueltas have seen many surprise names land breakthrough wins for themselves. Many currently little-known riders will be eyeing up these chances to make a name for themselves.