An opening time trial
The 2018 Vuelta a España will begin with an individual time trial in Malaga.
At just 8km, it’s too short to have a significant impact on the GC in the grand scheme of things, though overall contenders who are strong against the clock such as Richie Porte (BMC) and Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) will want to maximise any chance they get to gain time in what is largely a climber-friendly route.
The real intrigue lies with who will win the stage. Not only is the acclaimed prize of a Grand Tour stage win on offer, but also the chance to wear the red jersey as the race’s first overall leader.
Of the riders to have confirmed their participation so far, there are two outstanding candidates – Rohan Dennis (BMC), who is seeking to complete the set of stage wins in all three of the Grand Tours, and Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), who is on great form having recently won the Tour of Poland, and will relish the chance to ride with more freedom with no obvious leader to reserve himself for.
Early summit finishes
Tough uphill finishes as early as the opening week are one of the most familiar aspects of recent Vueltas, and the 2018 route is no exception.
In fact, the first summit finish occurs as early as stage two, even before the sprinters have had to contest a bunch sprint – although with an average of little over three per cent, the 5.5km Alto de la Mesa shouldn’t put any genuine overall contenders into trouble.
The finish of stage four, however, is atop a full-blown mountain, consisting of a whole 12km of climbing to get to the summit. Again, it isn’t steep, with an average gradient of 5.4 per cent, but will prove more selective than stage two.
The GC favourites will have to be attentive, but the stage win isn’t likely to be contested by the pure climbers. Instead, climbers with the punchiest accelerations like Dylan Teuns (BMC) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) or climbers who can also sprint like Michael Woods (EF Education-First Drapac) and, again, Michal Kwiatkowski will be among the favourites.
In between the relentless climbing and undulating roads, there will be some chances for the sprinters.
Stages three and six look like the only nailed-on sprints, and even they are held over bumpy roads that could be conducive towards surprise breakaway wins.
Stages five and seven look finely balanced, both featuring late final climbs (a category two 26km from the line in the former, and a category three 12km out in the latter) that should set up tense chases between attackers and the bunch.
Most of the parcours of stage eight is flat, but a sting in the tale in the form of an uphill finish that will ruin things for pure sprinters, and looks instead perfectly suited to Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Sagan should be up there in the bunch sprints, too, but Elia Viviani looks the best bet to pick up a haul of sprint wins given his form at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, and Quick-Step Floors perfection of lead-out trains.
Others to look out for include Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), winner of four stages last year; Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), who will be seeking some positive headlines for once; emerging young star Phil Bauhaus (Sunweb); and the consistent Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo).
Unsurprisingly, the rider with the most potential to be the star of the opening week is a certain Peter Sagan.
Making his first appearance at the Vuelta after his shocking collision with a motorbike in 2015, Sagan could – depending on how well he has recovered from a draining Tour de France – be involved in the action on almost every stage this week.
The short distance of the opening time trial could allow him to post a time that puts him in contention to gain the leader’s jersey the following day, which is the kind of tough-but-not-too-tough summit finish he could feasibly win on.
He’ll be a contender for stage wins in the bunch sprints, of course, and a sure bet for stage eight’s uphill finish, and could even try his hand at attacking on some of the hillier stages.
The first serious test of this year’s Vuelta a España occurs at the very end of the first week on stage nine, with an uphill finish atop La Covatilla.
This is the kind of climb in which there will be no hiding. Unusually for the Vuelta, it is a very long effort – over 20km in fact, with a final 8km that averages over eight per cent.
If its last appearance at the 2011 edition is anything to go by, when Dan Martin won from an elite group of six that made it to the finish together that also included the eventual podium finishers Juan José Cobo, Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins, it will be a crucial climb.
It’s here where we’ll find out how well those, such as Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Richie Porte (BMC) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) have recovered from the Tour, against the comparatively more rested Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates).
The heat of Southern Spain
The whole of the opening week will take place south of Madrid, with the first six stages all confined to Andalucia, the southernmost region of the country.
One consequence of this could be the heat. The average temperature in Andalucia during August is as high as 28 degrees, which would make for some uncomfortable racing.
There are certain riders who are known to struggle in such conditions – Thibaut Pinot, for instance, and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), whose underwhelming ride at the Tour was put down to the high temperatures.
Riders who might otherwise have been overall contenders could see their chances go up in smoke as early as the first week if this European summer continues to be as hot as it has been.