It is 22 years since the Vuelta a España was shifted from its late April slot in the calendar to its current position after the Tour de France with the world championships on the horizon.
The notion then – propounded by the architect of the move, the late Hein Verbruggen – was that the race would be a post-Tour revenge match, where the riders who had slipped up in France could try to salvage their seasons.
It has taken a while but that is now how the Vuelta looks, partly because Team Sky’s dominance of the Tour since 2012 – five wins from a possible six – has meant Grand Tour specialists have frequently been disappointed in recent seasons, and thus have no option but to look to Spain for redemption.
Along with Chris Froome, who is looking to become the first rider since the calendar change to win both in the same year, six of the top 10 in the Tour lineup will be in Nimes on Saturday: Romain Bardet, Fabio Aru, Simon Yates, Louis Meintjes, Alberto Contador and Warren Barguil. That, plus the presence of Vincenzo Nibali, Ilnur Zakarin and Adam Yates, makes this almost as tough a proposition as the Tour itself.
Froome is aiming for a double last achieved by Bernard Hinault in 1978 but he has no option other than to aim high. In hindsight, he probably had his best chance to win in Spain in 2011, when he was sacrificed in favour of Bradley Wiggins on a course that favoured him, and a surprise package in Juan-José Cobo snuck through.
Although only Hinault and his fellow Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (in 1963) have won both Vuelta and Tour, recent history shows that Froome’s goal may be a difficult one but it is far from unrealistic. Since 1995, four riders have finished on the podium in both the Vuelta and Tour in the same year – Joseba Beloki, Carlos Sastre, Froome and Nairo Quintana – and of those only Sastre (2008), Froome and Quintana (both in 2016) won either one.
“The Vuelta is a race I love doing but it’s relentless,” said Froome this week. “The course is always a lot more mountainous than the Tour de France and the conditions are tougher. Being mid-August in Spain, it’s quite common to have temperatures up in the mid 40s – it’s brutal. Absolutely brutal
“One thing that really sets the Vuelta apart from other races is where it is in the season – towards the tail end. You have this mixture of riders who have targeted the Vuelta specifically, and they are in fantastic shape. You have other riders who are coming off a big season already, and hanging on to whatever condition they’ve got, and people who possibly have missed their goals earlier in the season and the Vuelta is their chance to salvage what could have been a tough year for them. Typically, it makes it a very aggressive race.”
The course in this year’s Vuelta is particularly difficult, following a pattern set in recent years, when mountain stages predominate. Of the 21 stages, 13 are mountainous or hilly. The climbing starts on day three to Andorra, and after that there are no fewer than nine mountain-top finishes – varying widely in steepness and length – culminating in the penultimate stage’s ascent of the ludicrously steep Alto de l’Angliru, where Sky lost the 2011 Vuelta when Froome waited for Wiggins as Cobo attacked.
The wearing-down process is relentless but – compared to the Tour de France at least – there is also a tendency for huge upsets, as in the now legendary stage to Fuente Dé where Contador won the 2012 race and last year’s stage to Formigal where Contador and Quintana put Froome on the ropes.
The Vuelta’s unpredictable nature stems partly from the time of year and the fact that as the end of the season nears the contenders’ form becomes uncertain. For example, it is not clear quite what Bardet, Barguil and Contador – influential riders in any stage race – are actually out to achieve, which makes the next three weeks hard to read.
The collective state of the peloton also has an impact. Because this is the end of the season, teams appear in Spain with weaker lineups than at the Tour, some bring experimental squads – there are over 60 contenders for the under-25 prize at this year’s race – and others are simply running on air. Of this year’s wild-card entries, Ireland’s Aqua Blue will be focused on breakaways and sprints for Adam Blythe but Caja Rural and the Colombians from Manzana Postobon will have an impact when the road goes uphill, as it so frequently will.
All this means it can be tough for any team to control the race; Sky’s lineup is strong but lacks the two key men who made Froome’s Tour win happen: Mikel Landa and Michal Kwiatkowski. Froome is the favourite, particularly as there is a time trial mid-race that will be to his advantage, but nothing can be taken for granted. Far from it.
Five contenders to win the Vuelta a España
Chris Froome: The quadruple Tour de France winner is the most likely winner: the relentless climbing will favour him, so too the fact that he ended the Tour far more strongly than in other years, implying that he has gauged his buildup correctly. The long time trial stage will help, and his Team Sky squad is probably the strongest in the race even though the anarchic nature of the Vuelta will do them no favours.
Vincenzo Nibali: Last seen at the Vuelta in 2015, when he was thrown off the race for hanging on to his team car, the Italian will hope for better things as he aims for a fifth Grand Tour win of his career. After Froome and Contador, the Italian is the most experienced Tour racer in the world, and he comes to the race relatively fresh. However, he may well lose time in the time trial and his Bahrain-Merida team looks weak.
Orica-Scott: Both Adam and Simon Yates have performed well in Grand Tours this season and along with the Colombian Esteban Chavez – perhaps their best hope for the overall as he should be fresh – Orica have three options for the overall. They are an experienced unit but much will depend on how ambitious the team is: often Orica target the best young rider jersey and stick at that but all of their three are capable of far more than that.
Fabio Aru: Much depends on how the Italian has recovered from the Tour de France, where he shone early on, only to flounder in the final week. But Aru is a former Vuelta winner, so the event will hold no fears, and early in the Tour he climbed better than Froome on the uphill finish at La Planche des Belles Filles. He could shine on the steep finishes but the chances of Astana giving him much support look slim.
Alberto Contador: The last hurrah for the finest Grand Tour rider of his generation, who has been given the No1 dossard in honour of his achievements. However, his best Vuelta rides have tended to come when he has skipped the Tour de France or cut it short. He is probably just too old to win it but is bound to impact on it in some way. Just a stage win will be emotional for him and for Spain.