It’s late August, which means it’s time for the third and final Grand Tour of the year: the Vuelta a España. Starting Saturday and running through September 11, the Vuelta is the Grand Tour that attracts the least attention. But with a tough course and a strong start list that includes three Grand Tour champions, this year’s race is sure to be an entertaining spectacle.
Here’s what you should know before tuning in.
Much of the race is concentrated in northern Spain
The 2016 Vuelta a España kicks off with a 27.8km team time trial in the Galicia region, in Spain’s far northwest. It’s not until stage 11 that the race really starts to head away from this corner of the country, heading east towards the Pyrenees over the course of five days.
It’s only in the last six days of the race that the Vuelta leaves the northern third of Spain, heading south east toward the Mediterranean coast before eventually swinging inland to the capital Madrid for the final, processional stage.
As usual, this year’s Vuelta is a race for the climbers
In recent years, organisers of the Vuelta a España have relied on the number and difficulty of the race’s uphill finishes to set their race apart. This year is no exception: with 10 uphill finishes, the winner will be a rider that excels when the road tilts skyward.
The uphill finishes start early in the race, too — there’s a 1.5km climb to finish stage 3, and a 4km climb to finish stage 4. In fact, of the first 10 stages, half finish uphill, with stage 10 featuring the biggest challenge to that point: a 12km ascent to Lagos de Covadonga on the eve of the first rest day.
Stage 14 is arguably the hardest of the race, with four large climbs in France for the riders to contend with, not least the 16km ascent to the finish atop the Col d’Aubisque. Stage 15 also features a long ascent to the finish, as too does stage 20 with its 21km ascent Alto de Aitana.
While this year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France each featured multiple individual time trials — including a tough uphill ITT in both — this year’s Vuelta has just one individual time trial.
Falling on stage 19, this 37km test into Calpe features some climbing in the first 12km, but after that it’s a rolling course favoring pure power.
With Froome, Contador, and Quintana in attendance, the battle for the red leader’s jersey will be intense
The Vuelta may not receive the same attention as the Giro or the Tour, but that doesn’t mean the best riders in the world don’t turn up. This year’s race is set to feature another red-hot battle for the general classification, and all without last year’s winner Fabio Aru (Astana). Likewise, last year’s second- and third-place riders, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) will not be competing.
Chris Froome (Sky) has already achieved his primary goal this season, winning a third Tour de France. But in his own words, Froome has “unfinished business” with the Vuelta, having finished second in 2011 and 2014, fourth in 2012, and having left the race last year with a fractured ankle.
Froome doesn’t have quite as strong a team around him as he did at the Tour, but will still be well served in the mountains by the likes of Ian Boswell and Leo Konig; Spaniard Mikel Landa was a last-minute no-show, due to a hip injury. The biggest question for Froome will be whether he’s still carrying fatigue from the Tour de France and Olympics, and, if so, what impact that might have on his race.
All going well, Froome should finish on the podium come Madrid, it may just be a case of which step.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) had a Tour de France to forget, crashing twice in the opening stages and eventually abandoning before the first rest day. But as he’s done in the past, Contador quickly recovered and turned his attention to his home Grand Tour, where he’ll attempt to take a record-breaking fourth overall victory.
In theory, and assuming he’s completely recovered from injuries sustained at the Tour, Contador should have an edge over his big rivals. He only raced nine stages of the Tour, meaning he should be fresher than Froome and Quintana. That said, he’s also had a recent tune-up, winning the 2.HC Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month.
While Contador is a few years past his explosive best, he’s still a force to be reckoned with, particularly on such a climbing-heavy course. As with Froome, an overall podium is par for Contador at this year’s Vuelta.
The form of Nairo Quintana (Movistar) is always something of a mystery, now even more so given his lack of racing since the Tour. He skipped the Olympics due to illness, but with Movistar backing the Colombian to “complete the treble of podiums in Grand Tours” (he’s won the Giro and finished on the Tour podium three times) it would seem the 26-year-old is fighting fit once again.
Just as he did at the Tour de France, Quintana will have the support of Alejandro Valverde at the Vuelta. Valverde himself is aiming for a top-10 overall which, according to Movistar, would make him the first rider to finish in the top 10 of all three of a season’s Grand Tours since the Vuelta was moved to September in 1995.
While having two riders on the same team riding for a high GC placing doesn’t always work out well, Quintana and Valverde have shown it’s something they’re more than capable of; the pair shared the 2015 Tour podium, and this year, Quintana was third while Valverde was sixth. A similar result seems realistic at the Vuelta, with Quintana possibly even further up the ladder depending on the form he brings into the race (and, crucially, into the third week of the race).
If the Giro d’Italia is anything to go by, there are a few others that could challenge for the GC
Two of the most impressive performers at this year’s Giro d’Italia were Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo). Neither were ranked among the five-star favourites for that race, but both enjoyed a stint in pink, with Chaves eventually finishing second overall and Kruijswijk fourth.
It was at last year’s Vuelta that Chaves really showed his potential as a GC rider, taking two stage wins and finishing fifth overall (after leading the race for three days). He took it up another notch at the Giro this year and should be right in the mix again at the Vuelta.
He should certainly be fresh — his only race since the Giro was the one-day Olympic road race earlier this month. All going well, a top five should be the expected result for Chaves. A podium is more than possible.
Steven Kruijswijk has only done one more race than Chaves since the Giro — the Clasica San Sebastian late last month. He too should go into the Vuelta feeling rested and motivated for a big result. Perhaps the biggest question facing Kruijswijk is that of his descending ability.
He was leading the Giro this year when he crashed on a stage 19 descent, waving goodbye to the maglia rosa in the process. One wonders whether descending has been a focus of Kruijswijk’s training in recent months, preparing for the likely attacks that will come from his GC rivals when the road turns downward.
For other contenders for the top 10 overall, look to Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez, Cannondale-Drapac’s Andrew Talansky, BMC Racing duo Samuel Sanchez and Tejay Van Garderen, South African talent Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida) — who finished eighth at the Tour de France and seventh in the Olympic road race — and possibly even British youngster Hugh Carty (Caja Rural-Seguros), who has impressed against quality opposition this year.
There aren’t many opportunities for the pure sprinters at this year’s Vuelta
It’s no coincidence that most of best sprinters in the world are giving the Vuelta a wide berth this year. The 10 summit finishes and two time trials mean the sprinters already have limited opportunities. Add plenty of climbing on the days with flatter finishes and you’ve got a race that doesn’t appeal to most of the fast finishers.
If you’re looking for pure sprint stages, you’ll find only one in this year’s Vuelta: the final stage into Madrid. But there will likely be other opportunities for the fastmen, particularly for those with a bit of climbing ability.
Stage 2 has a few climbs but should end in a (reduced) bunch sprint. Stage 5 has a flat finish as well, but a couple of climbs might thin out the pack towards the end. Stage 7 is hillier again, but will likely suit a reduced bunch kick as well.
Stage 16 is gradually uphill for most of the first 90km, with a couple of tough ramps along the way. But with a long descent and flat finish, it might be a day for another reduced bunch sprint. Stage 18 features a tough early climb but is a little easier from there, and again might suit a group of some size.
Beyond that, it’s all about the final stage in Madrid.
Absent from this year’s race are Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data), Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), meaning it will be the sport’s second-tier sprinters that get their shot in Spain.
Instead, riders like Giro d’Italia stage winner Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin), six-time Vuelta stage winner Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff), promising young sprinter Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo) and 2015 Vuelta stage winner Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data) will be battling for stage wins.
There are plenty of opportunities for breakaway riders
No fewer than eight stages of last year’s Vuelta were won from a daylong breakaway. With so many mountainous stages again this year, and with many of the “easier” stages still delivering plenty of climbing, the 2016 Vuelta is likely to provide a similar number of breakaway opportunities.
While it’s difficult to predict who might be looking to get up the road throughout the Vuelta, there are a handful of riders worth keeping an eye on if they do get clear. BMC’s Darwin Atapuma, for example, is a rider who enjoys getting away in the mountains. Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) has won mountainous stages of the Giro and the Tour from breakaways and will likely try to achieve the same at the Vuelta.
Former world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) should never be underestimated in any move he’s in (see stage 18 of last year’s Giro) and last year’s KOM winner Oscar Fraile (Dimension Data) is another to keep an eye on.
Rein Taaramae (Katusha) had success from the breakaway on stage 20 of the Giro earlier this year, Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) is capable of just about anything on a good day, and Orica-BikeExchange duo Amets Txurruka and Ruben Plaza will be keen to go off the front if not required by Esteban Chaves.
There are six must-watch stages
If you don’t have the luxury of being able to watch every stage of the Vuelta a España, you’ll need to pick and choose your days wisely. Here are the six stages we’d recommend watching:
August 28, Stage 9: A lumpy day with five climbs in the final, including a 5km ascent to finish
August 29, Stage 10: The first big summit finish of the race
August 31, Stage 11: Ends with the Peña Cabarga climb, a brutal 6km at 9.8%
September 3, Stage 14: The hardest stage of the race with four big climbs in the French Pyrenees, including the Col d’Aubisque to finish
September 4, Stage 15: Another big day in the Pyrenees with an almost-30km climb to the finish
September 10, Stage 20: The final day to decide the GC including a 21km stage-ending climb
You’ll need to check your local TV guides for coverage information
In Australia at least, the Vuelta doesn’t see as much live TV coverage as the Giro and the Tour do. That said, SBS is showing stages 14 through 21 live, to the eastern states at a minimum. For Foxtel subscribers, the race will also be live on Eurosport (Channel 511) from about 11pm AEST each night.
Viewers in the U.S. will be able to catch delayed coverage of the Vuelta on NBCSports from 7-9pm ET or live-streaming between 8:50am and noon each day. If you’re in the UK, your best bet will be to catch live coverage on Eurosport (from 1:45pm GMT) or, alternatively, catch nightly highlights on ITV from 7pm onwards.
Who’s your pick for the 2016 Vuelta a España? And how do you think the race will unfold?