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by Matt de Neef
August 19, 2017
Photography by Cor Vos and Kristof Ramon
The third and final Grand Tour of the season is upon us. The 2017 Vuelta a España, the Tour of Spain, will be contested over 21 stages and more than 3,300km. Here’s what you need to know before tuning in to watch the 2017 Vuelta.
The race starts outside Spain for just the third time ever.
The 2017 Vuelta starts this Saturday in the French city of Nîmes — the first time the race has started in France. There are two stage finishes in France, one in Andorra, and then the race heads into Spain proper on stage 4.
The route takes the riders down Spain’s east coast and through to the Sierra Nevada by the end of the second week. There’s a long transfer to the north of Spain on the second rest day, as the riders tackle a handful of stages in the country’s northern reaches. Then there’s a final transfer after the penultimate stage, setting the scene for the traditional finale in Madrid.
The route features plenty of climbing and many uphill finishes.
Where this year’s Tour de France only had a handful of decisive stages for the GC, the Vuelta has quite a few. There are five mountain-top finishes, three other uphill finishes of between 2km and 5km long, and another three stages with a tough climb not far from the line.
The winner of the 2017 Vuelta will certainly have to be a strong climber. Not only that, but a climber that can handle steep grades. The finish to stage 17 has ramps in excess of 20%, and stage 20 finishes with the Alto de l’Angliru, a 12.5km ascent at nearly 10%.
Stage 20, which finishes on the infamous Angliru climb, is one of many steep uphill finishes at this year’s Vuelta.
The winner of the 2017 Vuelta will also have to be a strong time triallist — in addition to a technical teams time trial on stage 1, there’s a long, flat individual time trial on stage 16. At 40km in length this stage will surely create some considerable time gaps and could have a significant impact on the general classification.
Chris Froome is probably the man to beat, but he’s got several big challengers.
Chris Froome (Sky) might have won the Tour de France four times but a Vuelta a España title has evaded his grasp thus far. He’s been second on no fewer than three occasions and has made it very clear that he wants to be a step higher in Madrid this time around.
Of the Vuelta’s big GC contenders, Froome is the strongest time trialist and he’ll be able to use that to put pressure on his rivals. It might even be that Froome puts some time into his rivals in the TTT and they’re left to play catch-up from day 1.
Froome looked more vulnerable at this year’s Tour than we’ve seen in a long time, and yet he still managed to take a fourth title. What that will mean for the Vuelta is unclear, but were he to win, he’d be the first rider to do the Tour-Vuelta double since Bernard Hinault achieved the feat in 1978.
Worth noting: Froome won’t have his strongest domestiques to work for him at the Vuelta, but a squad including Mikel Nieve, Wout Poels and Diego Rosa still gives him what is arguably the strongest line-up in the race.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) won the Vuelta back in 2010 and was second in 2013. He hasn’t been back since he was unceremoniously disqualified for hanging on to a car on stage 2 of the 2015 edition.
Nibali was third at the Giro d’Italia earlier in the season and has only raced twice since then. He wasn’t at his best in either of those races but certainly shouldn’t be underestimated at the Vuelta. He is a rider that often seems to get better in the final week of Grand Tours, just as his rivals are starting to falter. That said, if it’s the stage 16 time trial that splits the GC contenders, Nibali will likely be beaten by Froome in the overall.
Fabio Aru (Astana) won the Vuelta in 2015 and he goes into this year’s race as one of the big contenders.
Aru had an impressive Tour de France, winning stage 5, and later spending a couple days in the yellow jersey, before eventually going on to finish fifth overall. Another Vuelta title isn’t out of reach for the Sardinian, but he’ll need to make sure he avoids losing time in unlikely places, like he did on stage 14 of the Tour to fall out of yellow.
There’s also a question about Aru’s resilience in the final week of Grand Tours which he’ll need to answer if he wants to win against such a quality field. (Froome crashed out of the 2015 Vuelta). Aru’s time-trialling, too, will need to be excellent.
Aru won the Vuelta in 2015 but should face tougher opposition this year.
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) has never raced a Grand Tour that isn’t the Tour de France, so the Vuelta will be unexplored territory for him. Thankfully for his confidence he’s been excellent at the Tour de France in recent years, finishing third this year and second last year.
Bardet will be right at home on the many climbs of this year’s Vuelta, but the stage 16 time trial could prove a little more challenging.
Orica-Scott goes into the Vuelta with three would-be contenders for the GC in Esteban Chaves, and Adam and Simon Yates. Both of the Yates twins have won the white jersey and finished in the top 10 at the Tour, while Simon was a stage winner and sixth overall at last year’s Vuelta.
Chaves, meanwhile, was third at last year’s Vuelta and fifth in 2015. He’s had a very disrupted year due to injury, however, and will be hard pressed to match or better those feats in 2017.
While Orica-Scott has three good options for the GC (and for stage wins), they’re probably lacking a rider with the same all-round ability as Froome. Chaves and the Yates brothers might be able to stay with Froome on the climbs, but Froome will almost certainly put time into them in the individual time trial.
Chaves is one of three GC options for Orica-Scott at this year’s Vuelta.
Beyond the big favourites, there’s a host of other would-be challengers.
There’s arguably no rider on the startline with greater motivation to win this year’s race than Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo). Contador is the most successful Vuelta rider on the startlist, and equal-second on the all-time winners list with three overall titles (2008, 2012 and 2014) And, significantly, it’s his final race ever as a pro.
Contador hasn’t been at his very best for a couple years now and it’s hard to see him winning the Vuelta, but he certainly isn’t there to roll gently into retirement. Contador will go on the attack whenever he feels he can, and if he needs time in the closing stages, we might see one of his trademark long-range attacks, like the one that won him the 2012 Vuelta (see video below).
Contador will wear the #1 dossard at this year’s race — a nice gesture from the race organisers — and he’ll hopefully put on one final show for his many fans around the world.
Rafal Majka (Bora-hansgrohe) was third at the 2015 Vuelta behind Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez and he’s certainly capable of a good result this time around too. The Pole has shown good form of late, finishing second overall at the Tour of Poland earlier this month. He was also 10th overall on GC at the Tour before a crash forced him out of the race.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) rode his way to an impressive fifth place in this year’s Giro and while he’s been quiet since, the Russian time trial champ is likely to figure in this year’s Vuelta. A top five is certainly within his reach here too, particularly if he’s able to put in a good time trial on stage 16.
This time last year we might have been talking about Steven Kruijswijk as LottoNL-Jumbo’s main man for the Vuelta, but in 2017 it’s George Bennett. The team might well go in with a two-leader strategy, but it’s the Kiwi that has shown the best form this year.
Bennett was an impressive (if surprising) winner at the Tour of California, and got as high as ninth at the Tour de France before crashing out. He was 10th at last year’s Vuelta and will be aiming for a result as or if not more impressive in 2017.
Warren Barguil (Sunweb) was one of the sensations of this year’s Tour de France, winning two stages, the KOM classification, and placing 10th overall. A similar return at the Vuelta is certainly possible for the charismatic Frenchman.
Louis Meintjes (UAE-Team Emirates) has finished eighth at the last two editions of the Tour de France, a great effort from a rider who seems to slip under the radar somewhat. He’s not a rider that’s likely to ride away from his rivals in the hills, but he can usually do enough to stay with the big favourites long enough to limit his losses. The South African was 10th at the 2015 Vuelta, and he too will be pushing for another top 10 this year.
For other contenders for the top 10, look to Bob Jungels (QuickStep Floors), who was eighth at the Giro this year, and possibly former German champion Emmanuel Buchman (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Bob Jungels has spent some time leading the Giro in the past two seasons. Could he feature at the Vuelta as well?
There are very few chances for the sprinters at this year’s Vuelta.
The Vuelta a España doesn’t tend to be a terribly sprinter-friendly race, and this year’s race is no exception.
There are just four stages in this race that should come down to a sprint finish, and two of those have a climb in them that, if the conditions are right, could put the sprinters in difficulty. Stage 2 and stage 21 are the only pan-flat stages for the pure sprinters, while stage 4 has a Cat 3 climb halfway through and stage 13 has a Cat 3 climb right out of the start.
It’s no surprise then that there are almost no big-name sprinters at this year’s Vuelta.
Ten-time Vuelta stage winner John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) is probably the strongest sprinter in the field and the rider to beat on the few stages that end in a bunch kick. His biggest challenger will perhaps be Sacha Modolo (UAE Team Emirates) who has two Giro stage wins to his name, but who is lining up for his first Vuelta.
Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott) won two sprint stages at last year’s Vuelta and should feature in the flat finishes. Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport) has a fast turn of speed, as seen in his British National Championships win last year where he beat Mark Cavendish. Matteo Trentin (QuickStep Floors) has a handy kick as well and, with two stage wins at the Tour and one at the Giro, he knows how to win on the sport’s biggest stage.
Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal), too, shouldn’t be discounted.
There will be plenty of chances for the opportunists to shine.
While there are plenty of uphill finishes in this year’s Vuelta, and plenty of mountainous stages besides, not all of these days will be contested by the GC riders. Rather, it will be the riders of the breakaways, the opportunists, that will get their chance to fight for a stage win.
Omar Fraile (Dimension Data) pulled off a stunning win from the breakaway on stage 11 of this year’s Giro and can be counted on to get up the road when he spots an opportunity. Likewise his teammate Serge Pauwels who loves getting up the road in the mountains.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC) will start the Vuelta with hopes of a strong GC finish, but if those plans become unrealistic, he’ll likely go into stage-hunting mode. He did this to great effect at the Giro d’Italia, winning a stage and showing it’s perhaps where his greatest opportunities lie when it comes to Grand Tours.
Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) is racing the Vuelta for the first time, but the former world champion is no stranger to Grand Tour stage success. He’s a three-time Tour de France stage winner, and was second on three occasions at this year’s Giro. A very dangerous rider indeed.
Julian Alaphillippe (QuickStep Floors) has had a frustrating year courtesy of a knee injury, but if he’s back in decent form, he’s the sort of rider that can win in the mountains, or on a short, steep finish (of which this year’s race has several).
For other would-be stage winners, look to the likes of Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo), Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Giovanni Visconti (UAE Team Emirates) and Rein Taaramae (Katusha-Alpecin).
There are a handful of must-watch stages.
Very few people have the opportunity to watch every single stage of the Vuelta a España, particularly those of us in the Southern Hemisphere. If that’s the case for you, and you can only watch the occasional stage, here are the six stages we think you should watch.
Stage 3: The first mountain stage of the Vuelta. This stage in Andorra isn’t a summit finish, but with two Cat 1 climbs and a Cat 2 climb that peaks 7km from the line, it’s a stage the GC riders will need to be very attentive on.
Stage 11: Two Cat 1 climbs, separated by a 15km descent, conclude the stage. Both climbs are the best part of 15km long, making for a tough day in the saddle.
Stage 14: After a day on rolling roads, a 12km climb concludes the stage.
Stage 15: This stage in the Sierra Nevada finishes at an altitude of 2,500m with a climb of effectively 30km. A hard day!
Stage 17: A 7km stage-ending climb with an average grade of 10% and ramps well in excess of 20%.
Stage 20: A short stage (119km) but one that finishes atop what is one of Spain’s most feared climbs, the Alto de l’Angliru (12.5km at 9.8%). A brutal stage on the penultimate day of racing.
The race will be broadcast live around the world.
In Australia, each stage of the Vuelta will be broadcast live on free-to-air TV for the first time ever. SBS Viceland will be the place to look, with the coverage mirrored on the SBS OnDemand platform.
NBS Sports Online and Fubo.TV will have online streaming in the US, and Eurosport will have live daily coverage in nearly 60 countries. As ever, be sure to check your local guides for broadcast details.
The official hashtag for the race is #LV2017.
Who do you think will win the 2017 Vuelta a España? And what are you looking forward to most from the race?
CyclingTips intern Matt de Vroet contributed to this article.