Preview: Your guide to the 2020 Vuelta a España

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The Giro d’Italia is still going, the Tour of Flanders happened last weekend, the world championships was held a few weeks before that, and now the Vuelta a España is about to begin. Yep, it’s been weird year.

Starting this Tuesday October 20 and running until November 8, the 75th edition of Spain’s Grand Tour won’t be your normal bike race. Assuming it all goes as planned — far from a certainty — here’s what you can expect.

The race

At the time of writing Spain is in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus, with daily case numbers roughly double what they were back in March. The capital of Madrid, where the race is set to end in a few weeks, is currently under partial lockdown. Will the race make it that far? I wouldn’t want to put money on it.

A mobile COVID-testing lab will follow the Vuelta around and riders will be tested several times throughout the race. Fans are being banned from a bunch of mountain passes and the race won’t have a publicity caravan. In other words, precautions are certainly being taken, but who knows how long the race will last.

The course

On the subject of coronavirus, this year’s Vuelta has been stripped back from 21 stages to 18. It was originally set to start with three stages in the Netherlands, but those were chopped out due to ‘The Rona’ and the race will instead start with what would have been stage 4.

This year’s Vuelta starts in the Basque Country in the north east of Spain and stays in the northern half of the country for the entire 18 days.

According to race organisers, this year’s Vuelta comprises the following:

– 4 flat stages
– 8 hilly stages
– 5 mountain stages
– 1 individual time trial
– 2 rest days (after stage 6 and stage 12)

If it wasn’t clear from that breakdown, this is a race for the climbers. Of the 13 days designated as hilly or mountain stages, six finish with decent climbs to the line. The stage 13 individual time trial also finishes on a climb (1.8 km at a punishing 14.8% gradient).

The profile for the stage 13 ITT.

The race for red

As the Giro is reminding us, changes in the GC are possible on just about any stage of a Grand Tour, whether due to the route, the conditions, rider mishaps, or, most importantly, how the stages are raced. This year’s Vuelta is no exception — the climbing starts on stage 1 and just about every day has some sort of difficulty for the GC contenders to be mindful of.

Still, there are a handful of stages that seem particularly conducive to changes in the GC battle:

Stage 3: Finishes with a category 1 climb (8.6 km at 5.8%).
Stage 6: Three big mountains including the Col du Tourmalet to finish (19 km at 7.4%).

Stage 6 ends over in France on the Col du Tourmalet.

Stage 8: Finishes atop the Alto de Moncalvillo (8.3 km at 9.2%).
Stage 11: A category 3 climb to start, then four category 1 climbs. The stage finishes atop the last of them: 16.5 km at 6.2%.
Stage 12: A bunch of climbing then the infamously hard L’Angliru to finish (12.4 km at 9.9%).

Stage 13: A largely flat 33.7 km ITT apart from the steep ramp at the very end. Bike changes are likely.
Stage 17: A whole lot of climbing then the Covatilla climb to finish (11.4 km at 7.1%).

The penultimate stage of the Vuelta and the last chance for the GC men.

The timing of this year’s Vuelta creates an interesting little wrinkle for the race. These days it’s not really possible for riders to be competitive on GC at both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same season. The Tour normally starts a little over a month after the Giro finishes — not really enough time to fully recover from the Giro and be fresh for three hard weeks at the Tour.

This year, the gap between the Tour and the Vuelta is even smaller than that: a month exactly. As such it’s going to be fascinating to see who’s recovered from their exertions at the Tour and who hasn’t. As we’ll see, almost all of the Vuelta’s GC contenders raced the Tour …

The GC contenders

Here are the riders we can expect to feature at the top of the general classification.

Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma): Roglic is the defending champion at the Vuelta, having won last year’s race by more than two and a half minutes. On paper, he’s got to be the big favourite for this year’s race too.

Roglic spent 11 days in yellow at the Tour de France.

The Slovenian has an incredible team around him, including Tom Dumoulin (seventh at the Tour) and Sep Kuss (one of the Tour’s strongest climbers), both of whom could lead Jumbo-Visma’s GC tilt if Roglic isn’t on great form. Roglic comes to the race after finishing second at the Tour de France last month. He was leading for much of the race and it was only in the penultimate stage time trial that he relinquished the lead to fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar.

Roglic will be keen to bounce back from that disappointment with another Vuelta win. He won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and was sixth at Worlds since the Tour, but will he have recovered enough for another three-week GC tilt? That might be the question.

Richard Carapaz and Chris Froome (Ineos-Grenadiers): It’s going to be fascinating to watch Froome at this year’s Vuelta. The two-time former winner is still on the way back from his massive crash at the Criterium du Dauphine last year, and just this week he’s said he’s not sure of his form coming into the Vuelta.

In his final race for Ineos (and his first Grand Tour since the 2018 Tour de France), Froome seems likely to ride in the service of Richard Carapaz. If Froome is up and about though, bear in mind that he’s one of the few GC contenders who didn’t race the Tour, so he might be quite fresh by the end of the ‘third week’ (such that it is this year).

Froome on his way to winning the 2017 Vuelta.

As for Carapaz, well, he might just be the biggest challenger to Roglic’s tilt at a second title. The Ecuadorian was parachuted into the Tour at the last minute and ended up as the team’s best rider in 13th. He looked very impressive in breakaways in the second half of the race but couldn’t come up with a win.

In what is a climber-friendly Vuelta, and after another month of conditioning, Carapaz should be in fine form to target ‘La Roja’. Arguably he might be a little fresher than most GC contenders as he wasn’t focused on GC every day at the Tour, unlike Roglic, say.

Alexsandr Vlasov (Astana): The Russian should currently be at the Giro d’Italia but illness forced him from the race on stage 2. He’s now lining up at the Vuelta and based on what we’ve seen this season, he could well be in the GC conversation.

Vlasov finished fifth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico just before the Giro, and he’s already got three wins for the year (including the Mont Ventoux Challenge). He can certainly climb and with the chance to lead Astana in his first Vuelta he’s a fascinating prospect. Keep an eye on him for sure.

Vlasov winning on an uphill finish at the 2020 Tour de La Provence.

Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): In Valverde and Mas, Movistar starts the Vuelta with the last two runners-up at the race. Mas had a breakout ride at the 2018 edition to finish second overall (with a stage win) while Valverde was second last year in what was his 11th top-10 finish at the race (he won the race back in 2009).

With Valverde seemingly slowing down (he is 40 after all) Mas would seem to be the best option for a strong GC result. He rode to an impressive fifth overall at the Tour last month — a career best — and assuming he’s recovered well, he’s capable of the same or better at the Vuelta.

Mas’ stage win at the 2018 Vuelta gave us one of the best victory salutes in recent memory.

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ): Pinot had another frustrating Tour, with a stage 1 crash derailing any grand plans he might have had. The Vuelta might be his chance for something approaching redemption.

He’s been sixth and seventh here in the past, he’s a two-time stage winner, and he should be right at home on the climber-friendly parcours. A lot of people will be hoping the unlucky Frenchman can post a good result over the next few weeks.

Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott): It’s been several years now since Chaves has been at his Grand Tour best but at this year’s Vuelta he looks set to ride for GC again. He was third at this race back in 2016 and is likely capable of similar again if everything falls his way.

Chaves has said that he came out of the Tour de France feeling good, and unlike many of the other top GC men he wasn’t racing full-gas every day for a good overall result. Maybe that helps him a little at the Vuelta. It’s going to be interesting to see how the Colombian goes.

Chaves was third in 2016 behind Quintana and Froome.

Guillaume Martin (Cofidis): The Frenchman was excellent at the Criterium du Dauphine then solid at the Tour where he finished 11th overall. He’s unlikely to challenge for the top spot at the Vuelta but he’s a great climber and assuming he’s recovered fully from the Tour, he should be aiming for a top 10 on debut.

The sprinters

As you might have already gathered there aren’t many opportunities for the sprinters at this year’s race. By my reckoning there are just four or five stages that could end in a bunch gallop.

Stages 4, 9 and 18 look almost certain to be a sprint (assuming wind doesn’t wreak havoc on stage 4, and that the race actually gets to Madrid on stage 18). Stages 10 and 14 are less clear. The former is 2 km at 5% to the finish line, which could go a number of different ways, while the latter has three cat-3 climbs and an uphill drag to the line.

Stage 9 is one of only a few that should end in a bunch sprint.

As you’d expect from a race with so few sprint stages there aren’t many of the top sprinters in attendance. But there’s still a few big names.

Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-QuickStep): The Irishman is coming off an excellent Tour de France where he won two stages (including on the Champs-Elysees) and the green jersey. He’s had a total of six stage wins for the year and should add to that at the Vuelta in the next few weeks.

Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe): The German has also snagged six wins this year but not nearly at the same level of racing as Bennett. He should be Bennett’s biggest rival in what is his first Grand Tour of the year, and will probably leave the race with a stage win.

Pascal Ackermann wins the final stage of the 2019 Tour of Guangxi.

Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates): The young Belgian has a couple wins this year but so far hasn’t shown himself to be in the same league as Bennett or Ackermann. Still, the Vuelta is often where young sprinters manage a breakthrough win, and the same could be true for Philipsen.

Dion Smith (Mitchelton-Scott): The Kiwi has had an impressive season and has a good sprint from a small group. He won Coppa Sabatini earlier in the year from a group of 19, and he was sixth at Milan-San Remo (fourth in bunch kick).

Jakub Mareczko (CCC): The Italian took three wins at the Tour de Hongrie earlier this year and has had great success in Asian racing throughout his career, but he’s yet to win a WorldTour race. He’ll struggle against the likes of Bennett and Ackermann, but he should still be in the mix.

Could Mareczko finally snag a WorldTour stage win?

Other riders to watch

Here are some other riders we’ll be keeping an eye on:

Michael Woods and Dani Martinez (EF Pro Cycling): It’s not quite clear whether EF will be targeting the GC at the Vuelta but either way they’ve got riders that’ll be worth watching. Dani Martinez won the Dauphine then took a stage win at the Tour de France and Michael Woods won a stage of the Vuelta in 2018 and was seventh overall in 2017. If stage wins are the team’s goal, watch for those two to be in the mix in the mountains.

Mike Woods celebrates his first career Grand Tour stage victory at the 2018 Vuelta.

Ben Dyball (NTT): This will be the first Grand Tour for the Aussie WorldTour debutant. With no real GC contender to work for, maybe the 31-year-old climber will get his chance in a breakaway? A lot of folks in Australia would be delighted to see that.

Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal): The aggressive Belgian hasn’t had his best year to date and he’ll likely be keen to have an impact in his debut Vuelta. Look for him to attack late on one of those stages with a climb not far from the finish.

The weather

Moving the Vuelta back to late October pushes it firmly into the Spanish autumn. As such it’s very unlikely to be raced in the punishingly hot conditions that often define the Vuelta.

In fact it’s very possible that snowfalls in the high mountains could affect the race. The Col du Tourmalet was covered in a blanket of snow a month ago, so there’s every chance stage 6 could be affected in some way.

How to watch it

If you’re in Australia, you’ll be able to catch every stage of the Vuelta live on SBS Viceland/SBS On Demand. Eurosport and its digital platforms will have coverage around the world. Flobikes will have coverage in Canada while NBC Sports and the Olympic Channel will have coverage in the USA.

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