The Vuelta a España podium in 2020.

Preview: Your guide to the 2021 Vuelta a España GC favorites, sprinters, and more

Some of cycling's biggest stars are set to do battle on a challenging Vuelta parcours.

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The final Grand Tour of the 2021 season gets underway on Saturday and as has been the case basically every year in recent memory, the Vuelta a España sure looks set to put on a great show.

Some of the sport’s biggest stars – including last year’s Vuelta winner, this year’s Giro d’Italia winner, and the rider who rode to third at the recent Tour de France – are set to do battle on what will be a very challenging parcours that will favor elite climbers without too many time trial kilometers on tap.

Matt de Neef took a closer look at that parcours in his excellent route analysis earlier this week. As for the big stars we’ll be looking to over the next three weeks to put on that great show, look no further: Here is your guide to the riders to watch at the 2021 Vuelta a España.

The GC picture

With the exception of reigning Tour champ Tadej Pogačar, most of the sport’s top GC riders will be in attendance at the Vuelta, which is pretty exciting, although it’s no surprise – this race has treated fans to thrilling showdowns between big names for years now.

At the very top of the list of pre-race favorites are stars from two teams. In one corner is the defending champ at the helm of a very strong squad. In the other corner are two Grand Tour winners and the rest of an exceptionally strong squad.

Primož Roglič and Richard Carapaz at the 2021 Vuelta a España.

The heavy hitters: Roglič and Jumbo-Visma vs. Bernal, Carapaz, and the Ineos Grenadiers

When it comes to the battle for the red jersey, it’s hard to overlook the brewing showdown between the defending champion and his strong squad and an absolutely powerhouse Ineos Grenadiers team. Primož Roglič knows how to win the Vuelta, he’ll be motivated to go for the three-peat after abandoning the Tour de France, and he’ll have great lieutenants in Steven Kruijswijk and Sepp Kuss. However, reigning Giro d’Italia champ and former Tour winner Egan Bernal and former Giro champ and last year’s Vuelta runner-up Richard Carapaz headline an Ineos squad that rivals their Tour lineup – which at least seemed like one of the most fearsome teams in recent memory, before it was derailed by crashes.

Roglič has the edge with the bookies as the race looms. He proved with his gold medal in the Olympic time trial that he is healthy, and he is coming into the race without as much mileage on the tires as he might have expected from this season considering he pulled out of the Tour before stage 9. Although he almost certainly would have preferred more time trialing on the route, Roglič has consistently been one of the sport’s best climbers in its biggest races over the past two years as well. He can also rely on strong support in the mountains from Kruijswijk and Kuss, who can potentially be alternative cards to play for Jumbo-Visma too.

That said, the Ineos Grenadiers should present a challenge greater than any Roglič faced in his past two Vuelta wins. After a frustrating 2020 campaign, Bernal made a clear statement with his Giro victory earlier this year: if he’s healthy, he’s a top-flight Grand Tour contender.

Egan Bernal wins stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia.

The impact that his lingering back issues could have on him remains to be seen, but even at 90% of his best, Bernal can climb like few on the planet in the past decade, and there aren’t enough TT miles on this route to dent his chances too dramatically.

And even if he’s not at 90%, the Ineos Grenadiers have options. Carapaz finished last year’s race only 24 seconds behind Roglič in what was the narrowest GC margin for the race so far in the 21st century. With more firepower in his team this year and fresh off an Olympic gold medal in the road race, he is a serious threat for red, and the Ineos Grenadiers have to be looking forward to the chance to try a multi-pronged attack after crashes ended any hope of doing so within 72 hours of the Tour de France race start.

So: Bernal, and Carapaz … but it doesn’t stop there. Adam Yates joined the team this year after seven seasons with the Mitchelton-Scott organization, and he looked great in his one-week appearances at the start of the year, winning the Volta a Catalunya and riding to second at the UAE Tour behind Pogačar. He has yet to race a Grand Tour this year and you have to imagine that team leadership will give him an opportunity to do his own thing at the Vuelta. It’s the one Grand Tour where Yates has yet to land in the top 10, but at his best, he can be an explosive climber and doesn’t mind the kinds of steep gradients this race likes to throw at riders.

In other words, although the Ineos Grenadiers never really had the chance to send one big star after another up the road at the Tour, they have the tools to do so here. Plus, they’ve also got Grand Tour top 10 finisher in Pavel Sivakov, wunderkind Tom Pidcock (making his Grand Tour debut), Jhonatan Narváez, Salvatore Puccio, and Dylan van Baarle rounding out an exceptionally strong team.

Roglič may have the shortest odds of any single rider in this race, but fending off the collective strength of this Ineos team will be a very tall order. If we had to pick between Roglič and the field in this race, the latter sure looks pretty strong.

The challengers: Bahrain Victorious, last year’s third-place finisher, and Movistar

As much as this looks like it will be a battle between Jumbo-Visma and Ineos, there are plenty of big names on other squads hoping to crash the party sitting at the second tier of pre-race hopefuls. From a team firepower perspective, Bahrain Victorious seems to be the most likely to be in the mix.

Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious) during stage 4 of the 2021 Giro d’Italia.

Mikel Landa, who left the Giro only five days into the race, just won the Vuelta a Burgos. He will be both fresh and in-form for the Vuelta, and he’ll like the look of the parcours too. He should also benefit from having a surprisingly strong Bahrain squad around him. Mark Padun, who has been a revelation this season, just rode to third at the Vuelta a Burgos, and will likely be given some freedom over the next three weeks in Spain. Damiano Caruso, who became a Grand Tour runner-up at the Giro this year, will be another wildcard; can the longtime veteran catch lightning in a bottle for a second time this season? And then there’s Wout Poels, who rode to sixth overall in this race last year, and Jack Haig, who was enjoying a fine 2021 campaign before crashing heavily at the Tour. In other words, Bahrain Victorious is loaded.

Looking beyond Bahrain Victorious, Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo) will be another contender. After finishing third at last year’s Vuelta, his eighth at this year’s Giro wasn’t quite as strong a result as he might have hoped for, but he just won a stage at the Vuelta a Burgos, so the form looks to be there.

Movistar’s trio of Enric Mas, Miguel Ángel López, and Alejandro Valverde could also factor in the GC battle. López will like the route, and this is a chance for him to right the ship on the season after a crash knocked him out of contention early at the Tour. Mas, meanwhile, has finished as high as second overall at the Vuelta, and is coming off a nice ride at the Tour. And Valverde, a former Vuelta winner, was second as recently as 2019.

A few other contenders

Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-Premier Tech) is a really intriguing name for this race. Strong against the clock and on the climbs, he has really broken through these past two seasons, most recently riding to fourth overall at the Giro d’Italia. The field will be stronger at the Vuelta, but then, he’ll be coming into the event with more experience too. Astana-Premier Tech also has both Ion and Gorka Izagirre for the mountains.

Romain Bardet (DSM) is another rider to watch. On the one hand, he’s a two-time Tour podium finisher, he’s an expert climber gearing up to race on a climber-friendly route, and he looked good at the Vuelta a Burgos right up until the final stage. On the other hand, he hasn’t registered a Grand Tour top five since 2017, and he did drop from the lead at Burgos down to sixth overall on the last day of the race.

Romain Bardet wins stage 3 of the Vuelta a Burgos.

It wouldn’t be a huge surprise to see him battling for the win at the Vuelta; five years ago he would have made this start among the very top favorites, and he’s still only 30. But if he falters, well, that won’t be a surprise either.

In a somewhat similar camp is former winner Fabio Aru (Qhubeka-NextHash). Several years ago, he was one of the sport’s top climbers, ascending to second at the 2015 Giro and then winning that year’s Vuelta. Since then, things haven’t gone as smoothly, and health issues have derailed his recent seasons. That said, he looked great at the Vuelta a Burgos, finishing second overall behind Landa. That may not sound like much, but it’s probably his best result since 2017. If it’s a sign of renewed form, Aru might actually be able to get into the mix at the Vuelta a España, six years after he won the whole thing.

Other riders to keep an eye on include Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), and David de la Cruz and Rafal Majka (UAE Team Emirates), and Maximilian Schachmann and Felix Grossschartner (Bora-Hansgrohe).

The stage hunters

Getting away from the GC picture, there will be plenty of speedsters at the Vuelta hoping to contest the handful of sprint stages, and four riders stand out to us as the most likely winners of the bunch kicks.

Fabio Jakobsen wins stage 5 of the Tour de Wallonie.

Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) will be making his first Grand Tour start since returning from the injuries he suffered at last year’s Tour of Poland, and he looked great at the Tour de Wallonie. He will have a solid group of lead-out riders backing him as well. Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) was having a nice 2021 season until a serious crash derailed his Tour campaign. He will also have multiple supporters for the sprints. Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) probably came away from the Tour feeling pretty frustrated after failing to notch any wins despite coming close over and over again, but one does not simply finish inside the top three of a Tour stage a whopping six times without being pretty darn fast. He won a Vuelta stage last year and looks like a good bet to take more this year. And then there’s Michael Matthews (BikeExchange), who has the versatility to vie for stage wins on a variety of terrains. He is likely to at least be in the mix for the pure bunch kicks, even if he’s a more likely winner on the hillier days.

Speaking of which, the Vuelta will have several of those. In addition to Matthews, Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Magnus Cort (EF Education-Nippo) are other fast finishers who can survive tricky terrain en route to a reduced sprint.

Any of the fast finishers mentioned here could be in the mix for the Vuelta points jersey – although you could say the same for Roglič, considering how many GC-rider-friendly days there are on the parcours. This is the Vuelta, after all.

As for the tougher days that could send aggressive riders up the road, the immensely talented Gino Mäder (yet another notable making the start for Bahrain Victorious), 2019 Vuelta stage winner Jesús Herrada, and four-time Grand Tour stage winner Mikel Nieve (BikeExchange) are all on the long list of potential winners from breakaways.

All of the aforementioned big names – and plenty of other talents who are sure to make us regret omitting them from this preview – will get underway soon. The Vuelta a España rolls out from Burgos on Saturday.

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