JEREZ DE LA FRONTERA, Spain (VN) — Everyone agrees that a string of brutal climbing stages in the third week across northern Spain will crown the eventual winner of the Vuelta a España, but Africa-like heat and a mid-race time trial will put a decisive stamp in the first half of the season’s third grand tour.
After a summer racing in unseasonably cool weather, the peloton will face extreme heat for the first time in a major race all year, with temperatures expected to climb into the high 90s throughout the first week across sunbaked Andalusia.
Add a challenging, 36.7km individual time trial on stage 10, and the first half of the Vuelta will serve to separate the wheat from the chaff.
“Most of the time differences at the Vuelta are not that big, so the time trials will be crucial,” said Lotto-Belisol sport director Mario Aerts. “The toughest part of the Vuelta is in the last eight stages, with three climbing stages before the second rest day.”
In fact, the first half is book-ended by two time trials. The Vuelta opens with an evening team time trial on the streets of Jerez de la Frontera, and ends with the rolling, challenging time trial at Borja at stage 10.
Teams such as Movistar, Garmin-Sharp, Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and Sky should be in the running for the opening-day spoils, and their leaders may gain some time against GC rivals.
The inclusion of an individual time trial on stage 10 at the Vuelta’s equator could have a major impact on how the GC plays out in the climbs looming in the Vuelta’s second half.
Riders such as Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who crushed a similar course during the Giro d’Italia in May, and Chris Froome (Sky) could take significant gains on climbers such as Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha), Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida), and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp).
In fact, Horner admitted he’s worried about the TT prowess of some of his rivals going into his title defense.
“Froome is most difficult because he time trials so well. It’s difficult to put odds against the guy not being a favorite,” Horner said. “The problem I have is that I don’t TT that well, so I need to make up time somewhere else. Last year, I had best climbing legs, and the TT they had was a shorter one, and I came with an amazingly strong team, we’ll see how this year shakes out.”
The Vuelta remains, at its core, a climber’s course, even though this year’s edition puts the brakes on an ever-increasing extremism in route selection seen in recent few years.
Last year’s Vuelta found a new limit, with 14 uphill and summit finales, including several key climbs in the first week.
This year’s course offers only six true mountaintop finishes, with three time trials, and a few more options for the pure sprinters than the Vuelta’s served up over past editions.
Two climbs before the first time trial, at La Zubia on stage 6 and Valdelinares in stage 9, typically spit a few pretenders out the back, and serve as a barometer of who can win the race.
On paper, the first half would favor Froome and perhaps even Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), who both could take gains and defend them in the mountains.
Of course, a rider a must have the climbing legs to match the inevitable attacks surely to come in Asturias.
One rider for whom the first half of the Vuelta fits like a glove is Nairo Quintana. Not only will he be protected by a strong and motivated Movistar team, he will be able to defend in the Borja time trial. Quintana nearly won a shorter time trial en route to the overall at the Vuelta a Burgos last week, and he’s been working hard to limit his losses against the clock. If Quintana rolls out of the first half of the Vuelta in the pole position, it will be very hard for anyone to challenge him in the mountains.
“I’ve been working hard on my time trialing. I know it’s an important discipline, especially if I want to win grand tours,” Quintana said last week. “With my build, I know I will never be able to beat the specialists, but on ground that favors me, I can defend well, and perhaps even take time.”
And then there’s the short, 9.7km final-day time trial waiting in Santiago de Compostela, though at that distance, it will likely not prove decisive after such a brutal final week.
The real GC battle should unfold in northern Spain, with hard climbing finales at Sabero, Covadonga, and Farrapona on stages 14-16, and then a potential race-breaker at Ancares in the wilds of Galicia on the penultimate day.
The Vuelta opens with a world-class start list, perhaps its best in years, but the heat of Andalusia and the mid-race time trial will likely see more than a few of the marquee starters lose options for overall victory.