After just five stages, the battle for the General Classification at this year’s Vuelta a España is beginning to take shape. Chris Froome (Sky) commands the strongest army, and he faces a small group of talented rivals, each of whom brings a set of weapons to the fight.
During the race’s fifth stage to Alcossebre, Froome’s Sky teammates shredded the peloton, with Italian rider Gianni Moscon dropping many of the contenders on the steep final climb. The effort helped Froome distance himself from his Tour de France rivals Fabio Aru (Astana) and Romain Bardet (AG2R), as well as Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) on the day’s final 3km climb.
Yet the Briton was unable to shake Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) who appears to be the best climber among the challengers. Further back, American Tejay van Garderen—who has the time trial chops to contend for the overall—limited his losses to just 8 seconds, keeping himself in second place in the GC. Van Garderen’s BMC teammate Nicolas Roche had a good ride as well, ceding just 11 seconds to Froome.
After the first five stages, the battle appears to be between Froome and Chaves, with van Garderen and Roche also in striking distance. Behind these four, a second tier of favorites is poised to contend for the podium.
“Looking at the time gaps now, the GC is taking a bit more shape,” Froome said after the stage. “Chaves seems to be one of the strongest climbers in this Vuelta. Tejay and Roche are both still in the mix, and they have a few cards to play. I was surprised to see Nibali and Aru to lose a bit of time today, and Romain Bardet. But it’s a long race, and today was just a 3km climb, and it will be a different race once we get into the high mountains.”
Indeed this year’s Vuelta favors the climbers, as the route contains nine summit finishes. During the race’s second and third weeks the route also heads into the high mountains, with stages to Sierra de la Pandera (stage 14), Sierra Nevada (stage 15), and the Alto de l’Angliru (stage 20). Those stages present the best opportunity for Chaves to gain an advantage on Froome and the other riders. The diminutive Colombian has shown his climbing chops throughout his career, most notably during the 2016 Giro d’Italia, where he climbed to second place overall. Chaves also struggles in the individual time trial, and will be looking to carve out a time gap before the 42km individual time trial on stage 16.
Chaves has also showed he has the explosive power to stay with Froome on the punchy uphill finishes, where the race’s other climbers—Bardet and Aru, included—have lost time.
“[Chaves] has showed he’s one of the strongest climbs so far in the race. Last year, he rode extremely well, and I am imagine this year he will be up there again,” Froome said. “The TT is not really in his favor.”
Unlike Chaves, van Garderen will look to limit his losses on the punchy uphill days, and will instead target the long, grinding ascents that come on the Vuelta’s second week. Van Garderen will also try to distance himself from the pure climbers during the time trial.
After finishing stage 5, van Garderen said his game plan is to “keep chipping away” at Froome’s lead.
“It was a bit of a pity of losing a few seconds there at the end,” van Garderen said. “I am right there, if I keep chipping away, day by day, we’re headed in the right direction.”
The X-factor in the fight for the overall could be Spaniard Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who will retire at the end of the three-week race. Contador’s bid for the overall took a major blow during the third stage, when he ceded three minutes to Froome. Yet on Wednesday Contador was one of just three riders to follow Froome up the steep climb to Alcossebre. If Contador can retain that form for the remainder of the race, he could ride his way onto the podium.
Like Froome, Contador said that the GC battle has begun to take shape. But the mountains that appear later in the race will determine the outcome he said.
“It was a short climb, very explosive. The longer climbs come in the second week,” Contador said. “First, we have to see how I feel, and if I can recover the sensations. And then we can see what we can do in this Vuelta.”