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Fabio Aru celebrated his first grand tour victory...

Riders to watch: Five Vuelta revelations

The Vuelta is often a launchpad for young riders' careers. Here are five riders who had breakthrough performances this year.

MADRID (VN) — No wonder race organizers were licking their lips at the opening of the 2015 Vuelta a España. The Spanish grand tour had an enviable start list, arguably the best in Vuelta history, with the top four from the Tour de France lining up with serious ambitions to win.

The battle to end all battles never happened. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) was kicked out for an illegal tow, and Chris Froome (Sky) crashed out in Andorra. Alejandro Valverde never really had the legs to seriously challenge for the overall, and his Movistar teammate Nairo Quintana fell ill, and rebounded too late.

Rather than a fight between the established kings of the peloton, the Vuelta became a race of revelations. Across a highly unpredictable, enthralling three weeks of racing, new faces and names asserted themselves, breaking out from the shadows of the stars.

Fabio Aru (Astana), 25, won his first grand tour, and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), 26, secured his first grand tour podium. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), and Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) all punched into the top 10 for the first time. Chaves, Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge), Bert-Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jesper Stuyven and Danny Van Poppel (Trek Factory Racing), Dumoulin, Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka), Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida), and Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale), all riders in their 20s, won grand tour stages for the first time.

The Vuelta often provides an ideal stage for young riders to make their mark. Here are five who broke out in 2015:

5. Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r-La Mondiale), stage win and 112th overall: Remember this name. French insiders say he’s the feistiest rider to come along in years. Just 22, Gougeard raised eyebrows in the spring classics when he rode into the early breakaway at Paris-Roubaix, and then hung on to finish 26th. Fearless and aggressive, those traits served him well at the Vuelta. He rode into a handful of breakaways, and it finally stuck on a lumpy stage into Ávila, when he surprised his breakaway companion with a long-distance attack with 30km to go. France hasn’t seen that kind of panache since the days of the Badger.

“It’s a big satisfaction to win a stage,” Gougeard said. “I was in many breakaways during this Vuelta, and it finally worked out. I haven’t raced many WorldTour races this season, and I came here with the goal of trying to win a stage. I want to become a rider who can win one-day classics, and be aggressive in the grand tours. I am not going to change.”

4. Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge), stage win, DNF stage 10: Ewan is the most-hyped Australian sprinter in a decade, and on stage 5, he delivered the goods with a dramatic victory ahead of John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo). At 21, the pint-sized sprinter is so quick on the finishing acceleration that Mark Renshaw once said he is fast as Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) in his prime. This Vuelta was hardly ideal for sprinters, and many of them, including Cavendish, stayed away. Winning a stage in a grand tour debut, however, bodes well for Ewan’s future. Orica pulled him out in a planned early exit, and next year he’ll likely race the Giro d’Italia.

“To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect because I haven’t won a WorldTour race before,” Ewan said. “The team committed to me 100 percent, and when they believe in you so much, you start to believe in yourself. It’s a big step for me to win this Vuelta stage.”

3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), two stage wins, six days in leader’s jersey, fifth overall: Many have been wondering when Orica-GreenEdge would finally sign an established GC contender to round out its fleet of stage-hunters, sprinters, and one-day specialists. Orica brass resisted, saying they were focusing on developing homegrown talent rather than open the checkbook to bring on a big-name rider. Along with the Yates twins, Chaves was recruited to grow into a grand tour contender. A nasty crash nearly ended his career in 2013. Despite never punching into the top-40 in two previous grand tours, Chaves came flying into the Vuelta, winning two stages and wearing the red leader’s jersey in the first week. Even more importantly, he never cracked, and rode into Madrid fifth overall, within striking range of the podium. A pure climber with a punchy sprint, Chaves will target the podium next in the Giro d’Italia.

“I am very happy with this Vuelta,” Chaves said. “Two years ago, the team put a lot of confidence in me, and this is the payback. My objective was to be in the top-10 at the Vuelta, so to finish fifth is incredible. I could stay with the favorites in the third week, and to win two stages and wear the red leader’s jersey, it’s been a fantastic Vuelta.”

2. Fabio Aru (Astana), first overall: Aru’s real coming-out party was actually last year, when he rode to third in the Giro, and won two stages and claimed fifth overall in the Vuelta. This season has served as confirmation of the 25-year-old’s arrival to the elite. After riding to second in an intense battle against Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) at the Giro, Aru headlined the strongest team in the Vuelta. Astana lost Nibali and Paolo Tiralongo early — two established veterans — but Aru and Mikel Landa, another revelation of the 2015 season, carried the day.

“The time trial was a key moment for me in this Vuelta,” Aru said. “I really worked hard on that, and I cannot say I was completely satisfied with my ride at Burgos, but it was much better than from the Giro.”

Aru’s grand tour victory confirms his status as heir apparent to Nibali, and provides Italy with a rising star for eager fans and media. Already a world-class climber and with improving TT skills, Aru will take on the Tour next year.

“It was a very nervous Vuelta, with a lot of climbs, dangerous descents, and crashes,” he said. “I really had to struggle to arrive to the final days with something still in the legs. This victory is an important step in my career, and I could not have done it without my team.”

1. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), two stage wins six days in leader’s jersey, sixth overall: No one, not even Dumoulin, imagined at the start of the Vuelta that he was destined to push the climbers all the way to Madrid in this Vuelta. After crashing out of the Tour in stage 3 with a heavy shoulder injury, Dumoulin, 24, came to the Vuelta to try to salvage his season. He did more than that, and emerged as the Netherlands’ best grand tour rider in a generation. His penultimate-stage collapse in the mountains of Madrid shouldn’t take away from the incredible progression that Dumoulin revealed during the Vuelta.

Early on, it was clear he was in top shape, as he challenged Chaves and Nicolas Roche (Sky) in stage 2, before taking down Chris Froome (Sky) at Cumbre del Sol in stage 9. Everyone expected Dumoulin to fade in the deep mountains, considering he didn’t have much of a team to protect his flanks against Astana, Movistar, Sky, and Katusha.

Dumoulin revealed tremendous climbing skills, matching the peloton’s best climbers until the final ramps across the Pyrénées and Cantabrian range. He also never lost his cool under attack, riding his own tempo, and matching the aggression on the descents. A world-class time trialist, many see Dumoulin more destined for success at the Tour instead of the explosive Giro or Vuelta.

“It’s all been a big surprise, even to me,” Dumoulin said. “It was just one mountain stage too much for me. I would have liked to have won, but I was just empty on that last climb.”

Even though he eventually faded off the podium, Dumoulin seems to be the Netherlands’ best chance to end its grand tour drought that date backs to Joop Zoetemelk’s victory in the 1980 Tour.