Commentary: Why the Vuelta a España is one to watch

Dane Cash /
Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador battling in stage 14 of the 2017 Vuelta a España. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

It seems like it’s a cycling tradition these days: Every August, fans are surprised by the high caliber of riders racing at the Vuelta a España, and by the Vuelta’s ability to create edge-of-your-seat action on almost every stage. Perhaps it’s time we learned our lesson and gave the season’s final grand tour its due.

Mark it on your calendars, people. Watch this year’s Vuelta a España. You will not be disappointed.

The Tour de France may be the biggest game in town and the Giro d’Italia is entrenched as the historic and beautiful second fiddle on the grand tour circuit. The Vuelta is the race for true fans of exciting racing. The start list has consistently been stacked with marquee riders these past few years and the racing always delivers.

This year should be no exception to that rule. Defending champ Chris Froome is skipping the 2018 edition of the race, but with names like Nairo Quintana, Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, and Peter Sagan all set to make the start and a lumpy-as-ever route in store for the peloton, the 2018 Vuelta is primed to close out grand tour racing in style.

The race kicks off on Saturday, which means now’s the perfect time to preview what’s on tap in Spain.

A climber’s delight?

The Vuelta is often friendly to climbers, and this year’s route continues the tradition, at least as far as the GC battle goes. As usual, the tension will build with a few early climbs in week one, before a healthy dose of high mountains in the second half of the race. The Spanish grand tour only features a total of 40 time trial kilometers across two stages. At least the less uphill-inclined members of the peloton will get to enjoy some sunshine along Spain’s Costa del Sol in the south before the grueling gradients kick in.

The break ascends into the clouds in stage 17 of the 2017 Vuelta a España. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

The race gets underway in Málaga, Spain’s sixth largest city and the birthplace of Pablo Picasso, with a flat eight-kilometer time trial by the sea. It might as well be a prologue, but it’s officially “stage 1” of the Vuelta.

The race stays in the Andalusia region for the next few days. Stages 2 and 3 feature rolling profiles that could see interesting stage battles but are not likely to have major implications in the fight for the red race leader’s jersey. Stage 4 should be a different story. The day starts along the coast near Málaga again, but climbs up into the mountains with a Cat. 1 ascent coming after about an hour of racing, and another to close out the day. This is the Vuelta, after all, which means you won’t have to wait until week two for the first mountain showdown.

Unlike in years past, this Vuelta does serve up a few days for the sprinters, which is perhaps why Sagan, Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and even Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) are in attendance. Stage 5, leaving from historic Granada and finishing in scenic Roquetas de Mar, is another rolling day, and stages 6, 7, and 8 are likely days for the sprinters as the race begins to make its way north and west out of Andalusia.

Stage 9 brings the pain again with some tough climbs in central Spain. The 200.8 kilometer day has a trio of categorized climbs in the early goings and then concludes atop the special-category Alto de Covatilla, 9.8 kilometers in length at 7.1 percent. It’s not especially long but it’s steep enough to see some gaps.

The peloton will have a chance to relax on the ensuing rest day and then three days more tailored to the stage-hunters as the Vuelta rolls into the lush, green Galician coast.

A summit finish in stage 13 will take the focus away from the scenery and back to the racing, with more tough climbing in stage 14. The pack may play it conservatively on those two days with a brutal weekend on tap, however.

Stage 15 is a tough one, taking the Vuelta into the famed Picos de Europa. Two trips up the first-category Mirador del Fito climb will be a fitting appetizer for the summit finish at Lagos de Covadonga, where Movistar’s Nairo Quintana took the red jersey for good ahead of Sky’s Chris Froome back in 2016.

Nairo Quintana rides into red at Lagos de Covadonga in 2016. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

The second rest day awaits at the top of the finishing climb, but the GC riders will go right back into the fray on the following day with a 32-kilometer time trial. It’s a flat affair that will pose a major challenge to the pure climbers that have been enjoying the Vuelta’s mountainous profile up to that point.

Stage 17 will take the race into the Basque Country, and it closes with some classic Basque terrain: the final 50 kilometers feature a second-category climb, two third-category ascents, and a first-category finale.

The GC riders will try to get some rest in stage 18 with two high-mountain showdowns in Andorra on tap. Stage 19 only features one categorized climb, but it’s a long one at 17 kilometers. Stage 20, a short firecracker of a day at 97.3 kilometers in full, will be a fitting finale for the GC riders at the Vuelta. Three first-category climbs feature in the first 70 kilometers and the special-category Coll de la Gallina ascent will close out the stage.

A sprinter-friendly 21st stage will close out the race in traditional style in the Spanish capital of Madrid.

The red jersey contenders

This Vuelta is stacked with talented GC contenders — the race has drawn big stars for the last several years running, and there’s no indication that will stop any time soon. The GC lineup is a mix of rested riders from the Giro d’Italia, and unlucky Tour de France contenders who saw their respective July campaigns go belly-up.

Of the Tour’s unlucky riders, Richie Porte, who crashed out of the Tour in stage 9, will lead the way in his final grand tour for BMC. He’d probably prefer more time trial miles but he’s got the climbing legs to mix it up with anyone, and having exited the Tour before the mountains, he should be fresh if he’s fully healthy.

Movistar had originally planned to bring all three heads of its three-headed monster to the team’s home grand tour after a disappointing Tour de France. Mikel Landa’s crash at the Clásica San Sebastián will have him watching the race from home, unfortunately, but Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde will still give Movistar plenty of firepower. Quintana won the race just two years ago, and his climbing legs will appreciate the parcours. Richard Carapaz, fourth at the Giro, is yet another option for the team.

Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali, Vuelta runner-up last year, is another rider who exited the Tour before he’d planned to thanks to unruly fans in the Alps. He’s a question mark for the Vuelta, with uncertain form as he recovers from a back injury.

Vincenzo Nibali — “the shark” — has a little fun with his finish line celebration at the end of the Vuelta’s third stage in 2017. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

“The shark” has downplayed his form, with Ion Izagirre getting the official nod as the team’s GC leader, but it’s hard to count out a former winner.

Rigoberto Urán is another member of the crashed-at-the-Tour list who will look to bounce back in Spain. With Mike Woods making the start as well, EF Education First-Drapac will have cards to play. Ditto for UAE Team Emirates, which will have 2015 overall winner Fabio Aru and Dan Martin at the helm to guarantee fireworks in the mountains.

Stars of the Giro d’Italia are also looking to shine. Miguel Ángel López leads the Astana team in the race where he first showed his immense climbing talent late last year. The Colombian continued to show off that talent with his third-place ride in the Giro this May. After a long post-Giro break, he looked great at the Vuelta a Burgos, which will have his rivals on notice at the Vuelta a España.

Miguel Ángel López wins stage 11 of the 2017 Vuelta a España. Photo: ©Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Speaking of the Giro, Simon Yates will lead the Mitchelton-Scott charge in Spain, with Adam Yates making the start as well. Simon looked to be the strongest rider at the Giro — by far — right up until he cracked in the final week and finished outside the overall top 10. No one doubts his climbing legs, however. The Vuelta will be another chance for him to show that he can last through three weeks. His brother will be a strong second option after things didn’t go his way this July at the Tour.

Team Sky is the wildcard for this race. 2017 winner Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas will not be racing, which opens the door for some other talented riders to have a rare shot at team leadership. Former world champ Michal Kwiatkowski, who has ridden as a loyal support rider in the grand tours the last few years, will have a long-awaited chance to vie for the GC, as will talented Spanish rider David de la Cruz. It’s tough to say how things will play out for either of them, but considering Sky’s track record, it would not be smart to write them off just because they lack experience.

Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman, Katusha-Alpecin’s Ilnur Zakarin, LottoNL-Jumbo’s George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk, Trek-Segafredo’s Bauke Mollema, and Bora-Hansgrohe’s Emanuel Buchmann are others who could factor in the overall.

Others to watch

Sagan’s presence adds an entirely new dynamic to the Vuelta. It will be the first time Sagan has raced the Vuelta since 2015. He counts four total Vuelta stage wins on his career palmares.

Beyond Sagan, the rest of the sprint field in Spain has a distinctly Italian feel, with a touch of French flair: Viviani, Trek’s Giacomo Nizzolo, Mitchelton’s Matteo Trentin — who won four stages last year — and Bouhanni will be the other riders to watch in the fast finishes.

North American fans will have a number of riders to follow in Spain as well. The list of Americans starting the Vuelta includes emerging talent Sepp Kuss, making his grand tour debut with LottoNL-Jumbo, national time trial champ Joey Rosskopf and veteran Brent Bookwalter with BMC, Ben King of Dimension Data, Kiel Reijnen of Trek-Segafredo, and Ian Boswell of Katusha-Alpecin. Meanwhile, Antoine Duchesne (Groupama-FDJ) and his maple leaf national champion’s jersey will give Woods company in the Canadian contingent.

So fire up the livestream, make yourself a plate of jamón ibérico, and get ready for la Vuelta.