The Vuelta a España is headed into the final week of racing and things couldn’t be much closer in the battle for the red leader’s jersey. Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) has asserted himself on the climbs, but Movistar’s two aces, Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde are only seconds behind. Who will thrive in the mountainous final stages, and what do we make of the budding rivalry between Quintana and Yates? Let’s roundtable!
The Vuelta’s GC picture is coming into focus, but the top four are still only 45 seconds apart. Who is your pick, and what does he have to do to win the race in this final week?
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Yates is strongest, and he’s my pick to win the overall. He simply needs to avoid catastrophe on the three remaining uphill finishes, limit his losses to Valverde in the individual time trial, and then mark Quintana and Lopez on the climbs. Lagos de Covadonga showed us that nobody has the legs to drop him on long, grinding climbs, and I do not know why that dynamic should change in the final week.
Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Hombre, the way it’s looking now, Valverde could win! And I thought it was going to be an all-Colombian sweep. Well, Quintana and Lopez are still in the frame. Yates is in the driver’s seat. He is racing ice cold. If he has a good TT and doesn’t lose too much time, he’s the man for Madrid. Since he now is based in Andorra, he will have “home road” advantage on the final weekend.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: I like Quintana for this final week. He’s no time trial ace, but the Colombian knows how to handle himself on the aerobars when a grand tour is on the line. After all, he has won both the Giro and the Vuelta. Plus, he has the advantage of super-duper domestique Alejandro Valverde in the final mountain stages.
We seem to a have a budding rivalry between Simon Yates and Nairo Quintana. How do you handicap their respective strengths and weaknesses?
Fred: Both men are equally pedestrian at the individual time trial (by grand tour contender comparison, anyway), and in recent years Yates seems to be less bad than Quintana. Yates has more punch than Quintana on the steepest climbs, and also seems to have an edge on the long, grinding ones. At this Vuelta, Quintana has the stronger team. Quintana, at this Vuelta, appears to have much worse tactical sense than Yates. On the climb to Lagos de Covadonga, for example, Quintana burned his teammate and then put himself into the red by chasing down Miguel Angel Lopez, which gave Yates a free ride. Quintana also looked so unsure of what to do near the top that only Yates’s anger could persuade him to pull through.
Andrew: Hmm, I see more of a rivalry between Quintana and Lopez. All those Colombian guys race to be the first Colombian in any race, and that is opening up the door for Yates. Per Yates, he has been impressive all year. Without having to worry about Froome or Dumoulin in the TT, like he did at the Giro, Yates is racing with much more tactical savvy. Quintana seems to have lost his fire or his punch, or both. Quintana is a fighter to the end, and that’s a quality that Yates will have to demonstrate if he ever hopes to win a grand tour.
Spencer: I think Yates has the edge when it comes to pure form. However, he can’t match Quintana when it comes to team strength or experience — again, Quintana has won two grand tours. The best Yates has done is sixth at the 2016 Vuelta. The time trial is a toss-up — who wants it more?
The last three stages, 13-15 in the Asturias region, were all thrilling. Which was the best to watch and what made it so good?
Fred: The bizarre rivalry between Nairo Quintana and Miguel Angel Lopez made these stages extremely compelling. Both men appeared to waste much energy marking the other man, which opened the door for Simon Yates to have a comparatively easy ride to the finish line, and for Thibaut Pinot to win the stage to Lagos de Covadonga. The climb to Lagos de Covadonga was particularly fun to watch since this Vuelta has only a few long, grinding climbs. It was tactical, even though the tactics were not the best.
Andrew: All three stages were great. No one holds back in the Vuelta and no one is truly at 100 percent — that’s what makes the race so interesting The Vuelta always delivers these crazy finales and Les Praeres on Saturday was right up there on the edge of the line. Things could go pear-shaped at any time in the Vuelta (just as it did in the finish the other day in Galicia when the race official caused that crash) but they always seem to pull it off. More impressive are the Spanish fans: They cheer every rider and actually applaud as they ride past, and not take selfies.
Spencer: I agree with Hoody that stage 14 was an instant classic on a new summit finish for the Vuelta. It had the perfect combination of narrow roads, steep ramps, and the occasional ease in gradient that create fascinating tactical puzzles. Quintana and Lopez went far too early on that finish. Yates was perfectly patient and it paid off. This was hardly the boring watts/kg test that we see at the Tour de France.
Which GC rider will gain the most in Tuesday’s time trial?
Fred: Of the top four, Alejandro Valverde should gain the most. Of the top 10, Rigoberto Uran stands to leapfrog a few spots.
Andrew: Who knows — none of these top guys are particularly great against the clock. Everyone is talking Valverde, but I think a rider like Uran or Kelderman could ride back into podium range on a great day. Of the top four, I see Yates having the best ride against the clock Tuesday.
Spencer: Steven Kruijswijk has really been flying under the radar this Vuelta, but he’s only 1:29 behind. I think he’ll be the top GC rider in stage 16 and he might take as much as 45 seconds back on those who stumble in the time trial.