Vuelta a Espana

Hardest first week ever? Peloton feeling pinch after intense Vuelta opening

A brutal eight days of racing has trimmed the GC field to a foursome and left a weary peloton in its wake

IGUALADA, Spain (VN) — What a first week at the Vuelta a España.

In just seven days of full road racing, the 2019 Vuelta has all but been reduced for a four-horse race. An early taste of brutal climbing stages — with the hardest of all on tap Sunday in Andorra — have underscored what’s been a selective and very difficult opening week.

The Vuelta typically delivers sparks in its opening chapter, but in a front-loaded route in 2019, many are calling this year’s first week among the most challenging in recent grand tour racing.

“I have never seen a grand tour after doing more than 30 as a rider and sport director that’s had this much selection so fast,” said EF-Education First sport director Juanma Garate. “This has been one of the hardest first weeks ever in a grand tour.”

“It’s been brutal,” echoed Bahrain-Merida’s Heinrich Haussler. “The Vuelta is always hard, but this first week has been even harder. We’ve already seen the GC favorites racing hard right in the first [road] stage. That’s very different than a race like the Tour de France.”

This Vuelta has been different from the gun. Rather than see most of the pivotal climbs packed into the second half, this Vuelta has served up fireworks right from the start. Stage 2 saw the Vuelta’s first selection, quickly followed up by uphill finales at Javalambre in stage 5 and Mas de la Costa two days later.

Quintana attacked to win on stage 2 and the race saw its first GC shake-up. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images.

Crashes have also left their mark, including early departures for Rigoberto Urán (EF-Education First) and Nicholas Roche (Sunweb), but week one has put everyone to the limit.

“The peloton broke up already in the second stage, and it’s been breaking up in smaller pieces ever since,” said Dimension Data sport director Bingen Fernández. “It’s a typical Vuelta in the sense that it’s hard, but I would say this first week has been even a little bit harder than usual simply because we have seen the GC favorites moving so much.”

That’s in sharp contrast to the old days at the Vuelta, when the first half was typically loaded up with sprint stages and the peloton tapped along in siesta mode. So much for easing into the first week.

“In the past in some of the Vueltas you could find your rhythm in the first few stages,” said Trek-Segafredo’s John Degenkolb. “But here, already on the second stage, if you’re not on the top level, you’re already losing a lot of time.”

Even Saturday’s transition stage across Catalunya had its bite. Week 1 ends Sunday with an exclamation point in the short five-climb stage in Andorra, the small principality that typically comes at the end of the Vuelta, not so early.

“A lot of the main GC days come in the first two weeks in this Vuelta,” said Dimension Data’s Ben King, a two-time stage winner last year. “The Andorra stage, which they usually save for the last week, comes before the first rest day, so it’s been a first week with a lot of fireworks. It’s funny to see [Astana’s Miguel Angel] López trying to give the jersey away and he keeps getting it back — that’s how hard it’s been.”

Lopez has worn the leader’s jersey on three separate occasions in just eight stages. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

Over the past decade, the Spanish grand tour has emerged as one of the most contested and unpredictable races on the calendar. The Vuelta typically builds its difficulty until a final-weekend crescendo that sometimes see the winner not crowned until the final mountain stage.

This year, however, organizers turned its successful blueprint on its head. Rather than pack all the hard stuff in the final half, this year’s route sees most of the most decisive GC racing bunched into the first two weeks of racing.

Sunday’s ninth stage at Andorra puts an end to a very challenging first week that’s seen the GC fight largely reduced to four riders. López, Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde have emerged as the strongest riders in what’s been a surprisingly selective first week.

“Just look at the course we have had this year,” Fernández said. “The first week has been so selective, so it’s normal that we are not going to see more riders close in the GC. That’s not to say it’s not going to be an interesting battle between these top four favorites. And the final week is always difficult even if it looks easier on paper.”

Saturday’s stage-winner Nicholas Arndt (Sunweb) said the racing’s been just as exciting inside the peloton as it appears on TV.

“It’s been a very interesting Vuelta so far,” Arndt said. “We’ve had changes in the leader’s jersey, we’ve had a few sprint stages, we started with a triple-T, and we’ve had some hard days in the mountains. I’ve come to the Vuelta in good shape, so I have not suffered so much, but it’s true it’s been a very hard parcours so far.”

The finishing wall of stage 7 marked the third successive hilltop finish of the race. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images.

So what’s on tap? Week two looks even harder. Sunday’s Andorra stage presents a chance for the climbers to try to crack Roglic going into Tuesday’s 34km individual time trial. After that, the Vuelta steers into the climb-laced strip of coastal mountains along Spain’s northern coast.

“It’s been a very hard first week,” Mitchelton-Scott’s Esteban Chaves said with a laugh. “The sad part is that the second week is going to be even harder.”

If week one trimmed the list of potential candidates to a fistful of names, many expect the GC fight to be largely knotted up by La Cubilla climb in stage 16 at the end of week two.

Chaves, for one, is hoping that week three — on paper uncharacteristically lacking the typical Vuelta-ending firecrackers — will still live up to its tradition of delivering surprises.

“It’s no surprise to see so many differences between the favorites considering the type of climbs we’ve already seen,” Chaves said. “But the Vuelta is far from over. Riders have short memories. Last year, [Chris] Froome won the Giro almost by surprise, and even [Simon] Yates didn’t take control of the Vuelta last year until late. Any grand tour is still decided in the third week.”