Blink and you’ll miss the cycling season.
It seems only a few days ago that the riders were making their first tentative steps into the 2021 season, but the final grand tour of the year is upon us.
For some, the Vuelta a España is the last chance saloon for GC riders to notch up a good grand tour result, while for others, it is a goal that has been on the radar all season long.
Also read: Riders to watch at the Vuelta a España
This mix of GC hopes, combined with the fatigue of a long season, and the punchy parcours synonymous with the Spanish race, makes for an unpredictable three weeks of action.
Primož Roglič made the race his own over the last two years but there is a long line of pretenders to his crown, and he’ll have to fight hard to secure red for the third year running.
Here are five riders who could take the Vuelta a España’s red jersey.
Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma)
After winning the last two editions of the Vuelta a España, Primož Roglič is one of the overwhelming favorites for the maillot rojo. If he can win a third Vuelta in a row, he will become just the third rider to do so in the race’s history.
In recent years, the Vuelta has been something of a salve to racing wounds for Roglič, particularly after he lost the 2020 Tour de France’s race lead in such brutal circumstances and crashed out in 2021.
It could have been the same this year, but Roglič comes into the 2021 race with a high morale after destroying the competition to take gold in the Olympic time trial. The win and the manner of it will have been a major boost after his Tour de France dreams came to an early end following a first-week crash.
While victory, or even a podium, at the Tour would have been preferable for the Slovenian, his decision to call it quits early rather than battle on for the full three weeks should stand him in good stead at the Vuelta.
Roglič has readily admitted his tendency to fade in the final week of a grand tour, which is why he took the unusual approach not to race in the build-up to the Tour. Thanks to that approach, he has just 27 race days in his legs and will be among the freshest at the Vuelta.
The final time trial will fill him with both confidence and fear after last year’s Tour, but it should give him something of an edge over his rivals.
Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers)
Egan Bernal is the prime contender to end Primož Roglič’s stranglehold on the Vuelta a España. The Colombian won the Giro d’Italia earlier this year and is intent on winning in Spain to complete his collection of grand tour collection.
As it did at the Tour de France, Ineos Grenadiers brings an eight-man roster to Spain stacked with talent that will both support Bernal and give the team options should he falter.
Last year’s runner-up Richard Carapaz is back for more after scoring a podium at the Tour and gold in the men’s Olympic road race. Pavel Sivakov returns to the Vuelta for the first time since 2018, keen on making amends for his early Giro departure.
Adam Yates is making his grand tour debut for the team after a year focused around the Olympic Games, while Tom Pidcock will be a wildcard in his first-ever three-week race.
Ineos’ Vuelta line-up has what its Tour roster was missing; a ruthless finisher in Bernal.
The summer has been bumpy for Bernal, with a diagnosis of COVID-19 soon after wrapping up his Giro win and a recent crash at the Vuelta a Burgos, but he’s had plenty of rest and recuperation to ensure he’s race-ready when the peloton rolls out Saturday.
Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious)
Mikel Landa is a rider that has been there or thereabouts in most grand tours he’s entered in the last seven years, but there has always been something in his way as he tried to reach the ultimate top spot.
Could that change in this year’s Vuelta a España?
Landa has not stepped on the podium since his breakthrough in 2015 where he finished third at the Giro while riding in support of Fabio Aru. As in 2015, Landa has often been stifled by the need to work for teammates or, in the case of his time at Movistar, internal conflict between leaders.
Since moving to Bahrain-Victorious last year, Landa has been given the freedom he so desired. It resulted in fourth at last year’s Tour de France and a list of improvements to make.
He went into the Giro d’Italia this year on what looked to be the form of his life, but he was felled by some road furniture in the opening week.
A summer away from racing has given him a chance to recover from the long list of injuries he sustained in the high-speed crash, and he looks to be in great form again following his victory at the Vuelta a Burgos.
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo)
Hugh Carthy enjoyed a breakthrough GC performance at last year’s Vuelta with third overall and a stage win on the Alto de l’Angliru. He returns to the race this year as an outside bet for the red jersey.
Carthy will be riding alongside EF teammate Rigoberto Urán, who comes off the back of a solid summer that saw him take 10th at the Tour and top-10 finishes in both the road race and time trial at the Olympic Games.
Carthy has already had one GC tilt this year at the Giro and looked destined for a podium before slipping back to eighth overall in the final week. The Preston-born rider will be hoping the avoid the third-week fade at the Vuelta.
Carthy got back to racing earlier this month at the Vuelta a Burgos after a lengthy break following his Giro exploits.
The crash-affected finale of stage 1 put paid to any GC hopes held by Carthy but he capped off the week with an impressive stage 5 win at Lagunas de Neila to show that he’s in good shape.
Beating the likes of Bernal and Landa on the brutal slopes will also give him a huge confidence boost going into the Vuelta.
Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers)
While Egan Bernal may be the top favorite among the Ineos Grenadiers eight, Richard Carapaz is a close second.
The Ecuadorian rider has enjoyed a summer of success with Olympic gold and a Tour de France podium. It might not have been the Grand Boucle win he had hoped for, but it was a solid result given the difficulties his team endured during the race.
While many of his teammates have been racing in Spain lately, Carapaz has been recuperating since his emphatic victory at the Fuji International Speedway a little over two weeks ago.
Carapaz finished second at last year’s Vuelta and came close to toppling Primož Roglič on the final mountain stage, only to have his efforts usurped by his former Movistar team.
He will want to improve on that result but the biggest obstacle to his success could well be his own teammate Bernal. As with several of the teams set to race in Spain later this week, the road will be the ultimate decider in who takes the race lead.
After seeing much of the team felled by crashes at the Tour, Ineos will want plenty of irons in the fire at the Vuelta.