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By late October in most seasons, riders are hitting the beach and everyone is making plans for the upcoming campaign.
In 2020, nothing is normal.
The Vuelta a España starts Tuesday and will run into mid-November. Unprecedented is the word that keeps coming to mind.
Despite challenges from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, unpredictable fall weather, and racing into the unknown so late on the calendar, the Vuelta should still deliver a very interesting race.
Like in most years, the Spanish grand tour is drawing a very deep and quality field. And like any Vuelta, the course is stacked with climbs and explosive terrain to assure a tense race. What’s uncertain is who will have legs going into the second week of November.
The shortened, 18-day Vuelta a España should be packed with surprises. In many ways, it will be a fitting end to what’s been a racing season unlike anyone’s ever seen before.
GC battle should be Jumbo-Visma versus Movistar
It’s been a wacky year, but like most seasons, the Vuelta comes up a winner when it means pulling together a good GC field.
With the Tour de France contested in September, that left the door open for riders to recover and target a second grand tour if they wanted to. And many did.
The 2020 Vuelta field should see a fairly interesting GC battle. Tour de France winner Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Emirates) won’t be there, but there’s plenty of heft in the Vuelta start list.
Despite a fairly deep start list, the GC race should come down to a tug-of-war between Jumbo-Visma and Movistar.
Defending champion Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin, and Sepp Kuss lead a superstar Jumbo-Visma lineup. Movistar brings a packed squad with Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde, and Marc Soler. Both teams will still be smarting from earlier setbacks, and will be very motivated to race to win across the 18 stages.
Behind them, there are plenty of contenders on the second line who could surprise. Wout Poels (Bahrain-McLaren), Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott), Thibaut Pinot and David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Dani Martínez and Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling), and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) could all elbow into contention.
Oh yeah, there’s one other team — Ineos Grenadiers.
The UK super team is still licking its wounds from the Tour de France, and brings Richard Carapaz and Chris Froome (see below) to carry team colors into Spain.
So who can win?
Roglič and Dumoulin top the list, with Mas and Valverde likely to battle for the podium. It’s almost impossible to know who will have legs in November. Ineos Grenadiers is the wildcard. If the Carapaz of the 2019 Giro d’Italia shows up, and the Froome who dominated much of the past decade is suddenly revived, they could turn the race upside down.
Barely a flat stretch of road
The coronavirus pandemic blew out the planned start in the Netherlands, and the Vuelta decided the prudent thing to do is contest a shortened race with 18 stages instead of trying to fill out the schedule with the missing stages.
The race starts in Spain’s hilly Basque Country, and gets steep right from the start. There are 47 rated mountains, with eight medium mountain stages and five mountaintop finales. Add an individual time trial, which ends with the Ézaro summit, and four flat stages, and this is a course for a climber.
It’s a grand tour under 3,000km, with 18 stages adding up to 2,896km. That doesn’t mean it will be any easier.
As a result, there are not many sprinters. Sam Bennett and Pascal Ackermann should be battling to split the remaining spoils between them.
The Col du Tourmalet in a one-day detour into France in stage 6 hits the Vuelta’s high point at 2,115m. The hardest climbs come in the second week, with the Farrapona summit and a return to the Angliru stacked up on the second weekend, with the Ézaro time trial likely to have the GC settled. The final week will be a bit anti-climactic, with only the Cat. 1 Covatilla summit on the penultimate day left to spice things up.
Froome’s last ride
Froome, 35, ends his decade-long run with the UK franchise in a high-profile move to Israel Start-Up Nation for 2021.
Froome will be an enigma in this Vuelta. Since his breakout 2011 season, he was a perennial favorite for any grand tour he started. All that changed in June 2019, when he crashed heavily while doing warm-up before a time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné. Question marks remain about Froome’s recovery.
Despite insisting that he’s fully healthy and race-ready, Froome has struggled in just about every race he’s started since the COVID comeback this summer. He was left off the Tour de France selection and left little impression at Tirreno-Adriatico with 91st and a DNF at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In 21 days of racing since August, he’s only finished once in the top-30 on any stage (30th in stage 3 at the Tour de l’Ain) and has struggled in the mountains.
Will he be a factor for overall victory? Based on what he’s done in 2020, no. If you measure it against his track record, never count out Froome. Since 2011, he’s either won or finished on the podium of every grand tour he’s finished, except once, when he was fourth at 2012 Vuelta.
It all depends if he has the legs to truly battle for victory. In such a challenging route, that should be quickly found out.
After 11 years in the Sky/Ineos juggernaut, it’s only fitting Froome says goodbye to the team at the Vuelta. Just as much as the Tour, it was the Spanish grand tour that shaped Froome’s legacy. After finishing second in 2011 (later retroactively awarded to him), Froome came back year after year until he finally won outright in 2017.
A race against the weather
Having any race in November in Europe is already unprecedented.
By pure chance, much of the route stays in the north of Spain. No one could have guessed that the race would have been pushed into the back half of October and into the first week of November when they designed the course last year.
Fall in Spain is notoriously hard to predict. Sometimes, summer-like weather lingers well into November, even across the Pyrénées and the Cantabrian range. In some years, cold rain and snow can come early. It all depends on luck.
Right now, long-range forecasts look fairly mild. The highest point of the race will come in the first week, with the Col du Tourmalet set for next Sunday. Forecasters now are calling for cold but sunny weather for the weekend. Organizers have their fingers crossed.
The health situation in Spain is far from ideal. Several cities, including parts of Madrid, are under strict travel restrictions. Barcelona has closed restaurants and bars, and the number of COVID-19 cases is growing by the day. In fact, the rate of infections is rivaling conditions that prompted a full shutdown in March for nearly three months.
In this context, the Vuelta organization has introduced the strictest health protocols and rules of any race so far in 2020. Fans will not be allowed to line the roads during the decisive climbs, and will also be banned in select starts and finishes.
The race caravan and a finish-line expo areas are also being canceled in hopes of nursing a stripped-down version of the Vuelta through a string of COVID hotspots.
The concept of “racing behind closed doors” will be tested throughout this Vuelta. Everyone inside cycling is only hoping next season will see a return to normality.
If the Vuelta survives inclement weather, dodges the COVID bullet, and all the GC contenders remain in the race, the Vuelta could deliver a very fitting finale to what’s been an unprecedented season in cycling history.