MÁLAGA, Spain (VN) — A new-look Vuelta a España gets underway Saturday in what is a fresh chapter for the always unpredictable Spanish grand tour.
The season’s third act begins without the two leading protagonists of the last decade. Yet it packs a start list that’s explosive any way you look at it.
Without the attacking flurries of Alberto Contador and the stifling ambitions of Chris Froome, this will be a very different Vuelta. The Spanish grand tour might be missing its classic duel this year, but Vuelta director Javier Guillén isn’t crying in his gazpacho.
“It’s true that we are going to miss them, and they each have their reasons for not being here,” Guillén said. “But if you look at it, we’ve never had a Vuelta with so many favorites at the race all at the same time.”
Guillén is right. As much as the Contador-Froome face-off set the tone for so many recent thrilling Vuelta battles, this year’s race won’t be worse off without them.
“Alberto obviously ended his career and Froome has a lot of racing in his legs this year. We hope that we can convince [Froome] to come back next year,” Guillén told VeloNews. “Yet from the point of view from the quality of the field, we have the best international field possible at this point of the season. If riders like Froome or [Tom] Dumoulin don’t come, it’s natural if they’ve both raced the Giro and Tour.”
The Vuelta has successfully rebranded the race around unpredictability and aggressive racing. Since Guillén took over the helm as the director, the course has dived into unknown corners of deep Spain — España profunda — to deliver a wild, almost topsy-turvy course design.
Fans and riders have reacted in kind. The Vuelta is the most unpredictable grand tour to race and watch.
“The Vuelta is the race that is the most unpredictable of the calendar,” Guillén said. “We’ve seen fans complain about how cycling has become predictable and how everyone already knows who will win. We have to maintain the element of surprise and that’s what the Vuelta delivers.”
The battles between Froome and Contador were central to the Vuelta’s resurgence. Who could forget “Froomigal”? Guillén said all of the Vuelta’s metrics are way up, and cited the 2017 edition as the race’s best ever.
But Guillén said the narrative is bigger than just two riders. So perhaps having the leading protagonists out of the frame might not be such a bad thing.
This year’s field is packed with riders yearning to stake their claim and fill the void. Winning the Vuelta has renewed prestige.
Yet almost none of Saturday’s starters have put the Vuelta at the center of their respective plans. Some are coming off injuries, others off disappointments. A few have one eye on the Innsbruck world championships. It’s this melting pot of ego, ambition, fatigue and agendas that makes the Vuelta so intriguing.
“What we’re hoping for is that these riders make the race in the way that we know they can,” Guillén said. “It should be a very open race; a race that’s difficult to predict and a race with many favorites. That’s the Vuelta.”