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Analysis: No five-star favorites means Vuelta could be even more unpredictable

The Vuelta could be more wide open than ever with many of the established GC stars missing for one reason or another

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The first takeaway from a quick glance at the Vuelta a España start list is, where are the stars?

No Chris Froome. No Tom Dumoulin. And no Geraint Thomas or Egan Bernal. Is Vincenzo Nibali going? Nope.

The lack of marquee names could be a boon for this year’s Vuelta. The Spanish race is now set to deliver the sparks and fireworks that have consistently made the it the season’s best barn-burner.

In fact, a Vuelta without a clear, five-star favorite could well mean an even more unpredictable race.

“If you look at the race across three-weeks, it is really relentless and already within the first week there’s some real aggressive and hard stages,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Julian Dean. “There’s not really an easy consecutive few days during the whole Vuelta.”

The Vuelta certainly has a lot to live up to coming into the tail-end of what’s been a stirring and thrilling grand tour racing season. A key factor in the reason the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France were so wildly entertaining is that the peloton is seeing a wave new riders elbowing their way into the GC mix. A few big names were missing, or at least off their best, and others stepped up. The peloton saw first-time grand tour winners at the Giro and Tour, with Richard Carapaz (Movistar) and Egan Bernal (Ineos), respectively.

With the absence of many of the peloton’s established GC contenders, the Vuelta could follow suit.

Primoz Roglic (left) and Richard Carapaz will both line up to race the Vuelta. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

‘No one comes to the Vuelta to just pedal’

That’s not to say there isn’t some legitimate quality to the line up. Vuelta race director Javier Guillén said he’s not worried that the race won’t deliver if some of the bigger names are sitting home.

“No one comes to the Vuelta just to pedal the bike,” Guillén said last week. “All the top-level riders only think about winning when they are racing. I’m not worried about the intensity they bring, I am only worried about if they come or not.”

On paper, this Vuelta is not set up to produce a classic showdown between the likes of Froome and the now-retired Alberto Contador, but there should be a real tug-of-war to win the red jersey.

The Vuelta could evolve into a duel between Movistar, with former winner Nairo Quintana and Carapaz, and Jumbo-Lotto, who brings Steven Kruijswijk and Primoz Roglic, both hot off their first respective grand tour podiums at the Tour and Giro.

Both teams are ambitious and will want to cap what’s been hugely successful seasons for each franchise. With Carapaz expected to join Ineos next season, however, it will be interesting to see how deep he will want to push. Roglic, expected to start his first stage race since the Giro, might not be at 100 percent, perhaps with one eye on the world time trial race in September in Yorkshire.

Behind those two teams, Miguel Ángel López (Astana) is the only returning podium finisher from last year. Defending champ Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and runner-up Enric Mas (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) are not racing.

That void at the top could be the opening López needs to win his first grand tour.

It seems that the injuries and other early season setbacks that have so often helped “save” the Vuelta are biting back this year. Froome, still recovering from his crash in June, won’t race again until 2020. Dumoulin, who crashed out of the Giro d’Italia and skipped the Tour, won’t race again this season, either.

Domenico Pozzovivo, who was going to lead Bahrain-Merida), dodged a bullet this week with a very dangerous crash, and is out for the season. Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) pulled the plug on his season, citing fatigue and burnout.

A few riders who did the Giro-Tour double won’t be back for a third grand tour, including Mikel Landa (Movistar), Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and defending champion Yates.

Nairo Quintana needs a big result to save his 2019 season. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Salvage the season

A few top names do fit into the Vuelta’s “save-my-season” category. Esteban Chavez (Mitchelton-Scott) is back from a year-long battle with illness, and could be an outsider for the podium. Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) will be hoping to shed his string of bad luck and finish the season on a high. Fabio Aru (UAE-Emirates), another injury castaway, is hoping to build on an encouraging Tour performance.

EF-Education First will bring a loaded squad, with Rigoberto Urán, Tejay van Garderen and Daniel Martínez, the latter two back from injuries.

There could be up to seven Americans starting the Vuelta. Along with van Garderen, Lawson Craddock (EF-Education First), Kiel Reijnen and Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo), two-time Vuelta stage-winner from 2018 Ben King (Dimension Data), Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Lotto) all possibly be lining up August 24 in Torrevieja.

One of the big question marks in this Vuelta will be who Team Ineos shows up with.

The list of riders who are not starting is growing by the day. Two-time winner Froome is obviously out with injury. Bernal is back in Colombia celebrating his history-making Tour victory while Thomas stepped back from a run at the Vuelta to target the worlds. Pavel Sivakov, hot off winning the Tour of Poland, is also skipping the Vuelta. Iván Sosa, currently leading the Vuelta a Burgos in Spain, might not race after having made his grand tour debut at the Giro in May.

Ineos is so deep, however, it can still bring a competitive team even when hitters like Michal Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels are also giving it a miss. David de la Cruz and Tao Geoghegan Hart could punch into the top-5.

At both the Giro and Tour, two young riders boldly stepped into the void to take control of their own destinies. History could be in the making again in Spain.

Last year saw British riders sweep all three grand tours. So far, Latin Americans have won the first two in 2019. Take your pick — Urán, Carapaz, Quintana, López or Chaves — all have options to keep that streak going.

Organizers have brought back the Alto de Los Machucos climb, one of the toughest climbs in Spain. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Steep climbs, punishing stages

The 2019 Vuelta route is holding up its end of the bargain. Sticking to its tried-and-true blueprint, course designers have delivered another climb-heavy course packed with a few surprises that should keep the GC battle on edge until the final weekend.

“With two time trials and eight hilltop finishes, including the brutal Alto de Los Machucos and Alto de La Cubilla to sort the GC, there looks to be five or six opportunities for sprinters,” said Sunweb sport director Luke Roberts. “The rest of the stages will likely go to breakaways or a decimated bunch.”

And then there’s 2009 Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). Last year, he rode to fifth just following wheels and was in second overall going into the final weekend. Valverde, 39, is likely using the Vuelta to prepare for his rainbow jersey defense.

But in a Vuelta without a clear jefe, anything could happen.