Confirmation that Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas will skip the Vuelta a España means one thing — the Spanish grand tour just got a lot better.
The Vuelta is already the most entertaining grand tour to watch anyway. But without its two GC aces, Sky will not be riding to throttle the race into the ground. That means the Vuelta should be even more explosive than it would be anyway with its seemingly endless string of uphill finales, punchy finishes, and deep field.
With Sky sending its two top stars for a victory lap at the Tour of Britain instead of going to Spain, the Vuelta won’t see a fully loaded Sky train to mark and control every GC threat in the peloton. And that means it’s anyone’s race to win.
Whether that’s a good or a bad thing depends on your view of Team Sky. The team seems to have just as many distractors as supporters, and after a rough and tumble Tour de France, both Froome and Thomas will likely welcome a bit of a grand tour respite.
If you’re a believer in seeing the best riders in the best races no matter what jersey they wear, you won’t agree that the Vuelta is better off without Froome or Thomas. In fact, it could have been fascinating to see just how well Froome or Thomas could have ridden in this Vuelta.
But after the spite and anger that engulfed the Tour last month, the Vuelta will be better off with a bit of a Sky breather.
Sky fatigue has set in across much of the sport, from rivals desperate to try to beat them to skeptical fans who don’t believe them. Race organizers and even the UCI are scrambling to try to find a way to loosen the stranglehold Team Sky has on the Tour de France and the yellow jersey.
As much that’s made about Sky’s domination, its reach only statistically extends to the Tour. Its grip over the Giro, Vuelta, and other races is much looser — Sky has only won one edition of the Giro and Vuelta during its run of six yellow jerseys in the past seven Tours — and Sky has never succeeded in dominating the classics the way it does stage racing. [related title=”More on the Vuelta a Espana” align=”right” tag=”Vuelta-a-Espana”]
The Sky team that came to the Vuelta most years was never the same Sky at the Tour. Even with Froome in the Vuelta, he was never quite the race-killer he’s been of late in the Tour. It took Froome four cracks at the Vuelta before he finally won it last year.
It was inevitable that Froome would pull the plug on his grand tour run. The four-time Tour winner raced four grand tours in row — winning three on a trot and finishing third in last month’s Tour — so sitting out of the Vuelta is no surprise. And though Thomas might have been tempted to race the Vuelta, a victory lap around Britain certainly must sound a lot more appealing. And after two years of mostly negative headlines in the British media, there might be a bit of a PR push by Sky to bring Froome and Thomas closer to the British racing public.
Even without Froome and Thomas, “Sky light” will still be a factor, but it won’t be the race-crusher it was in July.
That’s not to say Sky might not win its fifth straight grand tour anyway. Michal Kwiatkowski and David de la Cruz — there is still no confirmation about Egan Bernal, but he is not expected to race — will carry the team colors.
Sky always brings a strong team to any race, but its demotion as the pre-race favorite will dramatically alter the tactical dynamics of the Vuelta. Without a clear favorite in the form of Froome or Thomas, Sky won’t be massing numbers at the front to dominate the race in the manner it does at the Tour.
That means the Vuelta should be dramatically less controlled and more dynamic.
Other teams will inevitably step into the Sky void and take control of the race. That weight will surely fall onto Movistar.
The Spanish team, however, will once again bring its three-pronged attack to the Vuelta and everyone saw how that worked out during the Tour. The Vuelta should be less complicated, especially with Alejandro Valverde eyeing the worlds and Mikel Landa looking hobbled following a nasty crash at the Clásica San Sebastian. Nairo Quintana will be the focus of Movistar, if not the entire race.
And even without Froome or Thomas, the Vuelta already has a stellar start list, combining the best of the Giro d’Italia and Tour plus some interesting up-and-comers.
The Vuelta has long become the redemption tour ever since it moved to its late-summer slot on the calendar in 1995. This year’s edition looks to be a who’s who of the banged up and embittered.
What is perhaps the Vuelta’s deepest start list in years includes Richie Porte (BMC Racing), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Fabio Aru (UAE-Emirates), Rigoberto Urán and Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac), the Yates brothers (Mitchelton-Scott), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), and the list goes on. Add the likely presence of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and the Vuelta is the envy of the peloton this year.
Riders across the peloton use the season’s final grand tour to salvage something. Others come looking to prepare for the world championships. Anyone still without a contract is doubly motivated to show something. A few actually even put the Vuelta at the center of their season goals.
The final result is a fascinating, well-aged stew of fitness, ambition, motivation, and weariness against the bleating canvas that is late-summer Spain.
As a result, the Vuelta has emerged as the most engaging grand tour of the season for a variety of reasons. It consistently delivers the surprises and GC drama that the Tour could only dream of.
And without Froome or Thomas, the unpredictability factor just shot through the roof.