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The start-list for the 2019 Vuelta a España reads a bit like the Democratic primary: lots of candidates, but no clear favorite.
With no incumbent favorite — last year’s winner Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is not starting — many believe they have a chance. In a crowded field, favorites will be keen to stand out early.
This year’s Vuelta will almost certainly speak Spanish. Nearly all of the major favorites are from South America. If one of them wins, Latin Americans will have swept all three grand tours in 2019. Trying to break that growing hegemony will be Jumbo-Visma, which will be looking to put an exclamation point on its breakout season.
In a typical Vuelta route packed with climbs, the Spanish grand tour seems poised to crown a climber the victor when the race concludes September 15 in Madrid. A mid-race time trial, on a challenging 36.1km route in Pau on stage 10, will be a decisive hurdle for the climbers.
Here’s a quick glance at handicapping the favorites:
>> Nairo Quintana, 29, Movistar
Who is he? As a Giro d’Italia and Vuelta winner, “NairoMan” needs no introduction. Until July, the hottest thing in Colombian cycling.
Strengths/weaknesses: Mental grit and high-altitude DNA. He’s lacked the spark the past few years in the Tour de France, but this Vuelta could suit him better. Movistar brings a packed squad, and lines up as the team to beat.
Vuelta track record: A winner in 2016, thanks in part to the famous “Froomigal” raid instigated by Alberto Contador in the Spanish Pyrénées. Two top-10s, one DNF, overall victory in 2016, and eighth last year.
What might go wrong: Once again, Movistar is throwing the entire kitchen at the GC. The problem is there are too many cooks. Richard Carapaz and Alejandro Valverde might be looking out for their own interests, especially with Quintana leaving the team for 2020.
Can he win? Sure, and perhaps more than anyone, he needs to. Quintana will need to assert himself early, and then try to limit the losses in the TT. Barring the TT prowess of Roglic, this Vuelta is going to be a shootout between the climbers. Quintana’s survived more than his fair share of those.
Who are they? The darlings of the new kid on the block, Jumbo-Visma, a team that’s suddenly the strongest in the peloton behind Ineos (and perhaps ahead of them). Both Kruijswijk and Roglic are coming off first-ever podiums. If momentum counts, they have it.
Strengths/weaknesses: Both are steady diesels in the mountains, with Roglic capable of more explosive efforts. Kruijswijk is the steadier of the pair, while Roglic is superb against the clock. The collective is strong. Their individual weaknesses? Closing the deal on a grand tour.
Vuelta track record: Kruijswijk was fourth last year, his best in four previous starts. This will be Roglic’s first crack at the Vuelta.
What might go wrong?
They could run out of gas in what’s been a long season. It will be interesting to see if they work together or against each other.
Can they win? Maybe. With the exception of the national champs in June, Roglic hasn’t raced since the Giro, so his form is untested. Roglic might throw in the towel if he’s not going great early and refocus on the world time trial championship in September. Kruijswijk was fifth at the Tour and fourth at the Vuelta last year, so he seems to have the engine. If Roglic is on form, the TT in Pau could give him the winning edge.
>> Miguel Ángel López, 25, Astana
Who is he? “SuperMan” has been kicking around a few years now, and seems poised for a breakout moment.
Strengths/weaknesses: Like many of the modern “escarabajos,” time trialing is not his strong suit. Though he had a wildly inconsistent Giro d’Italia in May, López is almost always hanging around the front in every major stage race. Astana, on a tear all season, will give him the support he needs.
Vuelta track record: López is coming off a double-podium season, with third at both the Giro and Vuelta in 2018. He’s the only podium finisher from last year lining up in Torrevieja in what will be his fourth consecutive Vuelta.
What might go wrong: If he has the bad luck he had at the Giro, it won’t be anywhere near the podium. Hopefully he won’t be swatting the hat off any errant fans alongside the road.
Can he win? Most definitely. The course is ideal for López, who seems to have destiny on his side. This could be his big moment.
>> Richard Carapaz, 26, Movistar
Who is he? That climber fella from Ecuador who blew the wheels off everyone at the Giro.
Strengths/weaknesses: Any time the road tilts up versus any time the race is against the clock on longer, flat courses.
Vuelta track record: He’s back for his third Vuelta, a very different man who finished 18th last year.
What might go wrong: His mind might already be on 2020 and the rumored million-dollar contract with Team Ineos. Third at the five-day Vuelta a Burgos last week, his first race since winning the Giro, confirmed he’s on track.
Can he win? That depends on which version shows up. If he’s anywhere as explosive and aggressive as he was in May, he could become the first rider since Alberto Contador in 2008 to win the Giro-Vuelta double.
>> Esteban Chaves, 29, Mitchelton-Scott
Who is he? The Smiling Assassin, who’s deadly on the climbs and packs a grin almost all the time.
Strengths/weaknesses: See above — time trials are not his friend.
Vuelta track record: In four starts, he’s won two stages (both in 2015), and finished third in 2016.
What might go wrong: Chaves will be worrying if he’s completely recovered from Epstein-Barr that torpedoed the second half of his 2018. A strong showing at the Giro, capped by an emotional stage win, seemed to indicate Chaves is back.
Can he win? Maybe. Since his health issues, he needs to prove he can go the distance into the third week. If he’s still poking around the podium in the final weekend, he has the punch to make it happen.
>> Rigoberto Urán, 32, EF-Education First
Who is he? Colombia’s true rock star cyclist.
Strengths/weaknesses: Experience, and unlike most of his compatriots, he’s not allergic to the time trial bike. His rivals’ relative weakness against the clock could be his major strength. EF-Education is packing a sleepy-good team.
Vuelta track record: Despite hitting second in both the Giro and Tour, Urán’s best in five Vuelta’s was seventh last year.
What might go wrong: Bad luck could strike again, but Urán has more experience than most to manage setbacks so long as he’s still in the game.
Can he win? Tal vez — Urán is almost always there, so if he’s healthy and motivated, he’ll be within podium range, maybe more.