Vuelta Race Preview: It has been a very strange 2020 season, but some things never change – La Vuelta a España will be the last Grand Tour of the year and, as is the norm, it’s full of mountainous climbs. Ed Hood breaks down the Spanish Tour and has a good look at the course and riders.
No team time trial to start the 2020 Vuelta
It’s that time – albeit somewhat later than usual in this crazy year – the biggest race of the year for the Spanish riders, especially the Burgos BH and Caja Rural guys; another chance for the successful Tour de France protagonists to strut their stuff and a last chance for the those who REALLY need a big result to lever that wage rise, or for the even more desperate, ink a last gasp contract or risk the slide back to the pro continental or even continental ranks.
The ProConti teams will be looking for wins
The Vuelta is the youngest of the three Grand Tours; the Grande Boucle was first run in 1903 whilst the Corsa Rosa goes back to 1909 – so with a birthday of 1935 the Vuelta is the youngest of the three greatest stage races on earth. It didn’t have a good childhood, no sooner born than it’s growth was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War it lurched through the dark days of World War Two and Franco’s reign before becoming the fully grown and most relaxed of the triplet of three week stage races it is now.
There have been many battles in Avila
This year will be edition 75 and of those the home nation has triumphed in 31 of them – it was 32 until Juan Jose was recently declassed from his 2011 win which was then awarded to Chris Froome. France is second on nine GC wins; but whilst it was six years ago when Alberto Contador took his third Vuelta [2008/12/14] you have to go all the way back to 1995 and Laurent Jalabert to find the last Frenchman to win.
Laurent Jalabert in the Vuelta yellow jersey
Spain also has most stage wins, 500 plus with Belgium second on some 200-odd and it was also a Belgian who won the first Vuelta way back in 1935, Gustaaf Deloor.
Vuelta a España 1935
Roberto Heras (Spain) is ‘recordman’ on four wins [2000/3/4/5] and 34 days in the leader’s jersey but whilst Alex Zulle (Switzerland) ‘only’ won the race twice [‘96 & ‘97] he holds the record for days as race leader on 48 stages. Of current riders it’s ‘Green Bullet’ – as he was in his Kelme days – Alejandro Valverde who tops the list of leadership days on 27 with Alberto Contador on 26.
Alberto Contador 2008
Scotland’s own Robert Millar is respectably high in the ‘days of leadership’ stakes on 13 and two second places on GC; there should have been at least one win in there but those Spanish combines did for that dream – best not get too into that subject, I get emotional. . .
Robert Millar should have won the Vuelta at least once, maybe twice – In the race leaders yellow jersey
Merckx has ‘only’ nine days of leadership and one GC win in 1973 – with the Vuelta just days before the Giro back then he never returned; unpleasantly surprised by the non-stop, death or glory riding of the Spanish Kas team mountain men who made sure it was no easy win for the big Belgian. Merckx is one of the ‘Big Seven’ who have won all three of the Grand Tours along with Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi [rest in peace], Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome – that other stage race Colossus, Miguel Indurain never managed to win his home tour.
No Vuelta win for ‘Big Mig’
The closest winning margin was six seconds for Eric Caritoux (France) over Alberto Fernandes (Spain) in 1984. Incidentally, it’s generally accepted that Caritoux won that race ‘clean,’ according to those who know.
The clean Eric Caritoux
The record number of stage wins falls to Delio Rodriguez on 39 but that was way back in the 1940’s – in recent times ‘Ale Jet’ Petacchi racked up 20 whilst in 1977 Freddy Maertens (Belgium) won a remarkable 13 stages en route the overall victory.
Freddy Maertens led the 1977 Vuelta a España from start to finish and won 13 stages
Most consecutive finishes belongs to Federico Echave (Spain) who rode and finished every Vuelta between 1982 and 1995, Iñigo Cuesta started 17 times but was DNS on three occasions. And to close, the fastest Vuelta was 2001 when Angel Casero (Spain) won at 42.534 kph – he was a Festina man so perhaps that explains it?
Angel Casero – Vuelta 2001
The ROUTE breaks down as four ‘flat’ – eight ‘hilly’ – five ‘mountain’ and one time trial stage. Albeit the organiser’s definitions of ‘flat’ and ‘hilly’ are pretty flexible. . . Let’s take a wander through the 18 stages, down from the usual 21 with the cancelation of the stages in the Netherlands due to the ‘C word.’
Stage 1: Irun to Arrat Eibar, a Basque country battle where the final shape of the GC will take shape immediately over an extremely tough finale – there’s no ‘easing in’ to this Vuelta; a full on GC battle from day one.
Stage 2: Pamplona to Lekunberri, and more of the same albeit, although those downhill closing kilometres will promote re-grouping.
Stage 3: Lodosa to Laguna Negra, the third consecutive day of climbing with a mountain top finish – the final GC form will be well moulded by now.
Stage 4: Garray.Numancia to Ejea De Los Caballeros, at last the fast men get some crumbs – BUT this could be a crosswind blood bath so the GC guys will be nervous today.
Stage 5: Huesca to Sabinanigo, one for the breakaway with the GC guys thinking about la Belle France on the morrow.
Stage 6: Biescas to Col du Tourmalet, yes, ‘that’ Tourmalet with the Portalet and Aubisque as starters – the stage is just 136.6K so those poor sprinters are in for a tough day to beat the time cut.
Stage 7: Vitoria to Villanueva de Valdegovia, another day for the breakaway with little flat road.
Stage 8: Logroño to Alto Del Moncalvillo, ‘alto’ – never a good word to see in a stage finish name if you’re a sprinter and this one is savage, 11K with much of it around 9% – if you’re a GC guy this is no the day for a ‘jour sans’.
Stage 9: Castrillo Del Val to Aguilar De Campo, glory be – a sprint stage, for the survivors.
Stage 10: Castro Urdiales to Suances, if the sprinters teams still have the horsepower and will to keep it together then it will be mass charge, but the nature of the parcours means it could well be for the breakaway.
Stage 11: Villaviciosa to Alto De La Farrapona, there’s that ‘alto’ word again and this is another horror finish with three big climbs before the final 11K shoot out.
Stage 12: La Pola LLaviana to Alto De L’Angiru, yes, it’s as tough as they say having walked up it – a savage stage with four categorised climbs before what is generally accepted as the toughest climb in European professional bike racing.
Stage 13: Muros to Mirador De Ezaro, a highly technical time test of similar composition to le Tour’s final time test where Pogacar stole the race; pan flat for the first 32K then a searing 1,880 metre climb at 14.6% making bike changes a key factor.
Stage 14: Lugo to Ourense, this one could go either way, breakaway or sprinters – if there are any of the latter left standing?
Stage 15: Mos to Puebla De Sanabria, another tough day, the longest of the race at 230.8K – one for the breakaway for sure.
Stage 16: Salamanca to Ciudad Rodrigo, another breakaway stage with a downhill finish to allow the demon descender dropped on the final climb to get back.
Stage 17: Sequeros to Alto De La Covatilla, yes, that ‘alto’ thing again – 10 kilometres and one for the pure climber with varying grades to upset the ‘big Diesel’ one pace climbers.
Stage 18: Hipodromo De La Zarzuela to Madrid, if he makes it – Sam Bennett.
The final stage in Madrid
The start list is dominated by two mighty GC teams; INEOS Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma. But the thing to remember is that whilst a Giro/Vuelta ‘double’ strong performance is usually possible in a ‘normal’ season, this is anything but a normal season. But we’re sure you’ve noticed that already? To lift oneself mentally and physically to perform in the Vuelta just a few weeks after a tough Tour de France is no easy task.
Last year’s Giro winner – Richard Carapaz
The British team have 2019 Giro winner, Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz and one of only seven men to have won all three Grand Tours with Brit, Chris Froome. Carapaz showed good form in le Tour with two second places on stages and second in the king of the mountains. Froome is still on the way back from his horror crash of last year and whilst his showing this year have been lack lustre only the foolish would write off such a dedicated and talented man.
A third Vuelta win for Chris Froome?
The Dutch team, Jumbo-Visma has the world’s most consistent stage race rider at its head, Primoz Roglič. The defending champion displayed no post-Tour blues with that dazzling Liege-Bastogne-Liege win and sixth in the Worlds. But it’s not just Roglič, he’s backed by Tom Dumoulin, Sep Kuss, Robert Gesink and George Bennett. The strongest team in the race.
Primoz Roglič will be hungry for the win
Then there’s ‘homeboys’ Movistar who have their, ‘great white hope’ Enric Mas at their head; fifth in le Tour it depends on his head as much as his legs and there’ll be pressure from the Spanish media to perform. War horse Alejandro Valverde is one of the ‘old guard’ who have been affected by the format of this strange year, a man like him needs a lot of racing to get to where he wants to be. It’s hard to see him on the podium but is a great team mate for Mas to have beside him.
Movistar need a win – Enric Mas
In our book, Roglič and Mas are the favourites, who else?
To use a David Brailsford word, can Frenchman Thibaut Pinot [Groupama FDJ] ‘recalibrate’ after his horror Tour? If his head is screwed back on firmly then the parcours suits him down to the ground – but he’s just so damn fragile.
Thibaut Pinot – Any chance?
And staying with French hopes, we have Guillaume Martin of Cofidis, he was just outside the top 10 in the Tour and rode a strong Worlds; we don’t see a podium but he should be top 10 in the final standings.
2nd French hope – Guillaume Martin
Hugh Carthy [EF & GB] is a man who’s worked his way steadily up the ranks to where he is now – very close to the top of the ‘mountain men.’
Recovered from the Tour?
And another man who the parcours suits down to the ground is his team mate, Canada’s Michael Woods – he could well be a podium threat.
Woods – Podium threat
Getting another bite at the cherry is 2020 Russian revelation, Astana’s Aleksandr Vlasov; he dropped out of the Giro with ‘stomach problems’ but August saw him in stunning form, first on the Ventoux, fourth in Piemonte, third in Lombardia, first in Emilia and then fifth on GC in Tirreno. A man to watch.
Vlasov – Man on form
As we discussed in the parcours part of this piece, there are slim pickings for the sprinters; Tour de France green jersey, Sam Bennett [Deceuninck – Quick-Step] is there, as is big German flyer, Pascal Ackermann and up and coming Dutch flyer, Jasper Philipsen [UAE Team Emirates].
Sprint wins for Bennett?
But there are many opportunities for the ‘baroudeurs’ – Dutchman Wout Poels [Bahrain-McLaren], Italian Alessandro De Marchi [CCC], Belgium’s Tim Wellens [Lotto Soudal], Denmark’s Michael Valgreen [NTT] to name but a handful.
Chances for Poels
Roglic from Mas with a very open battle for the last podium place.
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