The final Grand Tour of the season! The Vuelta a España every year delivers some of the most exciting spectacle of the year, as the riders enter the final three-week race of the year through Spain – and the Netherlands. As every year the route is filled with tricky stages, which vary from highly mountainous to hilly stages with several short and sharp climbs, it’s always a complicated race but one that is understandibly one of the most popular all year long.
The race will open up with a team time-trial in Utrecht, with 23 kilometers of distance in what is a tricky but fast route that will see the first gaps open up.
The days in the Netherlands will be favourable to the fast and powerful riders, as stage two should be a regular bunch sprint once again in the same city, but now with new faces taking the lead.
Stage three will not be too different, as there will be a pan-flat loop around Breda before the second bunch sprint of the race.
Stage four will see the riders first step into Spain for the year, in the norteast, with a finale in Laguardia after what is a tricky and hilly day to set the mood for the rest of the race.
Stage five is likely to see the first action from the GC riders, as the Basque Country will host the finale of what is a complicated day with several climbs, the final two being a double ascent of the Alto del Vivero before the finish in Bilbao.
Stage six will be the first summit finish of the race, and a complicated one at that. The riders will travel to Cantabria, with a hard finale which will include two first category climbs, the final one being at Pico Jano where the GC riders will have their first major challenge, and decisions are likely to be made after the finish line.
Stage seven is one of the most unusual in the race, with a profile in fact very unusual t see in pro cycling. The finale in Cistierna will be flat and after only one categorized ascent, however that will be the long Puerto de San Glorio which can see a GC fight, a reduced bunch sprint and a breakaway win all as possible scenarios.
Stage eight will see another tough summit finish, on a day that is hard from start to finish with five categorized climbs and more that will weigh on the riders. The line will be at Colláu Fancuaya, a 10.3 kilometer climb at 7.8% average gradient.
The ninth day of racing, the final one of the opening week, will see a completely different challenge, however one clearly for the GC riders. It will be a hilly day in the Asturias without any long ascent, however the finale is Les Praeres will haunt many, with it’s gruesome constant gradients of 15% spread throughout the majority of the 3.9-kilometer ascent – the main murito of this edition.
The second week will kick off in the other side of the country, as the riders will now be on the Mediterranean coast with a 31-kilometer individual time-trial – the only one in the race – to be hosted in the Alicante area, where serious differences are likely to be made.
Stage 11 will be one for the sprinters, a day without any major ascent and with a grand majority of it’s terrain being actually flat. The finale will be at Cabo de Gata, on what can be a dangerous windy final kilometers.
Stage 12 will have the peloton ride down into Andalusia via the coast before the final ascent to Peñas Blancas, a one-effort day where the final 19 kilometers will average over 6% of average gradient.
Stage 13 will be one of the final opportunities for the sprinters, although the finale in Montilla will not be favourable to those who struggle with the climbs. It’s a tricky uphill finale, a Vuelta classic.
Stage 14 will be the first within the interior mountains of Andalucia, a weekend that will be decisive for the GC. This day will consist of a single decisive ascent, as the riders will go up to Sierra de la Pandera, an explosive climb with a steep set of final kilometers.
If there could be a day called a queen stage, I would say it is stage 15. The combination of the Alto del Purche and the ascent to Sierra Nevada will be devastating. The final ascent will be climbed via the famous Alto de Hazallanas, and will go all the way up to 2500 meters in altitude, a 19-kilometer final climb with almost 8% average gradient – besides the difficult altitude factor.
The final week of the race will be one that in the profile seems to be perfect for the sprinters. It should be, however not for all, as the finale in Tomares – just outside of Sevilla – will be on a drag to the line and will be quite explosive.
Stage 17 will see a summit finish, however an interesting stage which will be largely raced according to how the riders will look to attack the finale. It can be a calmer day, or an all-out GC fight at the summit finish in the Monasterio de Tentudía.
Stage 18 will see the peloton head into the central mountain range, for what is a difficult day including some small but steep ascents, and a double ascent into Piornal – albeit via different sides.
Stage 19 is a short and explosive hilly day, however one where it is possible for there to be a GC raid. It should be a very stressful affair, unless early on a breakaway with no GC danger goes up the road.
The final mountain stage will take place around the Sierras de Madrid, a classic in the Vuelta. It will not be an easy way by any means, despite the climbs not reaching the difficulty of some across the rest of the race. The combination of the fatigue, the combination of ascents and the all-or-nothing mentality by some riders may make this a deadly affair for the GC hopes of some.
Finally the race reaches Madrid, as usual, for a bunch sprint that will reward those who’ve survived a complicated three weeks of racing.
Richard Carapaz – One of the most consistent riders in the Grand Tours, finished his last three Grand Tours on the podium. At the Giro he made a good push to the win and only on the final mountain stage did he loose it. With Volta a Burgos winner Pavel Sivakov, Carlos Rodriguez, Tao Geoghegan Hart to protect him in the mountains and the likes of Dylan van Baarle and Ethan Hayter also available to help, it will be perhaps the strongest team on course, and one perfectly fit for the race’s mountains.
Jai Hindley & Sergio Higuita – The Giro d’Italia winner Hindley won’t have as much of a favourable route here in Spain, but as a pure climber he will enjoy the many mountainous days the race has to offer. Wilco Kelderman comes likely as a support rider, however the Volta a Catalunya has serious climbing legs and his recent win at the Tour de Pologne proves his current form.
Primoz Roglic – Roglic is the three-time defending champion, and despite his recent injuries, he’s one of the riders who has the best capacity to have strong form without racing. The Vuelta is a race very well suited to the leader of Jumbo-Visma, with several explosive finales and short steep ascents where he can thrive, whilst having the time-trials to further accentuate gaps – and with the support of Sepp Kuss, the high mountains should not be a major struggle if he has his best legs.
Remco Evenepoel – One of the biggest wildcards. Perhaps the biggest when it comes to the GC, Evenepoel has never proved to be a GT contender but he has his first big and proper chance here. Having lost weight, showed great form at the Clasica San Sebastian and having a strong mountain team around him, Evenepoel will have good chances of fighting for the top places if he can avoid a major crack.
João Almeida – Almeida is not a pure climber, but is a brilliant stage-racer. Having won the summit finish finale at the Vuelta a Burgos recently though shows his climbing form is in the spot, and UAE will have the likes of Brandon McNulty and Juan Ayuso who may be willing to put on a supportive role and if so, UAE will actually have one of the strongest mountain teams, whilst Almeida is a very consistent rider and should be able to resist well the treacherous days.
Simon Yates – Inconsistent, but still one of the best climbers in the world. The 2018 winner has been having a strong season when his form is on point, with two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia, and some wins before the Clasica San Sebastian showing that his prowess remains intact. BikeExchange come with a classic mixed team, with Lucas Hamilton his right-hand man being the only real support the Briton will have in the mountains, but the race is very well suited to Yates.
Enric Mas – Movistar are in serious need of points. Enric Mas has lost his GC ambitions on four different World Tour races this year and that has taken a big toll on the Spanish team who are now fighting for points. Mas was fifth two years ago and second last year, he’s a candidate to the podium but he has to show better form than in the Tour de France – where he abandoned later with Covid-19. Alejandro Valverde and Carlos Verona should be chasing stage wins, or perhaps a lower GC position.
Astana – Astana regularly have, in my opinion, flawed Grand Tour teams with little order or support for the leaders, but their lineup here at the Vuelta is actually surprisingly positive in my eyes. After coming back to form in shocking way, Vincenzo Nibali will be interesting to follow over in Spain where he won back in 2010. Miguel Angel Lopez is a pure climber and a strong contender for the GC, specially in the high mountain days of the second week, and Alexey Lutsenko was coming into form on the final week of the Tour de France and may also be a card to consider here.
Mikel Landa – Landa has hinted that he may not favour a GC stint, however with a third place at the Giro d’Italia and a home crowd, the Basque may have the motivation and form to chase another strong GC result. Bahrain have a strong team with several options, Gino Mader has struggled through this season but he finished fifth and won the youth classification last year, will be looking to repeat it here. Besides, Santiago Buitrago is in my opinion a legitimate GC threat, although he hasn’t shown a strong GT result yet, his Giro was very strong and he’s proven many times to be a brilliant climber over this year, with Wout Poels also as critical support.
Ben O’Connor – After abandoning the Tour de France, O’Connor has not yet raced. There’s little indication on how he’s built into the race, but AG2R want a GC stint from their leader after crashes took him out of his main goal. He’s a solid Top10 contender, and a big wildcard for the race.
Riders such as Thymen Arensman, Alejandro Valverde, Esteban Chaves, Hugh Carthy, Jan Hirt, Louis Meintjes, Domenico Pozzovivo and Bob Jungels are between the riders who are also expected to have the GC in mind. It’s a long race, other riders will likely also be present in the fight, whilst many of those above will not be in the fight after a few weeks of racing.
Tim Merlier – The fastest pure sprinter in the race, he won’t have many opportunities but he will be a big candidate for some of the early stages after having to miss the Giro following injuries. Lionel Taminiaux will be his leadout man, not a strong leadout in general but the Belgian has managed to be very successful over the last years nonetheless.
Mads Pedersen – Carrying top form, Pedersen is a rider who can go over the bumps very well. To see him in the Vuelta will be interesting, Pedersen will be an option for the sprints, but is also a very complete rider who can feature in hilly days and breakaways quite often. As Merlier, he doesn’t have a top leadout, but the competition isn’t as fierce here as in other races.
Sam Bennett – Form has been an issue for Bennett throughout most of the year. However he finished the European championships in fifth place and had time to prepare for the Vuelta properly. With Danny van Poppel alongside it’s safe to say Bennett may just have the best leadout in the race, although sure enough BORA will focus a lot on the GC fight aswell.
Ethan Hayter – Hayter may not be much of an option for the normal bunch sprints due to his struggle with positioning, however if he can get through them he’s a serious contender for the points classification, taking into account his serious time-trialing and climbing skills.
In the flat bunch sprints it is also likely to see Pascal Ackermann, Kaden Groves, Gerben Thijssen, Davide Cimolai, Dan McLay, Itamar Einhorn and Jake Stewart. Juan Sebastián Molano will also be an option in case Ackermann suffers from his crashes in the Europeans.
As for the hillier finales, they will be more suited to the likes of Bryan Coquard, Patrick Bevin, Mike Teunissen and Andrea Vendrame – and although not a sprinter, Julian Alaphilippe – who will still have quite a few opportunities to fight for the wins on favourable terrain.
⭐⭐⭐ Carapaz, Hindley, Almeida
⭐⭐ Higuita, Roglic, S.Yates, MA.Lopez
⭐ Evenepoel, Sivakov, Mas, Nibali, Landa, Buitrago, Quintana, O’Connor, Arensman, Hirt, Meintjes
It’s always hard to call a Grand Tour, specially one as open as this. Many big favourites, no man to beat. INEOS have an incredibly strong team and Richard Carapaz is one of the most consistent Grand Tour riders in the peloton, I will go with him for the red jersey.
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