By David Hunter
Yes, my favourite Grand Tour of the year. The reason I love this race is the steep finishes at ridiculous gradients. Add in the sunshine, the relaxed racing, unpredictability and that is why I many cycling fans think this is the high point of the year.
This is a tough stage early in the race, especially in the heat of the South. The final climb might only be 12.4km at 5.4%, but a bad day will end a rider’s GC hopes. I expect at least one big name to suffer here.
The day before the 1st rest day and we head back to Alto de la Covatilla, where the race hasn’t finished since 2011. The climb is 9.8km at 7.1%, but includes an easy opening 2km. The main body of the climb rarely drops below 9%.
This finish is one of the steepest you’ll see in cycling. La Camperona has a final 2km at around 15%, it is brutal. Sergey Lagutin won here in 2016 and Ryder Hesjedal in 2014, I wonder if we’ll get another breakaway success?
If that wasn’t hard enough, the next stage ends with 4km at 12.5%. Not only that, but it’s a day with three cat 1 climbs.
The 3rd consecutive day in the mountains ends with Lagos De Covadonga, which is 11.7km at 7.2%. We were last here in 2016, when Quintana put Froome to the sword. Being the final stage of three in the mountains, this day will see huge gaps on GC.
We have a 32km ITT, the day after the rest day. Don’t let the profile fool you, there are a few lumps in this.
Another day, another brutal finish. This time it’s 7.3km at 9.7% and has a maximum of 23.8%. This will be one of those you remember for a long time.
The racing ends with two stages in Andorra, the first of which climbs Coll de la Rabassa, which is 17km at 6.6%, with the opening half much more difficult than the second. Will the Yates boys try something in their “home” stage?
I have a feeling this stage could be one that is too hard. The organisers are trying to encourage crazy racing, but we might not get much action until the final climb, time will tell.
Given the route, you simply have to be brilliant on double digit gradients to have any chance of claiming the red jersey. Limiting loses in the TT will also be important, but we have so many demanding finishes, this is a great chance for a climber to win a Grand Tour.
Nairo Quintana – I love a good stat, the Colombian has finished in the top two of a grand tour every year since 2013. That is quite some record! He off the pace in the Tour, eventually finishing down in 10th place. That was a big surprise, as he looked in great form in the Tour de Suisse, I know he crashed, but time had already been lost. He will be super motivated to continue his exceptional run in grand tours and this does look like a great route for him. The winner in 2016, he will be confident of claiming his 2nd title and 3rd grand tour.
Miguel Angel Lopez – to finish on the podium at the Giro, aged just 24, was an enormous achievement for the Colombian. After finishing 8th in the 2017 Vuelta, he’ll be very confident of challenging for the overall win. His form looked good in Burgos and he arrives with a strong team to support his campaign to win the red jersey. The steep finishes are perfect for him, he packs a huge punch for one so small. Has to be one of the big favourites to win the race.
Richie Porte – the cobbles ended his bid for Tour de France glory and Porte has the unenviable record of always seeming to have bad luck in a grand tour. This will be the Aussies debut in the race, we shall have to see how he finds racing in Spain, it is unique compared to the other grand tours. 5th place in the 2016 Tour remains his best 3 week result and that’s something I’m sure he wants to improve on. We will have to wait and see how his recover has been.
George Bennett – the last couple of years have been very good for the Kiwi, as he starts to really find his feet at the top table of cycling. He was 10th in the 2016 Vuelta, which acted as a catalyst for him moving into 2017. Last year he won the Tour of California, before looking a strong candidate for the Tour de France top 10. That ended with a crash, but he came charging back this year, taking 8th in the Giro. If he can avoid bad luck, a top 5 finish is within his grasp.
Simon Yates – after his spectacular fall from grace in the Giro, can he really be trusted to challenge for the red jersey? The simple answer is yes. Yates does have pedigree in 3 week races, he simply started the Giro far too hot. He will learn from that mistake and come back stronger, especially considering the team he has to support him in this race. He is a genuine contender for the final podium.
Fabio Aru – the Italian is a very hard man to predict. He burst onto the scene in 2014, finishing 3rd in the Giro and 5th in the Vuelta. In 2015 he was even better, finishing 2nd in the Giro and 1st in the Vuelta. In 2016 he was 6th going into the final mountain stage in the Tour, but blew spectacularly and only finished 13th on GC. Last year he won a stage in the Tour and took the yellow jersey, but faded in the final week and finished 5th on GC. He then headed to the Vuelta and again blew on the final mountain stage, sliding from 8th to 13th. It is difficult to understand if we’ll ever see the 2015/2016 version of Aru, he’s looked a shadow of himself since that point. This year has been hugely disappointing, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him back to his very best in Spain.
Ilnur Zakarin – ended the Tour in great form, always a good sign for the Vuelta. After finishing 3rd on debut in 2017, Zakarin was always going to come back and try his luck in 2018. Last year, he did the Giro/Vuelta route, this is the first year he’s trying the Tour/Vuelta route. We all know this is hugely demanding on the body and riders rarely achieve success the first time they try. We shall see if Zakarin has the magic formula.
Thibaut Pinot – Pinot without Reichenbach, is like salt without pepper! The French climber arrives in Spain without his trusted domestique, who is still trying to regain fitness after injury. Instead, Pinot will be looking towards Georg Preidler to help in the mountains. Back in the Giro, everything was looking good for Pinot to finish on the podium, but he had a nightmare in the final mountain stage and had to quit the race due to exhaustion. It has well been documented that Pinot suffers in the heat, if he survives the first week in the South, he might just stand a chance.
Rigoberto Urán – after a brilliant Tour de France in 2017, the pressure was on Uran to deliver in July, but he failed. Yes, he did crash and have to abandon, but he had already lost some cheap seconds. Having to quit the race could have been a blessing in disguise, as it allowed him to refocus on the Vuelta, without wasting energy. Despite regularly racing the Vuelta early in his career, Uran hasn’t been back since abandoning the 2014 edition. It will be interesting to see if he’s managed to sufficiently recover since the Tour.
Colombian Old Guard v Colombian New Guard. I see this as a straight fight between Quintana and Lopez, with Miguel Angel Lopez taking his first grand tour title.
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