Among cycling’s three longest and most important stage races of the season, the Vuelta a España has always been the odd Grand Tour out. The Tour de France is the sports’ grandiose showcase bid for mainstream attention, while the Giro d’Italia’s extravagant pageantry and deep history have positioned it as a worthy runner-up. But the Vuelta has never quite had the prestige of its French or Italian cousins. Nobody plans their season around winning the Spanish Grand Tour, and it’s most important role in the cycling calendar is serving as a backstop if your first two Grand Tours go to shit.
However, it also offers some of the wildest racing of the season year after year, and superstars are more regularly using it as a springboard to prepare for the World Championships. The fascinating combination of unproven riders going up against some of the biggest sluggers in the sport is always a treat, which you can ask Chris Horner about. This year’s race will not feature Chris Froome or Alberto Contador for the first time since 2010, yet it looks like it will be a pretty thrilling edition.
As always, the course is insane. The Vuelta has earned its reputation as a brutal, unpredictable race thanks to a consistent commitment to forcing its riders to do more climbing than any other three-week race. That’s no different this year, though organizers stacked the mountain stages a little more towards the end than they usually do. Still, the first summit finish is on the fourth day of racing. The second and third weeks of racing are suitably nasty, with summit finishes atop the Lagos de Covadonga and the Coll de le Gallina. There are two time trials, but this race will be won going uphill.
Which brings us to this year’s crop of contenders, which is atypically strong, even without Froome or Contador. There are two groups of elite riders who will probably contend for the overall title; guys whose Tour de France didn’t go to plan, and guys who raced the Giro d’Italia (which probably didn’t go to plan for them either, since Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin are not here). Among the Tour group, Richie Porte looks like the strongest, since he was considered the most likely challenger for Froome at the Tour, and he crashed out before the halfway point of the race. His legs will be relatively fresh, though he does have some butt problems at the moment. Porte is probably the strongest time trialist of the GC group here at the Vuelta, which should theoretically give him some late separation if everything goes to plan.
Simon Yates would be viewed as the second-biggest threat to win the race had he not suffered an utter meltdown at the Giro. After Stage 15, Yates had a two-minute lead and three stage wins. By the time the race reached Rome, he was over 75 minutes behind the eventual winner. Nobody doubts his climbing chops, but what happened in May has raised big questions about whether he can do it over three weeks. I still think he’s talented enough to do it, though the Vuelta offers an exceptionally hard third week. Maybe he can have his twin brother Adam swap into the leader’s jersey if he needs an easier day.
The rest of the Tour de France stragglers are no joke. Nairo Quintana, who won the race in 2016, is back and geared up to go for his second win, as is 2010 champ Vincenzo Nibali. Thibaut Pinot, Fabio Aru, Wilco Kelderman, and Rigoberto Urán are all plenty intriguing too. The rider I’m most interested in watching is Colombian climbing ace Miguel Ángel López. He announced himself at the 2017 Vuelta, winning a pair of stages and finishing in eighth place. López got to lead Astana’s team at the Giro this year, where he finished on the podium in third. He may be the best pure climber in this race, and he is clearly comfortable racing on the rugged terrain in Spain. López broke out last year, and since the Vuelta is usually the place where teams will let up-and-coming prospects test their legs, someone will certainly break out this year, too.
The Vuelta has always been a climber’s race, and while this year is no exception, a growing flock of World Championship contenders are using the race as a training camp. Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski will both contend for in-between type stages, and the race’s decision to flatten out a few of their typically rumbly finishes has helped bring in a decent crop of sprinters like Elia Viviani and Nacer Bouhanni.
So, sure, Spain’s Grand Tour doesn’t have the pomp and circumstance of its two fancy counterparts, but as a pure bike race, it’s among the best of the year. Everyone is either looking for redemption or for the chance to break out. Plus, it’s usually on a few hours later than the Tour, which makes watching it from North America significantly easier.