The Vuelta is generally regarded as a Tour for the pure climbers who excel on the really steep slopes that abound in Spain. This year's course is no exception, with 8 uphill finishes, but some of the tougher climbs aren't present and there is a 38.7 kilometre and very flat TT, which will probably produce the biggest time gaps in the race. It will be very possible to make up the time in the mountains however, so a wide variety of riders will be in contention here. Clearly a strong time trial and good ability on the steeper climbs will be important, and that will suit some riders more than others.
With so many riders coming into this race with their form unknown, it is hard to know how the teams of the contenders will approach the race. I would guess that Astana will try to make the race hard in the early stages, with their two contenders in Aru and Landa coming off a more settled preparation than most of the others. There are quite a few opportunities for their team to put the hammer down, particularly in Stages 2 and 7, and it could catch out some riders, like what happened at the Giro D'Italia, where riders like Hesjedal, Uran and Kruijswijk would have been challenging for the podium, but for the masses of time lost in the first week. It could be a rough time for the Tour de France riders, who will be coming into the race comparatively underdone and will be most vulnerable at the start. Those early stages aren't the hardest however, so it will take some aggressive racing to get an advantage.
The racing should get hardest in Stage 11, which is brutally tough 132 km with four category 1 climbs and an HC climb. That day will definitely sort the wheat from the chaff, and I'd be surprised if there are more than a handful of contenders realistically in with a shot at the overall win after the finish here.
The time trial is going to shape the tactics of the race as well, with the stronger TT riders probably going to be more defensive and conservative than their counterparts. In these later race TTs though, it is often as much about recovery as about pure TT ability, so it will be really interesting to see who does well here.
For the sprinters and puncheurs there are a lot of intermediate hilly stages, where it could be an opportunity for the early break, the late attack or a bunch sprint. The stages are of varying difficulty, so it will be interesting to see how each of the main players approaches the stages in question. Certainly teams like Giant-Alpecin and Cofidis will be keen for the race to end in a sprint, where Degenkolb and Bouhanni will be favourites to take the win. Other teams will be pushing for the race to favour the attackers, and the balancing act between the sprinters and the attackers will be a constant theme throughout the Vuelta as there a lot of these sort of profiles throughout the 21 stages.
It's often not necessarily the best rider that wins the Vuelta, but often the best prepared who comes in to take the win. This has been highlighted by a procession of unlikely winners, with names like Chris Horner and JJ Cobo beating out Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome respectively to take the red jersey, and not many people would contend that they are better cyclists than the guys who finished 2nd. It is enough to come in with a better preparation and stronger form, and that can make up a big gulf in class. With that in mind, I'll be focusing at how each rider has prepared for the race, and, if they are backing up, how they have done in the past.
Chris Froome is coming off the win at the Tour de France, and has consistently shown himself to one of the best stage racers of his generation, both climbing and time trialling with the best. He will arguably be better suited by this course than the Tour, as it doesn't include difficulties like the cobbled stage, but does include a lengthy TT, which is right up Froome's alley. The biggest question mark is whether he is in good enough form to win here. He finished off the race looking at his most vulnerable, suggesting that he may be at the end of his energies for the season. On the other hand, it was claimed after the Tour that he was sick for the final few stages, and was weaker because of that. That may not be the best preparation for the Vuelta, but he's backed up from the Tour before with some success, finishing 2nd in 2014, 4th in 2012, and 2nd when he did the Vuelta by itself in 2011. He probably would have won that edition, but for the fact that he was working for team leader Bradley Wiggins for the majority of the race, which cost him time. Last year was a slightly different preparation for him, as he came in after a crash took him out of the Tour early, which meant that he was fresher, but also with less form, which saw him start slowly, but improve throughout the race. He will be at a lower level here than the Tour, which was always his main target for the season, but as many of the other major riders are in the same boat, he could still come out on top, and it would be a big surprise if he finished off the podium. He has Nieve and Henao on his squad here, with both outside shots at riding a good race on GC themselves, so it will be interesting to see how Sky balances their ambitions with Froome's.
Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana make up the formidable Movistar one-two punch that served them so well in the Tour, with Quintana finishing in 2nd and Valverde 3rd. The dynamic seems to have shifted between the pair here, with Valverde looking to be the first leader and Quintana the second. That is probably going to be reflected by their form, as Valverde went into the Tour on minimal form, and his form increased throughout, and should be closer to top form at the start here. Quintana is still a young rider, and he will have more trouble than most of the established riders doing the quick backup, and he doesn't have any experience in doing the quick turn around from the Tour to the Vuelta. Not to say that it is impossible, but Movistar will probably play and wait and see game with him, and keep tabs on how his body reacts. He was certainly finishing on a high at the Tour and he took 2nd again at the biggest race in the world, so maybe he will be able to carry some of that form here. Valverde has been quite bullish in the media pre-race, and he'll be very keen to win his home race again. He often does the Tour-Vuelta double, and has been strong when doing so, often finishing in high positions in both. The only downside for him on this course is the long TT, as he's not the strongest against the clock. He's not the worst by any stretch, and he'll limit his losses to the top guys to around two minutes, which can be made up on this course, particularly for a rider of Valverde's skills, as he really appreciates the steep climbs, and will have a lot of opportunities to take bonus seconds with his strong sprint. Quintana is a marginally better TTer, and loves the steep climbs, but is less explosive than Valverde, which will cost him in some of the tougher finishes. I believe that Valverde will the main guy for Movistar this Vuelta, but Quintana is obviously a rider of immense quality and might be coming with strong motivation after just missing out at the Tour.
Domenico Pozzovivo hasn't ridden a full Grand Tour this season and will come into the race more fresh than most of his rivals. He of course had an enforced break after his horrific crash during the Giro, where he had been hoping to do well. He returned well to racing in the Tour de Suisse, finishing 5th overall, well above his expectations before the race. The Italian didn't do so well in his next race however, the Tour l'Ain, which is a lower quality race, and he finished 10th there. He will need to be much better here, but Pozzovivo is an experienced rider, and he should be well prepared to be at his best in Spain. He is a tiny rider, and will enjoy the steep slopes, but he is also a surprisingly good TT rider, and he actually finished 3rd in the flat Vuelta TT behind Martin and Cancellara in 2012, when he finished 6th overall. He doesn't quite have the quality of the top GC riders, with his highest finish in a Grand Tour being 5th in the 2014 Giro, but he does have 5 top 10s in total, which shows that he is very consistent. If he has the fitness edge on his rivals here, he could convert that into a very good showing on GC.
Samuel Sanchez comes in as the stated leader of BMC, but may have to share leadership duties with Tejay Van Garderen, who was in great form at the Tour, before he had to abandon after suffering from a virus. Not that Sanchez performed badly at the Tour, where he finished 12th overall, especially given that he hadn't prepared to be in top form. He has a very good history in the Vuelta, and whilst he often works for others during the rest of the season, he has the leadership role in his home race, and he has done a number of top performances, filling all the positions from 2nd through 8th on GC. He's certainly getting on these days, but he did manage 6th in this race last year, and his form at the Tour showed that he's not lost his ability yet. He is a very good all-round rider, and won't be particularly advantaged or disadvantaged by any element of the parcours. I can't really see him winning the race, perhaps if it is a very changeable race, he might happen to be the most consistent over the three weeks. Tejay Van Garderen was bitterly disappointed to go out of the Tour, especially given he was sitting in 3rd after 16 stages. Unfortunately he will still have used up a lot of energy doing that, and won't have much benefit from not competing on the final 4 stages. He also has no history at backing up from the Tour, or doing two Grand Tours, and tends not to do so well outside of the one race he prepares for each season, the Tour de France. I can't see him doing well here, but Sanchez should ride a solid race.
Astana have brought a host of potential GC riders to this edition of the Vuelta, with Fabio Aru, Vincenzo Nibali and Mikel Landa all rocking up to the starting line here. Nibali was a bit below par during the Tour de France, and he's opted to do this race as a bit of a fallback. In the past he's done very well in his 2nd Grand Tour of the season, but that was back when he was a superbly consistent rider. In the past two seasons he has changed up his racing and training, so that he just focuses on building up his form for the Tour de France and peaking then. That doesn't bode well for his chances here, and I don't believe that he'll be in contention. Mikel Landa comes in with a more settled preparation, and if he can reproduce the climbing ability that he showed at the Giro this year, where he finished 3rd overall, and at times looked a better climber than Aru, then he will be right up there. He's only 25, and that was his first top GC performance, so how he back up is a bit of a mystery, but it will probably be a bit much to expect him to reproduce that form here. He will enjoy the climbing here in his home race, but the long TT will be very tough for the Spaniard, and he is going to lose a lot of time there. He lost over 4 minutes to Contador on the Giro TT, and whilst that one was longer, he will definitely concede a lot of time. That leaves Fabio Aru, who was 2nd on the Giro this season, and did very well in the Giro-Vuelta double last season where he took 3rd in the Giro and 5th in the Vuelta. He looked good in his return to competition in the Tour of Poland, looking the strongest on the climbs, and finishing a respectable 5th on GC. His biggest weakness is the TT, which cost him the overall win in Poland, and also took away his chance of victory in the Giro, when conceded 2.45 to Contador, and ultimately lost the race by 1.53. He might not be particularly suited to the steeper climbs of Spain, as he's not the most explosive climber, that didn't stop him last year, but it may be the difference of a few places on the final GC. He has showed in his Grand Tours that he can climb with the best in the world, and he is backed up by a potent team here, so he should be expected to ride a very strong race.
Orica-Greenedge have come to the Vuelta with high expectations, after suffering through a horrific Tour de France. Esteban Chaves will be their man for the GC, and team management is shooting for a top-10 finish for the tiny Colombian. He didn't have the best Giro, but the Vuelta was always his target, and he was sent to the Giro mainly as a stage hunter. He did actually do a decent job in trying to hold the wheels of Contador, Porte and Aru when he had a chance to take the pink jersey, but although he could follow the first attacks, subsequent ones shook him. That was his best moment however, and it was a bit of a surprise when Orica stated their top 10 ambition for him. On the other hand, he has clearly got some amazing talent in the mountains, he weighs less than the average jockey and will be right at home on the steep climbs. He is fairly explosive, and has some decent rides in the classics, so he won't be out of the picture for a stage win at some stage, particularly as he won't be a marked man. He is a poor TT rider however, and will lose over 5 minutes on that stage alone, which may make it hard for him to achieve his goal. That he has been given that goal is interesting however, as the team have brought him along slowly, and this will be the first time that they have targeted good result on GC at a Grand Tour as a key objective.
Rafal Majka has been setting himself for this race all season, as it will be his first opportunity to set himself for a GC result in a Grand Tour. He rode the Tour in support of Contador, and took a win in a stage, but he wasn't riding in top form, so he'll have saved a lot of his condition for this race. What was a bit surprising was that he didn't ride a preparation race before the Vuelta, which might indicate that he was feeling a bit fatigued after the Tour. That will mean that he might start the race a bit sluggishly, which could knock him out of contention quickly. He will be amongst the best on the climbs if at his best though, his 2014 Tour de France was very impressive, and if he can display that form, he could manage an impressive result. He is a good TT rider, not elite, but I'd expect him to benefit from the inclusion of it in the course. He's not the most explosive climber around, so the steep Spanish climbs may not be to his liking as much as the Alps of the Tour, but he certainly won't be bad, and the main issue for him will be going up against fast finishers like Valverde and Rodriguez.
Speaking of Joaquim Rodriguez, he stands a very good chance of adding to his impressive palmares in Grand Tours. Whether he can finally crack it for that elusive victory in the three week races is another matter, but he will certainly appreciate a lot of the features of this course. The shorter, steeper climbs are Rodriguez's bread and butter, and he even had a hand in designing the super tough Stage 13, which has a succession of brutal climbs on which the small Spaniard will thrive. Against those positives there is the overwhelming negative of the flat TT, where Rodriguez is almost comically weak. The number of races he has lost as a result of his inability to do a good TT is staggering, particularly memorable was the 2010 Vuelta, where he lost over 6 minutes over a 46 kilometre course whilst in the leader's jersey. He can't afford to do the same here, but he appears to have improved a bit in the discipline, doing an impressive performance over a hilly TT in Pais Vasco to win the overall. This will be a flat TT however, hopefully it isn't a repeat of some of those dark memories from his past.
Daniel Martin continues his quest to do a good GC ride, and he will have his best chance in a while to do a good one here. He fell out of contention early on in the Tour de France on the cobbled stage, and switched his ambitions to stage hunting, which he nearly managed twice, as he took 2nd on two stages. Last year's Vuelta was the scene of his biggest GC result when he was 7th, and it is probably because the shorter, steeper climbs suit his classics style of racing, moreso than the Giro and the Tour. He's not the best time triallist, and the really tough climbs will find him out against the strongest here, but there's no reason that he can't do a top 5 result or so.
1. Alejandro Valverde
2. Joaquim Rodriguez
3. Chris Froome
4. Rafal Majka
5. Fabio Aru
6. Nairo Quintana
7. Domenico Pozzovivo
8. Daniel Martin
9. Samuel Sanchez
10. Esteban Chaves