Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins tonight with the 2020 edition of the Vuelta España.
The Vuelta assumes its normal position as the final Grand Tour of the year, though will take place two months later than normal with the backdrop of the COVID rising again across Europe including Spain, where the number of cases is rapidly approaching one million.
The Vuelta this year has been shortened from the usual 21 stages to 18, though the race organisers have not gone easy on the combatants. With three straight mountain stages to start and three mountain top finishes inside the first eight stages, the general classification should begin to take shape quickly, perhaps even after tonight’s opening stage.
Here are the riders to look for over the next 20 nights (18 stages and two rest days).
After only sending two riders to the Tour de France and with 18 starting the Giro two weeks ago, 11 Aussies will be on the start line for La Vuelta tonight. Four of those 11 will ride for the Australian Mitchelton–Scott team after none were picked to ride for the team in the Tour. Nick Schultz, Callum Scotson, Robert Stannard and Alex Edmondson will ride in support of their general classification hopeful Esteban Chavez.
Of the others, Cameron Wurf will ride in support of Richard Carapaz for Team INEOS, while Rory Sutherland of the Israel Start-Up Nation team will ride his final Grand Tour as the second oldest rider at the Vuelta (38) behind only Alejandro Valverde (40).
in alphabetical order
(Ecuador, INEOS Grenadiers)
Carapaz rode for fellow South American Egan Bernal in the Touré de France last month where he looked to have the famed king of the mountain polka dot jersey sewn up before an epic time trial from Slovenian Tadej Pogačar snatched it from him. He won the Giro d’Italia last year, so he does posses Grand Tour pedigree, though his best placing in the Vuelta from two previous attempts is 18th. After having leaders Bernal and Geraint Thomas bow out of the Tour and Giro respectively, Carapaz is INEO’s last hope for a team hell bent on winning at least one of the Grand Tours for a sixth straight year.
(Netherlands, Team Jumbo-Visma)
Another who rode in support of a teammate at the Tour rather than for himself, though it looks as though Dumoulin will get the green light to lead Jumbo-Visma in the final Grand Tour of 2020. The Dutchman has ridden four times since finishing seventh at the Tour and has looked particularly strong at three of those races (Dumoulin did not finish Flèche Wallonne three weeks ago). Has a DNF and a sixth place at the Vuelta to his name and despite looking strong during and after the Tour, he is riding in his first Vuelta since 2015.
One of the younger general classification contenders in the race who rode a terrific Tour de France to finish fifth overall and second in the young rider classification behind only the eventual winner. Has only ridden in the world championships in Italy since then, where he failed to finish. The Spaniard enters his third home tour after finishing second as a 23-year old in 2018 behind Britt Simon Yates. Mas is probably the home nations best hope of victory.
(France, Groupama FDJ)
The Frenchman went into the Tour de France as one of the main contenders off the back of terrific performances throughout 2020, including a second place at the Dauphiné in August. Unfortunately, a heavy crash on stage one in the last ten kilometres changed his plans, causing him to battle through the rest of the tour to finish 29th, almost two hours behind the winner. Always seems to enter the Grand Tours as a general classification contender, yet has only finished on the podium once (third at the Tour de France in 2013). Riding in his fourth Vuelta with a best placed sixth last time out in 2018.
(Slovenia, Team Jumbo-Visma)
The Slovenian returns to the Vuelta as the defending champion after wearing the yellow jersey for 11 days at the Tour this year before Slovenian compatriot Tadej Pogačar stole it from him with one of the all-time Tour de France individual time trials. Has continued to look strong post the tour, finishing sixth at the world championships and wining Liege Bastogne Liege after a mental laps from Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe at the finishing line. Jumbo-Visma start La Vuelta with a legitimate two pronged attack after having their hearts ripped out at the Tour on the penultimate stage and having to abandon the Giro altogether due to a COVID outbreak last week.
The veteran Spaniard will this year ride in his 14th and final Vuelta España at the age of 40 before hanging up the cleats at years end. While certainly past his prime, Valverde rode well in the tour to finish 12th, while also managing an eighth placing at the world championships at Imola in Italy. Has been one of the great performers in the Vuelta’s history, winning in 2009, finishing runner up in 2006, 2012 and 2019 with three more podium finishes. Valverde’s 13 stage wins are equal seventh all-time at La Vuelta. The Spaniard would be the second oldest winner of the race after American Chris Horner, whom won in 2013 at 41 years of age.
(Great Britain, INEOS Grenadiers)
One of only three former winners lining up this year, Froome hasn’t looked himself since returning from a horror crash in the Dauphiné last year. Finished 91st at Tirrena-Adriatico and struggled mightily at Liege Bastogne Liege before abandoning. Would take an unprecedented form reversal to merely finish on the podium for INEOS before he moves to the Israel Start-Up Nation team next year.
The Frenchman took good form into the tour after finishing third in the Dauphiné, riding a stellar first week before falling away to finish 11th (almost 17 minutes behind the winner). Has looked frisky in the world championships and at Flèche Wallonne recently and is one to watch as he embarks on his first Vuelta.
(Colombia, EF Pro Cycling)
The winner of the Dauphiné this year wasn’t really seen or heard from during the Tour besides being the first to the finishing line on the nightmarish Puy Mary on stage 13. Will be looking to finish strongly for the EF Pro Cycling team before the Colombian moves to team INEOS next season.
An emerging young rider on a tear in 2020, finishing in the top five of all one day and stage races participated in this season until a stomach bug forced him to abandon the Giro after stage 1. As such, this will effectively be the young Russian’s first Grand Tour attempt after exiting the Giro prematurely. Will ride with a strong Astana team for support.
Despite La Vuelta being condensed to eighteen stages in 2020, the race is extremely mountainous right up until stage 15, including seven mountain stages with eight summit finishes.
Only two former KOM winners from La Vuelta are in the race this year, Astana’s two-time winner Omar Fraile and Luis Leon Sánchez, so perhaps there’s an opportunity for a new mountain conqueror to be crowned. While most of the general classification riders are naturally in contention, some other names to watch include 2019 runner-up Angel Madrazo from Spanish invitational team Burgos-BH, fellow Spaniard Luis Ángel Maté (Cofidis) and Pole Tomasz Marczyński (Lotto Soudal).
There doesn’t look to be too many stages this year that will finish in bunch sprints, which will make for interesting viewing for the points classification and may favour the punchy breakaway merchants such as Belgium’s Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) and Slovenia’s Matej Mohorič (Bahrain McLaren) more so than the pure sprinters.
Of the sprinters, Irishman Sam Bennett, fresh off his green jersey victory in the Tour de France, is the favourite after winning two stages at La Vuelta last year. German sprinter Pascal Ackermann is among the favourites also as he makes his Vuelta debut, while Belgian Jasper Phillips is in the mix after beating Ackermann in two sprint finishes at the recent BinckBank Tour.
Of the riders mentioned, Spain’s Enric Mas, Russia’s Alexandr Vlasov and Colombia’s Daniel Martínez are all eligible for the young rider classification. Others in contention include Frenchman David Gaudo (Groupama FDJ) and Colombian Ivan Ramiro Sosa (INEOS).
Winner: Richard Carapaz (INEOS)
Runner-Up: Tom Dumoulin (Jumbo-Visma)
Third: Daniel Martínez (EF Pro Cycling)
Mountains Classification: Richard Carapaz (INEOS)
Points Classification: Sam Bennett (Deceuninck Quick Step)
Young Rider: Daniel Martínez (EF Pro Cycling)