What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
In the early hours tomorrow morning, the final Grand Tour of the cycling season begins with the 76th Vuelta a España and the battle for the maillot rojo (red jersey).
Some 184 riders will roll down the ramp to begin the opening stage eight-kilometre time trial in Burgos, kicking off 3336 kilometres of racing around one of Europe’s most picturesque countrysides.
After being shortened to 18 stages in 2020 due to COVID concerns, the Vuelta returns to its customary 21-stage profile in 2021. The race is back to its typical leg-breaking self with nine summit finishes (one more than last year), including one on stage three to the ascent of Picón Blanco sure to set the general classification alight in the first week.
There appears to be up to eight chances for the fast men who dare enter this year’s frightening parcours, with a sprinkling of breakaway opportunities throughout. However, it is clearly a race designed to favour the high-altitude adept riders with a third and final week described by race director Javier Guillén as “possibly the toughest third week in the race’s history”.
That third week will conclude with a final-stage 33.7-kilometre time trial, the first of its kind since the 2002 edition, which will be sure to keep viewers on the edge of their seats until the final pedal stroke.
Oh, and this is all set to play out in typically friendly Spanish summer conditions, with temperatures forecast to hit 40 degrees and stay there all throughout the first week.
Let’s have a closer look at those taking part in this year’s edition of the Vuelta a España, starting with the Aussies.
Eleven Australians will take to the start line of this year’s Vuelta, the same number as last year.
Australian squad Team BikeExchange will be led by Michael Matthews and Lucas Hamilton, with Damien Howson, Nick Schultz and Robert Stannard riding in support.
Chris Hamilton and Michael Storer will ride alongside one of this year’s biggest wildcards in Frenchman Romain Bardet, while Jack Haig will form part of a strong Bahrain – Victorious line up that will ride for local hope Mikel Landa.
Youngsters Sebastian Berwick (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Jay Vine (Alpecin-Fenix) will each make their respective Grand Tour debuts, while Dylan Sunderland will ride alongside former Vuelta winner Fabio Aru for Team Qhubeka NextHash.
Caleb Ewan will miss this year’s race having not recovered from a broken collar bone suffered in a nasty crash at the Tour de France in July.
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
Winner of the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, Bernal arrives at his first Vuelta looking to become the eighth man to win all three Grand Tours (and the first South American to do so). The climbing Colombian really was a cut above the rest at the Giro, winning two stages on his way to securing his first pink jersey. Bernal contracted COVID just days after his Giro victory, however didn’t seem to be affected when finishing 16th at the recent Clásica de San Sebastián. The Colombian was caught up in the opening-stage crash at the Vuelta Burgos last week, though he still managed to finish the five-stage build-up race. So long as Bernal is in decent form, only the final-stage 33.7-kilometre time trial should worry him, particularly with Primoz Roglic in the race. Bernal would likely need the best part of a minute buffer on the Slovenian to stand a chance. He’s looking to become the third South American to win the race after Colombians Luis Herrera (1987) and Nairo Quintana (2016).
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
What a luxury it is for Team INEOS to have a rider the quality of Carapaz as its fall-back option. Carapaz, fresh off a rollicking performance in Tokyo to claim gold at the men’s road race, looked to have Primoz Roglic on the ropes on the penultimate stage here last year before a late Roglic fightback (with a little help from teammate Sepp Kuss) helped save the red jersey for the Slovenian. The Ecuadorian brings exceptional form to this year’s Vuelta, with a win at the Tour de Suisse and a third-place finish at the Tour de France to go along with the aforementioned gold medal in Tokyo (at the time just his nation’s second Olympic gold medal). The 2019 Giro d’Italia winner has finished on the podium at his last two Grand Tours (the Tour earlier this year and last year’s Vuelta) and he is a capable time triallist. Carapaz is capable of another top-three finish at the Vuelta this year regardless of whether he rides for his fellow South American Bernal or himself.
Team: Bahrain – Victorious
The veteran Spaniard will ride his home Grand Tour for the fifth but, somewhat surprisingly, the 2021 Vuelta will be his first since 2015. Landa brings decent form into the Vuelta, winning the Vuelta Burgos last week, and will be keen to atone for a disappointing end to his Giro d’Italia in May (where he crashed out on stage five). In fact, it’s difficult to imagine Egan Bernal would have won the Giro as comfortably as he did if Landa had been there alongside him in the mountains. The man from Murgia has a solid track record at Grand Tours, with four top-ten finishes at the Tour de France and two top-five finishes at the Giro d’Italia, though he still doesn’t have a stage race win to his name. The bookend time trials are the issue for Landa (the Spaniard has never finished better than 14th at a Grand Tour individual time trial) and would likely need a near 90-second lead on the other time-trial adept contenders to be in with a shout. Landa would be the 24th homegrown winner of the race and the first since Alberto Contador in 2014.
Miguel Angle Lopez
‘Superman’ Lopez suits up to ride his fifth Vuelta a España and his first since 2019 for his new Spanish team that would desperately love to snare the red jersey at its home tour. The Colombians form hasn’t been anything to write home about, winning the Mont Ventoux Challenge and finishing sixth at the Critérium du Dauphiné before a rather disappointing showing at the Tour de France culminated in Lopez leaving the race after stage 18. Lopez hasn’t raced since leaving the Tour prematurely and will be looking to keep his impressive performances at the Grand Tours alive having finished in the top ten every time he’s finished a three-week stage race. A two-time stage winning and third place finisher at the Vuelta in 2018, Lopez will be favoured by the typical rugged terrain of this year’s parourse but is another of the mountain men who will have to tighten the screw there as his time trialling is sub-standard. He should be considered a wildcard given his Grand Tour pedigree and how little he has raced this season.
Team: Team Jumbo-Visma
The winner of the past two editions of the Vuelta a España, Roglic will ride his third Vuelta after a fantastic effort in Tokyo netted the Slovenian a gold medal in the individual time trial. Roglic has only raced in Tokyo since his Dutch team were involved in two awful crashes inside the first week of the Tour de France, where Roglic ultimately succumbed to his injuries suffered and left the race after stage eight. He appears to have recovered from those injuries and starts the Vuelta this year as the man to beat in the eyes of many given his incredible record at the race and his astonishingly well-rounded rider profile. Roglic was clearly the best rider at last year’s shortened edition, winning four stages (including the stage 13 individual time trial) and amassing a total of 48 bonus seconds in a race he won by a mere 24 seconds. He’s building a reputation as a rider who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but if he can stay out of harm’s way for three weeks, it’s difficult to see anyone beating him. Roglic would become the third rider to achieve the Vuelta hat trick after Swiss Tony Rominger (1992-1994) and Spaniard Roberto Heras (2003-2005).
Team: Astana – Premier Tech
Vlasov returns to the race where he made his true Grand Tour debut last year (the Russian left the Giro on stage two last year due to illness) where the rising Russian finished a respectable 11th. He backed that up earlier this year when he returned to the Giro, riding a terrific race and ultimately finishing an impressive fourth. The current Russian time-trial champion rode both the road race and individual time trial in Tokyo but was barely sighted in either event. Vlasov didn’t quite look at his best at the recent Vuelta a Burgos, where he finished 34th, but the 25-year-old has otherwise been in decent form this season with finishes on the podium at both Paris-Nice (second) and at the Tour of the Alps (third). He’ll likely pinch a spot or two in the overall classification in the final-stage time trial, but will we see him jump from second to overall winner in his last Grand Tour for the Kazakh team? Denis Menchov is the only Russian to have won the race in 2007.
Team: Team Qhubeka NextHash
One of only three previous Vuelta winners in this year’s field, the 2015 winner will ride in the peloton for the final time after announcing his retirement earlier this week. The 31-year-old Italian hasn’t quite lived up to the heights that his promising early exploits in the pro peloton might have suggested, but to retire a Grand Tour winner is no small feat. Aru is not quite in the form expected of a true contender, but he’s not without a shot at placing inside the top ten, which would be quite a note to end on.
Team: Team DSM
The Frenchman will ride his 11th Grand Tour but just his second Vuelta after first partaking in the race in 2017. Bardet looked the winner at the Spanish lead-up race Vuelta a Burgos last week when he won stage three, however he faded on the fifth and final stage and finished sixth overall. The two-time podium finisher at the Tour also showed good legs at the Giro in May where he finished seventh, so he does bring sneakily good form to Spain. Another who isn’t too keen on time trialling, Bardet will have to get away in the mountains to try cause an upset. He would be the ninth Frenchman to win the race and the first since Laurent Jalabert in 1995.
Team: EF Education – Nippo
It has been somewhat of an underwhelming season for the Brit, who truly looked the most consistent rider at last year’s Vuelta, where he won on the infamous Angliru on stage 12 before eventually finishing an excellent third overall. Carthy finished a decent eighth at the Giro earlier this year, and he nabbed his first win of the season on the final stage of the Vuelta a Burgos last week, so he does come in with some confidence. The sheer brutal nature of some of the climbs in the race will suit nobody more than Carthy, though his time trialling can be extremely hit and miss. Another place in the back half of the top ten is most likely. Chris Froome is the only Briton to have won the race.
Team: Bahrain – Victorious
Landa’s misfortune was Caruso’s gain at the Giro in May, with the Italian able to ride for himself and show his wares for one of the few times in his career. Caruso won the penultimate stage of his home Grand Tour before eventually finishing second overall, by far his best result at a Grand Tour in his career. He’s back to ride his fourth Vuelta (and first since 2017) in support of teammate and local hopeful Mikel Landa. Caruso finished ninth here in 2014 and is certainly capable of beating that result riding for both Landa and one of the strongest teams at the race in Bahrain – Victorious. He would be Italy’s seventh winner of the race and first since Fabio Aru in 2015.
Team: Trek – Segafredo
Ciccone will be keen to make amends for crashing in the men’s road race in Tokyo, which ultimately eliminated him from winning a race where many fancied him to. He’s raced in six Grand Tours, all of them at his home Giro d’Italia, so this will be his first taste of the Spanish roads and mountains. The Italian was a revelation at the Giro earlier this year, well on his way to a top ten finish before abandoning after a crash on stage 17. The one criticism of Ciccone is that he is sometimes too aggressive, costing him chances to win stages and protect his spot in the overall standings. His time trialling is also of concern, with his best Grand Tour performance against the clock coming in 2016 when the then-20-year-old finished 1:11 behind winner Tom Doumalin. He’s the biggest dark horse in the race if he can gain time in the mountains.
Martin arrives at the start line of his second Vuelta just a month removed from finishing an exceptional eighth at his home Tour de France (his best result at a Grand Tour from six attempts). He has only raced in the Olympic men’s road race since the Tour (finishing 27th) and so should have decent legs. The Frenchman won the king of the mountain classification at the Vuelta last year (the seventh Frenchman to win the jersey in the past 13 editions of the race) and finished 14th overall. The ‘Philosopher’ will likely target that jersey and a spot in the top ten again as his time-trialling capabilities mean he can’t win the race.
Mas is back to ride in his fourth home Grand Tour after experiencing some success already at his previous three attempts. The young Spaniard finished second in 2018 as a 23-year-old and fifth last year in yet another decent showing at a Grand Tour. A sixth-place finish at the Tour last month was the highlight of his season so far, although he did ride exceptionally well to finish third at the Mont Ventoux Challenge (behind teammate Miguel Angel Lopez and fellow Spaniard Oscar Rodriguez). He’s a terrific climber and one of the better time triallists of the guys who like the high altitude.
Team: BORA – hansgrohe
The two-time Paris-Nice winner and current German national champion will lead the German squad at his first participation at the Vuelta a España. He gave a pretty good account of himself in Tokyo, finishing tenth in the road race and 15th a few days later in the time trial, showcasing his exceptional all-round skill. While there’s no doubt he has a great skill set, some of the biggest climbs in this year’s parcours are probably beyond him. However, if he can stay within touching distance in the mountains, he may be able to strike fear into the riders above him in the general classification on the final stage rolling time trial that will suit him to the ground. Three Germans have won this race previously, but none since Jan Ullrich in 1999.
A Vuelta a España preview does not exist without a section dedicated to Alejandro Valverde, winner of the race in 2009. Valverde will ride his 15th and final Vuelta before he heads off into the sunset at season’s end. He is equal seventh all-time with 13 stage wins, and a 14th stage win in 2021 for one of the greatest Spanish general classification riders ever would bring the house down.
Team: INEOS Grenadiers
Another of the Grenadiers caught up in the opening-stage crash at the Vuelta a Burgos, Yates will play an important role in Spain as a super domestique for Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz. The man from Lancashire has had some decent results in Spain already this year, winning the Volta Catalunya before finishing fourth at the Basque Country. Yates is a magnificent chess piece for INEOS to play when the mountains arrive, but I can’t help but wonder how the overall general classification might look if he were the leader for another squad.
Points classification (maillot verde, green jersey)
Unlike the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, where the points classification is weighted towards the sprinters, this classification distributes an equal number of points for each stage regardless of terrain (25 points for the winner of every stage be it flat, mountain or time trial).
As such, there is often a correlation between the overall classification and the points jersey (for example, Primoz Roglic has secured the previous two points classifications on his way to the overall general classification victory). Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde is the only other winner of the points classification in this year’s field, winning the maillot verde a record-equalling four times.
Other names that might be able to garner enough points in the flat and intermediate stages include Frenchmen Arnuad Demare (Groupama – FDJ), Clément Venturini (AG2R Citroën Team) and Florian Sénéchal (Deceuninck – Quick Step), Belgian Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), Australian Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange), Dane Magnus Cort (EF Education – Nippo) and Italian Metteo Trentin (UAE-Team Emirates).
King of the mountain
Four previous winners are present in this year’s race: two-time winner and current Spanish national champion Omar Fraile (Astana – Premier Tech), fellow Spaniard and Astana teammate Luis León Sánchez and Frenchmen Geoffrey Bouchard (AG2R Citroën) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis).
With the typical mountainous nature of this year’s route, it’s likely the winner of the king of the mountain classification will be one of the riders at the pointy end of the general classification.
Some other potential names to watch in the mountains include Swiss Gino Mäder (Bahrain – Victorious), Italian Guilio Ciccone (Trek – Segafredo), Spaniards Jesús Herrada (Cofidis) and Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural – Seguros RGA) and Austrian Felix Großschartner (BORA – Hansgrohe).
Best young rider classification (maillot blanco)
This is a jersey simply awarded to the best placed rider in the general classification under the age of 26 (as opposed to under-25 in both the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia).
Of the general classification contenders mentioned above, only Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) and Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana – Premier Tech) are eligible for this classification.
Other potential candidates include Bernal’s teammates, Russian Pavel Sivakov and Brit Tom Pidcock, Ukranian Mark Padun (Bahrain – Victorious), Belgian Mauri Vansevenant (Deceuninck – Quick Step), Frenchman Clement Champoussin (AG2R Citroën) and Australian Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange).
Top ten predictions
1. Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma)
2. Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers)
3. Richard Carapaz (INEOS Grenadiers)
4. Enric Mas (Movistar)
5. Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana – Premier Tech)
6. Mikel Landa (Bahrain – Victorious)
7. Miguel Angel Lopez (Movistar)
8. Hugh Carthy (EF Education – Nippo)
9. Roman Bardet (Team DSM)
10. Guilio Ciccone (Trek – Segafredo)
Points classification: Primoz Roglic (Team Jumbo-Visma)
King of the mountain: Guilio Ciccone (Trek – Segafredo)
Young rider classification: Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers)