[Underneath article was written before the start of La Vuelta and has not been updated.]
The TTT on day one will open up the first time gaps on GC before the real battle ignites on the fifth day of action. At the end of a transition stage the riders face a brutal finale. The last 8 kilometres to the Javalambre Observatory go up at almost 10%. The 7th stage is similar with a finishing climb of 4 kilometres at 12.8%.
While the intermediate climbs in the races mentioned are doable, the 9th stage is supposed to be on fire from start to finish. A condensed thriller of 94,4 kilometres ventures into the Pyrenees to tackle three passes: Coll d’Ordino (17.6 kilometres at 5.4%), Coll de la Gallina (11.8 kilometres at 8.3%) and the final haul up on Cortals d’Encamp (13.2 kilometres at 7.3%). The next day is a rest day – and rightly so.
After the rest day the GC battle continues with an individual time trial that’s similar to the one on the Tour de France. Same area, although the course is longer. The ITT on the Tour was won by Alaphilippe ahead of Thomas, while Roglic is another likely candidate to strike a blow on this terrain.
The end of the second week will be pre-decisive in terms of the GC victory. The 13th stage is a monster race over six climbs to the foot of Los Machucos – or, as the Spaniards describe the finishing climb, ‘rampas inhumanas’. Los Machucos is 7.3 kilometres long and the average gradient sits at 8.7%. Nothing special one could argue. But no, this is something special, as the gradients go nuts once you hit the first slope. The ‘rampas inhumanas’ are an exotic mix of short downhills and insane ramps at 25%.
Two days after the demolition works at Los Machucos the riders tackle three intermediate climbs before El Santuario del Acebo serves 9.4 kilometres at 8.2% and a last kilometre at 10%. Same recipe in stage 16, although the finishing climb is not as explosive but much longer instead. The Alto de La Cubilla amounts to 26 kilometres while the average gradient sits at 4.7%. The slope hovers around 6 to 7% in the tougher second half.
By Spanish standards, the last week of action is relatively ‘tranquilo’. On paper, the 18th stage doesn’t look extremely trying – four climbs and a downhill finale -, yet Tom Dumoulin met his Waterloo on these very roads in 2015. Wearing the red jersey, the Dutchman cracked on the final mountain stage after Aru’s then team Astana put pressure on him. Dumoulin lost nearly four minutes and dropped to sixth place overall, while Aru won the overall.
The last mountain stage of this edition opens with a bang. Basically, the first climb amounts to 50 kilometres before a calm intermediate phase runs to the Puerto de Peña Negra (15 kilometres at 5.7%). The last ascent is the Alto de Gredos, which is an irregular climb of 12 kilometers at fairly shallow gradients. So, anyone with the aim to gain time has no option than to strike early.
Riders to watch
The TTT on the first day should fancy Jumbo-Visma (Kruijswijk, Roglic), while Roglic will also be looking to gain time on their GC rivals in the lumpy ITT during the second week. Obviously, it is hard to predict who will have the best climbing legs in Spain. Stage 5 and 7 will give an indication before stage 9 is sure to give us an comprehensive report.
Just looking at his results, Primoz Roglic boasts the most impressive 2019 palmares. The 29-year old Slovene won the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Romandie before he finished third on the Giro. His team-mate Steven Kruijswijk is one of the most consistent Grand Tour performers. On the 2016 Giro d’Italia, he emerged as a legitimate Grand Tour threat. He was close to winning the GC when he crashed into a wall of snow at the side of the road before somersaulting and landing on his back. He was under the radar since then, but returned in the spotlight with strong performances in the Tour de France (3th this year, 5th last year) and La Vuelta (4th last year).
Another rider with impressive 2019 credentials is Miguel Ángel López. Still only 25 years old, the Colombian won his home-race and the Vuelta a Catalunya. For different reasons, he didn’t meet his objectives at the Giro though, which was one of his major goals in 2019. He finished seventh place overall, which was some way off his third place of 2018. Yet, he defended his white jersey as the race’s best young rider.
Jakob Fuglsang was in a class of his own until the Tour de France. The Dane won the Dauphiné, which still is the most important pre-Tour waymark, before he crashed out of La Grande Boucle. He also won Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Ruta del Sol, while securing podium spots at Tirreno-Adriatico, Strade Bianche, La Flèche Wallonne, and the Amstel Gold Race. On the downside: Grand Tours and Fuglsang have never been a very successful combination. As said, he crashed out of the Tour, but he was never able to put down a marker during the race.
Nairo Quintana is a former winner of La Vuelta, but since then (2016) a huge question mark has been hovering over his head. His main goal in 2019 was winning the Tour de France, but he finished 8th. He enjoyed one moment of glory though when he won the mountain stage over the Col de Vars, Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier.
Favourites 2019 Vuelta a España
***** Primoz Roglic, Miguel Ángel López
**** Steven Kruijswijk, Nairo Quintana
*** Esteban Chaves, Daniel Felipe Martínez, Jakob Fuglsang
** Wout Poels, Rafal Majka, Alejandro Valverde, Rigoberto Uran
* Tadej Pogacar, Fabio Aru, Pierre Latour