The Vuelta is explosive and mountainous, writes Jack Houghton, who thinks that reliability of form might be the key factor
"Stage 12 probably claims Queen Stage status by ending on what is probably the most feared climb in professional cycling, the inhuman Alto de l'Angliru…"
What's the route like?
Like the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, this year's Vuelta a Espana has been delayed. Unlike the other two Grand Tours, though, it's also been shortened, with the planned opening three stages in the Netherlands being omitted due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.
This leaves us with a hellish 18-stage route concentrated in the north of Spain that will terrify all but the sprightliest climbers.
The route is tough. By my reckoning, there are only four stages that can realistically be pencilled in for the sprinters. There is one individual time trial - 37km, but which ends with a 1.8km ramp with a gradient approaching 15% in places - and eight summit finishes.
There is no warm-up either, with the first three stages throwing General Classification contenders straight into the action, with three hilly days and two summit finishes.
Highlights abound on this Vuelta route.
Stage 6 - snow permitting - will see riders cross the border into France and attack the super-category Tourmalet, on a day with over 4,500m of ascending.
Stages 11 and 12 both look brutal, with the latter probably claiming Queen Stage status by ending on what is probably the most feared climb in professional cycling, the inhuman Alto de l'Angliru.
The time trial on Stage 13 is then followed by a few days of relative quiet, before Stage 17 sees a hard day culminating with a summit finish on a 10km climb: one last chance to reshuffle the standings in the race for La Roja.
It's the explosivity of this route that will provide the drama, though. Unlike the Giro, with multiple stages covering far in excess of 200km, not a single stage does so at the Vuelta, with the Angliru day, for example, a mere 110km.
Who are the favourites?
Last year's winner, Primoz Roglic (3.002/1), goes into this as favourite. He's certainly capable, but those odds look ludicrously short considering the season he's had. On fire from the resumption of racing in late-July, he carried his form through the Tour de France, only to be crushed on that now-infamous penultimate day by Tadej Pogacar. He seems to have bounced back from that disappointment, taking an unlikely win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but on a route that is not optimum for his talents, the value lies elsewhere.
Roglic's teammate, Tom Dumoulin (6.005/1), had a lower-key Tour de France, riding as a domestique, and so will likely come here fresher than many rivals. But whilst he's been showing some signs of a return to form, he still seems a shadow of his 2017 self, and, like Roglic, this route is not ideal for him.
Far better value is Richard Carapaz (10.009/1). Last year's Giro winner showed superb form towards the end of the Tour de France when released from domestique duties, and at barely over 60kg, this punchy rider should relish the nature of the Vuelta route.
Who are the most likely outsiders?
It feels strange to write a Grand Tour preview and include Chris Froome (23.0022/1) in this section, but then doubts remain over his form despite his heroic efforts to return from a near-fatal crash prior to last year's Dauphine. There is no doubting his ability and experience - and the peculiar nature of Vuelta stages has suited him in the past - but supporting him, even at long odds, is more an act of faith than judgement after his continued lacklustre form this season.
More interesting might be Sepp Kuss (26.0025/1) and Emanuel Buchmann (12.0011/1). Kuss was superb when riding in support of Roglic in the high mountains of France and, if he is given some freedom here, could be another young rider to surprise.
In this regard he is favoured over Alexander Vlasov (22.0021/1) who was touted prior to withdrawing from the Giro and is certainly talented, but probably lacking in the experience to win this.
Buchmann, meanwhile, was showing excellent form at the Dauphine before a crash on Stage 4 threw his tour participation into doubt. He eventually rode the Tour but was largely unseen. If he has been able to recover and regain his peak for the Vuelta, he could go close.
For a speculative interest at bigger odds, though, the choice is Enric Mas (18.0017/1). He was second behind Simon Yates at the Vuelta in 2018, was fifth in this year's Tour, and is one of the few riders in the race who starts it with any certainty around their form and intentions. These reasons alone make him a value bet.
Other riders could feature. Thibaut Pinot (18.0017/1) is on a rescue mission after yet another disastrous tour. Alejandro Valverde (18.0017/1) rides in his 14th Vuelta and will no doubt be prominent without winning. Guillaume Martin (70.0069/1) will show promise, which will evaporate in the third week. And Mikel Nieve (400.00399/1) will feature on some stages but will likely struggle for consistency.
What about the sprinters?
If you were a sprinter, would you turn up? Me neither.
Sam Bennett and Pascal Ackermann have, though, and should hold the four sprint stages between them. Despite his Tour de France successes, though, Bennett might be outgunned by Ackermann here.
*Odds correct at the time of writing
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Back Richard Carapaz @ 10.009/1
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