Saturday sees the start of the final Grand Tour of 2011, the Vuelta a Espana, and as ever there promises to be an intriguing three weeks of racing on offer, both in terms of the overall title and other jerseys, and as preparation for the UCI Road World Champiosnhips in Copenhagen. Tour de France champion Cadel Evans may be missing, but the top prize in our Fantasy Vuelta competition, brought to you in partnership with Evans Cycles, is a £1,199 BMC BMC Street Racer SR02.
Alberto Contador’s domination of the Giro d’Italia in May and the early departure of some big names from the Tour de France, as well as the absence from that race of a Geox-TMC team that includes Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre, means that there are plenty of big names here who will be looking to salvage something from their season.
Among riders whose Tour de France was curtailed and are targeting the Vuelta instead are Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins, the RadioShack pairing of Andreas Kloeden and Janiz Brajkovic, and Quick Step’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck.
Vincenzo Nibali couldn’t cope with the challenge of Contador during the Giro, but the Spaniard is sitting this one out, as is another high-profile rider who failed a Grand Tour doping control last year, Vuelta runner-up Ezekiel Mosquera.
Nibali is back to defend his title, and the Liquigas-Cannondale rider is joined in the Italian challenge by Giro runner-up Michele Scarponi. Rabobank’s young rider Steven Kruijswijk, impressed during the Giro and could be among the pick of the younger riders here, along with Garmin-Cervelo's Dan Martin, while among the experienced riders with a point to prove are two-time winner Menchov and 2008 Tour de France champion Sastre.
Of the home riders, Joaquin Rodriguez, who finished fourth 12 months ago, may benefit from the individual time trial being moved forward in this year’s race – a disastrous performance last year saw him surrender the overall lead to Nibali on Stage 16.
With the race heading back into the Basque Country for the first time in more than three decades, Euskaltel-Euskadi will be eager to give their passionate fans something to cheer, with team leader Igor Anton also looking to put last year’s disappointment behind him, when he crashed out of the race while in the leader’s red jersey – the bookies certainly think he can go all the way this time and have installed him as pre-race favourite.
While in common with this year’s Giro and Tour de France there aren’t too many opportunities for the sprinters, HTC-Highroad will be looking to wrap up their final Grand Tour with some stage wins, and in Mark Cavendish have the man who won the points jersey 12 months ago; the Manxman will also be looking to continue his stunning form all the way to the world championships, while John Degenkolb, winner of two stages in the Dauphiné, gives the team an attacking option.
The comparative lack of potential sprint finishes, equal wighting given to all stages, whether flat or mountainous, plus the tendency in recent years of sprinters targeting the worlds to leave the Vuelta early, sees Cavendish placed by the bookies as an outsider to retain the green jersey, although of course you write him off at your peril. Instead, Peter Sagan of Liquigas-Cannondale is favourite, ahead of Rodriguez and Anton. David Moncoutié of Cofidis, meanwhile, is favourite to retain the mountains classification.
Those are just the big names, and other, less heralded ones are sure to shine during what is typically an unpredictable three weeks' racing, whether it be riders looking to impress potential employers for next season - or prove a point to their existing teams - or the smaller Spanish squads, who will be keen to get their jerseys some valuable airtime on home roads.
As usual, we're bringing you expert, stage-by-stage analysis from Team Sky's Geraint Thomas - we've added his thoughts on the first five stages, and the rest will follow very soon!
Saturday August 20
Benidorm TTT 16km
The 66th edition of the Vuelta begins with a team time trial against the backdrop of the skyscrapers of Benidorm, which give the Costa Blanca resort its nickname of ‘The Manhattan of Spain’. The first five kilometres see a gentle ascent to the gates of the Terra Mitica theme park, then it’s back down to the beachfront for the closing kilometres. It’s the third time the Vuelta has started in the city, the last time being in 1987. Unlike last year’s opener in Seville, it will still be daylight when the last of the 22 teams heads out onto the course at 1845 local time.
Geraint Thomas says: “I think it will be the usual guys who figure in team time trials who will do well here, HTC-Highroad, Rabobank, people like that. Team Sky can put in a good ride with Brad and Ian Stannard. There won’t be much in the way of time gaps, it will be close like the Tour was, to be honest I don’t think it will have too much of a bearing on the GC.”
Sunday August 21
La Nucia-Playas de Orihuela 171.5km
Today’s first road stage throws the 2011 Vuelta’s first climb at the riders just 28 kilometres from the start in La Nucia, the Category 3 Alto de Relleu, but after that it’s a pretty flat run to the finish in Playas de Orihuela, with a slight uphill kick in the closing kilometre. Alessandro Petacchi won in Orihuela during last year’s Vuelta, although that stage ended inland in the main town, away from the site of today’s finish on the coast.
Geraint Thomas says: “It will pretty much be a bunch sprint today, I’m sure. Cav’s going to be looking for stage wins and he’s got a strong leadout train as well, there’s a lot of fast guys that HTC are taking to the Vuelta.”
Monday August 22
There are two Category 3 climbs in the closing kilometres of today’s stage, the first, the Alto del Berra, crested 39 kilometres from the finish ahead of the first passage of the finish line in Totana. From there, the riders head up the Alto de la Santa, whose summit is just 12 kilometres from the line, so if there is a break, it may be a tough job to bring it back by the finish. The roads today will be familiar to those who have raced in the early-seaon Tour of Murcia.
Geraint Thomas says: “There could be a break that is difficult to bring back, or someone could go on the attack from the group on that last climb, so if the sprinters’ teams let them go by more than 30 seconds it could be easy for someone to chip away and stay clear till the finish. That’s a bit of an outside bet though, the wind may play a part but I think it will probably be a sprint, although it could be an exciting last few kilometres.”
Tuesday August 23
Baza-Sierra Nevada 170.2km
Today’s stage is bookended by two big climbs, the Category 1 Alto de Filabres, the summit of which will be reached after 31 kilometres of steady climbing from the start, and the hors-categorie Sierra Nevada, which has a gradient of 10 per cent on its lower slopes and which provides the first of this year’s six summit finishes. At 2,100 metres, the Sierra Nevada is the highest point of the 2011 Vuelta, meaning that the stage winner will also bag the Cima Alberto Fernández prize. It was here in 2009 that a disastrous wheel change by a neutral service mechanic saw Cadel Evans lose touch with eventual winner Alejandro Valverde.
Geraint Thomas says: “This could be a day for someone who is coming into the race strongly. I’d say Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who showed what he can do winning a stage in the Dauphiné, but he may be below par in the first few days due to recovering from his crash in the Tour. It’s definitely a day for a strong climber, and someone targeting the overall win on the GC.”
Wednesday August 24
Sierra Nevada-Valdepeñas de Jaén 187km
Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Anton won here 12 months ago, the first time the race tackled the ‘wall’ of Valdepeñas de Jaén, and another cracking finale is in prospect today with the gradient hitting 27 per cent with 500 metres to go. The Category 2 Alto de Valdepeñas is also negotiated twice today, the second time just 8 kilometres from the finish. Away from the cooling breezes of the coast, the heat may also take its toll today, as it will on other inland stages.
Geraint Thomas says: “We’re inland and it’s hot in Spain at the moment so the heat is definitely going to be a factor today. It could be a good day for a break. If a potential GC guy has the leader’s jersey after Sierra Nevada yesterday, I don’t think his team will really want to defend it in the first week, so they could let a break go away and if it takes a few minutes, the stage winner could possibly end up getting the red jersey.”
Thursday August 25
This afternoon sees another potentially intriguing stage that on paper should result in a bunch finish, but only if the sprinters’ teams manage to keep a breakaway in check. That’s because the Category 2 Alto de San Jerónimo figures around 12 kilometres from the end on a closing loop that heads out of Córdoba then back into the Moorish city for the finale. If any breakaway riders have a decent lead heading up that ascent, they could go all the way.
Geraint Thomas says: "Again, a breakaway could do well today, but also attacks coming out of the peloton, teams like Euskaltel who always get stuck in on little climbs. I think it could be another exciting finish."
Friday August 26
Almadén-Talavera de la Reina 182.9km
There’s an undulating profile today, but despite the race heading through the Sistema Central mountain range, no categorised climbs. That makes it an afternoon on which there is likely to be a series of attacks and potentially a breakaway making it all the way. But with two tough mountain stages to come over the weekend and an individual time trial on Monday, the sprinters will want to ensure a bunch finish on the fifth occasion a Vuelta stage has finished in Talavera de la Reina.
Geraint Thomas says: "With two big mountain stages and the individual time trial after today, the big GC guys probably won’t want to particularly go for it today, but there are another 60 or 70 who will. There’s a good chance that a breakaway will stay away, and there will be attacks right from the start. There’s not too many sprinting opportunities, so the sprinters’ teams might target today. But when the profile is up and down like this, it’s hard for everybody, it’s tough going. Anything could happen.”
Saturday August 27
Talavera de la Reina-San Lorenzo de El Escorial 177.3km
This stage sees four categorised climbs, and in theory the toughest of those is the day’s only Category 1 climb, the Puerto de Mijares. In reality, it’s the final climb, the Category 3 Alto de San Lorenzo de El Escorial that will provide the fireworks, with ramps of up to 28 per cent. Today is the first time a Vuelta stage has finished in this Madrid suburb, although it has often passed through, and among those on home roads today is Geox-TMC’s former Tour de France champion, Carlos Sastre.
Geraint Thomas says: “It’s definitely a GC day, for sure. There will probably be an early break, and Nibali or one of the others might send one of his guys up the road so they are there for him on that final climb, which will suit a pure climber – Igor Anton, Scarponi or even someone like Dan Martin if he’s kept himself out of the wind and is targeting today. But definitely a pure mountain goat.
Sunday August 28
Villacastín-Sierra de Bejar/La Covatilla 183km
This is the fourth time the Vuelta has featured the 1,970-metre summit of La Covatilla, with the finish coming after 10 kilometres of climbing at an average gradient of more than 7 per cent. Riders with aspirations of a high place on the GC will be on their toes today – as the saying goes, this isn’t one of those stages where the race is won, but it’s certainly one where it can be lost.
Geraint Thomas says: “It’s pretty high up at nearly 2,000 metres so altitude will definitely be a factor, it could affect some of the guys. From what we’ve seen in the Tour, the racing seems to be a lot closer this year, and if it’s a similar thing in the Vuelta there could be six or seven riders who mark each other out, unless someone has a go early on. But for sure it’s another GC day, it’s definitely hard enough to make a difference.”
Monday August 29
Salamanca ITT 47km
It’s become almost de rigueur for Grand Tours to have an individual time trial towards the end of the race, but this year’s Vuelta throws the only such stage slap bang in the middle of the race. Those GC candidiates who are stronger against the clock, such as Geox-TMC’s Denis Menchov, will look to take time out of their rivals today. Others with ambitions of winning the world championship in Copenhagen – notably Tony Martin and four-time rainbow jersey Fabian Cancellara – will use today as a rehearsal. Bradley Wiggins will be looking to do both.
Geraint Thomas says: “I think it will be a three-way battle for the stage win today between Brad, Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara, they’re head and shoulders above the rest, really. Then it will be another battle for the GC with people like Menchov trying to gain a bit of time for the mountains and people like Rodriguez trying to limit their losses. People like Nibali can put in a decent TT and look to gain a bit of time on pure climbers such as Scarponi.”
Rest day 1 Tuesday August 30
Wednesday August 31
Verin-Estación de Montaña Manzaneda 167km
The Xacobeo-Galicia team was wound up at the end of last season, and local favourite Ezekiel Mosquera, whose status following his failed drugs test on his way to a runner-up spot in last year’s race remains unresolved, isn’t in the Vacansoleil-DCM squad. There is some cheer for cycling fans in Spain’s Celtic outpost, however, with Galicia hosting three stages of the Vuelta for the first time since 2007. Today, three Category 3 climbs precede the 19 kilometre ascent to the finish, which gets tougher towards the finish at the Alto de Manzaneda ski station, included for the first time.
Geraint Thomas says: “Another GC day with the usual guys again, it could be hard for a breakaway to stay away, I doubt they will get too much leeway, it will probably come down to a GC battle again, the same as in the two stages at the weekend.”
Thursday September 1
Today sees another rare chance for the sprinters, with the second of two Category 3 climbs coming at around the halfway point. The profile is bumpy towards the end of a stage that sees the race pass through the coastal town of Pontevedra twice ahead of the finish, but the sprinters’ leadout men are certain to keep any breaks in check ahead of what looks likely to be a bunch finish.
Geraint Thomas says: “It will be interesting to see what Marcel Kittel of Skil-Shimano can do on a day like today after winning three stages at the Tour of Poland, and his team will be keen to help with chasing any break and get the sponsors’ names on the TV. A day for a bunch sprint, though.”
Friday September 2
This is one of the shorter road stages of the 2011 Vuelta, but it promises to be one of the more spectacular ones. Two Category 3 climbs early on should prompt a series of attacks ahead of the ascent, which starts at the halfway point, of the Category 1 Puerto de Ancares, which makes its debut in the race. After that it’s 60 mainly downhill kilometres to the finish, which could see some of the peloton’s more fearless descenders such as defending champion Vincenzo Nibali try and eke out an advantage over their rivals, but there’s also a punchy Category 3 climb 20 kilometres from the end. Pontferrada, by the way, will host the 2014 UCI Road World Championships.
Geraint Thomas says: “60 kilometres is still a long way to the finish, it could be quite a tricky descent for the first 10 kilometres or so. But it could be a breakaway day, whoever has got the red jersey will be someone who is likely to challenge for the GC after so many mountaintop finishes already, so those guys will just watch each other and try not to lose any time and stay out of trouble. If a sprinter manages to get over the climb, maybe one of the HTC boys – Cav’s not there, but they’ve got plenty of strong riders, Degenkolb, someone like that, if the break’s still in reach, they could go for it. But I think a breakaway is likely to succeed.”
Saturday September 3
Astorga-La Farrapona/Lagos de Somiedo y Noja 175.8km
Another mountain stage, and another summit finish making its first appearance in the Vuelta, the Hors-Categorie Farrapona, a 20 kilometre climb that gets increasingly harder towards the summit. Prior to that, there are two other tough climbs to be negotiated as the race heads into Asturias, and both have very technical descents too.
Geraint Thomas says: “I think it’s a GC day again. Some of the guys who came into the Vuelta lacking a bit of racing, the guys who went out of the Tour, some of them could be firing on all cylinders by now. Even Menchov and Sastre, their programme won’t have been as hard as doing the Tour, so they should still be quite fresh. It should be a good battle.”
Sunday September 4
Avilés-Alto de l’Anglirù 142.2km
Today’s stage features what is likely to be the most demanding summit finish of the six featuring in the 66th Vuelta, on the Anglirù. For a climb that has assumed almost mythical status, it’s surprising to consider that its first appearance in the race was as recent as 1999, and that it’s only figured three times since then. The pedigree of the four men to have won a Vuelta stage here – Jose Maria Jiminez, Gilberto Simoni, Roberto Heras and Alberto Contador – hints at the calibre of rider who will win today. Igor Anton crashed out while in the lead last year and may fancy his chances. But the climb is brutal in the best of conditions, and if it rains, the earlier descent could be nerve-shredding.
Geraint Thomas says: “I think it will definitely be a proper climber who wins today, someone like Igor Anton or Michele Scarponi. People who generally do well in the Giro on the steep climbs. Nibali, he’s good at managing to limit his losses up there on the really steep climbs, I don’t think he’s as good as Scarponi and people like that. I’d go for a pure mountain goat here.”
Rest day 2 Monday September 5
Tuesday September 6
Villa Romana La Olmeda (Palencia)-Haro 203.6km
It’s not every day a Grand Tour stage starts at a Roman villa – or at least, what’s left of it – and today’s parcours is likewise an atypical one in this year’s Vuelta, with no categorised climbs and a chance for the sprinters to come to the fore again following the mountains. Having said that, if the wind gets up, that could mix things up a bit and make it a tougher day in the saddle than the profile suggests as the race heads through the Rioja vineyards.
Geraint Thomas says: “It could be a bit stressful at the start if there’s a lot of wind, if a strong team wants to put it in the gutter. If someone like Rabobank hasn’t got a stage in and hasn’t really got someone to challenge the stronger sprinters, they might try and go if there’s a chance of wind towards the end. It will probably be a bunch sprint, but with a bit of stress due to the wind.
Wednesday September 7
Faustino V-Peña Cabarga 211km
We’re still in Rioja country, but today’s stage provides a stark contrast to yesterday’s, with the last summit finish of this year’s race. The finish line may be just 515 metres above sea level, and the final climb to Peña Cabarga only 6 kilometres long, but it’s tough enough to have been awarded Hors-Categorie status, hitting 18 per cent in places, and could give an opportunity to an explosive climber to gain some valuable seconds on what could prove to be a decisive day for the GC. It was at the foot of this climb that race leader Igor Anton came to grief last year.
Geraint Thomas says: “Someone like Dan Martin, if he’s still feeling quite good and the final climb isn’t too long, he’s good on the steeper climbs and the shorter ones too. But it’s also looking like being the last big GC battle too.”
Thursday September 8
Just 30 kilometres or so separate the start and finish of today’s stage, but today’s parcours takes the scenic route as well as four categorised climbs today, including the Puerto de Alisas, which featured yesterday but is tackled from the opposite side this afternoon. It’s likely to be a day on which a breakaway will stay out, but if it’s still within touching distance following the ascent of the Puerto de Fuentes de Varas, the main bunch may go on the chase in the final 20 kilometres.
Geraint Thomas says: “There will probably still be a few teams who haven’t yet got anything out of the race and will want to get in the break today. There will definitely be strong guys being at this point in the race, it’s been up and down and it’s been hard. Brad, if he’s looking at a stage or two, it could be a day for him, it’s hard enough that the selection will be made purely because of the road, so someone like him could get up the road. So I think a breakaway, but with strong guys, it’s not like a flat stage in the first week of a Grand Tour. They’ll be people who can really go.
Friday September 9
Orange-clad Basque fans waving the red, white and green Ikurinna flag are a familiar sight in the Pyrenean stages of the Tour de France, but it has been more than three decades since they last got the chance to cheer on the Vuelta in their home region, following violent protests in 1978, the last time the race came here. It could be a day for an attacking rider with enough left for a sprint after two climbs of the Category 2 Alto El Vivero. However, you’d expect Euskaltel-Euskadi to try and put on a show for the crowds, and if one of their riders takes the win, emotional scenes are guaranteed in Bilbao, where the Vuelta finished each year between 1955 and 1970.
Geraint Thomas says: “It depends what the GC is like, obviously, but the Basques will go for it and even someone like Nibali who can maybe attack on those climbs and descend fast. Today could shake it up a lot, if you look at the Tour of the Basque Country, it’s tough, hard racing, so there’s still a lot that could happen.
Saturday September 10
Should the GC have been decided by now, this is a day when a breakaway group will stay out, most likely featuring some of those who began the race with hopes of a top-ten overall placing but faded away. If the overall standings remain tight, however, it could equally be a day on which the team with the man in the red jersey will have to fight hard to defend his lead, with four big climbs, two of them Category 1, to be negotiated ahead of a pretty flat final 50 kilometres to the finish. The stage ends in Vitoria, home town of Team Sky carer Txema Gonzalez, who died during last year's race, leading to the team's withdrawal.
Geraint Thomas says: “I think this one has ‘breakaway’ written all over it. But it can be quite hard when there’s still 40 kilometres of flat to go, especially if there is a team chasing behind, although if it’s windy, that could help an attack. Today’s stage finishes in Txema’s home town, so all the boys at Sky will be motivated for that and the Spanish guys who were close to him too, a lot of people liked him.”
Sunday September 11
Circuito del Jarama-RACE-Madrid 95.6km
Unless things are really tight at the top of the GC, today’s stage will, for most riders, be a day to celebrate completing the final Grand Tour of 2011. There may be unfinished business in the points classification, however, and even if that has been decided, the sprinters will want to fight it out on the traditional closing circuit in the centre of Madrid. Last year, Tyler Farrar won the stage, but it was Mark Cavendish who stood on the podium in the green points jersey. Will HTC-Highroad sign off with a win on their final Grand Tour?
Geraint Thomas says: “It will be the usual procession and a sprint. HTC-Highroad are without Cav and Goss, but Degenkolb showed in the Dauphiné that he’s super strong, so he can go for it, and Leigh Howard is there to provide the leadout. I think HTC, especially with the fact everyone is leaving the team, would love to finish on a high with the final Grand Tour stage of the year. But CJ Sutton at Sky will be keen to have a good go as well.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.