A look at the contenders for the Vuelta a España. The 2023 edition has plenty of star names, but a short list of genuine contenders. It’ll be fascinating to see how Remco Evenepoel copes with the Jumbo-Visma armada and where others find their opportunities.
An team time trial in Barcelona this Saturday but at 14.8km time gaps won’t be big. There’s one solo time trial, Stage 10 in Valladolid and it’s 25km brief too. The Vuelta is always mountainous but this year’s edition feels a touch more. There are eight summit finishes, and more days in the mountains as well, and the first Monday is a big day into the Pyrenees with a finish above Andorra to tell us plenty.
There are only six stages at the most for the sprinters, assuming they can get over some climbs and this is self-reinforcing, few sprinters have showed up so few teams will chase to set up a sprint, tilting things further to the breakaways. The breakaways should have a great time because of this and because of many middle mountain stages too. There are 10-6-4 second time bonuses at the finish line and there are also 6-4-2 second bonuses at either the intermediate sprint of the day or at the top of a pre-defined climb.
After winning the Vuelta last year Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quickstep) wanted to win the Giro but Covid-19 had other plans. Now he’s back at the Vuelta. The Giro was supposed to mark a step in his progress, the Vuelta could prove another same given the challengers here. He’s already said he’d like to win overall but it’ll still be a success if he just wins stages instead, re-framing the reference points for the expectant Belgian press pack. One year ago Evenepoel was a contender for the Vuelta expected to excel in the time trials and limit losses in the mountains, and sure enough only one rider was within a minute in the Alicante time trial, but he was even dropping rivals on the summit finishes and this climbing saw him run away with the race and it’s this kind of riding that makes him a real contender. The sole individual time trial of the race is a brief 25km stage so there’s not much chance to pull out a lead and defend, he’ll have to make moves in the mountains and rely on his power to sprint for time bonuses.
Sprinting for time bonuses atop a mountain? This is the speciality of three-time Vuelta winner Primož Roglič who is joined by two time Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard. Roglič looked at ease in the Vuelta a Burgos, winning the race with such ease that he barely got out of the saddle so the form looks perfect. He’s backed by a very strong team in their quest to win all three grand tours in one season, a feat yet to be achieved in men’s pro cycling.
Jonas Vingegaard barely needs an introduction, the two time Tour winner is arguably the best grand tour rider going and on paper superior to Roglič, but form’s unknown and the spiky Vuelta course might be to the Slovenian’s preference given the time bonuses. Frankly if he’s in top shape then Vingegaard doesn’t have to worry about sprinting as he could be well clear to start with. He might fancy the Tour-Vuelta double, yet the placid Dane might equally fancy riding in support and either way Jumbo-Visma will want to place two riders on the podium. The Dutch team is in a luxurious position as they can make moves while rivals react and the rest of the team is very strong and all aligned behind the red jersey challenge. Plus there’s Sepp Kuss who can make the top-10 even while helping the other two.
Third last year, Juan Ayuso (UAE) has had the Vuelta as his season’s goal. His year got off on the wrong start with a niggling injury but on the mend he still won the TT stage of the Tour de Romandie and finished second in the Tour de Suisse. He looks like a superstar in the making for the way he rides, but also his fluency in both Spanish and English, owing to a childhood partly spent in the USA. Fast in time trials and an excellent climber, he’s aggressive too and unlikely to cruise to the safest result possible but all the same, how to get past the riders named already? Plus form is unknown as he’s yet to race this month.
João Almeida gives the UAE team more options. Once upon a time he was a punchy rider who seemed to have his limits in the very high mountains and long climbs so the Vuelta ought to suit but he’s become a more steady rider. With this he can cruise to a high overall position but how to win? Let’s not overplay things but the Portuguese rider is faced with congestion on his team, he needs a result here or he’s going to find himself slipping down the workplace pecking order; put simply if Ayuso proves better the Spaniard could also lead in the Giro next year and remember Pavel Sivakov is joining. Jay Vine brings more options and it’ll be interesting to see how UAE management organise all this, especially if Marc Soler and sprinter J-S Molano want a shot at a stage win too.
Ineos come with the traditional strong team, but like recent times it’s hard to see them winning a grand tour to follow Egan Bernal‘s 2021 Giro, he is still improving in rehab terms but seemingly not a challenger yet and talking about helping team mates. They came close in this year’s Giro with the dependable Geraint Thomas. Thymen Arensman is promising and has sort of made the Vuelta his preferred race of late. Laurens De Plus is a valuable worker but can equally ride high. But how to win? Thomas is very consistent while Arensman could be the surprise but it’s hard to see them giving Jumbo-Visma the slip. Can they ditch the train formation and deploy ambush tactics?
Second overall in Madrid last year, can Enric Mas (Movistar) do more? He’d surely sign for the same result given the competition here. He was last seen crashing out of the Tour de France on the opening day, a disaster but the positive view is he could recover and reset better than if he’d crashed out later in July. Last year has being roasted online for sitting on the wheels but he’s was on Evenepoel’s wheel when everyone else had been cracked and that makes him a podium contender.
Is that it for the GC contenders? Not quite but any names cited from here on require a surprise if they’re going to win the race outright. Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe) looks like an archetypal grand tour specialist but yet to stand on the podium in one and so he can hope to be among the top-5 and see what comes, his team is strong with Emmanuel Buchmann, Lennard Kämna and the promising Cian Uijtdebroecks in his grand tour debut.
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Easypost) is inconsistently consistent, when things go right he can diesel to a solid top-10 overall but his third place via the Angliru stage win in 2020 is surely his peak. Eddie Dunbar (Jayco) had a good Giro but fell back in the third week which isn’t reassuring. You might see Romain Bardet (DSM Firmenich) on the start list and yes has the GC pedigree but is here to hunt stages and while it’ll be interesting to follow Max Poole and Oscar Onley, few can see them on the podium in Madrid. Bahrain are good at grand tours but how to win, Damiano Caruso can be solid, Santiago Buitrago looks better suited to stage wins and Antonio Tiberi is promising, unless a Spanish cat runs out into the road in front of him.
Breakaways: within days most of the field will like be over ten minutes down following the Andorra summit finish on Monday and then Javalambre on the first Thursday. So plenty of room for breakaways and with this ambush stages as waves of riders go clear and the chance for a GC outsider to surf the moves. Think Jai Hindley to Laruns in the last Tour, only wilder and different riders hoping for a ticket to rid
Vuelta a porvenir: one of the hidden competitions this year is not the white jersey competition as Ayuso and Evenepoel are eligible. Instead it’s a fascinating glimpse into the future with many grand tour debutants and young iders. Almost 20 riders eligible to ride the Tour de l’Avenir but start in Barcelona with a variety of hopes and expectations