The third and final grand tour of the year is just over the horizon and after a surprise Giro win for Ecuador and a thrilling Tour de France we’re excited to see the racing get underway. Last year’s winner Simon Yates won’t be there, and neither will the two winners of this year’s other grand tours – Egan Bernal taking a rest and the unfortunate Richard Carapaz putting in a last-minute sick note. But with Steven Kruijswijk and Primož Roglič (both Jumbo-Visma), the evergreen Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Nairo Quintana (2016 Vuelta champ and also Movistar) there’s no shortage of star names packed and ready for a hot and spicy loop of Spain.
Let’s take a look at where you can catch the best of the action and who you can expect to be at the front when the action kicks off on Saturday.
As usual La Vuelta is a course for the climbers, this year more so than ever. Packing in 59 categorised climbs, 13 more than last year, the race kicks off with three stages in the sweltering summer sun of the Costa Blanca. Stage 1 (Saturday 24 August) is a relatively straightforward 18km team time trial around the streets of Torrevieja, just south of Alicante. Not all teams are as well drilled in close formation time trialling as they could be though, so we could see a surprise leader emerge blinking into the limelight, for one day at least.
Stage 2 (25 August) begins just up the coast in Benidorm and finishes slightly further north in Calpe following an ascent of the punchy Alto de Puig Llorença. This short 4km climb was where Tom Dumoulin announced himself as a potential Grand Tour winner, claiming a defiant stage victory and slipping on the red jersey in the 2015 Vuelta. Known as an off-season training mecca, Calpe’s numerous quiet roads have plenty to offer and will be familiar to much of the peloton, which could lead to some tightly controlled racing. Stage 3 (26 August) is expected to end in a sprint finish in Alicante just to the south, before the race heads further up the coast.
It’s likely we’ll see the first big GC shakedown on stage 5 (28 August), which is almost all uphill for the entire 165km. Starting just outside Valencia, the route winds its way up to the 1,950m Alto de Javalambre, the first time this climb has been used in the Vuelta and one of five new summit finishes this year. The first week ends with a short, fierce 100km day in Andorra on stage 9 (1 September) before the riders have their first chance to catch their breath and prepare for the crucial second week.
Other than a brief dart into France, the second week is a mix of rolling, flat and mountainous stages in the north of Spain that could form the defining part of the race. Stages 12 (5 September) and 13 (6 September) respectively finish and start in the city of Bilbao, showcasing the brutal beauty of the Basque region as well as the passion of the local fans. Stage 13 in particular is an absolute beast, offering those lucky pro riders seven categorised climbs over 167km and a hors catégorie finish up the famous Los Machucos climb, complete with its 28% gradient. Last used in the 2017 race, it’s a climb that even bested Alberto Contador in his final grand tour, as this video shows…
Stages 14 to 16 take the riders further west from Bilbao across the rugged northern Spanish landscape. It’s a little-visited part of Spain, even by Spaniards, with a very different look and feel to the rest of the country.
Following the second rest day on 10 September the race heads towards Madrid for its final week. It may look less challenging but it was on this terrain that Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin duked out the 2015 edition, with the Italian ultimately taking his only Grand Tour win to date. The final run into Madrid on 15 September is the traditional affair and this exhilarating city is bound to be even more fun when the race carnival rolls into town.
La Vuelta’s place in the calendar means it’s an unpredictable event, often raced in a much less controlled way than the Giro and Tour. The dominant teams are likely to already have ticked off their goals for the year and consequently the racing can be more dynamic. As usual it’s a shorter route than the other Grand Tours, and with Spanish riders keen to impress on home roads you can expect some exciting racing.
Spanish team Movistar have had an interesting year to say the least. Winning the Giro with Richard Carapaz put their Tour de France performance in the shade, but a training accident a few days prior to the start has taken him out of the race. The climb-heavy course certainly would have suited the Ecuadorian and it remains to be seen whether Nairo Quintana can take advantage and land a big result for the local team.
Team Ineos bring Dutchman Wout Poels, his stellar Tour performance rewarded with co-leadership honours alongside Londoner Tao Geoghegan Hart. Tao’s broken collarbone in the Giro put paid to a fine start to the race. The name might have changed from Sky, but Team Ineos look as strong as ever.
Reigning champion Simon Yates is sitting out the race and in his place Mitchelton-Scott are putting their eggs in an Esteban Chaves-shaped basket. After a few tough years of illness, injury and personal tragedy, his Giro stage win put a huge grin back on the Colombian’s face. Can he go even better in Spain and make it a clean sweep of the grand tours for South American riders this year?
With Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk, Jumbo-Visma look strong, as do Astana with Miguel Ángel López (third in the 2018 Vuelta and this year’s Giro) and Jakob Fuglsang. EF Education First’s Rigoberto Urán completes a strong-looking GC field.
There are probably only five nailed-on sprint stages at the Vuelta this year, so the fast men will be scrapping it out more than normal. Bora-Hansgrohe’s lightning-fast Sam Bennett is in the form of his life, and he looks favourite among a sprinters field which includes Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) and Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
The Grand Tour experience is one we’d recommend to anyone who loves cycling and if you’re free for a few days, La Vuelta offers greater access to the riders than the bigger (and arguably better organised) Giro and Tour. Let us know if you plan to be there, send us some photos, and be sure you and your bike are insured for your trip.