Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by SWpix.com
The Vuelta a España provides a better indication than any other event of some of the most significant changes that have rippled through the men’s side of professional racing over the course of the past 20 years. Scroll back two decades to its 2001 edition, and Spain’s national tour was a very different race to the one that will start in Burgos on Saturday.
While the peloton was about the same size (189 riders strong that year, 184 this) and, according to Procyclingstats.com, the fields were of comparative strength (30 riders from the PCS top 100 ranking in 2001 as against 32 for this edition), the origins of the teams and riders has changed immensely.
The 2001 Vuelta that started with a time trial in Salamanca won by Britain’s David Millar ran very much to long-established tradition. There were no fewer than eight Spanish teams among the 21 that lined up, while 15 of the top 20 finishers were from the home nation, including winner Ángel Casero and runner-up Óscar Sevilla. The race also featured a very strong Italian presence too, with seven teams from that country on the start line.
A glance at the squads that will contest the honours at this season’s 76th edition of the Vuelta reveals just four Spanish teams in the 23-strong peloton, three of those wild card selections. Meanwhile, Italy’s presence has dwindled even more, with not a single team on the start line. Bar some freak occurrences over the coming three weeks, Spain’s representation at the top of the leaderboard is sure to demonstrate that trend too. Last year, for instance, there were just half a dozen home riders in the top 20, Enric Mas Spain’s leading performer in fifth place.
These stats underline the very evident mondialisation that has taken place within cycle sport, among riders, teams, sponsors and, to a lesser extent, races. But they also hint at a gradual shift in the Vuelta’s status, from parochial to international.
Two decades back, the sport’s biggest names often called a halt to their racing programmes after the Tour de France, snubbing not only the season’s third and final Grand Tour that followed it, but also many of the other major end-of-season races such as the Tour of Lombardy and even the World Championships. As a consequence, the Spaniards tended to battle between themselves for what was then the gold leader’s jersey.
There has been a steady shift towards the Vuelta gaining a more multinational aspect and, partly as a result, arguably gaining more prestige than ever before. Since the switch from the gold to a red leader’s jersey in 2010, Alberto Contador has been the only home winner, while the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Simon Yates and Primož Roglič have claimed their debut Grand Tour successes in Spain, the former two using these victories as a springboard towards the Tour’s yellow jersey, while Roglič almost emulated them of course.
Why has this change taken place? The UCI would probably like to claim that it’s down to their attempts to encourage the best riders to compete against each other more often via the establishment of a clearly hierarchical calendar, with the Grand Tours and Classics grouped in the WorldTour at the very top. Yet, there are other factors have played a significant part too. Multinational sponsors may still prize the Tour de France above any other title, but they’ve often got plenty to gain from having their team’s biggest names in contention in other arenas too, especially given the big increase in TV coverage and audiences that races like the Vuelta now boast.
Credit should also go to teams and riders for realising and targeting the prestige that a victory in the Vuelta can yield and the vital knowledge and experience it delivers. Where Cadel Evans once ventured, although without savouring ultimate success, Vincenzo Nibali, Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Tom Dumoulin and others have followed. As a consequence, the desire to win the Triple Crown has grown too. Only four riders – Anquetil, Gimondi, Merckx and Hinault – achieved this honour before 2008, but three more have done so since – Contador, Nibali and Froome. Egan Bernal, among the favourites for the 2021 Vuelta, would join them if were to win on his debut in the race.
Mention of the Colombian winner of this year’s Giro brings us neatly to a closer look at the rest of what looks set to be a very intriguing Vuelta. Unusually, the race features at least half a dozen stages that will suit the sprinters. These aren’t days where there’s 2,500 metres of climbing before a flat run-in, but days when, unusually for the Vuelta, there’s barely any climbing at all.
Thanks to this, the list of sprinters is far longer than you’d tend to expect. The headliners are Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Fabio Jakobsen, BikeExchange’s Michael Matthews and Groupama-FDJ’s Arnaud Démare. As they did at the Tour, Alpecin-Fenix come in with a twin sprint threat in the shape of Jasper Philipsen, runner-up three times at the Tour, and Edward Planckaert, a stage winner at last week’s Tour of Burgos. UAE Team Emirates add their own Burgos victor to the mix in the shape of double-stage winner Juan Sebastián Molano.
Naturally, though, the contest for the red jersey will be the principal focus, and it looks a heavyweight clash, pitching two-time defending champion Primož Roglič and an impressive Jumbo-Visma line-up that also features Sepp Kuss, Steven Kruiswijk and Robert Gesink against the star-stacked line-ups being fielded by Ineos Grenadiers, Bahrain-Victorious, Movistar and EF Education-Nippo.
Ineos appear to have opted for a repeat of their four-leader strategy that didn’t work quite as they’d hoped at the Tour. Alongside Bernal, they’ve selected Adam Yates, making his Grand Tour debut in their colours, and their recently crowned Olympic champions Richard Carapaz and Tom Pidcock. The young Briton may not be focusing on GC, but will likely be given a free hand on certain stages. The presence of Pavel Sivakov gives them a further option.
Bahrain’s team looks almost as formidable. It features Mikel Landa as nominal leader, but also Jack Haig, one of the early victims of the Tour’s crash-heavy opening days, Giro runner-up Damiano Caruso, Wout Poels and the immense potential of Gino Mäder and Mark Padun, the hugely surprising double stage-winner on the mountainous final weekend of the Critérium du Dauphiné.
EF’s line-up has yet to be finalised, but they have already confirmed Hugh Carthy, third overall last year and winner of the Alto d’el Angliru stage. Meanwhile, Spain’s hopes of success lie with Movistar, who have picked what’s very much an “A” team with Miguel Ángel López, Enric Mas and the perennial Alejandro Valverde as leaders.
Hoping to take advantage of the focus these super teams will have on each other are the likes of BikeExchange’s Lucas Hamilton, Astana’s Aleksandr Vlasov, Bora’s Max Schachmann, Trek’s Giulio Ciccone, DSM’s Chris Hamilton and Romain Bardet, Cofidis’s Guillaume Martin and, based on what we saw at Burgos, Qhubeka’s Fabio Aru, Vuelta champion in 2015.
Picking a winner from this stellar list isn’t easy. What’s more certain is that there won’t be 15 Spaniards in the top 20 on GC when the 76th Vuelta concludes in Santiago de Compostela.