A Vuelta without a favorite begins

The Vuelta a Espana, with a handful of contenders but lacking a singular favorite, could deliver three weeks of exciting, unpredictable racing

Photo: Getty Images

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MALAGA, Spain (VN) — A Vuelta a España with many contenders but without a singular favorite started Saturday with a flourish in a raucous prologue.

Rohan Dennis (BMC Racing) came up spades as the season’s final grand tour clicked into gear with at least a dozen riders who could win. But ask them at the finish line about the short but intense race against the clock, and no one seemed to have a clue.

“Don’t ask me,” said Rigoberto Urán (EF-Drapac) with a laugh. “This Vuelta is just starting.”

This Vuelta will certainly be interesting. As race director Javier Guillén told VeloNews yesterday, the start list is the envy of the calendar. Save for Tour de France winner Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome (Sky) and Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), the latter two who both raced the Giro d’Italia and Tour this year, it’s a GC who’s who at the Vuelta.

And that’s what could make this Vuelta especially intriguing. Without the stifling presence of an absolute favorite at the start line, the race is enticingly unpredictable.

Yet even before Saturday’s start, several key names were already downplaying their chances.

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Richie Porte (BMC Racing) are two other riders who come into the Vuelta from the battered and bruised club. Porte, who also was struck with a stomach bug this week, said he’s never truly believed he could race to win and suggested the media was hyping his chances.

“I felt absolutely awful, to be honest,” Porte said at the line Saturday. “It’s been bitterly disappointing. It’s not been a straightforward run-in to the Vuelta, that’s for sure.”

There’s Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and the Yates brothers, yet none of them are waving the flag to be the race favorite. There’s the seductive possibility of an all-Colombia podium, with Urán starting alongside Miguel Angel López (Astana) and 2016 winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Fabio Aru (UAE-Emirates), Enric Mas (Quick-Step), Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data). And the list goes on.

George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) was perhaps the only rider who could see the trees through the forest of options. The New Zealander, who hopes for a top-5 overall, was one of the few who would put a name to paper.

“Wilco Kelderman,” Bennett stated without hesitation of the Sunweb captain. “He’s my favorite to win the race. I was his teammate for three-four years and I know how good he is. If he stays on two wheels, he’s very hard to beat. If it’s not him, then Simon [Yates]. I was trying to hold his wheel in Poland.”

When asked later by a TV journalist what he thought, Kelderman only said he had good preparation, “I need to perform. I don’t know how good my form is. We’ll see over the next few days.”

Nicholas Roche (BMC Racing) pushed back at the notion that the Vuelta is somehow diminished without Froome or a marquee name leading the charge.

“You guys [in the media] make a call of who are the favorites – so who is the favorite?” Roche said. “Is it just because Froome missing? Or ‘G’ isn’t here? But come on? How many riders are here who have won a grand tour or been on a grand tour podium? It’s a wrong call – it’s a bunch of media crap — to say there isn’t a favorite. There are many favorites.”

Roche said he can imagine that Movistar very much feels like it is the leader coming into the Vuelta. With the strongest team racing on home roads with two former winners in its lineup, Roche could be right.

“They’re here to win and I think they’re going to ride here just like Sky rides at the Tour,” Roche said. “It should make for a very interesting race.”

Team Sky, a squad that normally embraces the role as pre-race favorite, is playing coy. Michal Kwiatkowski came within a few pedal strokes of winning Saturday, but it remains to be seen how far his legs can carry him in GC. David de la Cruz is Sky’s other overall contender, with Sergio Henao lurking in the shadows.

“We will see how the race develops,” Henao demurred Saturday. “We don’t have Froome this year, so we are going to race in a different manner.”

It’s the absence of Froome — who started every Vuelta since 2011 except in 2013 — that will be noted during this Vuelta. If the four-time Tour winner were here, everyone would immediately see him as the rider of reference. With Froome watching from the sidelines, it’s up to someone else to step into the power vacuum.

“I can only say that I am not racing here for GC,” said a panting Dan Martin (UAE-Emirates) at the line. “We are riding to support Fabio Aru. It’s true it’s a different race without Froome, because Sky won’t be there setting tempo all day. I think it will make for a very tactical race.”

Like any grand tour that opens with such anticipation and high hopes, this Vuelta could quickly become a two-horse race. With a relatively easy first half, at least the suspense should carry into the second half of the Vuelta.

At least on Saturday in bustling Malaga, hope ran as deep as the sangria.

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