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For better and for worse, the Vuelta a España is a bit different from its other grand tour companions.
Last on the racing calendar, the Spanish grand tour is sometimes viewed as a “leftover” race, ideal for riders looking to make up for earlier disappointments or injury. Though the race’s stature has slowly risen over the past few decades, the Vuelta is still considered cycling’s third wheel, behind the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in prestige, difficulty, and importance.
Yet despite all the above, or perhaps because of it, the Vuelta often delivers the most interesting and gripping GC battle of the season.
Because it’s not the peak of importance, many squads don’t send the A-team riders, meaning the race action isn’t throttled and controlled. Because riders are chasing results and the season is winding down, no one has anything to lose.
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And due to the Vuelta’s ever more explosive race profile, the race sets itself nicely for dramatic tactical raids and massive GC swings rarely seen in the season’s other grinding, more controlled grand tours.
So who are the top favorites for this year’s Vuelta?
A few big names are confirmed not to be racing, including Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Jonas Vingegaard (Jumbo-Visma). Three-time defending champion Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) is still on the bubble, and it’s not looking likely that Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) will make his racing return at the demanding Vuelta.
Even without the peloton’s “Big Four,” this year’s race should produce plenty of fireworks. Here the names to watch:
Simon Yates (BikeExchange-Jayco), best result: 1st in 2018
Simon Yates returns full of ambition after a knee injury forced him out of the Giro d’Italia. He’s already gone gangbusters since returning, winning the Vuelta a Castilla y León and the Ordiziako Klasiko in Spain.
A winner in 2018, Yates will be among one of the few active Vuelta winners in the bunch if Roglič doesn’t start, so he knows what it takes to manage the Spanish grand tour. The others are Vincenzo Nibali (2010), Alejandro Valverde (2009), Nairo Quintana (2017) and Chris Froome (2011, 2017).
Among those names, only Yates will be a five-star favorite.
Yates was flying at the Giro, but injury forced him to the sidelines. BikeExchange-Jayco let Yates recover and train during July, and the team enjoyed a wildly successful Tour de France with two stage wins and four second-places.
Yates will see plenty of solid support, including American Lawson Craddock, while Kaden Groves will have his chances in the sprints.
The team will want at least one stage win to give stage victories across all three grand tours, but the team isn’t aiming for anything less than the podium, if not outright victory.
Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers), best result: second in 2020
Richard Carapaz will lead a very strong and deep Ineos Grenadiers, which also brings Tao Geoghegan Hart and Pavel Sivakov as co-leaders.
Second in 2020, Carapaz might have even won that edition of the Vuelta had the final climb been even one kilometer long after he gapped a struggling Roglič. The 2019 Giro winner will come in a bit of an unknown, however.
His ambition and motivation could well determine who is the outright leader inside the Ineos bus. Carapaz is linked to a deal to exit the powerful UK squad at the end of the season, and after riding to second at the Giro in May, Carapaz might not be ready for another full-on GC push.
His consistency across grand tours — he’s finished on the podium of every grand tour he’s finished since 2019 except one — could see him rise to the top.
If Carapaz shows up with winning legs, he could be the man to beat.
Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe), best result: 32nd in 2018
Bora-Hansgrohe transformed itself into a grand tour powerhouse following the departure of Peter Sagan. The German-backed team signed some GC heavies, including Jai Hindley, who delivered the team’s first grand tour win at the Giro in spectacular fashion.
The team also bring Wilco Kelderman, and with the time trials featured in this Vuelta, the Dutch rider could be, at least on paper, the best rider tailored for the race. Sergio Higuita brings an additional GC player to the team’s deep roster.
Hindley, however, confirmed his GC chops at the Giro. The big question will be how well he’s recovered and how deep he wants to go. This will be the first time in Hindley’s career he’s started two grand tours in one season, and with eyes on a Tour debut in 2023, the Aussie star might be content with chasing a stage win and riding through the Vuelta without too many risks.
Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), best result: debut
Few riders move the needle like Remco Evenepoel.
In just his fourth pro season, the Belgian firecracker is one of the peloton’s biggest and most popular stars. He wins with panache and isn’t afraid to deliver crowd-pleasing, long-distance attacks.
In what will be his second grand tour start, Evenepoel uncharacteristically is playing down GC expectations. Perhaps he’s been tempered by his wild Giro debut in 2021, when he raced close to the pink jersey only to flame out.
He says he’s lighter than he’s ever been, and the shorter, more explosive at the Vuelta will probably suit him better than the long grinders at the Giro. So far, he’s saying he’s targeting at least one stage win, with a special focus on the stage 10 time trial, but isn’t discounting GC. The team wants to see him arrive to Madrid, and if it’s in the top-10, all the better.
The team also brings Julian Alaphilippe in a team full of stage-hunters surprisingly vacant of a sprinter.
Nairo Quintana (Arkéa-Samsic), best result: 1st in 2016
Is “King-Tana” back? Everyone in Colombia is hoping so.
The former Vuelta winner showed glimpses of his former climbing prowess during July’s Tour, where he rode to sixth overall, his best since 2019. Since then, Nairo Quintana‘s endured double knee surgery and bouts with COVID, but he’s clearly targeting a GC run at this Vuelta.
Quintana’s relative weakness against the clock isn’t as big a factor south of the Pyrénées as it is each July. Against this field, Quintana could easily pedal within range of the t0p-5 and perhaps even more.
Arkéa-Samsic, which is expected to climb into the WorldTour next season, will bring a strong squad to support Quintana’s ambitions. Nacer Bouhanni could also be in the mix during the sprint stages.
Ben O’Connor (Ag2r-Citroën), best result: 25th in 2019
No Australian’s ever won the Vuelta, and Ben O’Connor will be intent on changing that.
Bad luck at the 2022 Tour saw him exit early, but if he shows up with the same legs he had this summer, including a podium at the Critérium du Dauphiné, he will be a five-star favorite for at least the podium.
He’s only raced the Vuelta once, but the shorter and steeper climbs, incessant hills, heat, and intensity should fit him like a glove. O’Connor’s confidence is brimming following his breakout 2021 Tour, and he want to not let this opportunity slip without at least winning a stage and making a GC run.
Miguel Ángel López (Astana-Qazaqstan), best result: 3rd in 2018
No rider brings as much baggage to this Vuelta as Miguel Ángel López.
Last year, he abruptly quit in a temper tantrum on the penultimate stage after he was gapped in the explosive finale. His antics saw him exit Team Movistar and return to Astana, where he produced some of his best results in 2018.
Since then, he’s been linked to a doctor and trainer at the center of a doping investigation in Spain. He was questioned and searched by police when he returned to Europe last month, but no official charges have been filed. Astana-Qazaqstan cleared him to return to racing, and he hit the Vuelta a Burgos podium this month to prove he can keep his mind focused on the business of racing.
Whether those distractions play out in the next three weeks remain to be seen. López, who has not finished a grand tour since 2020, will need to be in the mix to prove he can still be considered grand tour material.
The team also brings Vincenzo Nibali, a Vuelta winner in 2010, in his final grand tour. David de la Cruz provides more GC heft to a solid Astana lineup.
Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious), best result: 3rd in 2021
Jack Haig confirmed his GC potential last year with his first grand tour podium with third in Madrid.
The tenacious Aussie all-rounder will be on a revenge tour after crashing out of the Tour in July.
If he’s fully recovered, Haig will find this year’s course even better suited to him than last year’s. With climbs spread across three weeks, he can count on a strong Bahrain Victorious team that also includes Mikel Landa and Wout Poels to chaperone him through the pitfalls of the Vuelta.
He’s not a great time trialist, but neither are any of the other major GC contenders, especially if Roglič isn’t racing or at 100 percent. A healthy Haig will be on a rage all the way to Madrid.
Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), best result: 3rd in 2020
Hugh Carthy is perhaps the peloton’s biggest enigma. Is he a GC rider, or is he some mystical, unknown element who can occasionally pull magic out of his hat?
After hitting third at the 2020 Vuelta, Carthy seemed destined for more. But health issues, pressure, and inconsistent racing seemed to mess with his mind. Two top-10s at the 2021 and 2022 editions of the Giro reconfirmed his consistency, so it will be interesting to see which version shows up in Utrecht.
EF Education-EasyPost will have a deep, ambitious squad, loaded with the likes of Esteban Chaves and perhaps Rigoberto Urán, so all the pressure won’t be on Carthy’s shoulders. That’s when it seems he responds best.
Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma), best result: 8th in 2021
Sepp Kuss could find himself in the GC leadership role if Roglič doesn’t start. And even if Roglič start, Kuss will see more freedom and chances during what will be his fifth Vuelta start.
His Vuelta credentials improve by the year. He showed glimpses of greatness in his grand tour debut at the 2018 Vuelta in his rookie season, and then won a stage the next year in Asturias en route to helping Roglič win the first of three straight red jerseys.
In 2020, he was rock solid at the Vuelta following a dazzling Tour that summer. Last year, he rode Roglič’s coattails into his first grand tour top-10 with eighth overall.
Kuss, 27, remains somewhat ambiguous about his personal grand tour ambitions. He seems content riding shotgun to the likes of Roglič and Vingegaard, who are GC guarantees and deserve the team’s backing at the Tour. With the Tour such a big part of his calendar, the Giro hasn’t been part of his program since his lone start there in 2019.
This Vuelta could give him the chance to shine, but it’s also a question of how he came out of the Tour, and whether or not Roglič will be up for a legitimate GC run. Either way, Kuss continues to deliver in the mountains when it counts, and this Vuelta should be no exception.