The Vuelta a España, the final Grand Tour of the season, often characterized as the last chance saloon for those riders who might have underperformed at the Giro or the Tour. A fairer way of describing the race would be as the Grand Tour of opportunity, the three-week race where anything can happen, where things aren’t locked down by the big teams with huge budgets. Instead, young riders and those on smaller teams have a chance to capitalize on chaos and maybe bring home a first GT stage win. After all, as they say, ‘La Vuelta, she is loco…’
This year looks to be no exception, with a wide-open contest expected for the red overall leader’s jersey and plenty of stages that will entice both the sprinters and the breakaway specialists.
But who are the key riders to watch out for? And how many of them have tasted success in California as a precursor to their participation in the race?
Jumbo-Visma are bringing one of the strongest squads to the Vuelta, with Primož Roglič their main man for the GC. The Slovenian will have plenty of climbing backup, with two former Amgen Tour of California champions among his domestiques, Robert Gesink (2012) and George Bennett (2017). Coloradan, Sepp Kuss, is also returning to the Vuelta after making his Grand Tour debut there last year, while our very own Neilson Powless of Sacramento, CA, also makes the cut.
Speaking of riders who've won the Amgen Tour of California, this year's Amgen yellow jersey winner, Tadej Pogačar, will be lining up as one of his team’s two leaders. When the UAE Team Emirates squad for the Vuelta was announced earlier this month, team director Joxean Matxin said Pogačar had proved himself “not only a contender for the future but for the present also.”
Pogačar’s rise to his first Grand Tour co-leadership alongside Fabio Aru has been nothing short of meteoric, with his overall win in California in May a crucial stepping stone in his quest to prove himself ready for the biggest responsibility of all. We’ll be watching the 20-year-old – the youngest rider in the entire race – with great interest.
UAE is bringing serious firepower to the sprint contest too. Their Colombian fast man, Fernando Gaviria is among the favorites for the green sprinter’s jersey. He's proven his prowess here in California, with a victory in the sprints jersey in 2018.
Gaviria will face fierce competition from Sam Bennett of Bora - Hansgrohe and Fabio Jakobsen of Deceuninck - Quick Step.
Of the 10 Americans in the race, it’s no surprise to see that three of them are on EF Education First. The USA-registered team has Tejay van Garderen there to give leader, Rigoberto Urán, some vital GC support, as well as Logan Owen, Lawson Craddock playing domestique roles.
Another rider in the distinctive pink kit who’ll no doubt be familiar to Amgen Tour of California fans is the prodigiously talented young Colombian, Sergio Higuita. Higuita came second on GC this year in California, beaten by just 16 seconds.
No roundup of Grand Tour favorites would be complete without a mention of Team Ineos, the squad who have made winning three-week races look easy since Bradley Wiggins took out the Tour de France in 2012. This year, the British super-team is bringing a relatively fresh-faced squad, being led by the two-pronged attack of Woet Poels and Tao Geoghegan-Hart. The 24-year-old has not had the same immediate success at the top level of bike racing as some of his rivals, but has long been talked about as a potential successor to Geraint Thomas, Simon Yates and Chris Froome as the UK’s next Grand Tour winner. Geoghegan-Hart showed some of that promise in the Amgen Tour of California back in 2017 and 2018, placing eighth and then fifth on GC.
Other US riders to keep an eye on include Peter Stetina, who has made his home in South Lake Tahoe and spends most of his non-racing time during the season training on the roads of NorCal. Then there’s his teammate on Trek-Segafredo, Kiel Reijnen, another strong rider who could try and make it into a few breakaways. Completing the nine men flying the stars and stripes in Spain are Will Barta of CCC Team and Ben King of Dimension Data. If you watched the Vuelta last year, you’ll remember the incredible scenes as King snatched not one but two stage wins from the breakaway. If King can grab one more stage win this year he’ll equal Tyler Farrar’s record as the American with the most Vuelta stage victories.
The Vuelta a España begins August 24th, 2019 in Salinas de Torrevieja and can be viewed nightly on NBCSN, or you can follow it with the help of our friends at Tour Tracker.
Article by Tom Owen