La Vuelta 2021: Is the battle for red more than Primoz Roglic vs Egan Bernal vs Mikel Landa?
The third and final Grand Tour of the season gets under way this weekend at Burgos with Egan Bernal and Mikel Landa among those looking to prevent Primoz Roglic from winning a third successive Vuelta crown. Jumbo-Visma, Bahrain Victorious and Ineos Grenadiers are taking teams packed with talent which should ensure a thrilling battle for the red jersey.
'Super, super special' - Roglic overjoyed with stunning time trial gold
Fresh from winning the Olympic time trial gold medal, Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic will look to draw a line under his Tour de France heartbreak with victory in the third and final Grand Tour of the season. Just as he did in 2019 and 2020 – bouncing back from respective disappointments in the Giro and Tour – the 31-year-old will be drinking at the last chance saloon that is the Vuelta in a bid to end his season on a high.
Roglic entered the Tour with the aim of pushing compatriot Tadej Pogacar all the way following his penultimate day implosion in 2019 – only for a crash in the opening week to end his chances of yellow jersey glory. After withdrawing on the first weekend in the Alps, Roglic regrouped at the Tokyo Olympics and will take to the start of the Vuelta in Burgos with a gold medal in his trophy cabinet and the prospect of becoming only the third rider in history to win three Vuelta’s back-to-back-to-back very much in the offing.
In his bid to follow in the tyre tracks of Switzerland’s Tony Rominger (1992-94) and Spain’s Roberto Heras (2003-05), Roglic will be backed up by a strong Jumbo-Visma team which blends experience, youth, and uphill firepower. At the one end of the age spectrum, dependable Dutch duo Robert Gesink and Steven Kruijswijk will dovetail with the youthful climbing duo of Koen Bouwman and Sam Oomen; the American Sepp Kuss adds a little pizzazz (not to mention a viable Plan B) while powerhouse pair Nathan Van Hooydonck and Lennard Hofstede offer protection for the flat stages.
It’s a team that should inspire Roglic with confidence – and provided he had the legs, he will be favourite to retain his title on a route bookended by time trials and featuring no fewer than 10 uphill finishes.
Ineos and Bahrain to push Jumbo-Visma all the way
But what of his opponents? Ineos Grenadiers boast not one, but two Olympic gold medallists in Tokyo road race victor Richard Carapaz and Grand Tour debutant Tom Pidcock, who showed his versatility by winning the mountain bike race event in Japan. Neither, at least on paper, are the main focal point of an Ineos team that features the reigning Giro champion Egan Bernal and Britain’s Adam Yates.
Colombia’s Bernal showed that he was back to his best after a year struggling with back issues following his Tour de France win in 2019 – and victory this September would see the 24-year-old become the youngest ever winner of all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.
'It was special, an incredible feeling' - Bernal reflects on Giro win
Movistar are continually given grief for fielding a leading triumvirate to major races – and usually this grief is wholly warranted once relations and tactics descend into total bedlam on the road. But Ineos Grenadiers have a potential quadrant once you throw into the equation Russia’s Pavel Sivakov, who came ninth in his debut Giro two years ago.
Through a combination of bad luck and unfortunate crashes, Sivakov has struggled to replicate that form since, and the 24-year-old will surely be in domestique mode on Spain. Quite who he will be supporting, however, remains a mystery and could well be decided on the road. Carapaz finished runner-up in last year’s Vuelta and came third in the Tour – although he could be tired after his Olympic exertions – while Yates did win the Volta a Catalunya earlier this spring, but has yet to tide a three-week race for Ineos. It’s no guarantee that Bernal will be top dog – especially if his back problems return – but if he does, the Colombian should be Roglic's principal adversary.
A strong support crew is completed by Ecuador’s Jhonatan Narvaez, Italy’s Salvatore Puccio and Dutchman Dylan van Baarle – but all eyes will be on 22-year-old Pidcock who has all the attributes in his locker to perhaps one day win a race like this. Like Remco Evenepoel, though, his debut Grand Tour may above all prove to be a learning curve: the Belgian tyro performed excellently for the first 10 days in the Giro for Deceuninck-QuickStep before tailing off after the first rest day and eventually abandoning following a crash.
Another rider who left the Giro following a high-speed spill was the Basque climber Mikel Landa, who looked to be in fine form before his race came to a sudden end in the frantic finale to Stage 5. Never before had the 31-year-old had such a chance to break his Grand Tour duck – and his good legs were there for everyone to see at the recent Vuelta a Burgos, which he won ahead of Fabio Aru.
Supporting Landa on a formidable Bahrain Victorious team will be this year’s Giro runner-up, Damiano Caruso, the Australian climber Jack Haig and the former Team Sky stalwart Wout Poels of the Netherlands. Haig saw his own Tour de France hopes dashed after breaking his collarbone in one of the crashes which peppered Stage 3, and the 27-year-old makes his return to action this Saturday.
Switzerland’s Gino Mader, who plucked a maiden Grand Tour stage win the day after Landa’s withdrawal from the Giro, is part of a support crew that also includes the experienced Japanese domestique Yukiya Arashiro, the Slovenian engine Jan Tratnik, and Ukraine’s Mark Padun, who made ripples by winning back-to-back mountain stages in the Dauphiné off the back of some serious weight-shedding on a high-altitude training camp this spring.
It’s hard seeing beyond Roglic, Bernal and Landa when it comes to conjuring up a predicted podium – but we all know how fast things can change during a Grand Tour.
Other riders and teams to consider
UAE-Team Emirates may be signing pretty much everyone (and his dog) right now, but any slim chance of glory in Spain will have to come from Spain’s David de la Cruz, the American Joe Dombrowski or Polish veteran Rafal Majka. We can expect stage wins – most likely from the versatile Italian Matteo Trentin – but no red jersey.
After crashing out of the Tour, Australia’s Lucas Hamilton will have another chance to lead Team BikeExchange, with an experienced squad around him including Spanish veteran Mikel Nieve and his compatriot Michael Matthews, who will contest the sprints.
Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov will ride his last Grand Tour for Astana-PremierTech before he joins Bora-Hansgrohe and will be flanked by brothers Ion and Gorka Izagirre. As for Bora – looking at their team, it’s no wonder they’ve snapped up Vlasov… A rather threadbare assortment features Austria’s Felix Grossschartner for GC and the German all-rounder Max Schachmann for stage wins.
Britain’s Hugh Carthy will look to build on his third place (and Angliru victory) last year at EF Education-Nippo, with a little help from compatriot Simon Carr, who made his Grand Tour debut earlier this season at the Giro.
Top 5 rides of La Vuelta - including Carthy's Angliru masterpiece
Spanish giants Movistar aren’t going to listen to the naysayers and have opted once again for the latest version of their infamous trident, with Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez sharing leadership duties alongside Spanish duo Enric Mas and Alejandro Valverde. What could possibly go wrong? The rest of their eight-man squad is packed with experienced old hands with the exception of the rangy Swiss newcomer Johan Jacobs. Lopez needs a good result after a rather lacklustre first year on the team, but Mas, after finishing sixth in the Tour, will probably emerge as posterboy for the third series of their Netflix drama.
Trek-Segafredo will give youth a platform in the form of Spain's Juan Pedro Lopez and the divisive debutant Quinn Simmons of the USA, with Italian climber Giulio Ciccone perhaps their best chance of a high finish or stage win. Can South Africa's Louis Meintjes build on his 14th place in the Tour? Probably not, but his Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert will be hoping from something from him of the Czech climber Jan Hirt.
After the highs of the Giro and Tour, Deceuninck-QuickStep will be hard pressed to keep their successful run going. Fabio Jakobsen makes his long-awaited return to the race where he netted a maiden Grand Tour sprint win two years ago before that horrific career-threatening crash in Poland in 2020. For GC, Britain’s James Knox will be given a free pass to have a crack at the top 10, his previous best Grand Tour finish being eleventh in the Vuelta two years ago.
The absence of Caleb Ewan, Thomas De Gendt, Tim Wellens and Philippe Gilbert gives Lotto Soudal a rather ramshackle transitional appearance, with Danish youngster Andreas Kron given a chance to go under the radar in his Vuelta debut. The 23-year-old is one of four Grand Tour debutants for Lotto.
Roglic, Carapaz and Carthy link arms in joint celebration of Vuelta podium finishes
French team Groupama-FDJ have gone all-in for their sprinter Arnaud Demare who will look to make up for his Tour disappointment. A tweak to the rules in the points classification will be extra motivation for Demare, with sprinters – not all-rounders – now favoured more in the battle for green. Fellow French outfit Ag2R-Citroen have come with a team of stage hunters including Lilian Calmejane, Clement Champoussin and Geoffrey Bouchard, who took the polka dot jersey here in 2019.
Meanwhile, French duo Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) will have another chance to lead their respective teams in Spain. Bardet missed the Tour after coming seventh in the Giro, while Martin took an impressive eighth in France despite riding for stage wins instead of yellow.
With Chris Froome wisely giving the Vuelta a wide berth, Israel Start-Up Nation are sending a team of stage hunters, debutants and youngsters, with their best hope of stage glory coming from Belgian veteran Sep Vanmarcke, Italy's Davide Cimolai or the Danish champion Mads Wurtz. There was talk of Norway’s Carl Fredrik Hagen getting the nod but the 29-year-old, who came eighth in his debut Vuelta two years ago for Lotto Soudal, has only two race days in his legs this season, so the right call was perhaps made.
After returning to form with runner-up spots in both the Sibiu Cycling Tour and the Vuelta a Burgos, Italy's Fabio Aru will be the fulcrum of Qhubeka-NextHash’s GC assault at a race which he won back in 2015. And just two days from the start of the Vuelta, the 31-year-old confirmed that it would be his last race as a professional.
"It's fitting that my journey will end here in Spain, a place and a race where I have incredible memories," Aru said on Thursday, 1,499 days after his last pro victory. Supporting the Italian in his final race will be the Colombian veteran Sergio Henao.
As for the Spanish second-tier wildcard teams, it’s hard to see anyone making an impression on GC or coming close to a stage win. Spain’s Angel Madrazo and Dutchman Jetse Bol will fly the flag for Burgos-BH while Spain’s Jon Aberasturi will look to be competitive in the sprints for Caja Rural-Seguros RGA. The famous jerseys of the all-Basque Euskatel-Euskadi team make a welcome return to the Vuelta with veterans Luis Mate and Juan Jose Lobato their best chances of a win – unless one of their numerous youngsters can come of age on the centre stage.
The 76th edition of the Vuelta a España starts on Saturday 14 September with a 7.1km prologue time trial around the city of Burgos.
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