The route

Since 2010 the Vuelta has started out with a short team time trial. This year is no exception. The flat 12.6km around Jerez will decide who will be the first rider in the red leader’s jersey. Stage 2 is a day for pure sprinters while the next three stages are a bit more demanding with climbs close to the finishing line.

Stage 6 includes the first uphill finish of the race. A short but very steep ascent will give us the first fight between the GC riders. The next big battle comes on stage 9, the day before the first rest day. Looking at the first week of racing, the main task is to not lose any time. Week two, however, is all about gaining time.

Starting out with a demanding 36.7km time trial, we will get to see big time gaps between the overall favourites. However, there is still plenty of time to move up in the classification with no less than four mountain-top finishes before the next rest day. This second week is definitely the most difficult.

Still, nothing is certain until the very last day of the race with a short individual time trial in Santiago de Compostela. The penultimate stage finishes on the feared Puerto de Ancares, which is 12km long with an average gradient of more than 9%. This is the last chance for the pure climbers to gain time before the final time trial.

The favourites

Compared to this year’s Tour de France, where we only had two or three serious contenders when the race started, I count at least a handful of riders with a chance of winning the Vuelta a España 2014 overall. Despite the three time trials, I’m confident this race will be settled in the mountains. With so many uphill finishes, the combined 59km against the clock won’t matter much. However, when you have one of the best climbers in the world who has also proven able to beat the world champion in a time trial, he’s got to be the number one favourite.

I’m talking about Chris Froome. After a horrible Tour de France where he withdrew on stage 5, Froome has quickly changed his focus to the Vuelta. This is a special race for the Kenyan-born Brit — it’s here that Froome got his big breakthrough when he finished second overall in 2011. He also has some unfinished business at the Vuelta.

I am referring to the fact that Froome most likely would have won the Vuelta in 2011, had he not been working so hard for Bradley Wiggins, who started out as Team Sky’s designated leader. In 2012, Froome finished fourth overall in the Vuelta. Now he’s back and he’s hungry for success.

This season has been far from ideal for Chris Froome but he still has one more chance for glory. Team Sky sends a very strong team to support him in the mountains with the likes of Pete Kennaugh, Mikel Nieve, Dario Cataldo, Philip Deignan and Vasil Kiryienka. In the Criterium du Dauphiné, just before the Tour, Chris Froome proved to be in excellent shape. His attack on the Col du Béal was especially spectacular (scrub through to 42:10 in the video below).

Most likely, Froome won’t start out the Vuelta at the same level as he did the Tour. However, as long as he can reach his top level for the second week of racing, he will be able to gain a lot of time on his rivals in the time trial on stage 10 — at least 1:30 to his closest rivals, I’d say, and probably more than three minutes to the pure climbers. Given he’s a master of both the climbs and the time trials, I think it will be difficult to beat Chris Froome in this year’s Vuelta a España. However, it’s far from impossible.

Nairo Quintana was the only rider able to follow Chris Froome on the climbs in the Tour de France in 2013. This year, Quintana skipped the Tour in order to focus on the Giro d’Italia, which he won, and the Vuelta. In the Vuelta a Burgos, just over a week ago, Quintana proved to be in great shape, despite not competing since the Giro. He won the steep uphill finish on stage 3 and the race overall (scrub though to 5:00 in the video below).

It’s truly extraordinary how this young climber prepares himself back in Colombia without competitive racing. A few years ago, I said it wouldn’t take long before Quintana won his first Grand Tour. He has already accomplished this now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he won this race as well.

Movistar is amongst the favourites for the opening team time trial, meaning Quintana shouldn’t lose much if any time to his rivals. In the individual time trial, Quintana won’t be able to match Chris Froome. However, being as strong as he is in the mountains, I wouldn’t put it beyond him to drop Froome and the rest of the favorites on the steep gradients.

Due to sickness, we never got to see Nairo Quintana’s true potential in the Giro d’Italia this year. I’m sure he will be much stronger in this Vuelta. Teammate Alejandro Valverde couldn’t seal the podium in the Tour, and now he has to support Quintana in a role of a super domestique.

After crashing out of the Giro d’Italia, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez used the Tour de France to fine-tune his shape ahead of the Vuelta. He finished the race on a good note and showed this in San Sebastian, where he was the strongest rider on the final steep ascent. Ever since the Tour, Purito has been training hard to arrive at the Vuelta in tip-top condition. Personally, I think he will be stronger than ever in this race.

In Dani Moreno, Purito has an outstanding helper in the mountains. In Burgos, Moreno was the only rider able to follow Nairo Quintana uphill. On the final day, he even pulled off the time trial of his life to finish second overall. There is no doubt that both Moreno and Purito will start out this year’s Vuelta as some of the strongest riders in the peloton.

Both will probably lose over three minutes to Chris Froome on stage 10. Therefore, Purito has to take advantage of every given opportunity to take back time. The 10 bonus seconds to the stage winner each day will be of especially huge importance. Nobody in the peloton can match Purito’s kick on the steep gradients. Therefore, Katusha has to work hard in order to make sure that Purito is in contention for every stage which suits him. If Purito is to win this year’s Vuelta a España, he can’t waste any opportunities.

Rigoberto Uran is another very strong candidate. After finishing second overall in the Giro d’Italia, in both 2013 and 2014, Uran is now aiming at the Vuelta. Omega Pharma-QuickStep has built a strong team around its Colombian captain, hoping to make the overall podium. Uran probably won’t be able to follow Froome, Quintana and Purito on steep climbs, but he will be able to gain time on the pure climbers in the time trials.

OPQS is one of the favourites for the opening TTT and Uran himself will most likely put over a minute into the likes of Quintana and Purito on stage 10. Rigoberto Uran is getting stronger every year and even though I doubt he will win this race, I’m sure he will put up a great fight. After seeing what happened in the Tour de France this year, nothing is impossible.

The big question ahead of this year’s Vuelta a España is Alberto Contador. After breaking his tibia in the Tour, Contador has made an extremely quick recovery. On July 23rd, Contador announced that he wouldn’t take part in the Vuelta. However, on August 1st, Contador went on Twitter once again, saying he was now ready get back on the bike. Two weeks later, Alberto Contador released a video, announcing his participation in the Vuelta after all.

According to the Spaniard, he had been training for the past 10 days. After suffering a fractured tibia and with only 20 days of training before the Vuelta, naturally, Contador has downplayed his own expectations.

“Perhaps I can fight for a stage win in the last week”, he says in the video. Don’t be fooled though. Allegedly, Alberto Contador was actually back on the bike just two weeks after his crash in the Tour. According to this article, Contador was seen training in the mountains on the 28th of July, long before he announced his comeback.

Personally, I don’t think Alberto Contador will be able to fight for the overall win in the Vuelta. However, the GC riders can’t afford to let him tag along. They need to gain as much time as possible on him in the first week already, crushing any hopes he has of surprising them in the final week. Contador is a born fighter. Unless he’s way out of the GC before stage 14, he will do whatever he can to stick to the favourites. If he’s within three minutes coming into the final week of racing, anything can happen.

Podium positions and the top 10

I have more than 40 riders on my list of top 20 candidates and most of these have a solid chance of finishing in the top 10. On the top of the list, except for the riders already mentioned above, I have Fabio Aru, Wilco Kelderman, Dan Martin, Warren Barguil, Samuel Sanchez and the defending champion Chris Horner, who seems to arrive at the Vuelta in great shape once again.

To me, Wilco Kelderman is the most interesting one of the outsiders this year. The young Dutchman finished seventh overall in the Giro d’Italia in just his second Grand Tour. Kelderman put in numerous attacks and often ended up paying for his ill-timed moves, but his strength was impossible to deny. In the Dauphiné, Kelderman used his great condition to finish fourth overall, being the only rider able to follow Chris Froome and Alberto Contador on Col du Béal. These experiences have taught Kelderman not to waste any energy and to wait for the perfect time to attack. Now, he’s ready to prove his enormous talent in the Vuelta.

I would imagine that Belkin and Kelderman are hoping for top 10 overall. However, to me, Kelderman is a serious top five contender. If some of the top favorites miss out, Wilco Kelderman might even make it to the final podium. He will be able to gain time on the climbers against the clock and I doubt he will lose much uphill. I’m sure it won’t take long before Wilco Kelderman fights for the overall win in a Grand Tour.

For other top 10 candidates look to riders like Andrew Talansky, Haimar Zubeldia, Mikel Landa, Sergio Pardilla, Robert Gesink, Cadel Evans and David Arroyo. These are only a few names on a very long list! Great climbers like Thibaut Pinot, Carlos Betancur, Jurgen van den Broeck and Julian Arredondo aren’t targeting the general classification. Instead, they are gunning for stage wins.

Wilco Kelderman will be one of many top-10 contenders to watch.

Wilco Kelderman will be one of many top-10 contenders to watch.

As always, I have a couple of jokers. If you read my overall preview of Tour de Suisse this year you will recognise both. First up is Esteban Chaves. I’ve talked about this talented Colombian for years now. Chaves is a true climber. The steeper the gradients, the better he gets. Despite a horrible crash last year, Chaves still managed to secure a WorldTour contract with Orica-GreenEdge, something I’m certain the Australian team won’t regret.

This is Esteban Chaves’ first Grand Tour. However, this doesn’t mean there aren’t big expectations on him. He’s GreenEdge’s designated team leader and without any incidents, he has a good chance of making top 10 overall. For this to happen, it’s important not to lose any time in the tricky first week of racing. Chaves isn’t good against the clock. He will probably lose around four minutes on stage 10. Still, he will be able to take back a lot of times on the climbs. With eight uphill finishes, Esteban Chaves has a good chance of winning a stage as well.

My second joker is Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka). He may not be the most well-known rider in the race, but he’s definitely one of the biggest talents in this year’s Vuelta a España. Meintjes showed his great potential at the U23 World Championship last year as he finished second on the demanding course in Florence.

In the Giro del Trentino, the young South African finished fifth overall after taking second place on the big mountain stage on Monte Bondone (see video below). In Tour de Suisse, Louis Meintjes put in a couple of strong attacks as well, showing he’s not afraid of attacking the big stars in the WorldTour races. Like Chaves, this is Meintjes’ first Grand Tour. However, unlike the Colombian, Louis Meintjes isn’t his team’s designated leader. Sergio Pardilla is the captain of the MTN-Qhubeka team and Meintjes is here to support him.

The sprinters

On paper, there are only four stages for the pure sprinters. Additionally, there are at least five demanding stages, which are likely to end in a sprint within a reduced group. This definitely reflects on the list of fast riders in the race.

Of the pure sprinters, Nacer Bouhanni tops the list. Three stage wins in the Giro d’Italia say it all. Bouhanni recently won stage 4 of the Eneco Tour, proving he’s in excellent shape ahead of the Vuelta. The young Frenchman is the number one favorite for stage 2. Andrea Guardini, Yauheni Hutarovich, Roberto Ferrari and my personal joker for the sprints, Matteo Pelucchi, are probably the only other pure sprinters with a chance of winning a stage in this race. However, we still have a lot of strong and fast riders in this race.

Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb, Michael Matthews, Moreno Hofland, Gerald Ciolek and even Philippe Gilbert are all capable of winning when the route gets more demanding. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Peter Sagan and Michael Matthews going head-to-head. This was a duel we never got to see in the Tour de France this year as Matthews had to forfeit due to a crash just a few days before the start. Like many others, the young Australian is now back and ready to take revenge in the Vuelta.

“Bling” had a great Giro d’Italia where he wore the pink jersey and won two stages (including the TTT). With about 10 stages suitable for him, I would be surprised not to see him cross the line first at least once during this race. He might also be a good pick for the points jersey. However, as you can see, the competition is fierce. Don’t forget we also have fast riders like Tom Boonen, Jens Debusschere, Francesco Lasca, Fabio Felline and Daniele Bennati in the race.

Click through for the 2014 Vuelta a España startlist. For daily stage previews, head to Mikkel Conde’s website. You can follow the race on Twitter using the official hashtag, #LaVuelta. Check your local guides for details about live coverage of the race.