"I was actually way more nervous than I thought I would be." -Sean Bennett
Preview: Three weeks of Spanish passion
Uran captains EF Education First Vuelta roster, while Higuita, Owen make Grand Tour debuts
“In Spain we have so many people out there cycling on weekends, and they passionately follow the Vuelta over three weeks.”
– Juanma Garate, EF Education First Pro Cycling sport director
Imagine this, refreshing cool beverage to one side of you, a glittering blue Mediterranean, its waves rhythmically rolling over one another onto the shore, to the other side; all of that with the added excitement of a WorldTour peloton passing by. Could it get any better? Welcome to the Vuelta a España.
“This is the spirit of the Vuelta,” EF Education First Pro Cycling sport director, Juanma Garate says. “It’s such happiness, because the Spanish people are still on their summer holidays in August, so the first eight stages are along the coast of the Mediterranean and there are so many people there. In fact, they make you feel a bit jealous because they are on the beach enjoying themselves, watching the race and everyone is happy,” he says.
This 74th edition of the race will start on August the 24th in Torrevieja, on the Spanish Costa Blanca. It will be the final three week Grand Tour of the year, winding around Spain, Andorra and France over 3,290km, with the final stage once again held in Madrid. Our EF Education First crew heads in with high hopes — a high general classification showing for Uran, and hunting stages with a number of riders.
The front cover of the Vuelta road book is emblazoned with the phrase “La pasión que te toca” — the passion that touches you. Race organisers want everyone, from the fans to the riders to the team staff, to feel that passion, become part of it, and get an insight into their culture.
“I think in Spain the Vuelta is followed by real cycling aficionados. The Tour de France is like the Champions League in football, it’s a big show. For example, I follow the Champions League but I’m not a football follower,” Garate notes of his home race. “The Vuelta is followed by people who are cyclists themselves. In Spain we have so many people out there cycling on weekends, and they passionately follow the vuelta over three weeks.”
As always, the race organisers have stages marked out, made to shake things up for the dramatic effect. This year, the Vuelta is set out to be a challenging one, with 57 climbs in total, 16 of which are rated as category one. “I think this year’s race is one of the hardest we’ve had in the last 10 years, because we have so many climbs every day, it’s going to be really tough. There are less big mountain climbs, but we have more climbs in general,” Garate explains.
For example, in the first week there are three uphill finishes on stages five, six and seven where the GC contenders need to remain alert to last minute attacks, that can leave them losing seconds early in the race. Stage nine will be the first real GC test as the race ventures briefly into the Andorra mountains and finishes atop the Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp, the highest climb of the Vuelta at 2,095m. “This will be a big day out,” Garate says, relieved it won’t be him tackling this beast of a stage.
Alto de Los Machucos on stage 13 is another steep mountain finish, that has the potential to shred the peloton to pieces, and whittle away seconds from those whose form is starting to bear the strain. The Vuelta used to be a place for young riders to ease into a Grand Tour and notch a result. It’s a different story now.
“Ten or more years ago the Vuelta was a nice opportunity for the younger riders to be successful, it was a quieter race, for some it was a preparation for the World Championships. It’s a big Tour but it was considered the most relaxed race out of the three Grand Tours,” Garate says. “But this has changed, over the last few years we have seen more riders coming from the Tour de France, like Contador or Nibali and Froome. They considered the Vuelta a really high goal, and when racers like that start to think that way, a race changes, the way everybody considers the Vuelta has changed too,” Garate says.
Even though this race shows little mercy on its competitors, the Spanish approach to life flows through its veins, making it a great Grand Tour for first timers. This Vuelta a España we are taking Grand Tour rookies Sergio Higuita and Logan Owen. And Dani Martínez will make his Vuelta debut. Hear from each of our riders below.
Rigoberto Urán says: “The Vuelta is a beautiful race. I have won stages here but never been on the podium. That’s a huge motivation going into it. This year has been a bit of an unusual year. I’ve had very few days of racing, and I felt good at the Tour, so I see a great opportunity here at the Vuelta, especially with the strong team we have racing.”
Juanma Garate says: “Rigo is really motivated, he’s missing a podium place at the Vuelta, he’s been on the podium at the Tour de France and at the Giro d’Italia, and I know he would really like to be on the podium in Madrid for the Vuelta. He knows that this year is a great opportunity for him, to not only aim for the podium, but to also win a stage in the race, too.”
Dani Martínez says: “It’s going to be emotional racing the Vuelta this year for me, because it’s a race that I’ve always dreamed of doing but have never raced it before. It’s also a great opportunity for me after not being able to ride the Tour because of my accident. I feel a bit nervous because I haven’t raced that much going into it, but I think we’re well prepared.”
Juanma Garate says: “Dani is going to be an integral part of the support for Rigo, he can be his shadow until the real final of the stages. It’s good to have him as another card to play too, almost like another leader. We have a clear leader, which is Rigo, but at the same time to have one rider like Dani in the final, especially in the second part of the race is going to be crucial.”
Hugh Carthy says: “The last time I did the Vuelta I didn’t have the greatest of experiences. It was my first Grand Tour and it was a baptism of fire. So coming back now, I’m a different rider to what I was then, more developed, more mature. In some ways it’ll be such a different experience for me, it will be like doing a race I’ve never done before. Last time I just rode around counting the days down. This year it feels good to be going there to actually race it and have a defined role and goals.
Juanma Garate says: “This year is his year! We have been waiting over the last few years for that moment he was going to come out and start to truly show how talented a rider he is, and we’ve seen that this year. He’s showing that he is a top level climber, and I think he’s going to have fun at the Vuelta.”
Lawson Craddock says: “My feeling going into the Vuelta is good. I enjoyed a little bit of recovery at the beginning of July and then really turned my focus on training and recovery and nutrition over that six week period to make sure I was as fit as possible. The Vuelta is a lot different than the Tour, the pressure is a lot higher at the Tour, and while there is still pressure at the Vuelta, it’s definitely more relaxed. You can see the Spanish lifestyle and culture shine through and influence the race.”
Juanma Garate says: “Lawson is really motivated for the Vuelta, he has been training at altitude, he has great condition and he has a lot of potential. Pair that with his level of motivation to race, and I think he will have a good race. He will be super important for us in the team time trial and in a Vuelta like this one with so many climbs.”
Logan Owen says: “It was really cool getting the call saying that I was going to the Vuelta. I have been working hard in training, with a really focused effort from Ken [Vanmarcke], to give myself the opportunity to race a Grand Tour. My selection feels like the culmination of all the work we’ve done together this year to allow me to arrive at a place where I’m ready to race for three weeks straight. This is going to be a huge learning experience for me, especially with the team that we have going. It’s an honor to work with those guys and to be included.
Juanma Garate says: “He has changed a lot this year, not only with his physical condition but also his mindset in training and during races too. He’s turning into a real team rider with a lot of capability. He can be up there helping in the sprints as much as he can help the leader climbing up a mountain. He is a real investment for us for the future to help the team.”
I’ve always had something there in my heart about the Vuelta; it’s a special race because it was my first Grand Tour that I raced. I also really like the heat, being Australian and obviously living in Spain. I wouldn’t say it’s a home tour, but it does feel a bit like that. As road captain, my role is about trying to connect this group of people together. We have a climber-heavy team, so it’s going to be vital getting everyone to work well together. If we can do that, then we have the potential to go out there and achieve a great result.
Juanma Garate says: “Mitch is my road captain, he is my eyes, ears and my hands into the peloton. We have a good relationship; there’s a good connection between us. He knows exactly what I want and I have total confidence in him. Also the riders in our team respect him a lot, as do other riders in the peloton, too.”
Sergio Higuita says: “To race the Vuelta is a childhood dream come true. There have been many years of longing and sweating just so one day I would arrive at this point and be able to race this race. I just want to enjoy it, right up to the finish line of the 21st stage. I want to spend the race fighting for my team and learning with them.”
Juanma Garate says: “Sergio is a young kid, he can climb really well and he is having a good year. He was second in California, fourth in the Tour of Poland. For a young rider like him, it’s really interesting. Obviously it’s going to be his first big Tour, but I’m pretty sure he will surprise people. He is really fast, and in a Vuelta like the one we have this year he is going to have plenty of good opportunities. I’m going to ask him to stay calm, to not push hard every day, to not worry about losing time. I will give him some specific roles but also make sure there isn’t too much pressure on him.”
Tejay van Garderen: “I am really excited about the Vuelta. I’m happy the team is giving me a second chance at a Grand Tour after the way the Tour de France ended for me. We are bringing a super strong team, and I’m ready to fill whatever role the team requires from me.”
Juanma Garate says: “Tejay is motivated, he is going well after his crash at the Tour de France, he’s talked to us and said that he’s feeling ready to race again. I would really like to see a solid race for Tejay, him getting from stage one to stage 21 without any trouble, being competitive and at the top of his game. I want to see him get to stage 21, calm and having had a great race.”