BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Remco Evenepoel could hardly face a tougher lineup of challengers to his Spanish Vuelta title defense when the three-week race begins in Barcelona on Saturday.
The Belgian leader of Soudal-Quickstep will be up against one of the best collections of talent that the Vuelta has attracted in years.
Evenepoel skipped the Tour this year after withdrawing during the Giro d’Italia due to a positive COVID-19 test. But he arrives on a high after winning the time trial world championship this month. In 2022, he won the road race world championship two weeks after his Vuelta title.
In last year’s Vuelta, Evenepoel took the red leader’s jersey on Stage 6 of 21 and never let it go. Roglic was poised to push Evenepoel for the title until the Slovenian crashed and had to pull out. The title made Evenepoel the first Belgian to win a grand tour race since 1978.
“It will be quite special to return at La Vuelta with bib No. 1 on my back,” Evenepoel said. “If you look over the course and the start list, you can see it’s going to be a very tough race, but I had a good preparation and can rely on a strong squad, so I have a lot of confidence and motivation.”
The opening stage is a team time trial in Barcelona. The race turns south before finishing in the mountainous north. As usual, it features lots of climbs, with 10 stages finishing atop summits. Riders can be grateful that a heatwave scorching the Iberian Peninsula is forecast to abate this weekend.
The only individual time trial comes on Stage 10 in the central city of Valladolid. Stage 13 will cross into France to ascend the Col du Tourmalet, a classic climb for the Tour. The climb to the Alto de l’Angliru on Stage 18 could be key, before the race’s longest stage, a 208-kilometer (129-mile) trek on the penultimate stage in the hills outside Madrid.
Permanently in the shadow of the Tour, the Vuelta will bask in the promise of some great duels. The winners of the last three grand tours will be vying to finish first in Spain’s capital on Sept. 17. The biggest names missing the Vuelta are two-time Tour winner Tadej Pogačar and former Giro winner Richard Carapaz.
The tandem of Vinegaard and Roglic, backed by their experienced Jumbo-Visma teammates, arguably gives the Dutch outfit the edge over Evenepoel’s Soudal-Quickstep.
Jumbo-Visma is one step away from an unprecedented team sweep of all three grand tours in the same year after Roglic won the Giro d’Italia in May and Vinegaard repeated as the Tour champion in July.
“It is an ambitious goal that we dare to declare, and for which we can field a very versatile and strong eight-man squad in Spain,” Jumbo-Visma sports director Marc Reef said. “We are ready for anything with this team.”
Reef said Roglic and Vinegaard were both team leaders, so one subplot will be to see who can establish himself as the best positioned to win. Roglic will be trying to reclaim his title and match Roberto Heras’ record of four Vuelta victories. Vinegaard is riding his first Vuelta since 2020, when he supported Roglic.
Other riders fighting for the podium are expected to include Geraint Thomas, a Tour winner who will lead an Ineos Grenadiers team that also features Egan Bernal. Thomas, aged 37, has made only one previous appearance at the Vuelta and finished runner-up to Roglic at this year’s Giro. Bernal, a Tour and Giro winner, is working his way back after a bad accident.
Enric Mas, a three-time runner-up at his home race including last year, will be in charge for Movistar. Strong on climbs, but weak at time trialing, Mas is hopingr he can finally finish first.
Juan Ayuso, Spain’s newest young talent, will team with João Almeida on UAE Team Emirates. The 20-year-old Ayuso surprised with a third place at the 2022 Vuelta, while Almeida was third at this year’s Giro.
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