(AFP) – A swathe of absentees leaves the door open for a first-time winner and a South American clean sweep of Grand Tour victories this season as the Vuelta a Espana begins on Saturday.
The third and final three-week race of the year gets underway in the town of Torrevieja on Spain’s south-east this weekend, with 3 272km and 21 stages to be negotiated before the finish in Madrid on September 15.
But a number of high-profile names will be missing from the start-line in the province of Alicante.
Chris Froome, who won the race in 2011 and 2017, is recovering from his horrific crash in France in June while his British compatriot Simon Yates, the reigning champion, is sitting out after already competing in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
Egan Bernal is also missing, following his brilliant Tour de France success, along with 2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas and Vincenzo Nibali.
It means the 74th edition of Spain’s premier cycling event represents something of an opportunity for the rest of the field and, in particular, South America’s contenders.
Like Britain’s historic feat in 2018, the continent could boast three separate Grand Tour winners in the same year after Richard Carapaz became Ecuador’s first ever winner at the Giro d’Italia in May before Bernal became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France.
Carapaz is struggling with a shoulder injury after suffering a crash in training last weekend, leaving Nairo Quintana, Miguel Angel Lopez, Esteban Chaves and Rigoberto Uran, all from Colombia, as perhaps the best South American hopes.
Movistar’s Quintana has not won a Grand Tour since his Vuelta victory in 2016 but the mountainous route, which includes eight uphill finishes, should suit the 29-year-old.
Lopez is also a strong climber and finished third at the Vuelta last year while Chaves, after coming third and fifth at the Vuelta in 2016 and 2015, is back racing for the overall standings again.
Uran achieved a career-best seventh overall placing last season and, with EF Education First, has a strong team around him this time around.
The greatest threat to South American dominance may come from Jumbo-Visma.
Many have circled Primoz Roglic as the race’s outstanding favourite after he finished third at the Giro d’Italia, where he won the opening time trial and might have taken overall victory had it not been for a mechanical problem leading him to crash at stage 15.
Roglic’s team-mate Steven Kruijswijk finished third at the Tour de France, the fourth time the Dutchman has finished in the top five at a Grand Tour.
After Bernal secured them success at the Tour de France, British outfit Team Ineos have dropped the Vuelta down their list of priorities although 24-year-old Tao Geoghegan Hart will have hopes of making the top 10.
This year’s Vuelta begins with a team time trial and includes six flat stages, four hill stages and nine in the mountains. There will also be an individual time trial at stage 10.