To quote former pro cyclist Charly Wegelius (in his excellent book, Domestique), the Vuelta Espana resembles “the crew of a pirate ship…either riders didn’t want to be there or were desperate to perform.”
Although nowadays it is a prestigious and revered event targeted by top stage racers, this late-season harem-scarem appeal remains.
So, on the eve of the 2019 edition, which teams are relaxed and ready for the sunshine, and who is frantic, ragged, and under pressure from the sponsors?
AG2R La MondialeEmbed from Getty Images
Any team led by Romain Bardet will, by it’s nature, be cerebral, professorial, and occasionally philosophical.
Unfortunately, Bardet will not take the start line.
He will almost certainly spend the Vuelta resting up in some hip French café, horn rimmed glasses perched atop his Gallic nose, Gauloise cigarette on the go, musing on the nature of being, essence, and sleeve length in the modern pro peloton.
Can Pierre Latour reprise his stage winning exploits from 2016? Will anyone even notice if he doesn’t?
I sense a quiet end to an underwhelming Grand Tour season.
Verdict: meh 😐
Astana Pro TeamEmbed from Getty Images
Astana began the year like a house on fire. A house in a town where team boss Alexandre Vinokourov is the fire chief and is dousing the flames with petrol.
‘Vino’, by all accounts, is an inflammatory character
*bows*…I thank you.
Star of the 2019 show has been Jakob Fuglsang, his wins at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine standing out (his abandon, bruised and battered, at the Tour, less so). For the team, with thirteen WorldTour wins to date, the season has been a success.
Intuition tells me, though, that keeping the team in a permanent state of ‘antsy’ is Vinokourov’s modus operandi.
Take that god-awful colour scheme they are forced wear. What is it? Baby blue, aquamarine, turquoise? Clearly a psychological ploy to piss the riders off and have them perform with a liberal supply of fire in their bellies.
Having said that, with Fuglsang and ‘Superman’ Lopez on leadership duties and a phalanx of able lieutenants in support, Astana might be on the verge of a huge result.
Verdict: menacing 👿
Conversely Bahrain-Merida wear the most stylish kit in the peloton. Only ruined by the word ‘Bahrain’ emblazoned across the front. Other, better informed people, can talk you through the details of ‘sportwashing.’
Thankfully, we can be reasonably confident that the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Matej Mohoric and Domenico Pozzovivo aren’t actively involved in the restriction of human rights.
From a purely sporting standpoint Bahrain are having a mid-table, up and down kind of season.
On the one hand Mohoric and Teuns are big race winners, and Nibali is a crowd-pleasing tactical genius, on the other Rohan Dennis, the world’s number one time trialler, went AWOL in France, and Pozzovivo is laid up with broken bones.
Swings and roundabouts. Ups and downs. A lull before Mikel Landa joins in 2020.
Only Dylan Teuns, of those big name riders, will be on the start line, making the team perky stage hunters at best.
Verdict: stylish 🕺
What better backdrop for a shower salesman than Spain. It’s hot, sweaty, and dusty; any rider would benefit from some serious Hansgrohe in their life.
So we can expect continued gushing appreciation, in the media, from the riders, about the life-changing benefits of micro droplets and powder rain (other patented descriptions of water are available).
How can the team be anything other than chilled?
Twenty nine WorldTour wins this season to date. Charismatic on-board entertainment in the form of Peter Sagan and Daniel Oss. Lovely bikes. Efficient German organisation and logistics (other national stereotypes are available).
If you ride for Bora Hansgrohe, life is sweet.
Look out for Sam Bennet in the sprints, Rafa Majka in the mountains, and Davide Formolo here, there, and everywhere.
Verdict: chilled ☺️
Burgos-BHEmbed from Getty Images
Wild card Spanish Pro Continental team. Purple kit. Not much in the way of results. Expect eyeballs-out attempts to make breaks and hog TV coverage. A small fish in a vast ocean; it is the duty of every home nation wild card Grand Tour pick to aim high and swing wildly.
Verdict: pirate ship 🏴☠️
Caja Rural-Seguras RGA
Caja Rural are a team that trips off the tongue. Year after year in La Vuelta they populate the breakaway, green jerseyed and enthusiastic, in search of (a modicum of) fame and (an amount of money considerably less than a) fortune.
Present. Visible. More competitive than certain of their WorldTour counterparts (Dimension Data, I’m looking in your general direction).
In 2012 they won a stage at the Vuelta, and in 2014 and 2015 they took the blue and white polka dots of the King of the Mountain classification, in the shape of Luis Leon Sanchez and Omar Fraile.
They don’t have a Sanchez or a Fraile right now but expect to find yourself watching them, rolling through Spain, for kilometre after kilometre. Get practicing that fricative Spanish ‘J’ in the back of your throat.
Verdict: visible 📺👀
CCC TeamEmbed from Getty Images
Were it not for the bright orange kit and the gold helmet atop the bonce of the mighty Greg Van Avermaet CCC, in 2019, would’ve been anonymous.
A single WorldTour win in January and nothing more than dribs and drabs since. The team-formerly-known-as-BMC are wallowing in the relegation zone.
For those road|THEORY readers (possibly Americans?) not wholly familiar with the concept of irony, the marketing hashtag on the rider’s wheels in recent races reads #overachieve.
This is irony.
Van Avermaet, though, always appears chilled and self-confident. Such is the bearing of a man whose legacy as a winner is already assured. Perhaps the hashtag on his wheels should read #alreadyachieved?
Alas, he won’t be lining up in Spain.
Which means for the rest of the team the stakes are pretty high. January winner Patrick Bevan, perhaps, the best bet for a stage win?
Verdict: pirate ship 🏴☠️
CofidisEmbed from Getty Images
Cofidis have happy recent memories of La Vuelta; in 2018 their man Jesus Herrada – turning metaphorical water into figurative wine – held the leaders red jersey for a couple of stages on his home roads.
One would imagine, in fact, that racing the Vuelta, as opposed to, hmmm, let’s think…that big ol’ race around France, is a pleasant experience for this long-established French team.
Away from critical eyes, and French sports papers with column inches to fill, the pressure is off. Not to mention that fact that they’ve delivered a star signing for 2020 in the shape of Italian sprinter and all-round lovely chap Elia Viviani.
The mere thought of next season, managing Viviani rather than a picking a reason, from a drop-down menu, to not select Nacer Bouhanni , should put a spring in the collective Cofidis step for the remainder of this.
Verdict: relaxed 💆♂️
Deceuninck-Quick-StepEmbed from Getty Images
The Alpha males of the peloton. The self-proclaimed ‘Wolfpack.’ Existing in a bubble of self-belief and cycling celebrity.
For a period, early season in 2019, they seemed to win every race they rode. In the shape of French folk-hero Julian Alaphilippe, a punchy one-day specialist, they damn near won the Tour de France.
A spectacular season even in their lengthy history of spectacular seasons.
Expect occasional controversial and, ahem…generationally befuddled comments from team boss Patrick Lefevere, attacking racing from the likes of Stybar, Gilbert and Capecchi, and howling backstage footage of wolf-themed champagne-fuelled victory toasts.
Verdict: bright eyed, bushy tailed (and testosterone fuelled) 🐇 💪
EF Education FirstEmbed from Getty Images
(For best results, adopt lazy, Californian drawl).
So, yeah. 2019. Some bike races were ridden, I guess, and, like, some guys won a bunch of stuff. I mean, we’re really just happy to be on this team. So special, man. It’s just a blessing.
Any team with that kit, that facial hair, those shades, and Taylor Phinney in their ranks is, it’s fair to say, chilled. Add the sepia toned Rapha PR machine and a Tour of Flanders victory back in April and 2019, for EF, is all good.
They’ll race the Vuelta y’know…kinda mindfully…like, I’m just so happy to be riding my bike…and probably win a couple of stages; the likes of Hugh Carthy, and team leader Rigoberto Uran, languidly to the fore.
Not so much on the ‘pirate ship’ as floating alongside, on a raft, and having a spiritual moment with a recently befriended dolphin.
Verdict: zen 🧘🏻♂️
Euskadi Basque Country-MuriasEmbed from Getty Images
Wild card pick from the Basque country.
On Stage 13 of the 2018 Vuelta, on the summit finish at La Camperona, the unheralded Oscar Rodriguez rode away from Rafa Majka and Dylan Teuns to take the first win of his pro career. If he does nothing else for the rest of his life, he did that.
But who knows; still riding for Euskadi, perhaps he’ll do it again?
Expect flag waving Basque fans, surnames with Z’s and X’s in them, and maybe, just maybe, another fairy-tale.
Verdict: bright eyed, bushy tailed 🐇
Groupama-FDJEmbed from Getty Images
Anyone with a heart beating in their chest could not help but be moved by Thibaut Pinot’s abandon, through injury, at the Tour de France. A tearful cuddle from a teammate, a clamber into the team car, and an emotional post Tour documentary: ‘avec Thibaut’
And after that, who can focus on a mere Vuelta Espana?
What is a bike race in the context of this epically human man and his tragic sporting demise?
Pinot’s Groupama-FDJ team surely enter the Vuelta inspired, energised, freed up from the torturous Pinot love-in and primed for a sprightly bike race. Thibaut won’t be there, of course, and neither sprinter Arnaud Demare, perhaps surprisingly.
Good vibes might be evident, results less so.
Verdict: bright eyed, bushy tailed 🐇
Lotto SoudalEmbed from Getty Images
Lotto Soudal are a sponsor’s dream. They have the mighty Thomas de Gendt, for starters. Wherever in the world he happens to be racing, if word gets out that he’s in the breakaway the call goes out across Twitter and Eurosport immediately double their viewing figures.
He is conveniently bro-mantically engaged to teammate Tim Wellens (a consistent winner of bike races himself), through which the pair of them light up Twitter with good vibes.
Finally, they’ve got Caleb Ewan; four stage Tour de France winner this year, to add to a good handful elsewhere across the continent.
But life, we’ve been reminded, is more important than any of this.
The death of future cycling star Bjorg Lambrecht at the recent Tour of Poland will surely define the complexion of Lotto Soudal’s season more than the wins and the good times. Whatever they achieve at the Vuelta will undoubtedly include a nod to the skies and a healthy dose of perspective.
Mitchelton-ScottEmbed from Getty Images
You’ll notice I’ve chosen a rabbit to denote ‘bright eyed and bushy tailed,’ but I might easily have used my Esteban Chaves emoji.
The Colombian, Vuelta team leader at Mitchelton-Scott, is to crowd-pleasing-boy-next-door happiness what team boss Matt White is to being Australian; short of cracking open the tinnies and firing up the finish line barbie I’m not sure ‘Whitey’ could be more Aussie.
In 2019 Mitchelton-Scott failed to contend overall at the Giro, and fell away at the Tour, only to respond by grasping the nettle and winning four stages in France (Stage 17, via Matteo Trentin, being a personal favourite). Their relentless positivity (and one or two rather good bike riders) delivering great results from the ashes of potential failure.
Led by Chaves, with assistance from super-duper-mega-deluxe mountain domestique Mikel Nieve, this promises to be the brightest-eyed, bushiest-tailed pro cycling team ever to take the start line at a Grand Tour.
Verdict: happy 😃
Movistar TeamEmbed from Getty Images
One minute winning the Giro d’Italia via the eminently likeable Richard Carapaz, the next entertaining inter-team rivalry and bafflingly complex counterproductive tactics at Le Tour.
Movistar are a lore unto themselves.
Some days Nairo Quintana looks like a postman on his rounds, the next he resembles the finest rider of a generation. Valverde continues to drink the elixir and defy the passing of time. Mikel Landa’s eyebrows get more luxurious by the season.
Former riders describe a relaxed, off the cuff, anti-Ineos approach at Movistar. The flexible nature of training ride start times. The hedging of bets. The mix of old-school and new.
Expect Valverde hovering, in and around the podium, with Quintana, Soler, and Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz supporting/knocking lumps out of each other. I mean, Jesus…who knows how this will pan out!
Verdict: Movistar, innit… 🤪
Team Dimension DataEmbed from Getty Images
A single WorldTour stage win from Edvald Boassen-Hagen. Nothing in the Grand Tours. Disagreement in the ranks over Mark Cavendish and his Tour de France non-selection. Ageing riders. Spent forces.
2019 has not gone well.
Their Tour de France passed by with a general what’s-the-point apathy from fans and commentators; it’s all a bit dismal for Dimension Data.
Maybe the likes of Ben King, Boassen-Hagen or, dare I say, GC rider that never was Louis Meintjes might snaffle a result or two.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Verdict: pirate ship 🏴☠️
Team IneosEmbed from Getty Images
Team Ineos are as far from ‘the crew of a pirate ship’ as you can get. They resemble a well drilled naval vessel, all structure and discipline.
Were an Ineos rider to show signs of panic in public they would be whisked off, in secret, for an intensive session with a clever psychologist. Propensity for panic ironed out the rider would re-enter the fold, blinking, like an escaped cult-member reliving a near miss.
As we know, Ineos are all about winning the Tour de France. This is their project. Job done, they go to the Vuelta with a free hand.
But…do not be fooled.
Just as they don’t do panic, neither do they entertain ‘chilled’. Even with the pressure off they calculate, plan, and control. Wout Poels and Tao Geoghegan-Hart to the fore, supported by the massive Ian Stannard and the tiny Kenny Elissonde.
Expect Ineos, being Ineos.
Verdict: all about the process 💻
Team Jumbo-VismaEmbed from Getty Images
…and also, expect Jumbo Visma being a bit Ineos.
A couple of years ago it became apparent that the Dutch team were on the coat tails of the British; close to Grand Tour success through Stephen Kruijswijk and beginning to muscle in on the action.
Dave Brailsford, I recall, complemented them in the media. Not so much a patronising pat on the head as a we know you’re good and we need to up our game.
Jumbo are major players.
It’s tempting to wonder whether, through the Giro and the Tour, they may have burned all their Grand Tour matches for this season. But check out that team sheet: Kruijswijk, Roglic, Bennett, Gesink, Martin…
Expect to see plenty of yellow, up front, bossing things, and some cheeky post-stage social media content from ruffle-haired Kiwi George Bennett.
Verdict: menacing 👿
Team Katusha AlpecinEmbed from Getty Images
Katusha are contradictory. High profile in that they are relentlessly, in-yer-face, ‘fighting for their hair’ during every Eurosport ad-break, yet simultaneously woeful out on the road.
Barely a handful of wins all year; a single Giro stage by Ilnur Zakharin (not riding here) the highlight by a country mile. Their very existence apparently in doubt. All the talk is of mergers, buyouts, even Bjarne Riis, perhaps, hovering like a vulture (or should that be bald eagle) to do a deal.
Never a good sign.
As a team are they anything more, now, than a collection of riders in need of contracts?
Verdict: pirate(s on a sinking) ship 🏴☠️
Team SunwebEmbed from Getty Images
It has been said that to ride for Team Sunweb is to forego a considerable chunk of your privacy, autonomy, and independence. They run a tight ship, see.
If it moves, it gets monitored and measured. It then gets sent an email detailing a prescriptive programme to follow to make sure the next time it moves it does it more quickly.
Tom Dumoulin, superstar Grand Tour contender, has decided to jump ship for Jumbo Visma. For big Tom a ‘new environment,’ according to the press release, ‘might be refreshing.’
Which may or may not be code for ‘I just want to be able to go for a wee without logging it on Strava.’
All of which finds Sunweb at the tail end of a spectacularly unsuccessful season with hardly a win to their names. Dutchman Wilko Kelderman the closest thing to a team leader.
If they weren’t Sunweb they’d be antsy. Maybe even panicking. But they are, so they’re not.
Verdict: all about the process 💻
Trek-SegafredoEmbed from Getty Images
You might be familiar with the concept of karma.
It works like this:
American manufacturer Trek supply bikes to a Texan chap call Lance. Texan chap wins lots of Tours de France. Trek’s business goes stratospheric off the back of it. Turns out Lance was a bad egg. Each successive iteration of Trek cycling teams – Leopard Trek, Radioshack-Nissan-Trek, Radioshack-Leopard, Trek Factory Racing, and now Trek Segafredo – achieve precisely sod all.
Bauke Mollema, for example, is game, honest, and a podium challenger at best. Richie Porte is about as reliable as a UK weather forecast. John Degenkolb has star quality but old legs.
Leaving Giulio Ciccone, who appears to be some kind of mountain climbing genius, as the team’s best hope of high-profile success. And he won’t be on the start line.
Expect an underwhelming Vuelta.
Verdict: meh 😐
UAE Team EmiratesEmbed from Getty Images
UAE suffer from the same kit related malfunction as Bahrain Merida.
But, ethics aside, they’re a punchy team with some punchy riders capable of winning Grand Tour stages. 2019, for them, has fallen firmly in the category “yeah, y’know…not bad.”
Fernando Gaviria, superstar sprinter, will fancy a stage or two.
For the General Classification they are throwing their combined weight behind the Italian who rides a bike like a set of vintage bellows. Fabio Aru – lungs swinging, limbs creaking – is their leader.
In 2015 he won the whole shebang. Back then he was a young pup backed up by a fearsome team in the shape of Astana, who bullied and harried young pretender Tom Dumoulin into submission on his behalf.
But Aru is on the comeback following health problems. Expect much huffing and puffing and little in the way of end result.
Verdict: meh 😐