But there’s much more to the Grand Tour than just the GC contest, with three other jerseys on offer and 21 stages to be won. We take a look at some of the riders most likely to define the race beyond the top GC contenders.
Julian Alaphilippe (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) is always box office when he rides, but the spectacle is not one we’ve been treated too much in 2022. His spring was curtailed by two dramatic crashes at Strade Bianche and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and his recovery from the latter was interrupted by a Covid positive in July.
As such, the world champion’s form is a bit of a mystery going into the Vuelta, although there were a few encouraging signs at the Tour de l’Ain. Normally he’d be a hot favourite for any punchy uphill finish, and a sure bet to attack whenever he can in the hilly and medium mountain stages, and his charismatic presence in the rainbow jersey has been sorely missed in the peloton.
It’s been six years since Alaphilippe went a whole season without a Grand Tour stage victory; will he find the form to do so in what is his last chance to do so in 2022?
One rider who could capitalise should Alaphilippe not be in top form is Ethan Hayter, who is one of the few riders capable of challenging the Frenchman on a punchy finish. But the impressive thing about Hayter is just how versatile he is, and he’s also a possible contender in all sorts of other types of stages — especially the time trial, following his ride to seal overall victory at the Tour of Poland.
He will have domestique duty to attend to, with Ineos Grenadiers hoping to guide Richard Carapaz to overall victory, but his form this year has ensured he’ll also be given some freedom to ride for himself.
The 23-year-old has been making waves in the World Tour all season, with the aforementioned overall victory at the Tour of Poland coming off the back of a couple of stage wins at the Tour de Romandie and a handful of podium finishes at Critérium du Dauphiné. His will be among the most anticipated Grand Tour debuts of the year.
Whereas the peloton’s other top sprinters targeted the Tour and the Giro, Tim Merlier is set to make his first and only Grand Tour appearance of the season at the Vuelta. The Belgian showed good sprinting legs last weekend to finish third at European Championships road race in Munich, and the absence of the two men who beat him that day (Fabio Jakobsen and Arnaud Demare) make him the frontrunner in the Vuelta bunch finishes.
His main rivals are instead likely to be Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), if he can re-find top form in what has been a tough season, and Pascal Ackermann (UAE Team Emirates), who at last returned to winning ways at the Tour of Poland, while young talents Kaden Groves (BikeExchange-Jayco) and Gerben Thijssen (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) could also be in the mix. But Merlier is the man to beat, and, should he finish a Grand Tour for the first time in his career, could also compete for the points classification.
At the tender age of just 19, Juan Ayuso already has a couple of top five GC finishes at World Tour level, having placed fifth at the Volta a Catalunya and fourth at the Tour de Romandie this season. Now, he’s set to make his Grand Tour debut, carrying the burden of being Spain’s next big hope in what has been a lean period for the nation recently.
It’s rare for a young rider to immediately be able to ride for GC at a Grand Tour on first try, with only his UAE Team Emirates teammate Tadej Pogačar managing to do so in recent years when he finished on the podium of the 2019 Vuelta, so not too much should be expected from Ayuso. But he could still play a huge role in the race as a super-domestique for João Almeida, while also finding out how well we can maintain his form in a three-week race.
The summer-time Spanish heat may be a world away from the northern spring classics where he most excels at, but Mads Pedersen is nevertheless one of the most accomplished stage-hunters riding in the Vuelta.
A lot of questions are hanging over the Dane as he prepares to make his Vuelta debut. How well will he be able to recover from the Tour de France, as someone who has never before ridden two Grand Tours in the same season? What kind of form is he in, having only raced once since the Tour? And will he target the bunch sprints, or focus more on breakaways, seeing as the latter was how he landed his stage win at the Tour?
The capability of being able to win with multiple different approaches should hold Pedersen in good stead, and he could be a top candidate for the points classification. And with no obvious GC leader lining up for Trek-Segafredo, he’ll have the advantage of the full-backing of his team.
Once again, as he has done for each of his last six Grand Tours, Jumbo-Visma leader Primož Roglič will have the services of Sepp Kuss to rely on in the mountains. The American has been an invaluable asset for the Slovenian in that time, always sticking with him in the mountains while harbouring no personal GC ambitions of his own.
Less predictable a domestique is Rohan Dennis. A series of problems has meant the Australian has not ridden a Grand Tour since the 2020 Giro d’Italia, on which occasion he played a huge role in the final week in leading Tao Geoghegan Hart to overall victory for Ineos Grenadiers.
Another recent injury that forced him to miss the Commonwealth Games road race threatened his Vuelta participation, but he’s now confirmed to start. Without the rest of their all-conquering Tour de France roster, Roglič will need Dennis in similar form if he’s to have the protection he needs to win a fourth Vuelta title.
For the sixteenth and (assuming he isn’t again tempted to delay his planned retirement) final time, Alejandro Valverde will ride the Vuelta, and is seeking to add to his career of twelve stages here.
In recent months, there have been signs that age is at long last starting to catch up to the 42-year-old. Despite enjoying yet another fine classics campaign, where he landed runner-up finishes at both Strade Bianche and Flèche Wallonne, he has struggled to be competitive since, only once managing to make the top five at the Giro d’Italia; though a recent third-place on stage three at the recent Vuelta a Burgos suggests he might be coming into form just in time for the Vueta.
Even finishing the race would be a fine achievement; no-one as old as him has ever done so in the history of the Vuelta. But you can’t also rule him out from achieving more and winning a stage, especially on one of the many uphill finishes scattered through the race.