La Vuelta a Espana begins today, where else, but in France, with the cycling calendar’s third and final grand tour boasting a stellar cast list in the race for the general classification, a favourite in Chris Froome, and a rare appearance from a Yorkshireman tucked away in the peloton.
Traditionally the less fashionable of the summer’s trio of three-week epics, the Vuelta often suffers an end-of-season feel, much like golf’s US PGA Championship which arrives suddenly after a long summer of more storied major championships.
Cyclists dream of winning the Tour de France, and if not that, the Giro d’Italia in May is a distant second, with the Vuelta just behind. Its proximity to the Tour, coming just four weeks after Froome won a fourth yellow jersey in five years, also points to riders at the end of their seasons.
Yet this 72nd staging of the Vuelta, a mountainous edition encompassing 21 days and 3,297km into a sprint finish in Madrid, has been a race on the radar for a number of riders for some time.
Froome has long harboured a desire to come back and finish the job he threatened in 2011, when, as a rider on the way up, he finished second in the Tour of Spain – equalling what at that time was Britain’s best result at a grand tour.
Six years ago, Froome used the Vuelta as many do, as a staging post to see if a general classification (GC) contender has the legs for a tilt at the Tour de France in later years. Now, though, the Tour champion is driven by the desire to become the first Briton to win back-to-back grand tours, in a GC race full of big-hitters.
It was a goal in itself for me to make the team and the job now is to make the most of it.Adam Blythe
Frenchman Romain Bardet and Italy’s Fabio Aru, the men who threatened Froome most last month, are in Nimes today for the opening team time-trial, while former grand tour old hats Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador can never be discounted.
That quintet will dominate the glare of the spotlight, while buried in the peloton is a Yorkshireman and his new Irish team hoping to grab a little of the limelight for themselves.
Adam Blythe, of Sheffield, makes his fourth appearance in a grand tour and a first at the Vuelta in the colours of Aqua Blue Sport, one of four pro-continental teams given a wild card into the race alongside the 18 more powerful and financially-backed world tour teams.
Blythe and Aqua Blue have been targeting the Vuelta all season and their appearance in the race represents an acceptance at the top table of cycling, which can be considered genuine progress in their first year.
“It was a goal in itself for me to make the team and the job now is to make the most of it,” said Blythe, who is in the first year of a two-year deal after a career spent bouncing around world tour teams like BMC and Orica, and British outfits such as NFTO.
“It’s a good opportunity for us to showcase ourselves as a team and we’ll do all we can to get involved.”
There is no GC contender in the Aqua Blue squad, meaning the aim for a nine-man team that includes another Briton in Mark Christian and the promising American Larry Warbasse, is to busy themselves in breakaways.
“You’ll see a lot of Steve Cummings’s rides from us, go out strong on one day and then take it a little easier on the next day,” explained Blythe.
“There’s no better exposure for a new team than success. We’re not going in there willy-nilly, we want to expose the team but we also want to do well. There’s no point just riding along in the breakaway for 150 miles.
“We need to make the most of this opportunity, have a plan for each day and try and stick to it.”
Blythe’s best chance of raising his own profile and that of his team’s is in the sprints. Unlike the Tour de France last month when Marcel Kittel was seemingly taking sprint victories every other day, there are only five flat stages on the Vuelta route this year.
“Very hard,” was Blythe’s matter-of-fact assessment of the three weeks ahead of him. “Realistically, I only have a few chances in the sprints unless I get in a lucky breakaway one day.
“There’s a select few sprint stages that I’ve highlighted. So far, I’ve got stage two on my radar (tomorrow’s 203km sprint into Grand Narbonne) and then I daren’t look much further than stage three (Monday’s climb into the Pyrenees) because that’s a real beast.
“After that, it’s just a case of how I feel coming out of that. The aim is survival.”
Blythe has yet to taste victory for Aqua Blue, having earned four runner-up finishes since March, but he feels the conditioning work he has put in this season will give him an outside chance of upsetting the big-hitters.
Certainly, when beating Mark Cavendish to win the British road race title last summer, he has shown that on his day he can beat the best.
As for the race for the Vuelta’s red jersey, awarded to the overall winner, Blythe is backing his compatriot.
“I think Froome’s the man to beat but I’d like to see a battle,” said the 27-year-old. “He’s been very dominant the last few years but he was pushed all the way at the Tour. I think a lot of other riders have caught up to him.”