Preview: What you need to know about the 2023 Vuelta a España

The last Grand Tour of 2023 starts Saturday and features a deep field and a wickedly difficult route.

Remco Evenepoel on stage 9 of the 2022 Vuelta a España.

Dane Cash
by Dane Cash 24.08.2023 Photography by
Kristof Ramon, Cor Vos, and Gruber Images
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In just two days, some of cycling’s biggest names will embark on a three-week trip around Spain for the final Grand Tour of the season: the Vuelta a España.

Reigning Tour de France champ Jonas Vingegaard, his Jumbo-Visma teammate and reigning Giro d’Italia champ Primoz Roglič, defending Vuelta champ Remco Evenepoel (Soudal Quick-Step) and former Tour winner Geraint Thomas (Ineos Grenadiers) are just a few of the stars set to take on the Vuelta. As is almost always the case in this race, they will do battle on a course that features some truly grueling challenges in the mountains. It should be a great show.

Here’s what you need to know ahead of the 2023 Vuelta.

The Route

The 2023 Vuelta a España has something in common with this year’s Tour de France in that the organizers have wisely spread the GC challenges across all three weeks. Hard climbs abound from shortly after the start until the last few days of the race, which will hopefully make for an entertaining trip across Spain.

In fact, the very first day will have GC implications as riders take on a team time trial in Barcelona. Expect Jumbo-Visma to get a lead on some of their rivals already here, as if they needed any more help.

A hilly stage 2 finale could favor the puncheurs, and then stage 3 will close out with two first-category climbs (at altitude) in Andorra. In other words, we should see the favorites start to come to the fore just three days into the race.

After two more days for the fast finishers as the Vuelta moves south, it’s onto another first-category finish on stage 6. Then there’s another flatter stage before two punchy finales on stages 8 and 9, before the first rest day. Immediately after that rest day will come a pivotal day for the GC hopefuls: the lone individual time trial in the race, a mostly flat 25.8 km test in Valladolid. As we’ll explain in a bit, most of the big names here are talented against the clock, so it’s tough to say who will come out on top among the GC riders.

Another uphill finish awaits on stage 11, and then there will be some respite with a sprint stage into Zaragoza on stage 12 before a brutal stage 13 that is either up or down basically from start to finish. Riders will immediately hit a Category 3 climb, then it’s onto the special category Col d’Aubisque, then the Category 1 Col de Spandelles before a finish on the special category Col du Tourmalet, which climbs to a whopping 2,115 meters. (Special category is the Vuelta equivalent to hors categories in the Tour de France.)

The profile of stage 13 of the Vuelta a España, which is a brutal, sawtooth-like procession of climbs culminating in the Col du Tourmalet.

There’s no rest for the weary though, with another extremely challenging day to follow that features two special category climbs en route to a third-category penultimate climb and then a first-category summit finish. Such challenges on back-to-back days could ruin the GC hopes of anyone who isn’t in top form. Finally, there’s a hilly stage 15 before the second rest day.

The final week will begin with some challenges near the coast in northern Spain, with a short but punchy finish on stage 16 and then the iconic Alto de l’Angliru, one of the hardest climbs in all of professional cycling, on stage 17.

The profile of stage 17 of the 2023 Vuelta a España, with a long, exceptionally steep climb to finish on Alto Angliru.

All told it is 12.4 km at 9.8 percent, but the final seven km have an average gradient in the double digits with several sections above 20 percent. More mountains await on stage 18, then there is a very flat stage 19 before an intriguing penultimate day of racing with over 4,000 meters of climbing across 10 third-category climbs. Finally, the race will close out with a day for the sprinters in Madrid.

As usual, this is a Vuelta that will heavily favor the climbers, but the team time trial and the individual time trial will have an impact.

Breaking down a very deep field

The contenders conversation for the Vuelta feels quite familiar actually, with one big twist. Cast your mind back to May’s Giro d’Italia, and you’ll recall that we were expecting a big battle between Roglič and Evenepoel, with a few other big names (Thomas and UAE’s João Almeida, for instance) potentially playing spoiler.

Primož Roglič and Geraint Thomas on stage 16 of the Giro d’Italia.

Three and a half months later, here we are again, with Jumbo-Visma and Soudal Quick-Step bringing the headliners, except with the tiny little addition of the reigning Tour de France champ, Jonas Vingegaard. If you thought Jumbo was strong at the Giro and the Tour, just wait until the combined powers of Vingegaard and Roglič take the stage!

The big favorites: Roglič, Vingegaard, and Evenepoel

With a few days left until the race gets underway in Barcelona, this sure feels like a “big three” situation. Jumbo will start both of the top favorites with the bookmakers, while Evenepoel will try to defend his Vuelta title against the black and yellow juggernaut.

Let’s start with Jumbo-Visma, where the “Vingegaard or Roglič?” question will be one of the most intriguing storylines in this race. Sure, Vingegaard would be a clear favorite if this were the Tour de France, his main objective on the season, but we’re at the Vuelta, and it is Roglič who has been public about his ambitions here all season long. Vingegaard’s decision to join the fun, however, was a more late-breaking story, so it’s a real question as to whether he has race-winning form and what are his objectives.

Jonas Vingegaard races on stage 17 of the Tour de France, cheered on by roadside fans while he climbs in the yellow jersey of race leader.
Jonas Vingegaard on stage 17 of the Tour de France.

In truth, we just don’t know what to expect from Vingegaard, who hasn’t raced since the Tour, whereas Roglič just won the Vuelta a Burgos last week. Given that they are riders with relatively similar skillsets (elite on the climbs and against the clock) and that they’ll both come out of the team time trial on the same time, it’s a question of whether a form differential trumps Vingegaard’s natural advantage – and it might, given that Roglič really wants this win.

So too does Evenepoel, another elite climber who is also the World Time Trial Champion. Unfortunately for Evenepoel, his Soudal Quick-Step team isn’t guaranteed to get him through the TTT with a top time, and he doesn’t have a rider of Sepp Kuss’s caliber to help him if he suffers a jour sans (or rather, a día sin), so he’ll need to be climbing on the form of his life. Then again, he looked absolutely unstoppable at the Giro until COVID-19 hit. He has also been targeting this race for a while.

All things considered, your preview author has a slight preference for Roglič here, but as you’ll notice in our “picks” section, our esteemed Escape Collective analysts aren’t all of the same opinion. It should be a great battle.

The next tier: UAE Team Emirates, Thomas, and Mas

The likeliest spoilers here are Thomas, who was oh-so-close to winning the Giro, three-time Vuelta runner-up Enric Mas (Movistar), and not one but two riders on UAE: rising Spanish star Juan Ayuso and Giro podium finisher Almeida.

I think Ayuso has serious potential to stun the world in this race. He’s the most talented young Spaniard in a long time and he’ll be racing on home roads. He finished third here last year as a 19-year-old. He also has a great team around him. Almeida is a legitimate contender who can also play super-domestique if need be, and you could say the same of Jay Vine.

Young Spanish racer Juan Ayuso crosses a rainy finish line alone at the Tour de Suisse, where he won two stages and finished second overall.
Juan Ayuso at the Tour de Suisse.

The Ineos Grenadiers will be led by Thomas, who seems motivated to go all in on this race after his near miss at the Giro. His form seemed solid in the time trial at the Tour of Poland and at Worlds, but it was nothing spectacular, so for now, he seems more like an outside favorite for a race that also has some very, very steep climbs that he might not love.

One thing you’ll notice about every single one of Roglič, Vingegaard, Evenepoel, Ayuso, Almeida, and Thomas is that they’re all strong climbers and good against the clock. There was a time not that long ago where many of the sport’s best climbers seemed uninterested in thriving against the clock, but that time has mostly passed – except, perhaps, for Enric Mas.

Focusing so squarely on climbing is a bold strategy in this day and age, but it must be said that Mas has finished second at the Vuelta an incredible three times already. Obviously the second step on the podium isn’t quite the same as winning, but the fact that he has come so close would suggest that he is a legitimate threat regardless. At the end of the day, there’s still only one ITT on this climb-heavy course, and his Movistar team should be respectable in the opening stage, so Mas does have a shot if he can up his climbing game a bit when it really matters.

Best of the rest

Beyond those top favorites and star challengers, the list of potential GC contenders will also include Aleksandr Vlasov and Cian Uijtdebroeks (Bora-Hansgrohe), Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost), Ineos alternatives Thymen Arensman and of course Egan Bernal, Roman Bardet (DSM), Eddie Dunbar (Jayco-AlUla), Mikel Landa and Wout Poels of Bahrain Victorious, and the up-and-coming Lenny Martinez (Groupama-FDJ).

Outside of the GC hopefuls are a handful of big names who will be hunting stages, with Kaden Groves (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Bryan Coquard (Cofidis) as the standout sprinters and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) as an obvious rider to watch in the flat TT.

The Escape Collective star ratings

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐: Primož Roglič, Jonas Vingegaard, Remco Evenepoel
⭐⭐⭐⭐: Geraint Thomas, Juan Ayuso, Enric Mas
⭐⭐⭐: João Almeida, Aleksandr Vlasov, Jay Vine
⭐⭐: Mikel Landa, Hugh Carthy, Thymen Arensman
⭐: Damiano Caruso, Egan Bernal, Cian Uijtdebroeks, Romain Bardet, Eddie Dunbar, Wout Poels, Lenny Martinez, Sepp Kuss

The conversation

After spending all this time bombarding you with the opinions of just one analyst, we figured we should bring in another member of the Escape Collective crew to talk things over with an eye towards the big GC talking points.

Dane Cash: OK, Abby, let’s have our tried and true “big three” conversation. It’s been a couple of weeks since we did this, but here we are again, I think we both agree. This is about three riders, basically.

Abby Mickey: Yeah, I guess I would say it’s about one team versus one rider, and that’s Jumbo-Visma with two favorites against Remco Evenepoel. That is going to be kind of the theme of the Vuelta.

DC: It’s fun when we disagree, but I think we actually kind of agree – I know we do because I’ve seen your pick for the race – that Roglič is probably the guy at Jumbo. But since I’m writing the rest of the preview, let’s mix it up for the readers so that it’s your voice telling them why we think that.

AM: I think that he is going into this a little readier, more focused. He’s going in a little fresher. While I see Vingegaard being a huge asset to Roglič, I think it is going to be Roglič who is the stronger of the two. Also, I reckon one of the Jumbo guys finishes on the podium and the other one doesn’t. The fight for third is gonna be huge.

Primož Roglič climbs Monte Lussari in the stage 20 time trial at the Giro d'Italia. He's on a section of road so deep it has traction cuts in the pavement, and fans are waving the Slovenian flag at him.
Primož Roglič racing the stage 20 time trial at the Giro d’Italia.

DC: Where do you see Evenepoel fitting in?

AM: I think from the very first stage, Evenepoel kind of has a lot of ground to make up already because I think Jumbo is gonna put some time into him already in the TTT. While he might be stronger in the individual time trial, it’s still going to be him versus two guys on all of the harder the other hard stages. So I think that the two of them are just going to kind of chip away at Evenepoel throughout the three weeks and at a certain point, he’s not going to be able to cover both of them at the same time and if he doesn’t, it’s not like he has much assistance on Soudal Quick-Step.

DC: Who is your outsider?

AM: I think Juan Ayuso is a pretty interesting bet for UAE team Emirates. They’re going in with a really interesting team. They also have Jay Vine who is riding super well last year. I also think that Vlasov for Bora-Hansgrohe is a really interesting pick.

DC: I think people probably like it when we disagree because it’s more fun but I have to say, I’m just agreeing with you non-stop here. So that must means we’re probably right, I guess?! Though I know from the other picks that I’ve seen that our colleagues are on the Evenepoel train or the Vingegaard train. I guess we’ll see …

Our picks

Dane Cash: Primož Roglič
Jonny Long: Remco Evenepoel
Kit Nicholson: Jonas Vingegaard
Caley Fretz: Primož Roglič
Abby Mickey: Primož Roglič

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