MADRID (Reuters) - South America has become a hotbed of elite cycling in recent years and could be set for a hat-trick of Grand Tour wins as the Vuelta a Espana begins on Saturday with the list of favourites dominated by riders from Andean nations.
Nairo Quintana, the 2016 winner, and his Colombian compatriots Miguel Angel Lopez and Esteban Chaves are among the leading contenders for the final Grand Tour of the year, which has been hit by a number of high-profile absences.
Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz was also billed as one of the top contenders after his surprise victory at the Giro d’Italia this year, but he is now fighting to be fit in time for the opening team time trial in Torrevieja after hurting his shoulder.
Slovenian Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma looks to be Europe’s best hope after finishing third at this year’s Giro, while his Dutch team mate Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands could also pose a threat to the South American contingent.
Egan Bernal of Colombia is missing the race after becoming the first South American to win the Tour de France last month and is one of a number of top riders that will be absent, making for a start list lacking stardust.
Chris Froome, the 2011 and 2017 champion, is still injured while last year’s winner Simon Yates is also sitting out the Vuelta, as are Vincenzo Nibali and Geraint Thomas, meaning no Tour de France winners will be competing for the first time in six years.
British team Ineos are not prioritising the Vuelta after capturing yet another Tour de France victory in July and their flag will be flown by 24-year-old Briton Tao Geoghegan Hart, in the absence of Bernal, Thomas and Froome.
Movistar are the team perhaps best equipped to capture the red jersey as they boast three potential leaders in world champion Alejandro Valverde, 39, plus Quintana and Carapaz, provided the Ecuadorian recovers from his shoulder injury.
Astana’s Lopez gained some unwanted publicity for a physical altercation with a fan at this year’s Giro and will be looking to make headlines for the right reasons at the Vuelta as he bids to improve on his third-place finish last time.
Fellow Colombian Chaves will lead the charge of last year’s winning team Mitchelton Scott in the absence of Yates and his twin brother Adam, eyeing a first ever Grand Tour victory after coming second in the Giro and third in the Vuelta in 2016.
The race features eight uphill finishes before culminating in Madrid on Sept. 15.
Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Toby Davis