Category: 2017 Vuelta a Espana

2018 Vuelta a España route coming in focus

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — The official 2018 Vuelta a España route presentation is nearing, January 13, and rumors indicate it will be another explosive climbers’ race.

The third and final grand tour of the season, August 25 to September 16, will travel south to north. After stages along the Portuguese border and those in Asturias, the Basque Country, and Andorra, it will finish in Madrid. Nine summit finishes are expected to punctuate the next edition.

Only the two time trials — one on stage 1 in Málaga and one at a yet-unknown location during the third week, perhaps in Torrelavega — will balance the short, punchy mountain stages.

Comparable stages defined past editions. Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) took control early in the 2015 edition before narrowly losing to Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) took red with an ambush in 2016.

A similar 2017 route with multiple short mountain stages saw Tour de France champion Chris Froome (Sky) win the race over Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). However, the title is up in the air after test results showed he overused asthma drug Salbutamol.

Spanish media have leaked most of the stages that make up the three weeks. The popular Andalusian port city of Málaga will launch the Vuelta with a nine-kilometer individual time trial.

Critics cannot accuse organizer Unipublic of taking a siesta, as it cuts right into the meat of the 2018 edition on day two with a summit finish.

Caminito del Rey, where Esteban Chaves won in 2015, is the first of the nine summit finishes. Some will be long, high-altitude runs and others not so much — this one is four kilometers with sections of 13 percent.

The formula will be familiar to Vuelta fans. Organizers should favor shorter stages from 150 to 200 kilometers. Only one or two stages may surpass 200 kilometers. The climbs mostly appear late in the day during live TV coverage.

“The Vuelta has a very strong personality and easy to identify, short stages combined with ramps, mountains,” race director Javier Guillén told VeloNews last year. “And something that I think is very specific to the Vuelta, new climbs combined with traditional summits.”

Spanish website Zikloland reported that Guillén and Unipublic “maintained the Vuelta’s model.”

La Alfaguara, north of Granada, ends the fourth day with 12 kilometers uphill and ramps up to 20 percent. The climbing continues with La Covatilla, south of Salamanca and east of Portugal, as the Vuelta works its way north.

Near León, the race will return to climb La Camperona. It starts a series of three summit finishes in the second week. The race should travel east into Asturias for summit finishes, one reported at Lagos de Covadonga and another, a new one, at Les Praeres.

Les Praeres is similar to Los Machucos in 2017. Though the roads do not tilt quite as steep as 28 percent, they remain in the double digits for the short four-plus-kilometer climb.

The Basque Country, Monte Oiz, and two days in the Principality of Andorra on Spain’s northern border will sort the final classification. The final day, like most of the Vuelta’s last 72 editions, finishes in Madrid.

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VN Show: Contador’s epic farewell

Editor’s note: This VeloNews Show includes images from,, Flickr Creative Commons,, Vuelta a Espana

On this week’s episode of The VeloNews Show we analyze Alberto Contador’s awesome farewell attack on the Alto de l’Angliru, one of the steepest climbs in Europe. Where does Contador’s epic raid stack up in the canon of Angliru battles? How does his goodbye compare to those of the sport’s other recent retirees? We take a peek.

Plus, Vuelta winner Chris Froome showcased a hidden talent during the race’s final stage.

Finally, Cannondale-Drapac has been saved, thanks to the addition of a new title sponsor EF Education First.

All that and more on this week’s The VeloNews Show.

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Photo Essay: The Vuelta’s homestretch

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Contador retirement marks end of Spanish armada

Alberto Contador’s emotional goodbye Sunday marks an end of an era for Spanish cycling.

Contador, 34, was the leading light of a golden generation of Spanish riders dubbed the “Spanish armada” that dominated much of the peloton over the past 15 years.

With Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) struggling with a career-threatening knee injury, Spanish cycling looks to enter its next generational cycle without a clear leader poised to take over.

“After 15 very hard years of fighting, today is a special day,” Contador said at the line Sunday. “When I started as a pro, I dreamed of racing the Tour de France, and then winning it. I also dreamed of finishing like this, at the top of the sport. I couldn’t ask for a better goodbye.”

Contador, with 68 professional victories and countless thrilling attacks, will leave a big void to fill.

The self-styled “Pistolero” officially won seven grand tours, with two taken away as part of his controversial clenbuterol case. His eternal attacking style, his never-say-die attitude, and his penchant for delivering unexpected coups makes him one of Spain’s greatest cyclists.

“With Contador goes the last of the crazy adventurers, a rider capable of turning a race on its head,” said former ONCE manager Manolo Saíz. “There are not riders like him anymore. Cycling today is too predictable, too controlled. [Vincenzo] Nibali is a bit like him, but he’s almost at the end as well. It will be difficult to replace him. Today, riders don’t even dare to attack until 2km to go.”

Saíz, speaking to the Spanish wire service EFE, helped Contador turn pro in 2003. He quickly left his mark, and become one of the top stars in the post-Miguel Indurain era. At his best, Contador dominated stage racing, winning nearly two dozen other stage races during the arc of his career.

During its heyday, the “Spanish Armada” was a dominant force, even challenging Lance Armstrong during the Texan’s scandal-marred, seven-year run at the Tour de France.

Beyond Valverde and Contador, there was Joaquim Rodríguez, Carlos Sastre, Joseba Beloki, Oscar Freire, and 2008 Olympic champion Samuel Sánchez.

Yet as Sánchez’s inexplicable doping positive at the start of this Vuelta revealed, more than a few riders during that era were marked by doping scandal. Valverde served a two-year sanction for links to the Operación Puerto doping ring and Contador was handed down a two-year, back-dated ban for testing positive for traces of clenbuterol during the 2010 Tour.

The Spanish stars also helped the Spanish peloton endure some hard times during what was called “la crisis,” the economic downturn that swept the Spanish economy in 2008. What was once a thriving cycling scene, with four major teams, has now been dramatically reduced.

The only remaining WorldTour team is Movistar, with such teams as Euskaltel-Euskadi and the former ONCE and Kelme teams closing down as sponsorship dollars dried up.

The Spanish cycling calendar has also taken a beating, with many races either being canceled or reducing their race to just a one-day event.

While the Spanish scene struggled, Spanish riders went international. Contador raced for Astana, Discovery Channel, and Saxo Bank. Rodríguez landed at Katusha and Freire went to Rabobank and Mapei.

As the Spanish economy has recovered, there is hope that more teams could emerge to help provide a launching pad for the next generation of riders. Caja Rural remains at the Pro Continental level, while other teams such as Euskadi-Murias and Burgos BH have big plans for the future.

Many see Mikel Landa, set to join Movistar next season, as the rider who can carry the torch into the future for Spain. A grand tour victory would go a long way toward cementing his position as heir apparent.

“We believe Mikel can emerge as a major grand tour rider,” said Movistar general manager Eusebio Unzué. “We’ve seen his class, now he is position to confirm it. We believe he can win a race like the Giro d’Italia or perhaps even the Tour someday.”

Landa, 27, is already at the highest level, with big performances in the 2015 Giro and a fourth overall at the Tour this summer. Others waiting in the wings include David de la Cruz and Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) and Marc Soler (Movistar).

Landa, however, is the only one who seems to have the natural charisma and determination to possibly fill the Contador void.

No matter who might emerge in Spain, it will be hard to replace Contador.

He was the lone rider who engaged the larger Spanish public often more obsessed with soccer. His fearless attacks and trademark determination won him fans across Spain and the world.

“Alberto was a unique rider, someone who could capture the imagination of the fans,” said Vuelta director Javier Guillén. “He marked his era, and we were honored that he chose to race the Vuelta as his final race. Every day has been special on the road.”

On Sunday, Contador savored his final day in the saddle. The peloton let him ride alone onto the final circuit in central Madrid. He even sat up in the final sprint to enjoy the moment, something that allowed Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) to nudge into fourth overall. Contador later rode a lap of honor with his Trek-Segafredo teammates and waved a Spanish flag over his head.

“I don’t have words to explain this moment,” Contador said. “Now is the right moment to stop. I did everything with my heart. I always gave 100 percent. Cycling is a sport where the victory is the most important thing, but I also believe that the spectacle is important as well. I did everything I could in this Vuelta.”

His teammates and fans teased him with chants of “one more year!” but Contador is resolute in his decision to retire at the top of his game. Fans, housewives, and even a few journalists were tearful when Contador soloed to victory Saturday up the Anglirú. They know they won’t be seeing the likes of Contador for a long time.

It was the perfect parting shot for a rider who marked his generation.

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British media shows praise but little fanfare for Froome

LONDON (AFP) — Chris Froome was hailed in the British press on Monday for completing a historic Tour de France-Vuelta a Espana double, but coverage of his feat was relatively low-key.

The 32-year-old joins Frenchmen Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernard Hinault (1978) as the only riders to win the Tour and Vuelta in the same year. But Froome is the first man to win both races since the Vuelta was moved to after the Tour in the racing calendar in 1995.

The Times called it a “monumental achievement” and The Daily Mirror said he had pulled off “one of the most outstanding feats in British sporting history.”

In the eyes of The Daily Telegraph, the four-time Tour de France champion now deserves to be considered “one of the greats, not simply of cycling but of British sport.”

The Guardian emphasized the role played by Team Sky and said Froome’s dominance of stage races had “not been seen since Miguel Indurain’s purple patch between 1991 and 1995.”

However, The Guardian was the only paper in which Froome’s achievement was the leading sports story of the day, with soccer dominating headlines elsewhere.

Despite his phenomenal success, the quietly spoken Froome has never captured hearts in the same way as his charismatic former Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins did.

Explanations for his relative lack of popularity range from the fact he was born in Kenya to the doping suspicions that continue to swirl around his team.

“Raised in Africa, resident in Monaco” was how The Times summed up how Froome is viewed in Britain.

British former cyclist David Millar, writing in The Telegraph, said Froome “would probably admit deep down that he feels more African than British.”

In a piece entitled “So, why can’t we warm to Froome?” The Mail’s chief sports writer Matt Lawton said doubts about Sky’s practices and doping in cycling in general were also held against the rider.

Lawton said professional road racing was still perceived to take place against a “backdrop of suspicion.”

He also highlighted revelations about Wiggins’s use of therapeutic use exemptions while racing for Sky and the team’s failure to satisfactorily explain a mysterious package that was sent to him during a 2011 race.

The Guardian’s Will Fotheringham wrote: “Team Sky have singularly failed to endear themselves to those with a romantic vision of cycling or doubts over the sport’s ethical issues.”

After winning his third Tour de France last year, Froome was surprisingly left off the shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. The award, voted for by the general public, rewards the outstanding performer in British sport in each calendar year.

Millar said it would be “criminal” if Froome was not shortlisted this year.

Froome is currently the second favorite to win the award behind Britain’s world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua.

When asked about his chances of winning this year’s award, Froome told British papers: “I am not going to hold my breath.”

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Vuelta: Woods, Villella paced Cannondale through emotional race

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — Cannondale-Drapac’s roller coaster Vuelta a España ride, resulting in a king of the mountains jersey and a seventh place overall finish, marks a new beginning for the American WorldTour team.

Canadian Michael Woods, in only his second grand tour at 30 years old, placed seventh at 8:27 behind overall winner Chris Froome (Sky) Sunday night in Madrid. His Italian teammate Davide Villella carried the mountains jersey all the way through the bumpy three-week race.

The news arrived two weeks ago that the team faced closure in 2018 without a new sponsor and management had released its riders from their contracts. Woods, Villella, and the others not only had to deal with that uncertainty, but the race’s hardships. They only found out on the eve of the Vuelta’s Madrid finish that management secured a new 2018 deal.

“Before [stage 9], we had a long talk on the bus,” Woods explained. “We were all reeling from the bad news. We were distracted. Juanma [sports director Juan Manuel Gárate] stood up on the bus and gave a really emotional speech. He told us that he understood if we needed to seek results and focus on ourselves, individually. And then he presented option two, that we work as a team and focus on our original goals. Every guy on that bus raised his hand for that second option.

“Then we got off the bus and rode on the front all day. We proved that we belonged and that we weren’t going to go down without a fight. We raced like champions. I didn’t win, which would have been the perfect ending, but I had the best race of my life up until that point to come away with third.”

Woods raced head-to-head with Froome that day and many others. He explained, though wanting to stay with Slipstream, that he was also considering other teams so that he would not be unemployed in 2018. He explained how “it was difficult to manage both” and that he tried to focus just on the race.

Froome took note of the team in stage 9. “I think they can take a lot away from that [ride],” Froome said.” They committed their faith in Woods, the team was on the front all day and we are still talking about it. I’d like to see more of that racing from them.”

Woods added, “We could all feel a sense of pride within the group, and we got a lot of respect from the peloton. The way we rode allowed us to move forward with our heads high and with positive momentum we could draw from throughout the race.”

Villella already has plans to join team Astana in 2018. However, he fought alongside Woods daily to make sure he accumulated enough mountain points to stand on the Madrid podium with the white and blue polka-dot jersey.

Their rides complemented the backroom staff’s search for a new backer. Manager Jonathan Vaughters welcomed EF Education First for 2018 and Woods confirmed he would ride for two more years with the team.

Woods started in the sport late but always had the team’s faith. Cannondale-Drapac allowed him to race his first grand tour this May at the Giro d’Italia and to lead the Vuelta team.

“I think the biggest lesson learned here is that I’m able to ride with some of the best riders in the world,” Woods added. “Prior to this race, I thought I might have the legs. I was putting out numbers that showed I was capable of having a performance like this, but I didn’t yet have it between the ears. I really found my mojo during this race.”

Said Gárate, “Until stage 10, we never mentioned the words ‘general classification’ to Mike. We didn’t call him our leader. I didn’t forget him, but I wasn’t showing that we were taking care of him because I didn’t want to put that pressure on his shoulders from the first day. It was only after the uphill final on stage 9 that we started talking about the GC.”

The work paid off on the road and back in the United States. Two weeks after the bombshell news dropped of the team’s imminent demise, the team has a new sponsor, a mountains jersey, and a top-10 finish in the Vuelta a España.

“I’m really proud of how the riders, staff, and everyone managed the sad news,” Gárate continued. “What we did here and the way we did it, despite the extra mental challenges, says a lot about who we are as a team and how we work together.”

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Woods, van Garderen finish Vuelta with flourish

GIJON, Spain (VN) — North Americans finished off a hard-fought Anglirú stage with a flourish Saturday.

Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) defended his seventh place while Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) surged into top-10 in the final mountain stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España.

With Sunday’s sprint stage remaining in Madrid, both will conclude the hard-fought Spanish grand tour with top-10s that represent important milestones for both.

Van Garderen, 29, crashed twice throughout the three-week Vuelta, and injured ribs, but battled through rough racing conditions Saturday to climb from 13th to 10th.

“It’s bittersweet,” said van Garderen, who crashed in stages 6 and 11. “That second crash … really affected me. I am happy I have been able to fight through it, but it is a question of ‘what if’.”

With 10th overall, the Vuelta will mark van Garderen’s best grand tour result since he was fifth in 2014 Tour de France.

A winner of his first grand tour stage at the Giro d’Italia in May, van Garderen will line up later this month as a member of the U.S. national cycling team for the Bergen world championships.

Woods, meanwhile, confirmed his grand tour credentials with impressive consistency across three weeks of intense racing.

In just his second grand tour start, Woods came into the Vuelta looking for a stage victory. His steadiness across the first half of the Vuelta, when he was able to stay with riders like Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) on the most challenging stages, including third at Cumbre del Sol in stage 9, prompted him to turn his focus toward the GC.

He dropped to 10th following the Logroño time trial, but dug deep in the final week to claw his way up to seventh.

“I came here with the goal of focusing on a stage win, and having the GC as an afterthought,” Woods said mid-race. “I have never ridden a GC at a grand tour, so I am not sure how I am going to respond … I am cautiously optimistic.”

Woods converted that optimism into reality, and the 30-year-old will ride into Madrid with Canada’s best grand tour result since Ryder Hesjedal was fifth at the 2015 Giro d’Italia.

Peter Stetina (Trek-Segafredo) also finished the Vuelta on a high note, helping to push teammate Contador to victory at the Anglirú. Stetina was a key teammate throughout the Vuelta to help Contador in the Spaniard’s final grand tour.

“It’s been great racing with Alberto in his final race,” Stetina said. “I love his aggressive style of racing.”

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Contador’s last mountain

GIJON, Spain (VN) — Alberto Contador ends his glorious and sometimes controversial racing career Saturday on Spain’s hardest climb.

The curtain officially comes down Sunday in Madrid for the final stage of the Vuelta a España, but it’s fitting that Contador’s last major mountain climb will be the summit finale on the Anglirú.

“Madness!” Contador said when asked what he expects Saturday. “It’s going to be complete madness, with the rain, the cold, and a short stage.”

Are those the ingredients for one final Contador raid? Some are daring to dream, including ex-pro Ivan Basso.

“Alberto can still win the Vuelta,” Basso said. “Anything can happen on a climb like the Anglirú. Alberto will not be holding anything back.”

As sure as the sun is to rise in the east, Contador will attack Saturday. With forecasters calling for rain, cold, and wind, it will be an infernal setting for Contador’s last charge.

On Friday’s lumpy run into Gijón, Contador provided a preview of what’s in store. In the day’s final climb with 15km to go, he bolted clear of the main GC group, quickly carving a one-minute wedge. Trek-Segafredo sent two riders up the road, and Contador’s personal mechanic had put an extra-large 55-tooth plate on the front. Nothing is as spontaneous as it seems.

What is authentic, and still very dangerous, is Contador’s endless attacking spirit in his final grand tour.

Race leader Chris Froome (Sky) won’t let down his guard against a Contador angling to go out with a bang.

“That was a big attack,” Froome said. “He took almost one minute very quickly to our group, and we were not going slowly. It was impressive, and I can imagine that we can expect the same tomorrow.”

Contador has been Froome’s bête noire at the Vuelta. Even when Froome wasn’t directly beaten by Contador, like in 2012 and 2014, the Spaniard played a huge factor in derailing a likely Froome victory last year.

“I think he will want to end tomorrow with absolutely no regrets,” Froome said. “And leave absolutely everything on the road.”

That’s certainly how Contador’s been racing so far this Vuelta.

He’s attacked just about every time the Vuelta has tipped upward. An early setback in Andorra spoiled his chances for outright victory, but it also served to set up the thrilling three-week-long “adios” that Spanish fans have been savoring.

With no direct pressure to defend a leader’s jersey, Contador has been liberated to attack whenever he feels like it. And so far, that’s been just about every stage.

Signs line the road and his named is painted across the pavement. Huge crowds line up outside the Trek-Segafredo bus every morning to catch a glimpse of the Spanish superstar.

For Contador, Saturday’s stage represents his final chance to paint a masterpiece.

“I’ve been taking this Vuelta differently. Without pressure, and I’ve really been enjoying it,” Contador said. “Now I am going to enjoy these final two days. And then I will move on to other things.”

Contador has spent a career being the disruptor, the agitator and the indefatigable fighter. Whether it was beating a brain aneurism, the controversial clenbuterol positive in 2010, or Lance Armstrong in the 2009 Tour de France, Contador never gives up.

Contador’s been discreetly saying his goodbyes to his friends and rivals in the peloton. In Thursday’s stage, everyone in the pack was teasing him, asking Contador, “When are you going to attack?”

“I had a nice chat with Froome,” Contador said Thursday. “I told him in [three] days’ time, I won’t be attacking him anymore.”

The Contador loyalists will be out en masse tomorrow. The narrow strip of asphalt that is the excuse of a road up the side of the Anglirú’s rocky slab summit will be lined with thousands of fans. Come rain or shine, Contador’s army won’t miss one last chance to cheer their hero.

Contador will not disappoint them. He will attack, just as he always does.

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Froome returns to Angliru to close Vuelta circle

GIJON, Spain (VN) — Cycling’s most notorious climb changed everything for Chris Froome in 2011.

And now six years later, the Anglirú summit Saturday could see the Sky captain secure the elusive Vuelta a España title he’s been chasing ever since.

“It’s a massive way to finish off the GC battle in this Vuelta,” Froome said. “I am feeling good. The motivation is high. The team is strong. I hope to finish off the job.”

Back in the 2011 Vuelta, Froome was still a largely unknown racer who was showing the first glimpses of his grand tour potential. After some strong early showings, Froome was looking better than Sky captain Bradley Wiggins when the Vuelta hit the Anglirú in stage 14.

With the dangerous Juan José Cobo taking big gains the previous stages, Team Sky gave the then-unknown Froome the green light to attack on the fearsome steeps of the Anglirú.

That was the first chance for the emerging Froome to ride for himself, and he took it on with gusto. Froome finished fourth on the stage at 48 seconds behind Cobo, who won the stage to take over the leader’s jersey. Wiggins trailed through fifth at 1:21 back. It was the first signs of fracture between the two riders that would carry over into the 2012 season.

“I have quite good memories from back then, but it’s a grueling climb,” he said. “I hope I have the same legs that I did back in 2011.”

Froome was letting it be known he had the right stuff to race grand tours on the steeps of one of Europe’s most precipitous climbs. Some say Team Sky miscalculated and Froome’s freedom came too late. He would finish second to Cobo by 13 seconds in that year’s Vuelta, but it was the Anglirú that announced Froome’s arrival.

Flash forward six years,and Froome returns to the Anglirú for the first time since that breakout 2011 Vuelta.

Today, he is the peloton’s undisputed grand tour king. And he is poised to become the first rider since Marco Pantani to win back-to-back grand tours in the same season.

The only thing higher than Anglirú’s lofty summit is the stakes.

“It’s not something that I am thinking about in that context,” Froome said. “Maybe in the bigger picture, you might be able to draw some conclusions like that. I am literally counting down the kilometers to get to Madrid at this point. If I can get to Madrid in the red jersey, that would be incredible.”

Froome started the 2011 Vuelta as a top lieutenant to Wiggins, who was also looking to confirm his grand tour credentials. By the end of the race, it was becoming obvious to those inside the Team Sky bus that Froome was a rider with a grand tour future.

“It was in 2011 that I was given the freedom to go for it,” Froome said. “Brad was struggling on the slopes of the Anglirú and I still felt good, and got the green light to push on and go for it.”

Froome gapped Wiggins in that year’s Anglirú climb, and later finished ahead of him in the Vuelta, with Froome second and Wiggins third.

In what was foreshadowing of what would later become more obvious during the 2012 Tour, Team Sky just started to realize Froome’s grand tour potential during that year’s Vuelta.

“That [2011] Vuelta was very important to me. I showed I could race grand tours,” Froome said. “What has come after that all started there.”

Froome would later eclipse Wiggins, and win four of the past five editions of the Tour.

Back in the Vuelta for the first time since 2013, when Chris Horner sealed his overall victory against Vincenzo Nibali, the colossus of the north will sentence this Vuelta.

Things are stacking up in Froome’s favor. Froome survived Friday’s deceptively challenging 19th stage, and carries a lead of 1:37 to second-place Nibali. Backed by an impressive Team Sky, Froome looks poised to finally win the Vuelta after three second-places. All he has to do it is follow the wheels and avoid a disaster.

“It would be amazing to win the toughest climb in this race at Anglirú,” Froome said. “The biggest objective is to wear the red jersey after tomorrow.”

It all started on the Anglirú, and Froome is hoping he can close the circle Saturday to secure the overall title Sunday in Madrid.

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Kelderman aims for career-changing Vuelta podium

Wilco Kelderman does not want to say it, but the Vuelta a España, ending Sunday in Madrid, could be a critical point in his career.

The 26-year-old Dutchman, at 2:17 minutes back, is third overall behind Chris Froome (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) with two important days to come.

When asked about a possible podium finish, Kelderman prefers to say he is taking this 2017 Vuelta a España “day by day.” Pressed for more, he said, “Ending on the podium in Madrid would be a dream come true if it happens.”

Kelderman must deal with Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), who is breathing down his neck just 12 seconds behind him in fourth overall. He also needs to watch out for long-range attacks from other riders like Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo).

Never before has Kelderman fought for a grand tour podium. He placed seventh in the 2014 Giro d’Italia at age 23, his best finish in a three-week race to date.

“I’ve never been on this level in my whole career. It’s a bit of a surprise that I’ve done so well,” he said.

“I didn’t know what I was capable of. I did all the hard work for it, but there was always something before, some crash or something, and it never came out like I wanted to.”

Kelderman crashed and broke the same finger twice in two separate races this spring, the first in Strade Bianche and the second in the Giro d’Italia’s Blockhaus motorbike incident that took down Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa.

He abandoned the Giro, but team leader Tom Dumoulin went on to become the first Dutchman to win the Italian race. Kelderman may have found inspiration from Dumoulin’s victory or his new team Sunweb, which he joined this year.

“When Wilco joined the team in the winter, we saw he was a little shy and timid,” Sunweb sport director Marc Reef said. “As the months went on, he was saying what he wanted. We could see that he was developing more as a leader.”

This 2017 Vuelta a España is one of the most grueling in years, with nine summit finishes. Kelderman has been riding alongside those established names — and newer ones like Zakarin, Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), and Miguel Angel López. And on some climbs, like Wednesday’s Machucos finish, he has left them behind.

The 27-year-old Zakarin is at a critical point in his career, too. A third or fourth place would back up his fifth place in the Giro d’Italia and establish him as a bonafide leader for 2018. Team Katusha is beefing up its team, partly around the Russian talent, with guns like Ian Boswell, Pete Kennaugh, and Alex Dowsett.

Contador will retire at the conclusion of this Vuelta. Froome, 32, could continue dominating for two or three years. Kelderman, Zakarin, and others like Chaves will form the next grand tour wave.

“What’s going on in this Vuelta is very good for Wilco’s learning process, also for his confidence,” Reef continued. “He didn’t have the confidence before because he never showed this level in a grand tour. We saw in this Vuelta here that he held his ground and didn’t attack as much, he’s still afraid to explode when he tries something. He explored what’s possible, what he can do with the best riders in the world.”

Kelderman will plan his 2018 schedule with team Sunweb and Dumoulin in the next two months, after the grand tour routes are unveiled. Depending on the route, Dumoulin could race to win the Tour de France for the first time in his career. Kelderman could either lead the Giro team or start the Tour as Sunweb’s Plan B.

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