The Vuelta a San Juan is the most prestigious stage race in North and South America and attracts some of the biggest names in cycling. Remco Evenepoel will start his 2023 season in Argentina as the current world champion whilst other stars lining up include Peter Sagan, Egan Bernal, Daniel Felipe Martinez, Filippo Ganna, Miguel Angel Lopez, Fabio Jakobsen and Sam Bennett. To Evenepoel’s chagrin, there is no time-trial this year. Instead the fight for the GC title will be decided by the mountain stage up Alto del Colorodo.
Provisional Start List
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The first stage is made for pure sprinters like Fabio Jakobsen and Sam Bennett who are here in San Juan. The sprinters field is stacked as there are possibly six stages for the fast guys. Soudal – Quick Step have brought Yves Lampaert, Michael Morkov, Jan Hirt, Remco Evenepoel and Pieter Serry to accompany the European Champion sprinter, which should be a formidable train for a January .Pro race. Do not be surprised to see Evenepoel helping with the sprint train as he did in the 2022 early races such as Valenciana and Algarve. Bora-Hansgrohe have Bennett with possibly the strongest lead-out man in the world Danny van Poppel and set-up man Ryan Mullen. Fernando Gaviria will debut for Movistar, with the Colombian having won eight stages in San Juan in the past. Other sprinters competing are Elia Viviani (INEOS), Gleb Syritsa (Astana), Sam Welsford (DSM), Peter Sagan (TotalEnergies), Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel – Premier Tech), Jon Aberasturi (Trek-Segafredo), Giovanni Lonardi (EOLO-Kometa) and German Nicolas Tivani (Corratec).
Stage 2 is a little bit harder with 1461 metres of gradual elevation gain but with no steep climbs this stage is once again made for sprinters.
The Stage 3 finish will be different to the preceding stages. Despite only having 375 metres of elevation gain, most of the climbing will be done in the final part of the route, so expect everyone will be fresh in the last 10 kilometres with a huge fight for position into the circuit entrance.
The 3-4% rise at the end still should not be a big problem for the pure sprinters. The last 5 kilometres will be done in an autodrome, which includes many sweeping corners and some small rises.
This finish was used twice in San Juan, first in 2019 where German Nicolas Tivani won from a breakaway, beating the peloton by 12 seconds whilst Bennett and Gaviria were the fastest from the bunch behind.
In 2020 Zdenek Štybar surprised the bunch with a late attack from the peloton and won solo. This means someone like Quinn Simmons or even Remco Evenepoel might have a small chance to go solo in the final kilometres if other teams make a mistake and do not close their attack immediately or if Quickstep deliberately let Evenepoel’s wheel go during a leadout. Otherwise this should be another chance for the sprinters.
2646 metres of elevation gain means this is easily the second hardest climbing day of the race but the final 110 kilometres are relatively easy. The early climbs are not steep but are extremely long and it is possible to drop sprinters if a team like INEOS commits to pacing. However with 6 rider teams, even if some sprinters are initially dropped, it might be hard to pull off keeping them behind if INEOS receive no help from other teams. This scenario is unlikely but a hard pace to fatigue sprinters still might be a worthwhile endeavour. This stage also might be suited for breakaway for someone like Quinn Simmons, who has been in breakaways in similar Vuelta stages, but as the first three stages are for sprinters and no one will have lost a ton of time there might not be many breakaway riders allowed in a move.
The only mountain stage in San Juan and the final climb is not even that steep. Alto del Colorado (18.8 km, 4.4%) goes up to 2623 metres above sea level but it is a perfect climb for heavier riders. Filippo Ganna in 2020 finished 6th on the climb losing only four seconds to the stage winner Miguel Eduardo Florez and finishing together with Evenepoel.
The second part of Alto del Colorado is steeper as it includes more 5% sections. At two kilometres to the finish there is a 7.1% section, which is a perfect launching point if climbers are still together. Jan Hirt will be crucial for Evenepoel as everyone might work against him and make him close the attacks and gaps like in the 2020 race. Evenepoel is the big favourite and all eyes will be on him, with Medellin having Sevilla and Lopez to play the numbers game.
The climbing record is owned by Gonzalo Najar. The Argentinian produced one of the greatest climbing performances of all time (this is not a joke) and beat Oscar Sevilla by almost two minutes. Najar did the climb in 36 minutes and 58 seconds, beating Tiesj Benoot (+2:23), Filippo Ganna (+2:23), Rafal Majka (+3;07), Fausto Masnada (+3:22) by huge amounts of time, considering that drafting is extremely important on this shallow climb and Najar was solo for an extended period. In 2020 Evenepoel did the climb over two minutes slower in 39:09 min. Najar, after this super human performance, was suspended as he tested positive for EPO-based blood booster CERA on January 21 of 2018, four days before his mythical Alto del Colorado performance.
Can anyone break this record? It is extremely unlikely. Evenepoel or Miguel Angel Lopez would need to push their record power and probably even more watts. It would not be an easy job to break this record even with a huge tailwind. Najar’s performance is out of this world even compared to the high 2020-2022 w/kg levels when accounting for the high altitude.
After two harder days, Stage 6 is another straight forward sprint stage.
On the final day the sprinters will again compete on the streets of San Juan for the stage win.
Remco Evenepoel is the huge favourite to win this race. With a time-trial like in 2020 where he destroyed everyone, including Filippo Ganna, there would be no doubts about Evenepoel winning the GC but with a single mountain top finish anything can happen. There might be bonus seconds that prove decisive in the intermediate sprints. In the 2021 Giro Evenepoel used the powerful Soudal Quick-Step train to snatch some bonus seconds in intermediate sprints and might do the same in Argentina (despite saying he would never do so again in a Grand Tour).
Apart from Evenepoel there are a few more decent GC contenders hailing from Colombia, Miguel Angel Lopez, Sergio Higuita and Daniel Felipe Martinez. Martinez might have better support in the mountains from his team with Narvaez, Ganna, Rivera and Bernal. It will be curious to see Bernal’s form as he is training hard and has said he wants to ride the Tour de France this year. Both Higuita and Martinez are punchy and might win the Alto del Colorado mountain top finish where bonus seconds could prove crucial.
Surprisingly, when the betting markets opened, Miguel Angel Lopez was 4th favourite behind Evenepoel, Martinez and Higuita. Lopez despite his contract being terminated from Astana and now riding for Medellin – EPM is in incredible shape as he showed in local Colombian races. Lopez even did a huge training performance at high altitude in Colombia recently. Medellin was testing their mountain train on the Alto de las Palmas climb, which has been used in the Tour of Colombia, where Lopez did an estimated 6.34 w/kg for 26:17 min, which is super impressive for a climb that goes up to 2520 metres above sea level.
Lopez’ teammate Oscar Sevilla is still in great shape at age 46 and might be the perfect domestique for Lopez on Alto del Colorado or potentially a threat as a co-leader. At the time of writing Sevilla is 6th favourite in the betting markets behind Evenepoel’s teammate Jan Hirt.
Other riders that might perform in the GC are Egan Bernal, Filippo Ganna, Jhonthan Narvaez, Einer Augusto Rubio, Steff Cras, Quinn Simmons, Marco Brenner, Harold Tejada and Stephen Williams.
It would be too easy picking Evenepoel but I will do it anyway. He might not win the Alto del Colorado finish as Higuita, Martinez and Lopez will likely stay with Evenepoel and have a chance to outsprint him, however the Soudal Quick-Step train should be strong enough to get crucial bonus seconds for him from intermediate sprints.
Quinn Simmons is not even a Top 20 favourite but he trains at altitude in Colorado and New Mexico. The Alto del Colorado might even suit him and it would not be a surprise if he performs well given its moderate gradients and his high absolute watts. Before San Juan Simmons has done huge 25-32 hour weeks in the winter months. If he trained at the right volume and brought fresh legs, he might be surprise even himself.
Kārlis Ozols (@CyclingGraphs)