Saturday the Vuelta begins with a team time trial in Nîmes, France. It will be the third start abroad of this Grand Tour. In this preview Lotto Soudal sports director Mario Aerts talks about the role of the nine riders, the goals of the team and the course.

Mario Aerts: “Jens Debusschere is our sprinter for this race. There are four chances for the pure sprinters: the second, fourth, thirteenth and twentieth stage. In some of the tougher stages Jens might survive the climbs and sprint for victory.”

Maxime Monfort has chosen a different approach this year: not aiming for GC, but aiming for a stage win. In some stages he can stay in the gruppetto and save energy to be as fresh as possible to join the break in other stages. Bart De Clercq will also try to win a stage, there are several opportunities for him too. The same goes for Thomas De Gendt. He is keen to win a Vuelta stage after he already won at Giro and Tour.”

“This season Sander Armée set some nice performances at 4 Jours de Dunkerque and Tour of Norway. That was the first time he was our man for GC. In the Vuelta he will get a free role. Sander can hang on very long uphill and we’ll see how far that gets him in the next three weeks. We don’t aim for a specific position on GC. We don’t put any pressure on Sander.”

Tomasz Marczyski is a very important member of the team, both during and after the race. He is a strong domestique and creates a good atmosphere. Tomasz can ride uphill and considering the fact that there are some technical finales this Vuelta, he will definitely get occasions to take his chance.”

“This will be the first Grand Tour for Rémy Mertz. He is still young, but has done very well so far as a neo-pro. Rémy can pull at the head of the peloton for many kilometres without suffering. He has a lot of stamina. Now he might have a go of his own. Jelle Wallays rode his first Grand Tour last year. He was still very strong at the end of the Vuelta and he joined a breakaway twice. A new Grand Tour will make him even stronger for next spring. Jelle will need to take Jens to the front for the sprints. In other stages he is free to attack.”

“As he incurred a hip fracture on training, Rafael Valls had to be replaced in our line-up. We added Adam Hansen to our team. Adam wasn’t selected for the Vuelta at first due to saddle sore. Now he’s part of our line-up, he will be able to contribute to the sprint preparation.”

The sprints

Mario Aerts: “In the sprint stages Jens is our man and for the other stages we have no specific leader; all riders are free to attack. Everyone will get his chance, there are enough opportunities. We will go full in the team time trial. On Sunday a sprinter can take over the jersey and that could be Jens. There are only four real sprint stages. In the sixth stage a climb of second category lies on the course at forty kilometres from the finish. The seventh stage has a technical finale with a third category climb close to the finish. A reduced bunch will sprint for victory. That are two extra opportunities for Jens. Although John Degenkolb will definitely be a strong opponent on those occasions.”

“At the Tour teams are built around a sprinter and the race is more controlled. That’s less the case at the Vuelta. If there should be a late attack there might not be enough riders to close the gap. That diminishes the chances of a sprint in the stages that are not one hundred per cent suited for a sprint.”

Steep climbs

Mario Aerts: “On Monday there’s already a mountain stage to Andorra, and that is soon. It would be good for breakaway riders if there’s already a first, small selection on GC. The climb to Xorret de Catí in the eighth stage shouldn’t be underestimated either. But the first Vuelta week has already been tougher in the past. There are no steep finishes for punchers the first week. Further down the race the course does take the riders over some steep climbs. Those parts could be fatal for escapees, but that depends on what the GC riders want too. The Angliru is part of the course again, on the penultimate day. On stage seventeen the riders need to climb Los Machucos, with gradients above twenty per cent!”

“I find it a nice course and less extreme than in the past. Many of our riders have the necessary experience in this race and that’s an advantage. I see some great opportunities for our team during these three weeks and I hope our aggressive way of racing will get us a stage win.”