Alberto Contador is the predicted winner, for some the question is merely the margin of his victory. Certainly he has had time away with his suspension but this is was not the normal two year ban, instead he has only missed six months of racing, enough time to get in plenty of training without losing too much racing speed.
But luckily this is sport and as the race winds around northern Spain this year we can expect plenty of surprises and besides, if Contador rides away, who can follow him?
The race offers a diverse field with several top Spaniards but a strong international presence and the chance to salvage the season for several riders and teams alike.
Contador is clearly in great form. He was seventh in the time trial stage of the Eneco Tour, surrounded by bulky time trial specialists and the following day he was even on the attack on the Kapelmuur in Geraardsbergen. So if he can do well in a race in Belgium that doesn’t suit him, what will he do at home on a route that’s almost made for him?
But even at the height of his powers Contador sometimes isn’t as impressive as many think. Those searing accelerations in the mountains? Yes but if he has a jump often he doesn’t pull out much time as you think and he could find Sky’s “team time trial” pace-setting awkward if Chris Froome is on form.
Froome is the unknown quantity. Bring out your canine clichés and your doggy descriptions because the Froome-dog is out of the kennel and off the leash. Yet it’s hard to imagine him being fresh having done the Tour and Olympics and look back further, he’s been on form since the Dauphiné in June. That said, maybe he was able to ride the Tour at 95% and he wasn’t troubled by the stress of leadership so he could be fresher. However if some things are uncertain, we know some other things. This time Froome will have to step up and lead the team, an added pressure. We also know he wasn’t planning to ride the Vuelta until plans changed in July and this means, unlike the Tour, the stages have not been ridden in advance reconnaissance. Plus Sky’s team looks marginally less cohesive, gone are the diesel wagons of Wiggin’s mountain train like Knees, Boasson Hagen and Rogers, in come the high octane turbo tandem of Colombians Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao. I’d like to see these guys on the attack rather than pacing but we’ll see, certainly these two riders could lead other teams and a high finish is possible.
As for the others, Igor Anton gave us a clue in the Vuelta a Burgos when he made the front group in the Queen Stage, along with the ever-improving Dani Moreno of Katusha; Anton is the better climber of the two and a podium contender but Moreno has the potential to win several stages along the way, he’s an uphill sprint specialist. But he’ll have to work for Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez, second in the Giro and now racing on home soil with several stage finishes to suit him, and just like the Giro, the time bonuses will help him too.
Movistar come with defending champion J-J Cobo but he’s been invisible all year and for those who say he was absent in 2011 too until the Vuelta, in fact he was strong in a few results before the race. Instead the squad comes with Alejandro Valverde but he also hasn’t quite shone this year, although injury and bad luck have played their part so don’t rule him out. I’m interested to see Nairo Quintana, the house Colombian, he beat Team Sky in the Dauphiné to win the stage to Morzine and should provide entertainment if not results.
Amongst others I see only outsiders. Rabobank come with Robert Gesink, keen to finally land a result. He needs it, the team needs it and they come with Bauke Mollema who finished fourth last year. Another rider needing a result is Jurgen Van Den Broeck often touted as an overall contender but he’s only ever one race in a ten year career which makes him stealthier than Dennis Menchov, the Russian who seems to be fading away from the peloton these days. Ag2r come with a surprisingly strong squad on paper but are they in form? We get bald mountain eagle John Gadret and the departing Nico Roche who had a good ride in 2010. Finally there’s Thomas De Gendt who, for a brief moment, looked like he could win the Giro d’Italia. It still seems improbable but he could land a big result again.
I think there are nine stages where a bunch sprint is possible, and six where the chance is even higher. But unlike the Tour de France, this time a lot of sprinters have stayed away and so have their sprint teams. This means an interesting balance between the breakaway riders and the sprinters, perhaps this time tilted towards the escape artists? Amongst the sprinters we have J-J Rojas, Nacer Bouhanni, the Kreder brothers, Elia Viviani, Allan Davis and Julian Dean, Daniele Bennati, Ben Swift and John Degenkolb plus a few others like Gert Steegmans and Matti Breschel who might have a go.
But in several cases here note the teams have other goals, namely the overall classification. And we have no “dead cert” sprinters, like Mark Cavendish or André Greipel, where a team will work all day because they know their man can land the win. Instead the intensity of a chase will depend who a team has up the road.
If there will be fewer sprint finishes, there should be more breakaways. Several teams come with strong riders for stage wins… and an eye on the world championships too. See BMC with Gilbert, Astana with Gasparotto, Lampre with Cunego, Omega Pharma-Quickstep with Cataldo and possibly Stybar, as well as most of Vacansoleil-DCM.
There’s no white jersey for young riders but watch out for several riders. Andrew Talansky won the Tour de l’Ain recently and gets his grand tour leader debut. FDJ’s Arnold Jeannesson is back after injury put him out of the Tour de France (freeing a spot for Thibaut Pinot). Also Cameron Meyer is tipped, the former pursuit rider might be trying to “do a Wiggins” although he’s been strong this year, the results are visible on results sheets but not on TV yet.
Podium Picking Summary
Alberto Contador is the obvious pick and I see Igor Anton on the podium with him. I still can’t be sure with Chris Froome, if we get the Froome of July then he should worry Contador but he’s got to be tired by now? If not Froome then I see Joaquim Rodriguez as the other podium pick, with an outside chance he’s overshadowed by team mate Dani Moreno.