A long list of contenders, few races in the run-up to help gauge form and rider with motivation levels ranging from desperation to indifference all makes picking the winner of the Vuelta a tough task.
Can Vincenzo Nibali cope with the heat to land a grand tour double in the same season? What of Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez, can their form last from June to September? And what of younger riders like Dan Martin, Bauke Mollema and Thibaut Pinot?
The Tour de France was enjoyable but Chris Froome was everyone’s pick and duly delivered. Here we have many questions and the welcome uncertainty suggests three weeks of discovery and entertainment await.
Before running through the names, there are three factors which can help and hinder the picks.
- Form: obvious in theory but harder to analyse right now. The Tour and Giro have specific warm-up races, we can extrapolate from performances in the Dauphiné or the Giro del Trentino to gauge a rider’s form. But there’s less to go on for the Vuelta. The Vuelta a Burgos offers a traditional mountain stage but this year’s edition wasn’t packed with Vuelta contenders and the Tour of Poland with its Italian start was some time ago. With Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez we have to look back at the Tour de France. Both were in good shape but how have they managed their condition since they last circled the Arc de Triomphe? And some of the major contenders have not been racing for even longer.
- Motivation: as the third grand tour the Vuelta acts as a repêchage round to salvage the season. A rider struck by injury or illness can salvage their season with a strong ride and assure themselves of a decent contract for the next two years. But motivation is like a mountain pass, it soars high but then winds down. There will be a sizeable share of the field disinclined to find the pain in Spain. The season is already long and many riders have a contract in one pocket and a plane ticket for a relaxing holiday in the other and the slightest knee-niggle can be the perfect excuse to fly home.
- Tourism: the race gets used by some as a preparation for the worlds. It seems impolite to do this but it’s not all bad, after all last year Philippe Gilbert’s training made for a good show. Typically using a stage race to build condition means some controlled efforts but also knowing when to back off. Yet the Vuelta offers little respite, anyone with ambitions for the maillot rojo or tempted by a podium place cannot turn on the power once or twice and aim to defend their lead the rest of the time, instead they must repeatedly fight off their rivals on the numerous slopes.
Vincenzo Nibali is the first choice. A Vuelta winner back in 2010, he’s now stronger and more experienced to the point where many missed him in the Tour de France, seeing him as the only rider who could have pushed Froome. On fire in the icy Giro he announced long ago that the Vuelta was a goal to be followed by the Worlds. He’s tempered this recently saying he’d like stage wins and the real goal is the rainbow jersey but is this just to deflect pressure? He might dose his efforts but it doesn’t seem normal for “the shark” to back off, his instinct is to attack if he scents blood. However going by form, he didn’t storm Burgos but perhaps he didn’t need to. He’ll find the time trial to his advantage relative to others. Nibali has a strong Astana team including Jakob Fuglsang, seventh in the Tour de France. Note Janez Brajkovič is still fishing for a contract, will he want more freedom to prove his worth?
Next comes the Spanish tandem of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). They’re rivals but have a similar style, at ease in the mountains and quick finishers who can poach time bonuses on every kind of uphill finish. Both rode the Tour and seemed on a similar level with Rodriguez finishing better but in part because Valverde saw his chances blown away by crosswinds on the road to Saint-Amand-Montrond. It’s hard to know more about their form, did Valverde’s assistance to Quintana mean he rode July at 95% and he’s got some energy to spare now or will he be nervous about further misfortune? Was Rodriguez in the ascendant during the final week of the Tour and can he carry the momentum into this race? If we’ll get answers early on we should remember the final week could be interesting for these two given they’ve been on the go since June.
Here come the Colombians. Sergio Henao is Sky’s leader and a podium place seems within his reach. Sky also have Rigoberto Uràn and his place in the race was uncertain given his move to OPQS for 2014. The arguments are familiar, why give a departing rider the chance to earn experience and points for a rival team when you can invest in a rider tied to the team for longer? Well the UCI have changed the points scheme again and a departing rider leaves 20% of their points to their old team. Plus there’s no need to project into the future because Uràn will be wearing a Sky jersey until the end of the year and his success will be the team’s success too. Both Henao and Uràn had a solid Giro and will find a course that suits them as well as some handy support too and it’ll be interesting to see if Sky try their mountain tempo train or let their leaders ride Colombian-style, yoyoing on and off the front group.
The same is true of Carlos Betancur. He had a great spring and took the white jersey in the Giro and the only thing holding him back is his racing style which has resembled a one day rider who is constantly hunting for stage wins rather than riding to a plan over three weeks. Things have not gone to plan for Bananito as he’s been ill although there’s hopefully time to shake this. He’s joined by the pint-sized piano-playing economist from Policoro, Domenico Pozzovivo. The Italian should let Ag2r play the 1-2 in the mountains with Betancur chasing a podium finish whilst Pozzovivo goes for stage wins.
Onto more Italians. Cannondale’s Ivan Basso is one rider looking to save his season. A saddle sore took him out of the Giro just before the start in Naples. Normally I’d point to his age and dwindling results but he turned the power on in the recent Vuelta a Burgos and even left Nibali trailing. However Basso is a diesel, a specialist in steady linear efforts and he should struggle on the punchier finishes and will lose out to others in the sprint for the time bonuses. Motivation is a big deal for Michele Scarponi, is he riding the Vuelta to win? He seemed off the pace in the Giro but with contractual dissatisfaction at Lampre-Merida this could be the chance to increase his market value. Spain is no foreign land for him either after time spent riding for the sulphurous Manolo Saiz.
Another team needing good management is Team Saxo-Tinkoff. The squad is facing a budget shortfall after Russian tycoon Oleg Tinkov announced he’s taking his roubles elsewhere. Roman Kreuziger is the big name but he could be cooked by a strong Tour and professes little ambition for the Vuelta; or is this a Riis poker ploy? If not Rafał Majka had a great Giro and comes back for more mountains. Ironically Nicolas Roche now finds himself in a similar role to his last job at Ag2r as he aims for a high overall finish and to bag plenty of points for his team. Roche is a very consistent rider but with few career wins so a top-10 is possible but can he do more? We’ll see if his transfer brings extra confidence and more.
Sadly the Vuelta will be the farewell tour for Euskaltel-Euskadi. They come equipped with Samuel Sanchez, Mikel Nieve and Igor Antón but in recent years the Basque force has been lacking. Sanchez and Anton are podium outsiders and likely stage winners. Morale will be a real concern in order to stop the team bus feeling like a sinking ship weighed down by mutinous riders.
Who else is there?
Belkin’s Bauke Mollema had a great Tour de France and climbs well but he seemed to be inform in the Tour de Suisse before the Tour and you wonder if he’s tired by now. Caja Rural’s David Arroyo might not be the talk of the town but he is the best performer from the Burgos mountain stage to start the Vuelta and was so good only Nairo Quintana was climbing faster. Arroyo is a stage racer who made a name for himself in the 2010 Giro. Thibaut Pinot is another rider on a salvage operation although his fourth place in the Tour de Suisse was a good result but he’s capable of plenty more and comes with promising climber Kenny Elissonde.
Belgian Thomas de Gendt is still contract hunting but is erratic to the point of being enigmatic, able to solo away one day but sipping a can of cola de peloton the next.
Last but not least is Dan Martin who has been inconsistent in the past but partly because he’s just been so good on some days, for example he’s taken huge wins in the Tour de France and Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year so you expect him to deliver every day. But he’s an intelligent rider in a race that suits him and he’s already got the better of Valverde and Rodriguez in Liège.
Summary: if Nibali’s on form then he could ride away with this but his performance in Burgos doesn’t give us much to go on. Valverde and Rodriguez are his obvious rivals but then comes a big cast of contenders with Colombians and Italians alike as well as a range of young riders. This uncertainty should be the attraction and it’ll take until Stage 8 to provide the first real mountain test.
On paper there are six likely sprint finishes and enough teams are coming with sprinting ambitions to work to set up their rider. In fact there are no superstar sprinters as the Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel all sit out as do several others.
Without these guys and their prolific win rate it’s hard to see a dominant sprinter. In terms of pure speed Theo Bos is Belkin’s sprint accessory. But the former track sprinter has many mountains to climb. Orica-Greenedge’s Leigh Howard can have his day and Vacansoleil-DCM’s Barry Markus has been in the top three several times this year, challenging the likes of Mark Cavendish at times. Tyler Farrar’s victory celebrations are rare these days but he’s been looking sharp in recent races and the freckled fastman could find himself the best of the lot. Argos-Shimano bring two prospects with Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg and Nikias Arndt who are worth watching not necessarily for results but to see how they learn their trade.
Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gianni Meersman and Michael Matthews prefer hillier days and maybe an uphill dash and here we’ll see whether the likes of Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar join in.