An early look at the Vuelta a Espana
Three-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador of Spain stripped of his titles. AP Photo/Christophe Ena
With the dust from the Tour de France barely settled and the minor distraction of the Olympic games still keeping us awake at night, it seems like folly to look ahead to the world’s next major sporting event.
But with the provisional start list for the Vuelta a Espana now posted, that is exactly what we are going to do.
Being the third (and last) grand tour of the season, the Vuelta is often considered to be the poor relation of its French and Italian counterparts. This year however, the race throws up a number of interesting attributes, the first and foremost being the quality of the riders it has attracted.
The battle for general classification will be hard fought and the two main protagonists will be Sky’s Christopher Froome and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador.
Contador’s return to top flight racing will come on the back of just one warm up race (Eneco Tour), and it will be interesting to see if the Spaniard’s time away from competitive cycling has blunted his effectiveness.
While he would have kept his training up during his period of purgatory, nothing can replicate the intensity of actually racing and he will be well and truly tested by Froome.
After strong showings at last year’s Vuelta and this year’s Tour, Froome will be eager to step out of Bradley Wiggins’ shadow and prove his worth as a leader.
While Sky’s number two man is the first to admit that riding for Wiggins has been beneficial to his own development as an elite cyclist, the time has come to capitalise on the potential shown so far, and he must grab this opportunity with both hands.
Like Contador, his strength is in his climbing, but he won’t have the same team working for him as Wiggins did at the Tour. Rigoberto Uran Uran, the Colombian climber who finished seventh at this year’s Giro d’Italia, comes into the team and will provide assistance in the high mountains.
Gone, however, are the super domestiques of Rogers, Porte and Boasson Hagen who did so much work for Wiggins throughout the Tour (although Porte has been named as a reserve).
Barking at the heels of Contador and Froome will be Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez. El Purito has come close in grand tours before, none closer than his loss by just 16 seconds to Ryder Hesjedal earlier in the year at the Giro, and he will be hungry to reverse his run of near misses (six grand tour top 10 finishes since 2008).
He will have strong support from team mate Denis Menchov and, with the home crowd on his side, will be in the mix for a podium spot once again.
Of the others, good showings will be expected of Lotto Belisol’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, Lampre’s Damiano Cunego and Rabobank’s Robert Gesink. Van den Broeck rode a good Tour de France and was one of the strongest in the mountains.
If he can maintain his form he has the ability to push Froome and Contador. Cunego is always thereabouts but tends to fall away when things get really tough.
Sadly his one and only grand tour victory (2004 Giro) is now little more than a distant memory and it is doubtful that he’ll add to that tally this year.
Gesink is another that the fans and commentators are losing patience with. Seemingly unable to avoid crashes and misfortune, we are yet to see the best of the Dutchman in a three week race.
Having said that, he has recorded three top ten results in six grand tour appearances, his best being a sixth (later upgraded to fifth after Contador’s suspension) at the 2010 Tour.
He has ridden the Vuelta twice for overall results of seventh (2008) and sixth (2009) and has the chance to improve on that this year.
He is due a change in luck, and if he can stay upright, then a podium place is not out of the question.
Last year’s winner, Movistar’s Jose Cobo, will fight it out, but faces tougher opposition this year.
Of the Australians, Cameron Meyer gets his chance to lead Orica-GreenEdge. Although they weren’t chasing the overall classification at the Tour, their performance in France was disappointing.
In Meyer though, they have a rider of the future and while he won’t seriously threaten for the overall, he will acquit himself well.
Reasonably strong in the hills and a handy time trialler, he is the type of all rounder who could be developed into a GC rider.
At Tirreno-Adriatico back in March, the 24-year-old placed tenth overall, just 1’33” behind eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali.
Of even greater merit was his third place in the individual time trial where he conceded just 16 seconds to Fabian Cancellara over the 9.3 kilometre course.
At this stage the Australian team will be made up of Simon Clarke, Allan Davis, Mitch Docker, Cameron Meyer, Travis Meyer and Wesley Sulzberger, with imports Daniel Teklehaymanot (Eri), Peiter Weening (Ned) and Julian Dean (NZ) completing the line-up.
Only one other Australian has been named outside of the Orica-GreenEdge line-up and that is Lotto Belisol’s workhorse, Adam Hansen.
The Vuelta gets rolling with a team time trial on August 18, but with only one individual time trial of 39.4 kilometres and several summit finishes, this edition of the Vuelta will be one for the climbers.
My early predictions (subject to change without prior notice):
1st – Alberto Contador
2nd – Chris Froome
3rd – Joaquim Rodriguez
4th – Jurgen Van den Broeck
5th – Robert Gesink