Seeing Red: The Vuelta GC Preview

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What an interesting race we have here. But let's start with who we don't have. That makes it all the better.

On the flip I have my analysis of the GC race but before we get to that let's step back and see the field from a distance. 

- First the three biggest Spanish GC names are missing from the starting lineup: Contador, Valverde, and Samu.  That's huge and immediately makes the race wide open.

- Next, notice that two non-Spanish major GC stars are missing: Basso and Evans. The race just opened up more. 

So it's no surprise to me that the press is focusing on the several big Tour riders from July looking to fulfill their promise: you got two-time Vuelta winner Menchov,who was so strong in that final Tour TT. There's J-Rod and Lulu and Sastre. Then you have the Schlecks: Andy, the Next Big Thing in GC-land, who sort of holds a similar position in our imaginations as Cavendish does with the sprinters after the Tour: perhaps the best GC rider out there but he actually hasn't, you know, won a Grand Tour yet. Three second place finishes though! Could he really be riding for brother Frank? Sure! Why not! It's the Vuelta and it would be great if Frank could snag a Grand Tour win before its too late. Plus we know if Frank had not crashed on the cobbles surely the brothers would have worked over Contador and Andy would be in yellow...

Those are the big names for this race. But as you'll see on the jump, my podium has no Tour riders and while I see a a brand new Grand Tour winner stepping onto the top step in Madrid, it isn't either Schleck, or even a Spaniard. Instead we'll see an Italian, six months younger than Schlecket, who I think will become the second best GC rider of the current era take his first title: Vincenzo Nibali. 

The other two steps? Very close competition there and I go back and forth. I see six riders contesting the two spots: future teammates Menchov and Sastre, Zeke and Igor, Frank Schleck, plus in a real breakthrough to contender status, 24 year old Benat Intxausti. Everyone else is a cut below these guys except for maybe one of the several Caisse d'Epargne riders who might have a blinder. (But which one? It should have been baby Uran,  23 years old, but he broke his collarbone and his fitness is unknown.) 

I have other riders listed too but as I wrote this it hit me that this Vuelta is a preview of the future, what with all the talented youth on display-and we are missing because of injury 23 year old Bauke "Big Bird" Mollema. Nibali, Intxausti, Uran, Mollema, Kreuziger: these guys are gonna make the expected two-man dual between Bert and Andy a lot more complicated. The future looks bright for Grand Tour racing. So go to the jump to see my numbers explain what's gonna happen.

You can divide the GC hopefuls into two types: First you got your riders who have been targeting this race as either their primary Grand Tour or equal with the Giro in terms of preparation. These guys tend to be Spanish but there are some big exceptions, including the race favorite. Then you got several-more than usual-heavyweight Tour GC riders looking for the big result here after coming close in France just a month before.  This second category tends to get most of the pre-race publicity because they rode the Tour (and because they are good). So how do you rank them all?

By numbers, natch. Remember what I did for the Tour GC preview? Well, its back with only slight modifications!  Let's go over my point system again:

Climbing: On a scale of 1-20 with 20 being the best. 

Time trialing: 1-10 scale here as there is only the one big ITT along with the opening TTT.  I am tempted to make this a 1-15 scale due to the TTT, but won't. 

Team support: 1-5 scale again. This is actually a very tricky measure because team support is of different importance to different riders. Basically a rider starts of with five points and loses points for other riders on his team with clashing ambitions (a serious sprinter and/or another GC hope) and also if the domestiques also raced the Tour (and so might not have the energy to help out in the mountains).

Tour-->Vuelta?  1-5 scale. This is new and is a negative point scale. Basically, riding the Tour competitively hurts rider's chances in the Vuelta. (Note: riding the Tour non-competitively is a different thing all together.) But each rider is affected differently so when I get to those guys I will explain why I penalized them as much as I did.

Add up the numbers and you get a score. The higher the better.  You will notice though that several riders will have the same scores but one is ranked higher than others.  

To the rankings!

Group A.

And our favorite is:

 

1. Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas

 

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 8
Team: 5
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score: 30

Comments: He's rested and ready to claim his first Grand Tour crown.  Already podiumed at the Giro as a support for Basso, earlier this month he tuned up with a solid third at Burgos.  What gives him the edge over his closest rivals is that he can time trial better than them-plus his team will turn in a superior TTT like they almost always do: they came in second at the Burgos TTT. This is a team that knows how to close the deal on a Grand Tour. I won't say that Nibs is as much of a lock on winning as I did for Contador at the Tour, but he's not all that far behind. His only possible weakness is his climbing and it's not much of one. 

Group B.

The serious contenders for the podium and a possible win:

 

2. Igor Anton, Euskaltel Euskadi

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 6
Team: 5
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score:  29

Comments: Guy is having a great year as he's finally healthy after that awful crash he had at the 08 Vuelta. Out climbed Contador (and Mosquera and Soler) in the Castilla y Leon Queen stage-and still came in third in the next day's ITT. Finished ninth at Burgos while working for overall winner Sam San. To me this is the best climber at this Vuelta and since this Vuelta is a very climby Vuelta, he is my pick to win after Nibali. 


3. Ezequiel Mosquera, Xacobeo Galicia

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 5
Team: 4
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score: 27

Comments: Last three Vueltas: 5th, 4th, and 5th. Can climb with the best; his only weakness is an indifferent time trial ability. BUT his team can TTT: they came in fourth at the Burgos TTT, only 12 seconds back. Hard to see him winning by out climbing everyone but he'll be right there for a his first podium.


4. Carlos Sastre, Cervelo Test Team

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 6
Team: 4
Tour--->Vuelta?: -2 
Total score: 26

Comments: The first Tour guy listed, and to me the big question is not so much can he do two (or this year three) Grand Tours in a row, but if age (he's 35) is starting to make an impact. Take a look at his Grand Tour results since 2001, which is the first year that he rode at least two Grand Tours:

2010: Giro 8th place. Tour 20th place

2009: Giro 3rd Tour 16th

2008: Tour 1st. Giro 3rd

2007: Tour 4th Vuelta 2nd 

2006: Giro 43rd Tour 3rd Vuelta 4th

2005: Tour 21st  Vuelta 2nd

2004: Tour 8th Vuelta 6th

2003: Tour 9th Vuelta 35th

2002: Giro 38th Tour 10th

2001: Tour 20th Vuelta DNF

That's a totally impressive run by Carlos-certainly unmatched this decade. But I am wondering if perhaps, just a bit, he might be slipping. He's had four years where he was in the top 10 in two consecutive Grand Tours. No one can touch that mark. But he hasn't done that since 08...hmm. Still, remember how we criticized him for having ridden so little before the Tour?  Perhaps if he wins here we'll see that he used the Tour to gear up for the Vuelta. 

 

5. Frank Schleck, Saxo Bank

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 5
Team: 5
Tour--->Vuelta?: -1
Total score: 26

Comments: Oooh-tough to predict though I have him tied with his erstwhile teammate. Let's see what's happened when he's races a Grand Tour double:

2009: Tour 5th Vuelta DNF stage 10

That's it. He's only tried to do a double once, last year. Of course he didn't really race this year's Tour as he crashed out on stage 3 so is this information relevant? I think it is-somewhat. He did train hard to peak at this year's Tour. This Vuelta is an afterthought because he did get injured and yeah-he has to recover from that too. So how much do you dock him for his Tour effort? For me he does get docked, but only minimally. 

Alert readers will notice that I have taken his climbing number down two notches, to 17. In that I am agreeing with what other said in the Tour comments about the guy. 


6. Benat Intxausti, Euskatel Euskadi

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 7
Team: 4
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score:  26

Comments: You want to see the birth of a new star? I have your new star right here.  The Basque can climb and chrono as we saw when he targeted Pais Vasco earlier this year.  Came in 2nd in that race beating all sorts of Grand Tour Vuelta heavies. Depending on how the Vuelta shakes out he could be dueling Nibbles for the overall.  So wrap your head around the fact that there's two Euskies that could win this thing and neither of them are Samu.

 

7. Denis Menchov, Rabobank

Climbing: 18 
Time trialing: 7
Team: 4
Tour--->Vuelta?: -4
Total score: 25 

Comments: Here's Denis' history of doing a Grand Tour double in a year:

2009: Giro 1st, Tour 50th

2008: Giro 5th Tour 3rd

2007: Tour DNF" stage 17 Vuelta 1st

2006: Tour 5th, Vuelta DNF (stage 10

2005: Tour 85th, Vuelta 1st

2004: Tour DNF stage 13 Vuelta DNF stage 14

So what to make of this? 1st Menchov in 07 and 05 was not the leader of his team. With that in mind, the idea that Menchov "does better in the 2nd Grand Tour" looks just wrong. There is just one year where Denis finished in the top 10 in two GT's in a row: 2008, and even there he slipped ever so slightly in the 2nd. As such I cannot predict Great Things for the guy. Of course if he proves me wrong (I would like that), he's a cinch for the podium and possibly the win as he certainly knows how to win these things.

 

Group C:

Top 10 would be marvy!

 

 

8. Rigoberto Uran, Caisse d'Epargne

Climbing: 16
Time trialing: 6
Team: 3
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score:  25

Comments: I would have named him as Caisse's #1 except he broke his collarbone on a training ride on July 23rd. He did ride the Tour of Limousin where he came in 48th. I dunno. We'll see. Kid could surprise us (he's still only 23); he will one of these days.

 

 

9. David Arroyo, Caisse d'Epargne

Climbing: 16
Time trialing: 6
Team: 3
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score:  24

Comment: Arroyo has the "1" on his jersey, I guess due to his Giro. I wouldn't count on getting back 12 minutes on a mid-race stage twice in a season, but top 10 seems doable.

 

10. Joaquin Rodriguez, Katusha

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 5
Team: 4
Tour--->Vuelta?: -4
Total score: 23

Comments: Purito of course has never done a Grand Tour double since this year's Tour was his first. So what are the odds that he can follow up his 8th place at the Tour? Pretty long odds, I'd say. Don't get me wrong: the guy has had a great campaign. But look at his year again: this guy has logged a seriously heavy racing schedule for a Grand Tour rider and I am guessing that one secret to do doing two good Grand Tours in a row is to rest more, like Sastre does. 

 

11. Luis León Sánchez, Caisse d'Epargne

Climbing: 16
Time trialing: 8
Team: 3
Tour--->Vuelta?: -4
Total score: 23

Comments: So now he's a Grand Tour rider too. Who knew? Seems to me that the odds of him fading as the Vuelta goes on are pretty high though. Plus his Caisse team is an odd one in that there are, what, four or so other riders who could take control of the team. They in fact are listed here too: Arroyo, Bruseghin, Plaza and Uran. 

 

12. Marzio Bruseghin, Caisse d'Epargne

Climbing: 13
Time trialing: 7
Team: 3
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score:  23

Comments:  Caisse is reminding me a little of Astana at the Vuelta last year. Remember? Astana had Navarro who finished 13th, Zubeldia 14th, Hernandez, 19th and also Horner and Vino, neither of whom finished. Lots of good riders who won't quite have it.  That's Caisse this year and I give the likelihood of one of their riders cracking the top 10 at 60%. Which one? Haven't the slightest.

 

13. Christian Vande Velde, Garmin-Transitions

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 7
Team: 4
Tour--->Vuelta?: -4
Total score: 22

 

14. Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 6
Team: 3
Tour-->Vuelta?: -5
Total score:  22

Comments: Andy, Andy, Andy. So self assured.  Popped a DNF last year when he tried to do the Vuelta after the Tour.  Who knows, maybe he's learned something. He's gotta prove it first.

 

 

15. David Moncoutie, Cofidis

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 2
Team: 4
Tour-->Vuelta?: 0
Total score:  21

Comment: Going for his third straight KOM at this race, he finished on GC 28th and 8th. Gave the Tour a miss and rode strong at l'Ain, finishing third.  We'll be seeing him making his attacks stick before the week is out. Won't give a crap about the time trial. I just totally love this guy.

 

Comments: A Tour-->Vuelta score of -4 when he crashed out in stage 2? What's with that? Well, since its been reported that he almost retired because he kept crashing, that's what. It's hard to get back up when you get down like that. Pity since an on-form CVV would be quite a bit higher here. Hope he proves me wrong. 

 

16. Roman Kreuziger, Liquigas

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 7
Team: 2
Tour--->Vuelta?: -5
Total score: 19

Comments:  Last year he tried the Tour---->Vuelta double and finished in OH DEAR GOD! 61st in Spain. Probably can't do any worse. Still has a teammate who is the Main Man though.  He'll help Nibbles and go for a stage win. 


17. Thomas Lofkvist, Sky Professional Cycling Team

 

Climbing: 14
Time trialing: 5
Team: 5
Tour-->Vuelta?: -5
Total score:  19

Comments: Help me out here: didn't this guy used to be a good chronoman? Yes? Then care to explain what he's done against the clock this year?  Man, this guy is having one disappointing season. Had a very quiet Tour as he finished 17th overall but his two time trials saw him finish those stages 40th (prologue) and 97th and his most mountain stages saw him finish 18th and 19th. So he was never in it.  

He has raced two Grand Tours back-to-back before, in 2007. Back then he finished 63rd at the Tour and 54th at the Vuelta riding for FDJ. So yeah, if you are in the tank for this guy you can say he is better in his second Grand Tour. And I will laugh heartily in your direction.  

 

Other GC riders who could surprise: 

As you can see with this list that the GC quality drops off rather quickly: Giampaolo Caruso, Ruben Plaza Molina, Jose Angel Gomez Marchante, Phil "The Thrill" Deignan,  Nicholas Roche and whoever on the team is gonna attack him: Turpin? Nocentini? Riblon? Pierre Rolland, Christophe Le Mevel, Danny Pietropolli, Ollie Zaugg, Branislav Samoilav, Larry Ten Dam,  Peter Velits, Tejay Van Garderen, and Gustav Larsson because you never know what those Schleck boys will do next.

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