I'm a big fan of cycling, and of predicting things...and of pretending that I know what I'm talking about. It's always interesting and fun to me to see if I can correctly handicap what's coming. For me, the three Grand Tours are the best events of the cycling season, and though they decrease in esteem as the year goes on (I favor the Giro to the Tour), a spot in the Vuelta a España is certainly still something to be coveted. With 18 names already set, there are only four left to assign.
If the inclusions of Saur-Sojasun and Colnago CSF-Inox in their respective home Grand Tours tell us anything, it's to look to local teams first. Certainly, Colnago is a scrappy team and they've been entertaining to watch, but it's tough to argue that Cofidis or Europcar or certainly FDJ wouldn't have done better. And who, Christian Prudhomme aside, thought Saur-Sojasun was the best idea for a Tour bid?
So the first two spots can be pretty well marked in for small local teams who will stage hunt. So congratulations Andalucía-Caja Granada and Caja Rural, you're probably in. Andalucía-Caja Granada has participated in the Vuelta every year since 2007, and would be a shocking omission. Caja Rural is only in their second year of existence, and first at the Professional Continental level, but if simply being Spanish wasn't enough, the fact that Vuelta icon Íñigo Cuesta is on their roster certainly doesn't hurt.
Four spots, then, in all likelihood really are two. It's tough to imagine Geox-TMC, arguably the foremost team in the world not included in the top 18, will be snubbed. Though their title sponsor is Italian, their registry is Spanish, and they of course count among their number two riders who between them have won all the Grand Tours. I don't know if two-time Vuelta champion Denis Menchov or the paper-est Tour champion of this generation (but still something of a Spanish sporting hero) Carlos Sastre count for more, since considering the Tour snub both would probably ride. I think they're far likelier than the two 'Caja' teams to potentially be axed, but I'd pencil them in just the same.
So are four spots really one spot?
There's a world of competition for that last spot. My initial thought is Cofidis, to allow three-time reigning Vuelta King of the Mountains David Moncoutié a chance for an unprecedented four-peat. Moncoutié loves the Vuelta, obviously, but he's already said this year that he's going to ride the Tour, something he had previously said he did not wish to do. It calls into his question his ability to recover in time for the Vuelta, which in turn calls into question his participation in the Vuelta. Cofidis had automatic admission for the last two editions of the race, but this year they must rely on Vuelta organizers Unipublic, so one has to wonder if Rein Taaramäe and Leonardo Duque are really enough. The FDJ team, contenders with Geox for the distinction of best team south of the top 18, could also probably field a solid squad, but they've surprisingly been relatively quiet about missing major races.
Dutch team Skil-Shimano, the surprise inclusions in the 2009 Tour de France (how on earth did that race only have 20 teams?) certainly wants the slot. Actually, scratch that - they've said they need it. Certainly the team has some quality riders. I'd be fascinated to see how Dunkirk sensation Marcel Kittel would stack up against the Cavendishes, Farrars, and Petacchis of the world, but were he to ride, it would probably be to set up Kenny Van Hummel. Koen De Kort has some Grand Tour experience, though not much in the way of results, same for Matthieu Sprick and Johannes Fröhlinger. Mitchell Docker had an understatedly quite solid classics campaign in the races to which Skil-Shimano was invited (though any points he might earn in the race would run the risk of counting for the new Green Edge team), and multiple time German national champions Martin Reimer and Roger Kluge could prove valuable in a big tour as well. There's certainly a Grand Tour squad to be had on this roster.
The newly-expanded, pretty clearly trying to follow in BMC's footsteps, Team Type 1 coveted a Grand Tour entry this year. It, however, was the Grand Tour that they're currently not racing in. They were apparently close, and even got a bid to Montepaschi Strade Bianche, but they've been left wanting as far as three week Tours go. Certainly they have got to be pressing Vuelta officials as well.
Another way to look at it is to see which teams have already raced in major stage races in Spain. I'm not sure if Tour of Spain organizers Unipublic are responsible for the invitations to any other race, but in the Tour of the Basque Country, the Volta a Catalunya, and the Vuelta a Castilla y León, in addition to teams already listed, the CCC Polsat Polkowice team (for whose official website my browser is saying no-no), Colombia es Pasión-Café de Colombia, and for that matter Colnago and Saur-Sojasun, earned invites. The Colombian team strikes me as especially interesting. Alex Caño rode to sixth place on the hardest day in the Volta a Catalunya, a stage dominated by someone with his same initials, a ride which was better than those from Ivan Basso, Xavi Tondó, and Cadel Evans, among others, just a whisper away from Dan Martin and Chris Horner, and closer to Michele Scarponi and Levi Leipheimer than they were to Contador. And we all know the Colombians can climb. Though the Vuelta this year is probably the easiest of the three Grand Tours, it's still one for the mountain goats. Considering it's been since you-know-who that a Vuelta winner has actually won a stage in the race, they could be appealing prospects to try for one of the race's harder stages.
My gut says the two small Spanish teams, Geox, and Skil-Shimano. But I kind of hope it's not that simple, and we see a surprise.