The Vuelta a Espana Red Jersey Preview

Vuelta-lg_mediumIn her preview of the Tour de France race, Jen led off with:

When the Tour de France course was announced last fall, the climbers cried.

So true. Anyways that is nowhere near the case with this year's Vuelta, a climby fest of a Grand Tour if there ever was one. Chris has the stage-by-stage preview which you can refer to but seriously, anyone with any hope to win or podium or place in the top 10 of this Vuelta has got to have some serious climby legs for the next three weeks. Even the lone TT is kinda climby.

And from looking at the startlist, its obvious the riders are thinking the same thing: this is one impressive list of climby guys here. But let's get started with the favorite:

The straw the stirs the drink

Alberto Contador.

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The #1 stage racer, and thus the #1 rider, of this generation is back. This has naturally caused all sorts of reactions. All sorts of emotions have been and will be expressed as the Vuelta unfolds. Hell-just writing that first sentence probably sent various emotions through a whole bunch of you. And regardless of how the race unfolds and how The Accountant does, emotions will continue to be expressed. Excellent! A sport thrives on emotions, on conflict, on competition. No one who watches cycling with any interest is above it and that includes the riders in the peloton.

Contador's presence warps the game plans of every rider and team with GC aspirations. That's true of every dominant rider in the race but with Contador due to both his unique dominance atop the GC pyramid and the fact that he's been banned for six months, there is an extra amount of uncertainty. Regardless of how the race unfolds, everyone will be looking at him to see if he still has IT. The race will revolve around him if he wins the race by 10 minutes or finishes 40th on GC.

What are his chances? Hell if I know. Until we see him climb, we won't know. Strike that: until we see him climb over three weeks we won't know. What I do know is how I would attack him if I was riding against him: attack him early and often on stage 3 and 4. What I wouldn't want to do is let him hang around for a week or two, when the mountains get truly decisive, while he gets his climbing legs under him. You have to hope that he's not fully there in week one and exploit any weakness hard. Of course he might want to send an early message of his own...

From the Eneco Tour we saw two things in his favor though:

1) He seemed to get stronger as he got used to the racing peloton again. He turned in a nice ITT on a flat course, supposedly not his best surface, and then on the last stage animated the race up the Muur, dropping a few favorites along the way.

2) His team, hitherto almost completely invisible this year was all over the front of the race. And not only that race but the concurrent Tour de l'Ain and San Sebastian races too, races he wasn't even in. Its like his team has a purpose again and is riding like a real WT team. He will be protected in the mountains of Spain.

Prediction: He wins. Not by a huge amount, but decisively. Some fans will cringe over his pistol salute. He'll head into next year as the #1 racer still.

More riders on the jump.

Prove It

Juan Jose Cobo-the defending champ.

You gotta admit: this guy is probably the biggest surprise Grand Tour winner in a long time. Him or Hesjedal. Hell, both of them. And since? Squat. Nada. 30th place at the Tour-which, admittedly he wasn't targeting. But there's nothing else in his ledger; he's ben virtually absent this year. Like 42 race days so far. The guy is rested.

So can he do it again? And if he falters at all will his team move to back Valverde as quick as flint? Hey Eusebio Unzué! Help us out with your team!

"We will start with Juanjo Cobo as team leader. Last year, he proved he can fight for a Grand Tour as he beat a strong rider like [Team Sky’s Chris] Froome, who could have been the Tour winner this season. After that, there's a question mark over Alejandro [Valverde], who already has a huge season schedule on his legs, but his willingness and the brilliance he always brings to the squad makes us sure he will be making another effort to fight for a stage victory, to say the least."

Uh-huh. That first sentence...not the most convincing. But Unzue is right: the guy fought tooth and nail against Froome and Wiggo last year and won. He could have easily collapsed, just a bit, and handed the win to Froome but he held on. No one else has done that to that pair since. That speaks to mental toughness and he's gonna need it this year. But winning a Grand Tour and defending it are two different things: just ask Cadel Evans. Different emotions come into play and that to me is the biggest x factor in writing about Cobo.

Prediction: Top 5. He'll do better than most think.

A word about Alejandro Valverde.

Normally its simple: Its Team Movistar and thus Valverde is their captain. But he's shown weakness this year in coming back from suspension. His legs aren't quite there for leading the team. However he's a dynamite super domestique as we saw in the Tour de Suisse. Expect him to play that role-unless Cobo falters. Then watch him try to lead. With this field I doubt that he can podium and top 10 would be his best. In the meanwhile expect Alejandro and the rest of the team to be super stage hunters.

Prediction: Top 15

The New Kid

Chris Froome.

Froome_small_medium

Will win a Grand Tour. Possibly several. Not this one though. Podium is a yes probably.

Being The New Kid sure has a lot of hype attached to it:

Forget Andy Schleck. The man on the rise these days is Chris Froome.

I think we are being a little hasty in anointing him. Skills he has in abundance. No doubt about that. Two 2nd place finishes on GC in Grand Tours back that claim. Has he already leapt over all the pretenders to win his first GC? Hmm. That's quite a leap. How often has that happened-a rider who just started to contest the GC battles winning a Grand Tour within a his first year? ( I am counting his Vuelta last year as his coming out party.) Andy Schleck who Andy Hood carelessly compares him to in the quote? No-Andy's only won one GC and that by disqualification of Contador, three years after first riding to a podium on GC at the Giro. Contador? No-first he had his brain thingy then he won his first Tour after the race leader was thrown out of the race. Cobo? Hesjedal? they've been riding Grand Tours for years before their breakthroughs against what could be arguably weak fields. The top of this Vuelta field is not weak.

Its one thing to hype a Froome or Pinot or Velits etc. Its quite another to actually win. In that way a Grand Tour is much like a Monument: neophytes don't win them. And it says here that Froome is still a neophyte. He's definitely earning his chops but he hasn't faced competition like this and a course this hilly, as a race leader before.

Another interesting thing will be how his team plays it. You got four riders here, two of whom do not normally interact with the core of Team Sky that is Froome-Wiggins-Cavendish, and who also have possibly legitimate GC aspirations. (I say possibly because I am including Richie Porte who is making noises that he should be considered a contender.) Will this team stay together like they did in the Tour when faced with a group of competitors who are much more used to attacking than the Tour competition was? What happens when the Sky train gets overwhelmed as it will from time to time here? My guess is that we will see this very early in the race because Sky stands a good chance to be leading after the opening TTT. And by very early I mean stage three, the climb to Eibar-Arrate, the traditional Pais Vasco climb. One can't expect to see Sky holding the lead wire-to-wire in this race, so that is part of the pre-race excitement. How will they react?

Prediction: podium probably; perhaps top 5. Slight but real chance of blowing up to a top 20 placing. He'll win a Grand Tour race, but not here, not now.

Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao

Writing about two probably top 10 riders together is slightly cheeky but this year they've been joined at the hip. They race practically every race together and know how to help each other out. They are a unit. A unit kept away from the English core of Sky. As such they are more used to freelancing than Froome is and it will be interesting how that dynamic plays out. Like Froome, both riders have bright futures, they seem on form, and this course plays into their strengths beautifully. How well they do will depend on how Sky works.

Prediction: Top 10 but with a chance to be both better or worse depending on team dynamics play out.

The Rider This Course Was Made For

Joaquim Rodriguez.

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As Wiggins was to the Tour course, J-Rod is to the Vuelta.

Last we saw J-Rod, he was coming oh so close to winning the Giro. He was even throwing in a credible time trial. Its funny though. Anyone who thinks the Tour de France is not by far the biggest race of the year need only look at J-Rod this season (and the next guy too). J-Rod had a very productive spring with the highlight of a long-awaited win atop the Mur de Huy and his second place in the Giro. Since then he's been lying low, saving his strength for his #1 goal of the season, this Vuelta. He tuned up at Burgos and Sen Seb. Now he's ready. Meanwhile the Tour and Team Sky/GB has completely dominated the news.

Remember last year? Also a good spring, but it didn't end in his 4th place in the Giro. Instead he kept riding into the Dauphine (5th place there) took a break then was back with three single day races and won Burgos. When it finally came to the Vuelta, he was good for one week then petered out. Beginning with stage 9 when he just didn't have the juice to make the final climb, he slowly slid down the GC board, finishing 19th overall. Afterward he raced some more in Italy but didn't have that punch in his legs.

This year J-Rod has been more selective with an eye towards that One Big Prize to top off his career, a Grand Tour win. You can imagine when the course was announced he was THE happiest camper of them all-until Contador got suspended and did his Straw Stirring thing by announcing that he'd be back for the Vuelta. God that must have bummed him out.

But here he is, ready to rumble, salivating at those mountain top finishes. If there is gonna be a protagonist in this Vuelta, its most likely to be J-Rod. He will draw Contador out; he will look to upset Sky. Its what he does best.

Prediction: podium. He's my second pick for the overall win after Contador.

Do They Know What They Got Here?

Thomas DeGendt.

Says Vacansoleil team manager Dan Luijkx:

I think we should get a top ten finish as a team and we have this rider [De Gendt], who can ride into the top 20," Luijkx said. "We will ride the Vuelta as we did the Giro, where we took the offensive," announced Luijkx. "Breakaway groups have a good chance to succeed, and we have put a team together that will suit that.

Really. You have a team leader who finished third at the Giro and you are looking for breakaways? Excuse me while I pound my head against the wall for a few hours...

Much later... AAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!

Later still... I guess you see this in every sport: team managers who fail to recognize the talent they have at their disposal. Team managers who don't know how to develop young talent properly. It can drive fans crazy if they recognize the problem. So far that hasn't happened yet with the rider we call Crazy Thomas around here. But it says here that this kid is a stone cold Grand Tour winner just waiting to be properly developed. And no, having your phenom out contesting breakaways is not the way to develop Grand Tour winning instincts for him or his domestiques. It may be romantic but its self-defeating.

Prediction: Top 10. Should be higher.

Fragile, part 1

Igor Anton. A Basque Robert Gesink.

2008: leading the fight against the Astana hegemony, he crashes descending the cat 1 hill leading up to l'Angrilu. Takes a full year to recover.

2010: Leading the Vuelta he crashes out,; a lengthy recovery ensues.

2012: errr.

Crashes aside, this is a very talented underrated rider who is maddeningly inconsistent, in part due to his crashes. I'm still not sure what happened to him last year. For his part, and judging from his race program this year, I'll bet he thinks that he raced too much prior to last year's Vuelta. This year he hasn't raced a Grand Tour, sticking mainly to a series of week-long stage races and those he didn't contest much. Has he lost his mojo at age 29? Can't be. Is he intent on keeping his powder dry for one big push? Probably. Is this the best way to go about winning this race? I am honestly not sure that the Euskie brain trust knows how to win a Grand Tour. But if this course is set up for J-Rod in mind first, then it fits Anton just as well.

Prediction: Na-uh. You can't sucker me that easily.

Fragile, part 2

Robert Gesink. A Dutch Igor Anton.

Commentary: see above and make the necessary adjustments.

Overlooked

Bauke Mollema.

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Fourth here last year, and that was on the heels of racing the Tour as a warm-up. Fifth at San Seb yesterday: this guy is ready. If he can stay away from Gesink's crash radius, top 5 seems an easy reach, and he's definitely in play for a podium spot. The team is strong but not distracting with the likes of the Eneco champ Boom, Matti Breschel, Ten Dam, Stef Clement, etc. primed to plow the course for him....

What is happening to me? I am hyping a Rabo rider? Is it because they actually used smart race tactics in getting Lulu the win at San Seb and my brain can't handle this world changing event? ursula breathes into a paper bag OK I feel better-but its sooo scary to hype a Rabo rider.

Prediction: It is what it is: podium. Yes that's four people for the podium so far. Math is not required for preview pieces!

We'll see...

Jurgen Van den Broeck.

So how successful are riders in the second half of the Tour-Vuelta double? Below are the last several attempts of riders who finished the Tour then rode high the Vuelta. Note that I am not including riders who crashed out of the Tour cause that's a different animal.

2011

  1. Roche- 25th in the Tour, 16th in the Vuelta
  2. Mollema- 69th in the Tour, 4th in the Vuelta
  3. Fuglsang- 49th in the Tour, 11th in the Vuelta
2010
  1. J-Rod- 7th in the Tour and 4th in the Vuelta
  2. Roche 14th in the Tour and 7th in the Vuelta
  3. Sastre 19th in the Tour and 8th in the Vuelta
  4. Lulu 10th in both races
  5. Le Mevel- 41st in the Tour and 14th in the Vuelta
Okay I could go on but the data would be pretty much the same-and there's good news and bad news for JVDB and Froome too and anyone else doing the double. The good news is that its done yearly by several people. In fact riders who were not expected to figure in the selection at the Tour can later make serious waves in the Vuelta, due in part to less depth to the competition.

In this century just one rider has podiumed in both races in the same year, Carlos Sastre with his win at the Tour and 3rd place at the Vuelta in 2008. A couple other riders have ridden the whole Tour as domestiques then gone on to win the Vuelta: Dennis Menchov did it in 2005 after domestique work for Rasmussen, and possibly would have done it in 2007 except his team withdrew after the Chicken scandal. Heras in 2003 did it after service to Armstrong. He also did it with Liberty Seguros in 2000.

What al this says is that if JVDB and Froome are healthy then they stand a decent chance of doing great at the Vuelta. JVDB is playing down his chances, but expect him to be in the running.

Prediction: Top 10.

Other Riders

The above is the pre-race list of major players- 11 of them, not counting Valverde. usually though another rider or two will break the party. Who are the candidates?

- John Gadret had to be frustrated with his 11th place Giro outing and has to be hopeful since this Vuelta is similarly climby like the 2011 Giro. What will be fun is to see if he works with his soon to be ex-teammate...

- Nicholas Roche, soon be Contador's teammate and part-time domestique. Roche scored 12th in the Tour and has done the double before to decent results (see above).

- Andrew Talansky should be hoping for a top 20 in this, his 2nd Grand Tour. His first was last year's Vuelta where he finished 79th, 2.5 hours out of first.

- Danny Moreno! Got 9th last year. So easy to forget. Katusha has a solid team.

- Nario Quintana! 1st Grand Tour for the kid. Expect to se him contest a particular stage via breakaway.

- Alexandre Geinez... hey! Work with me here!

- And don't say Damiano Cunego! Oops.

Oh-and we'll cover David Moncoutie later.


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