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La Vuelta '06: The Contenders

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I just spent most of the last two weeks holed up in a very dull hotel in Sacramento, mostly working, and not watching Cycling or doing anything else remotely fun... so it is with great pleasure that I sit here now, back in Seattle, watching a Weather Channel scare-show on how Sacramento could be destroyed in a massive flood. And tending at last to my beloved blog. OK, so on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I don't wish massive storms or floods on anyone. Maybe the water main at the Residence Inn could break. I'd be content with that. [Dodges lightning bolt...]

Anyway, there is plenty of conventional wisdom floating around concerning who's going to win the Vuelta. Unlike the Tour, the short list of contenders is reasonably short, and there is a lot less depth in the second-tier. Which doesn't mean that anything can't happen -- nothing of the sort. It merely means that people will have a harder time anticipating who else might take home the golden fleece.

The known favorites are as follows:

  • Menchov
  • Valverde
  • Pereiro
  • Sastre
  • Vinokourov
  • Danielson
  • Mayo
  • Kohl
  • Zubeldia
  • Piepoli

OK, Piepoli just made it on because Pez threw him out there. Anyway, rather than go rider-by-rider, let's think about some of the factors from the overall makeup of the race.

The Calendar

The Tour ended one month ago, and some people are of the opinion that 3,000 all-out kilometers in France in July is a poor way to train for the Vuelta. Of course, this didn't keep Heras* or Sastre off last year's podium... if the races were reversed and one entered the Tour somewhat depleted, that would be a recipe for a quick elimination. But it's not beyond the question that someone could hang in nicely in the less-demanding Vuelta after recovering from the Tour. So factor or not? Sure... but Menchov, Mayo and Sastre looked perfectly comfy on the Jaizkebel.

Favors: Valverde, Vinokourov, Danielson

Hurts: Menchov, Sastre, Zubeldia, Pereiro

The Course

Five mountain finishes, but only about 55km total of time trials. Menchov was cooked last year w/o his advantages in the time trials. Pretty simple, right?

Favors: All Spaniards

Hurts: Menchov, Vinokourov

Stage Profiles

Face it, other than the Sierra de la Pandera, stage 18's "southern Angliru," the climbs aren't exactly epic. So the days of watching the flyweight guys wear down the larger guys are behind us for now.

Favors: Vino, Valverde, Menchov, Pereiro

Hurts: Sastre, Mayo

So where does that leave us? Valverde is the only guy who the course profile and time trial makeup either helps or at least doesn't hurt, and who also didn't spent much energy on the Tour. He was hurt, and so far it hasn't been reasonable to expect him to do much, but he's got some race miles in now, and will have more time to sharpen himself in the early stages.

Sastre and Menchov were the top two last year, but both went hard in France, and neither is helped by the course. Pereiro is coming off his "win" in France, but however generously you may want to view that performance, there's no way he'll get any gifts, even assuming he's fresh enough, and assuming he's even leading his team. Which he isn't. Mayo is a chump, even in Spain; Danielson hasn't proven anything; Vino has been adrift all season (though through no fault of his own); and guys like Zubeldia and Piepoli have to be considered dark horses until they start mounting serious challenges in a grand tour.

IMHO, of course...