By my rough count, the remaining 11 stages of the Vuelta contain some 21 categorized climbs -- zero of them rated above category and only a handful of cat-1s. Only one stage contains a mountain-top finish, Stage 19's climb (twice) to the Alto de Abantos, all of 12km at 5.7% average grade. Also the climb in the latter part of Stage 16 to the Alto de Monachil, site of Alejandro Valverde's demise last year, is not to be trifled with... but just about all of the other climbs are. Add to that a board-flat 20km time trial in the penultimate stage, and you've got your Vuelta. So who wins?
1. Denis Menchov ↔
I didn't see the tow rope attached from his waist to Leonardo Piepoli's seatpost, so I have to assume that the Russian ex-Vuelta champ is indeed the strongest man in the race. Perhaps the formula for winning in September is quietly training all spring, combined with picking the precise moment to quit the Tour de France in disgust. Those wheels he couldn't hold in July aren't troubling him anymore, and I doubt he could lose anywhere near enough time, and the Golden Fleece, in the mountains before he seals the deal against the watch.
2. Cadel Evans ↑
Evans survived the Pyrenees handily enough (another beneficiary of Piepoli's largesse?), only a scant 27 seconds out of the historic double-second place. They said it couldn't be done! Well, if nothing much changes before the final time trial, Evans will pass Efimkin on GC, if not on the road, somewhere in the first 5km.
3. Sammy Sánchez ↑
Late to the game, Sánchez woke up in the Pyrenees, losing only a minute on stage 9 and nearly taking stage 10 in the final sprint. He's still a bit of a time trialing enigma, but that's more than you can say for most of the guys behind him on this list, so I'll go with that. Sánchez may not have the best pedigree in the super steep or long climbs, but those are history. He should have no trouble holding his spot before the ITT. By the way, am I correctly remembering that he's an ace descender? The Monachil descent is one of the last remaining unpredictable factors in this race.
4. Carlos Sastre ↓
Apparently nice guys have moved up from finishing last to a more comfortable fourth. Sastre was the protagonist of the Pyrenees, but either the other guys really don't play fair, or Carlos is running out of gas... either way, the mountains were his chance, and he gained bubkis. Sastre's dalliance with Tour glory should be over by now, so maybe next year he can ride the Giro and Vuelta, a program that might get him to Madrid feeling a bit more fresh, and covered in gold. At his age, he better start seizing his remaining chances.
5. Vlad Efimkin ↔
Like Sastre, Efimkin is almost out of chances to do anything in this race. Unlike Sastre, who can limit his losses rather nicely in a flat time trial, Efimkin's gonna be under trememdous pressure to stay on or near the podium. 3.22 down over 52 km translates into maybe 1.30 or so lost in 20km? That puts him in range of Sánchez on a good day; at the least, it puts him behind Evans and maybe looking over his shoulder for Sastre.
6. Vlad Karpets ↑
The wildcard... Karpets has slowly improved over the last 10 days, bottoming out at Lagos de Covadonga (2.57 down) before dropping 1.40 and 1.00 the last two days in the Pyrenees. He was a disappointing 12th in the first time trial, but you can't rule out him coming into better form, and stomping the last chrono. Will it happen? Maybe. Will it move him up much? Probably not, but don't overlook the possibility. Like the other chronomen, he's probably done conceding time in the mountains, depending on that pesky Monachil descent.
7. Ezequiel Mosquera ↓
The Karpin-Galicia rider has been a minor revelation... at least when not revealing his gross inadequacies against the watch. 35th place at 4.33 down in the first time trial translates into, well, never mind. He's had a nice Vuelta and should enjoy his top-10 placing. And get into a wind tunnel this winter. Also, since I've struggled immensely with spelling his first name, I think we should call him Zeke from here on.
8. Manuel Beltran ↑
Eww... Tricky lost over 5 minutes in the first time trial? At least it's easy to calculate: a minute every 10km. He's having a nice ride, like Zeke, but the milquetoast parcours isn't his friend.
9. Leonardo Piepoli ↓
Cycling's first law of thermodynamics (pure climber who sucked in the first flat time trial will suck in the second flat time trial) is on regular display in this article. The Little Tugboat was over 7' down at Zaragoza, so...
10. Stijn Devolder ↓
Says he has dead legs. Usually not a sign of future success in the third week of a grand tour. Or VDS glory either, dagnammit.
Dropped out: Jose the Angle Gomez, Maxime Monfort... though the latter could time-trial his way back in.