A bit of trivia to get us started. If a Spanish rider wins the Vuelta this September, Spain will sweep the grand tours for this season. The last time that one country won all three grand tours was in 1964.
The country? France. Jacques Anquetil won the Giro and the Tour that year, and Raymond Poulidor won the Vuelta.
Two riders dominate the race for the golden jersey at this Vuelta, but beyond the top two, things become a little chaotic and decidedly unpredictable. The top ten looks mighty crowded. Below is an unusually lengthy list of riders who could, if the planets align, contend for the general classification. Want to know about Ezequiel Mosquera Miguez of Xacobeo Galicia? Read on, my friends, read on.
Here is the start list. Don't leave home without it.
The Top Two
Two riders dominate the battle for the general classification at this year's Vuelta: Alberto Contador and Carlos Sastre. Both are past Tour de France winners. Both have won a grand tour already this season. Both can climb. Both can time trial. It's become a bit of a cliché in the cycling press that Contador is the best stage racer in the world. A look at the time gaps puts lie to such exaggeration. He wins, but he is not unbeatable. For his part, Sastre, known in Spain as Don Limpido, holds the title for most consistent grand tour rider. Here is a rider who has participated in - and finished - at least two grand tours a season for as long as anyone can remember. Frequently, he arrives on the podium. At long last this July, he reached the top step. Can he do it again? Why not?
The race is also between their teams, of course. Bjarne Riis stacked the CSC-Saxo Bank Tour team to support Sastre's ambitions. This was a team made to crush, and crush they did. But there are only so many kilometers in even the best of legs, and Sastre will ride without the climbing talents of the Schlecks and the massive pace-making of Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara. His team-mates are no slouches, all the same: Cuesta and van Goolen for the mountains, Blaudzun, Kroon, Gustov, and Kolobnev for the pace-making. Riis is also bringing a pair of sprinters, JJ Haedo and Matti Breschel, which makes this team somewhat less laser-focused on the classification than the Tour team plainly was. This is a fine group of riders, and under most circumstances they would dominate the race.
But Astana is doing to the Vuelta what CSC-Saxo did to the Tour. They are headed to Spain with mayhem on their minds. The three-headed hydra of Astana has Alberto Contador, Andreas Klöden, and Levi Leipheimer. I don't know what Klödie's been up to lately, but both Leipheimer and Contador rode well at the Olympics and finished 1-2 at the recent one day Clasica Ciclista Los Puertos, a lovely little pre-Vuelta romp through the (hilly) Spanish countryside. Astana also brings Contador's roomie and pilot fish Benjamin Noval, experienced gregario José Rubiera, and the Portuguese silver medalist from Athens, Sergio Paulinho. (There's some other guys, too, but this is a preview not a startlist. So there.) Plainly, Astana would like to win this Vuelta. Expect them to hit this thing hard from the day one team time trial to the finishing cronoscalada at Navacerrada. The first individual time trial is long and flat at 42 kilometers. The results of this stage could well set up some team drama for our entertainment, also. What's not to like about that?
Sastre and Contador are well-matched. But Contador's team, well, that must be an advantage. The race for the classification will be a close between these two, but the amassed power of the Astana team will give an edge to Contador - or one of his team mates - to stand on the top step in Madrid.
You'd think by now the teams would have gotten the memo. Yet, every grand tour we get the press release. Damiano Cunego is the team leader for Lampre. Alejandro Valverde will lead Caisse d'Épargne. And every time, we argue, expostulate and do all those other things that we like to do on the internet. Valverde and Cunego are classics riders. Period. Any questions?
But always there is that sniggling doubt. Both have placed well in the general in grand tours before, you will say. Repeat after me: Valverde and Cunego are classics riders.
Fortunately, no further argumenting will be necessary this time around. Both riders have told the press they are chasing stages and preparing for Worlds. An excellent plan. We'll see you in Varese, boys, 'kay?
Beyond the top two, this Vuelta opens right up to all sorts of chaos and confusion. These ten (or so, really, you expect me to count?) riders are most likely to end up in the Top Ten. Somewhere.
Levi Leipheimer, Astana. One of his first big results came at the Vuelta, and there's no reason to think that Leipheimer can not repeat that feat this time around. Since then, he's made the Tour podium behind his team mate Contador, among other things. Clearly, Astana can play for more than one spot on the final podium, if they choose. The 42 kilometer time trial in the first week offers the possibility for a touch of team rivalry, should Leipheimer set the road on fire and seize the jersey early. But it's unlikely that Bruyneel's well-disciplined machine will be derailed by such pettiness. Leipheimer to podium.
Vladimir Efimkin, AG2R. Does not Start.
Efimkin finished a surprise sixth in last year's Vuelta. Along the way, he won the 4th stage, which climbed to Lagos de Covadonga. This year, Efimkin rode to an eleventh place finish in the general at the Tour de France. He can climb, and while not stellar against the watch, he can defend well enough. Look for him to improve on last year's finish. A top five is well within reach. The podium? Against the Astana machine and Leipheimer's experience, Efimkin has an outside chance, at best, of reaching the podium.
Robert Gesink, Rabobank. At 22 years of age, Gesink makes his much-anticipated grand tour debut at this Vuelta, where he will lead team Rabobank. Gesink climbs, and climbs very fast, and if all goes well, he is easily capable of a top five finish or even a podium. But Gesink is riding his first grand tour, and really, we can't know for sure what will happen. The wheels could come off in the third week. After all, he has never raced three weeks in his career. Gesink has a big talent. He will either win or he will get nothing. Since I'm feeling generous and optimistic, I'll put him in the top five, with a long-shot chance to upset the podium placings.
Ezequiel Mosquera Miguez, Xacobeo Galicia. Mosquera placed fifth at last year's Vuelta, by finishing consistently in the top ten on the mountain stages. That consistency should serve him well this year, should he bring the same sort of form to the party. Currently 32 years old, this year marks only his second participation in the Vuelta. Me, I really have no idea what he will do. I'm calling him a top ten chancer, because well, last year he finished in the top ten. Who am I to argue with that? Bonus points for having a cool name.
Igor Anton Hernandez, Euskaldi-Euskatel. Anton is the latest talented climber to come out of the Basque country. At 25 years old, he has already placed 15th and 8th in his first two Vuelta starts. So far this season, he has won a stage and finished third overall at the Tour de Suisse. Anton, he likes him some climbing, and his career is steadily progressing. If all goes well, he can improve on his 8th place finish of last year. Look for his orange jersey at the front in the mountains, where he is a good pick for a stage win. It may be too soon for him to reach the top five, but certainly he has the talent. Slip in between 4th and 6th.
Carlos Barredo, QuickStep. Barredo will be looking to improve on his tenth place finish from last year. He rode the tour as the GC leader for QuickStep, but did not accomplish a great deal at it. Cut him some slack, he was sick. Healthy, well, we know he's good for a top ten. Can he improve? Sure, why not. Slot him between 6th and 8th, and pretend that last year could not possibly have been a one-off.
Sandy Casar, Français des Jeux. Sometimes he rides for stages, sometimes he rides for GC. I don't pretend to know his plans for this Vuelta. In 2006, Casar placed sixth in the general classification at the Giro. He has two top 20 results at the Tour de France, including this year's 14th place finish. Casar's high finish at the Giro consistently earns him a spot in the preview. Does he deserve it? I'm not so sure. If he makes the top ten in this Vuelta, it'll be a surprise. Long-shot.
Oliver Zaugg, Gerolsteiner. Oliver needs a contract, just like everyone else at Gerolsteiner, Crédit Agricole, and... The Vuelta is a fabulous place to get a good result to lure a new team into offering a contract. You catch more flies with honey, that's what I always say. Last year, the 27 year old Swiss placed 15th overall at the Vuelta, largely on the strength of his consistent climbing. He finished 5th on the climb to Estación de esquí Cerler, just to give you an example. Will he try to improve on the GC? Or chase stages? Either way he needs a result: he has nothing to show for this season. Slip him into the top ten, if he has a good tour, but it'll be a reach.
The Vuelta is a climber's course. The sky is blue. A few climbers worth watching in this Vuelta are listed below. None has really shown grand tour consistency in the past. But well, there's always a first, and a pure climber could reach the top ten with more ease in this race than usual. That is, once they suffer through the 42 kilometer time trial in the first week. A few long-shot climbers for your consideration:
David Moncoutié, Cofidis. Moncoutié has never really recovered from his seasons of injury. So sparse have been his results that his team very nearly did not renew his contract. A win somewhere after the Tour de France saved his contract. A stage win at the Vuelta would be a nice end to the season and with so many mountains to choose from, he might be able to find one to his liking. A run for the GC is unlikely, as he's never shown an inclination in that direction before. Stage-hunter.
Rémy DiGrégorio, Français des Jeux. DiGrégorio keeps making these lists. Young, up-and-coming, French rider. He wanted to win a stage at the Tour, but the hard-riding of CSC-Saxo Bank on the way to Hautacam ended his brash solo breakaway attempt. Some have touted him as a future rider for the classification. So far, he hasn't shown much talent in that direction. He does not appear to recover well from day to day, which may well change with time. A stage win at this Vuelta would be a huge result, as would a placing in the Mountains classification. GC? Eh, maybe next year. Or the year after that.
Mauricio Ardila, Rabobank. Back in 2005, Ardila placed eighth in the GC at the Vuelta. That's his highest ever finish in a grand tour. He's a climber and is well-suited to this Vuelta. If Gesink does not have the legs to play for the Golden Jersey, Ardila might have a shot at the top ten. But more likely, he will be supporting Gesink's ambitions and perhaps snatching a stage along the way.
Juan Manuel Garate, QuickStep. The GC and Quickstep simply do not belong in the same sentence. Since Garate rides for QuickStep, well, need I say more? Garate has three top ten finishes in the Giro d'Italia, including a fourth in 2002, and in 2006, he won the mountains classification in the Giro. Clearly, Garate can climb. But Garate has a problem with stage racing. He nearly always has a bad day. And not just a slightly - well, I lost some time, but I can get it back, I'm feeling positive, I'm still in the bike race - bad day. Garate crawls into the pain cave and doesn't come out. Which is a rough way to win a grand tour. Good for a stage, outside chance of reaching the top ten.
John Gadret, AG2R. French climber. Last seen dropping out of the Tour de France due to fatigue. Presumably by now, he's feeling better. When he's on, Gadret is a fabulous climber. But he attended the Garate school for consistency, meaning, he has none. Might be briliant. Might be off the back. I don't dare predict.
Yaroslav Popovych, Silence-Lotto. In the absence of Cadel Evans, Popovych takes over as team leader. Time was, Yaroslav was the golden child of Italian-Ukrainian cycling. Born Ukrainian, adopted by Ernesto Colnago, he quickly scored big results at the Giro and elsewhere in Italy. His U23 results were fab. What has happened since? Nobody seems to know. But it's been a long time since we last saw Popovych at the top of the classification in a major tour, never mind a minor stage race. Perhaps this Vuelta will mark his big comeback. Color me skeptical. My expectations are low, but I always like a surprise. I'll go with stage win in the middle mountains, and nowhere in the classification. But like I said, I always like a surprise.
A few names worth mentioning. These kids will be chasing stages. That is, until they drop out to prepare for worlds. In no particular order, the big-name stage hunters are:
Mikhail Ignatiev, Tinkoff
Davide Rebellin, Gerolsteiner
Sylvain Chavanel, Cofidis
Filippo Pozzato, Liquigas
Alessandro Ballan, Lampre
Phillipe Gilbert, Français des Jeux
Paolo Bettini, QuickStep
The Italians will be extra-motivated, as so far, only Bettini is a sure thing for the Worlds team. Wanna ticket to Varese? Win a Vuelta stage. Simple.
And with that, it's off to Spain, we go. And hey, pass the tapas. All the typing, it made me hungry.