At first glance handicapping this year's Vuelta is quite hard as Contador isn't riding. Since he's not starting, most bookies are giving Bert a less than 50% chance at coming away with his second straight win. As for everyone else, well, there's powerful reasons that each of them won't win but below I attempt the impossible: predicting the winner.
Now if I may be serious for a second, what strikes me with these GC boys is how many of them don't have much of a team that can give much support in the mountains. We'll be seeing a lot of isolated guys in the next three weeks when the road goes up.
Here's the drill: Riders are ranked but the sum of these criteria: a) Climbing, B) time trialing, C) Team support, D) Morale, and E) Worlds effect. The first four are your basic 1-10 scales. The last one is a negative score from 1-10 and it notes if a rider or his team is placing emphasis on the Worlds to the detriment of this here Spanish Grand Tour. You'll get the hang of it. Oh yeah one more thing: outside of Andy Schleck I only rate the pre-race top 10 team leaders here. Obviously some of the others (listed at the end) will sneak into the final top 10, top 5, and maybe the podium, but let's see them race through stage 9 and we've seen the first longer TT and first two mountain stages before we shake up these standings.
1. Alejandro Valverde
Climbing- 8 Great except for that One Bad Day
Time trialing- 9
Team support- 8 Solid. Very solid. One of the few teams that wil be able to defend a lead for their leader.
Morale- 8 Form looks and feels good and his dope bust doesn't seem to be effecting his riding. Main problem is his One Bad Day.
Worlds effect- 0 Maybe J-Rod will think of the Worlds before the Vuelta is done but then the Green Bullet will either have this thing sowed up or not.
Comments: Seems right somehow. Now if he can avoid that One Bad Day...
2. Samuel Sanchez
Climbing-8 Probably wishes there were more finishes off descents.
Team support-8 If Anton is on form it's a 10.
Morale-6 Sam San winning this race? I love the guy but doesn't it seem like an upset?
Worlds efeffect-0The team is here for this race only.
Comments: I see a podium but I just can't see him in gold.
3 (tie). Ezequiel Mosquera
Time trialing-6 Probably being a bit generous here. Fun fact! Zeke here has yet to ride a time trial this year!
Team support-5 But he'll leave them behind in the mountains
Morale-9 4th and 5th placings in this race say that he's positive that he can make his mark here. Poor early chrono results won't bother him much.
Worlds effect-0 What? There are other races outside of Spain?
Total score- 29
Comments: Score seems right to me.
3 (tie). Ivan Basso
Climbing-8 Good, not great-so far. At the Giro he was what the fourth or fifth best climber. We'll see if he can improve on that here.
Time trialing- 5 Indifferent skills. Will lose time here.
Team support- 9 Benna is on the team, which isn't good on the principle that sprinters take away from GC men but Benna is on his own in the sprints. The biggest unknown to me is if Kreuziger is on form because if he is then that seals the team support award for Ivan.
Morale- 7 Good but could get shaky once he finds himself a couple minutes behind after the first time trial. Stage 8, the first big mountain day will tell us everything about Basso.
Worlds effect- 0 He and the team are here to win.
Total score- 29
Comment: If his climbing is any better than at the Giro then he's the fave. That's a big IF in my book.
5. Robert Gesink
Climbing- 8 rarely but sometimes-gets dropped.
Time trialing- 7 Decent skills for a youngster. The chrono kilometers won't knock him out of the race.
Team support-5 Meh. Sprinters, and not much in the way of climbers. He'll be alone in the high mountains.
Worlds effect-0 Losing Freire to the Worlds won't affect Bobo's GC chances.
Comment: Score might be low...
6 (tie). Jakob Fuglsang
Climbing- 7 Strong Dauphine gives him hope but he's had some stinkers this year too.
Time trialing-7 Good. Will get better.
Team support-10 Great, great team-on paper.
Morale-7 Oh to be young and a Fuglsang.
Worlds effect: -5 Jakob isn't looking towards the Worlds but he's practically alone on his team.
Total score- 26
Comment: Those first two days in the mountains will tell us what we need to know.
6 (tie). Haimar Zubeldia
Team support-7 Outside of Vino, Zube's weird team could be of assistance. Horner, Navarro, Rubiera, Bazayev: Not bad.
Morale-7 Beats me.
World's effect: -1 Vino should go to the Worlds but no one else.
Total score- 26
Comment: Seems a bit high to me.
8. Cadel Evans
Climbing- 9 Fine climber but can't accelerate away from others unless they are on the ropes.
Time trialing- 10
Team support- 5
Morale- 4 Very shaky. No Bert here to scare him but if things don't go well early, he's toast. If things go well his morale will naturally rise.
Worlds effect: - 4. Gilbert and Lloyd will have one eye on the Worlds and if things go bad for Cadel, so will he.
Total score- 24
Comment: I expect him to do much better.
9. Andy Schleck
Time trialing-6 Not all that bad.
Team support-5 See Worlds effect below
Worlds effect: -8 Most of the team, including Andy, is looking towards the Worlds.
Total score- 23
Comment: The x-factor.
10. Daniel Martin (No, I will not touch TD with a 10 foot pole.)
Climbing- 6 I don't see the results that says he can keep up with the others here. Catalunya wasn't that hard.
Time trialing-3 I've seen Tony Martin and Dan, you are no Tony Martin.
Team support-4 TD should be the team leader after the first time trial and Martin should be helping him.
Morale-9 Good GP Ouest France-Plouay shows that he's on form.
Worlds effect-0 Don't see much of a problem here.
Total score- 22
Comment: A top 10 placing would be a breakthrough for Dan.
Others receiving points: Jose Angel Marchante, Igor Anton, Kim Kirchen, Tadej Valjavec, Joaquin Rodriguez, JJ Cobo, Tom Danielson, Roman Kreuziger, Stijn Devolder, Frank Schleck, Linus Gerdemann.