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La Vuelta: Who's On Your Podium Now?

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[Quick power poll. My run of ridiculously busy days isn't quite over.]

Two more Sierra Nevada stages. Two stages around Avila. 30km against the watch in Toledo. That's what's left to decide the 2009 Vuelta, and as you can see from the current GC, absolutely nothing has been decided yet. Here are the top eight and a case for and against their making the final podium:

1. Alejandro Valverde +0.00

Where he can win: In the final KM of any mountain stage... if he's still on the front. Hard (though not impossible) to see Valverde just leaving his rivals behind, but he should be able to mark Evans all day long and scoop up any available bonuses.

Where he can lose: Sunday, or in the final ITT. Valverde suffers on the occasional climb, though it's hard to detect a pattern as to which climbs are the worst. The best I can say is, his big deficit last year was the day after the Angliru, so tomorrow's climbs might leave him a little spent on Sunday. He limits his losses against the watch pretty well these days Minivueltabecco_mediumtoo.

Vueltabecco Says: Is it my imagination or has Valverde become the Mark Cavendish of the mountains? Hey, whatever works.

2. Cadel Evans +0.07

Where he can win: The time trial... if he's still in a virtual tie for the lead. No longer the guy who puts two minutes into his rivals in the crono, in part because his closest rivals aren't as vulnerable. But if he, Valverde and Gesink are all roughly even at the start, it's Cuddles' Vuelta for the taking.

Where he can lose: Tomorrow. Sixteen percent grades are a bit past his tipping point. If Valverde doesn't apply the pressure, surely Gesink will.Minivueltabecco_medium

Vueltabecco Says: Hm, close grand tour, time trial at the end, Cuddles worried about getting walloped by a Spaniard in the climbs... have we seen this movie before? Like, a lot?

3. Robert Gesink +0.18

Where he can win: The Sierra Nevada. The Avila stages are nowhere near as deadly as this weekend. Gesink had an extra gear today, and not for the first time. Given his vulnerability in the time trial, he needs to seize gold ASAP.

Where he can lose: Anywhere in the last three stages. He coughed up 40" to some of the top guys in the first crono,Minivueltabecco_medium and the Avila stages feature some late descending... not his specialty.

Vueltabecco Says: Dude... the moment. Seize it.

4. Tom Danielson +0.51

Where he can win: Toledo ITT. If he's close and it's primarily Bobo and the Green Bullet ahead of him, Tommy can make his mark. Also, it's worth remembering that he has had a few signature wins on absurdly hard courses, like Brasstown Bald, or more pertinently the Granada stage of the '06 Vuelta. Can't rule it out. Update! That 2006 stage win? Over a minor little incline known as ... Alto de Monachil!

Where he can lose: Er, getting ground off the back of the pack over the next couple days. Or in the crazy finishes around Avila. Descending to the line... so not happening. But Tommy's been steady all through the race.Minivueltabecco_medium

Vueltabecco Says: If this bubble doesn't burst soon, it never will.

5. Ivan Basso +0.53

Where he can win: Tomorrow. Basso is a fine survivor on the longest climbs. Tomorrow's finish is comparable to a Tour event in terms of distance and difficulty, if not some of the finer points. That's his forte. He was climbing just fine, thanks earlier this week.

Where he can lose: The ITT, for sure. He lost 40" to Cuddles and Valverde (!) the first time around. No way to spin that.Minivueltabecco_medium

Vueltabecco Says: Italians have an 18-year losing streak at the Vuelta, during which time Spain has racked up three Giros. This will not stand!

6. Samuel Sanchez +1.03

Where he can win: Last three stages before Madrid. Seriously, he could run the table. He might not dislike the slight descent at the end of Sunday's stage either, though my bet is that he'll spend the next two days hanging on for dear life. Anyway, two road stage wins is 40" of bonuses, and he stomped the first ITT, so if he can recover the glory of 2007, he will have an excellent shot at the top step.

Where he can lose: Tomorrow. Steeeeep...Minivueltabecco_medium

Vueltabecco Says: Someone please deliver him to the line tomorrow. Sammy descending for a shot the overall title in Avila... this will be the highlight of the entire year.

7. Damiano Cunego +2.13

Where he can win: Mendrisio. Il Piccolo Principe looks quite good, and not in the way Gavia thinks either (well, that too I suppose). But there's no place for him to claw back over 2'.

Where he can lose: Already happened, but in case you're not convinced, the last ITT.Minivueltabecco_medium

Vueltabecco Says: Given the number of Spaniards who use the Giro to train for the Tour, you can't blame an Italian for using the Vuelta to train for the worlds.

8. Ezequiel Mosquera +2.14

Where he can win: The Sierra Nevada. Skillz-wise, he's Spain's answer to Gesink: all climbing, no crono. Of course, Holland's answer to Mosquera is 1.56 ahead on GC, so Zeke needs to disappear up the road.

Where he can lose: The Sierra Nevada. We know what his final crono will look like, so if he doesn't win the Vuelta this weekend, he's lost it.Minivueltabecco_medium

Vueltabecco Says: Admit it, you have to sorta root for the only Old Skool continental guy on this list of luminaries.

****

My guess at a final podium:

  1. Gesink
  2. Valverde
  3. Sanchez