Let's face it, when Andre Greipel is leading your stage race, your stage race hasn't really gone anywhere yet. And nobody is happier about this than me, after a week of stages that I had almost no ability to follow. It's game on tomorrow. And I'll be parked for it.
As for how it's gonna go, the top line of the story seems pretty well set, but after that it gets very hazy. Let's at least run through some groups of riders:
Group 1. Fabian Cancellara
By its title you might infer that there is only one member in this group, and you'd be right. Fabu doesn't win every time he sidles up to the ramp, but there are a few factors that tend to weigh in his favor, as if he needed any. One, he likes to wear the leaders' jersey of a race, which he's only 18" away from to begin with. Second, while the trendlines aren't clear, he has faded a bit in three week races sometimes (not always), so the fact that it's early eliminates a potential barrier. Finally, the worlds are in Switzerland in three weeks. He's on form, and plans to stay there.
Vueltabecco says: The most dangerous place in Spain tomorrow will be between Tony and that top step. Don't even try to position yourself there. He will crush you without a second thought.
By the way, there is a file photo of Vueltabecco, posted at right, though he is presently in an undisclosed location and will be making all future appearances from there, at least until the curse passes over him and lands on Mondialbecco instead. Please, respect his urgent need for privacy and safety.
Group 2. The Contenders
The biggest names of known contenders include a variety of time trialer types. Cadel Evans is probably the best of the lot, even edging out Cancellara a time or two over the years. Next is Sammy Sanchez, usually solid and occasionally excellent... but not as sure a bet. Alejandro Valverde has been surprisingly good against the watch this year, but in a longer stage on flat roads he might concede a bit of time. Ivan Basso hasn't recovered his surprising pre-suspension crono form (shock!). Andy Schleck, Haimar Zubeldia, Zeke Mosquera and Linus Gerdemann are similarly undistinguished.
So who wins, from this group? Evans. He wasn't as strong at the Tour, but on a flat course that disfavors the other climby dudes, and at a shorter distance, he should look more like the Cadel of old. Certainly finishing 8th today and otherwise staying close to the front says good things about his mental state. Valverde and Sanchez should help their relative positions, while Basso and Gerdemann will dig themselves a nice little hole. With any luck, Liquigas leadership will start shifting in the direction of a better cronoman, Roman Kreuziger. But that may be wishful thinking.
Vueltabecco Says: HTFU Cadel. Somehow a strategy that counts instead on beating a bunch of Spanish climbers in Spain doesn't ring overly hopeful.
Group 3. The Usual Suspects
Tomorrow's startlist will include some ITT heavy mettle: world champion Bert Grabsch, Worlds silver medalist Svein Tuft, national champions like Stijn Devolder, Lars Boom, Frantisek Rabon, and David Millar. Look for some serious stage hunting out of this lot. Frankly, every one of these guys should be embarassed if they don't rank pretty high: this time trial -- 30 flat km -- is a complete gift to guys like Millar and Grabsch, a perfect Worlds prep, and a break from what a Vuelta ITT could look like.
For my money, it's all on Grabsch. His best results in Rainbow have been at the Dauphine and the German Nats, his two victories of the season. Neither of these events is nearly the big stage the Vuelta is, and Grabsch's other appearances in front of large audiences have been forgettable. I wouldn't say it's been a cursed season, but the vet cronoman will want to end his year in stripes on top. With a middle-length course and no hills, he's got a clear shot... at second.
As for the rest, it's hard to guess. Millar was good in the prologue, for what it's worth, while Boom has been seen on the attack, though now apparently he has an achilles problem. Tuft has been surprisingly quiet since July, so his form may be a work in progress. Devolder couldn't win the Belgian Nats a couple weeks back, so there's no reason to expect fireworks here.
Vueltabecco Says: Whoever laid out this course is in love with Bert Grabsch. It would be tragic if he didn't love them back.
Group 4. And don't sleep on...
Adam Hansen, Tom Danielson, Tadej Valjavec, Alexandre Vinokourov, and Sylvester Szmyd. Vino seems to be in crono form, as creepy as that thought may be. Valjavec and Szmyd have been good in past years but not so much of late. Ditto for Hansen. Danielson has nothing else to ride for, if not a Vuelta ITT. Here would be a good place to add some names of guys I'm overlooking...
Vueltabecco Says: A dull Vuelta needs a good villain to liven things up. Nobody could do more to bring the race attention than Vino. Make it happen!