I don't know about you, but this GC fight is at as good as the Giro's and Tour's. And we've had a vintage year of Grand Tour GC battles. Each one has been different:
-The Giro saw the Liquigas Power team vs Evans (with-surprise! a weak team) and the wild card of David Arroyo.
-The Tour saw the Bert vs Andy face-off, strong teams, and a strong supporting cast of mountain goats.
-Now the Vuelta has probably the widest pen battle. No truly great teams and probably four riders who feel they have a legit shot at the win: Vinny, J-Rod, Zeke, and the tragic Igor. Then you have Frank Schleck and Sastre pounding away, the Caisse four-pack of Bruse, Lulu, Arroyo, and Big Rig, plus the kids: Roche, the Good Velits, and Tondo. And I haven't even mentioned Special Guest Star Tom Danielson! I'm having fun; hope you are too. But I'll shut up now and let the Power Rankings do the talking. The number in parentheses is the rider's ranking in the pre-race Power Poll.
1. Vincenzo Nibali (1)
How he'll win: He's not the strongest climber of this race but he has two things in his favor: 1) he's easily the best chronoman of the top five meaning he could be anywhere from two to four minutes ahead of the number two rider after the next stage, and 2) he has a team that can defend the lead until the end of the last climb on stage 20. Basically Vinny is doing what Contador did in the Tour with the threat of a rider who's a better climber: manage the race. Shorten the race.
But will he win? Yep, probably. It all depends on that last climb on stage 20. Contador ultimately showed he could stay with Andy on the Tourmalet. Can Nibali do the same or at least keep it close enough? The odds say yes.
2. Joaquim Rodriguez (10)
How he'll win: First I am surprised that he is so good here. He's never done back-to-back Grand Tours and I am seeing no drop off from the Tour to here. Wow. But down to business. he can win by doing the opposite of Nibali: keep it as close as possible in the time trial and bust Vinny on stage 20. Simple, right?
But will he win? We've all seen the problem he has. He's a better climber than Nibali but when he takes off, he quickly goes into the Red so he has to a) attack late on climbs, and b) make only small attacks. So for him to have a chance he needs to keep his loses in the time trial to an absolute minimum. Given that this time trial is as flat as the Tour's and, yes, there will probably be wind, well, it's doubtful that he can pull it off. But his whole Vuelta has exceeded expectations...
3. Frank Schleck (5)
How he'll win: Frank was the most impressive rider today (yesterday), attacking first on the middle climb (and getting reeled in) then attacking pretty far down the hill of the last climb. This shows all sorts of interesting info:
- At the moment, Frank is the best climber in the race. More importantly, he's confident. That should translate well into the time trial. Frank is not a good chronoguy but against most of these guys he's riding the Race of Truth against, his relative strength should do him well. Not well enough to catch Nibali, but good enough to defend his fourth place and place heat on Zeke for third. What's that saying? In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king? That looks like Frank in this time trial (excluding Nibali of course).
- However the big stage 20 is five big days away and five days is an eternity in a Grand Tour. Frank's current advantage on the climbs may well be gone by then. Or not-maybe it will just grow. Obviously the later is what he needs to win this race. I am thinking he's more likely to be still peaking than declining. Frank is a real danger.
But will he win?
- But notice how he escaped on the last climb yesterday. He left early, had Danielson with him for a while, then Sastre for a bit, but until the last kilometer or so, he maintained only an 11-15 second advantage on Nibali while Kreuziger was the engineer. Plus, of course he got reeled in on the middle climb when he went on the attack. So while Frank was strong, and Vinny a little weak, Vinny's team was equal to the task. And with basically four days when they won't be working all that hard, the Liquigas should be up to the task of delivering Vincent to the last half of the final climb in great position. Then, and probably only then, will Frank and the other contenders be able to attack with a reasonable chance of success. That's the ace Nibali is holding and we've seen such an ace win several Grand Tours in recent years. Expecting Schleck (or insert any other climber here) to just ride away before its very late is quaint, romantic.
4. Ezekiel Mosquera (3)
How he'll win: See J-Rod. I love Zeke. I wish he were on a Pro Tour team so we'd see him in more Grand Tours. I hope he can hold on to a podium spot and he has a chance. He's not awful against the clock and with a day off maybe he can recharge his jets enough. (Go Ravens!) For him to win, he needs the guys above him here to implode and/or mess up. Hey-it's happened before.
But will he win? He's 53 seconds behind J-Rod, 20 seconds behind Nibbles, and with basically the same skill set as J-Rod I don't see him making up that kind of ground. Unless Nibali craters big-time, Zeke is fighting Frank Schleck for third and while I have him fourth here, he's barely behind Frank. A podium spot would be his best finish ever and at almost 35, probably the capstone of his career.
The rest of the guys listed have no hope for the win but might snag a podium spot.
5. Nicolas Roche (not ranked)
How he'll podium: If J-Rod is the first surprise of this Vuelta, Roche here is surprise 1A. I'll fully admit that I didn't see this one coming at all. Fantastic ride that only today showed some weakness-and so the rest day is perfect timing. Now can he pull off a good time trial? He doesn't have the history but what the hell, who am I to predict what this kid does?
But will he get a podium? Honestly, Roche's performance shows to me that this field is a little weak if you compare it to the Tour. I can;t see him passing any of the four above him here-he has a 2'08" gap to make up on Zeke and I see Zeke as a stronger climber. But a top five finish is more than fine for the 26-year old: a big jump in performance.
6 (tied) Peter Velits, Tom Danielson, and Xavier Tondo (none of them ranked before)
How any of them will podium: I say one of these guys will pop a very tasty time trial. I have no idea who. Then that rider will get his energy back on stage 20 and take advantage of a couple guys who attack too early.
But will he get on the podium? It could be close and that last kilometer on stage 20 might decide things. These guys are relatively good time trialists, at least compared to some of the other guys here. If I have to choose one of them...geez...may god forgive me...Danielson. Am I a fool or what?
9. Carlos Sastre (4)
How he'll podium: Gotta love Carlos in this race. He keeps attacking even though he just doesn't have a deep enough tank to sustain it. I particularly love his attack of Schleck last stage. He couldn't hold it and Frank attacked him back. Not much love lost with these old teammates!
But will he get on the podium? Doubtful, but look, the first four guys ahead of him don't have nearly the experience he has at the business end of a Grand Tour. Plus, while Carlos is no TT demon, he's better than the likes of Schleck, Mosquera, and Rodriguez. A decent time trail and a great last stage where he finally has more energy that the rest, puts him on the podium.
10. Luis Leon Sanchez (11)
How he'll podium: Most people above him Igor when they see the last climb.
But will he... No, he won't. He's my pick for the 10 spot because he's a good chono guy and he showed some life in the last stage and so like Schleck might have more in the tank than most of the rest of the contenders. He could throw down a killer TT and make the top five.