Kaixo! as Txirla says.
Let's get to it. Got a bunch of good riders here.
1. Nario Quintana - favorite
Why he'll win- This year's Giro winner is a fantastic climber, and a pretty damn good chronoman himself. He's coming off a very nice prep win at Burgos and every indication is that he's in the form to become just the second rider to win the Giro and Vuelta in the same year. Beyond that the way he won the Giro was very impressive. After a first half of that race where he looked ordinary, he just took wing and dominated his rivals. You like seeing a GT man recovering and finishing that way. Given that this Vuelta is relatively back loaded this year, he's gonna be tough to beat in week three. There's just so much to like here.
Why he won't- Two reasons:
1) Unlike The Accountant in 2008 who only had to really worry about his teammate, the competition is much much fiercer. You'll see that below.
2) It is really really hard to train in the early season, build up for the Giro and win it then rest and build up again for the Vuelta. (I'll bring this up repeatedly with several riders below so get used to it.) I mean there's a reason only one rider has done it before. Ask Nibali how tough it is. I think you'll find him still looking for Horner on the Angrilu. But seriously, every year several GC types try to race both and usually their Vuelta is mediocre, so-so. Ask Uran Uran. Ask J-Rod. Ask...you get the point.
But what about riding with Valverde? Can you say rivalry? Yeah there's rumors going around that Valverde is throwing a fit. Folks: he ain't. Think 2012 Tour de Suisse where Valverde helped his teammate to the win. I'm not saying that you'll see Valverde sacrificing himself for Nairo but you will see him pulling at the top of a mountain or two-if Nairo needs it.
So what will happen? He's still the most likely to win it; guarantee he'll podium if he doesn't crash. But he's less of a favorite than the hype says. There's serious competition here, especially if Froome is all healthy and stuff. Q didn't face that kind of competition in Italy. Speaking of Froome...
Nario's Prime Competition
2. Chris Froome- how's his form?
Why he'll win- At his best he can climb with anybody, meaning he can out-climb anybody on his day. And his TT is deadly. He also beat Nairo in last year's Tour. We know that, right? He's good. Real good.
Why he won't- Luck. This ain't Froome's year as most anyone with a functioning brain will tell you. Injuries. A whole season's worth of 'em. Why would his luck change now? More to the point, how close is he to his best form? Most likely he won't be quite at the level he needs to be to win this; his recovery from his Tour and then training will probably not be sufficient. And, yeah, unlike last year, the competition is better.
Beyond this pretty substantial injury/current form concern there's other doubts. He's actually won just one GT and in doing that one he faded in week three in the Alps. He faded worse in the Vuelta in 2012. So there's questions of recoverability. Also his team: strong in the climbs, weak on the flats. That might not be a problem but if he gets in the position of defending a lead, he'll be using climby guys on flat roads and so burn them out faster-before the decisive climbs. Minor concern perhaps, but an unbalanced Sky is unbalanced.
So what will happen? Let's say podium. Split the difference. But as for range he could win, more likely podium, less likely top 10. We got to see his form.
Take a step back- It's an interesting thing, the GC pecking order over the last five or so years:
- 2007: Alberto Contador ascends to cycling royalty. That was somewhat of a surprise.
- 2008: The Accountant is alone at the top and no one is on the second step.
- 2009: Still on top but Andy Schelck looks like he's ready to challenge. Wiggo up Verbier was interesting too...let's store that away.
- 2010: Andy and Bert at the top together...until Bert gets busted
- 2011: Expecting Andy to be alone at the top, he falters and 2nd tier Cadel steals the Tour
- 2012: Andy implodes, Cadel falls back to form and age and Sky takes over the vacuum with Wiggins
- 2013: Wiggins steps back or something but Froome keeps Sky humming alone at the top. Nibali and Quintana serve notice
- 2014: Froome breaks a couple of times, Contador roars back but also breaks, Nibali emerges and Quintana serves formal notice.
We now have four riders at the moment-Froome, Quintana, Nibali, and Contador-in incredible form. When healthy of course. My guess is that this is both a rare thing to have four riders at the top, and it won't last more than a year or so. We should have some epic Grand Tour battles over the next year or so between these four and this Vuelta is the first. At the same time we will look back at this summer's Tour with a sigh of what might have been if Contador and Froome hadn't crashed out. The cycling gods made us miss a Tour for the ages. We can pray that all four target next year's Tour and enter it healthy.
But I think this mini-retrospective shows us that it truly is hard for one rider to dominate the GC scene for more than a even a year. Injuries happen too often. Drug busts too. Then you get riders like A Schleck who just go poof and others like Cadel or Valverde, or Basso or Menchov or Uran, who don't quite reach the top step of Grand Touring GC God. . Maybe Pinot or TVG (looking way serious in Colorado) or Chaves or whoever can reach the heights of the current Big 4. Odds are against them of course. But churn is the most natural state of affairs in cycling and it takes truly a champion to say at the highest level for more than a year or two.
3. Chris Horner- Again?
EDIT- Horner's pulled out of the Vuelta so,,.nevermind
Why he'll win- Why the hell not? Didn't you see Utah? He appears to be approaching the same form as last year when he also took down a Giro winner who looked to have the race won. 2nd verse, same as the first.
(Note: I had a paragraph about Horner and drugs here that I've erased because I think Horner is a very complicated case with lots of unknowns and about how he's managed to win a GT at 41, something that every other known drug user has not only failed to do but failed to come close to doing. I suspect that there's a lot happening here that's beyond drugs but that's just my uninformed opinion. Since I'm an ignorant slob...erase I did. I give up.)
One thing that's different about Horner is that he seems to take his injuries and recovery different than say Rodriguez, Froome, and Contador are doing in that he takes his time in getting healthy before going all out. That's wound up with him racing less and so having fresher legs which I thin is a huge factor in the Vuelta-more than with the other two Grand Tours.
Why he won't- He's almost as old as I am. Well 14 years younger but who's counting? Plus he just rode a full Tour and Tour riders tend to not quite have all their sharpness in the Vuelta. The question about the Tour is did he expend too much energy riding that? Plus the TT will hurt him.
Vuelta prep races- One thing I'll be looking at is the performances of the non-Tour riding GC guys and what what races they used to build up to this race. Each Grand Tour has a different kind of build up. For the Giro, the GC boys slowly build their form from the beginning of the season and start to show their stuff in Ardennes Week. They normally skip Romandie since it is so close to the beginning of the Giro.
Tour riders have their choice of Suisse or (more likely) Dauphine (with it's better, Tour-like climbs). Almost all do one or the other.
The Vuelta is not so defined. There are a few routes:
1) Some riders like Nairo or Danny Moreno ride Burgos. Nice little prep race. Has a nice climb and a little TT. The field is...meh though.
2) Other riders may also ride Poland sometimes before Burgos sometimes skipping any other prop race. That was Nibali's program last year after the Giro: he just rode Poland to shake out his legs then hit Burgos harder. I wonder if that was Aru's plan this year. he did Poland after the Giro but then didn't do Burgos. Hmm. Poland is probably not hard enough and too early to be a good prep race for the Vuelta. Barguil also just rode Poland in prep.
3) Tour de l'Ain. Nice couple of climbs, very small field. Daniel Martin did it this year. Race tends to be mainly a French rider party and many of them had just raced the Tour.
4) Then there's Utah, made famous by Horner last year and attracting a couple other riders this year: Evans and Kelderman (besides Horner and new sidekick Winner Anacona). On the surface, Utah may be the best prep race, if you put the time into it like Kelderman, Evans, and Horner did: get to Utah a good week early to get acclimated. Then race the race with the benefit of having Garmin taking the race seriously in itself and thus fielding an in form Tom Danielson to act as a rabbit. Stay a few extra days before descending to sea level. Result: three solid weeks at altitude including a race featuring climbs comparable to the Vuelta's worst. The main downside is the travel and expense to the team.
So I'm looking at Kelderman, Horner, and Evans to do better than expected. Let's see if it happens. If you think I'm over favoring Utah then you are thinking like Vaughters who has separate Utah/Colorado and Vuelta teams. All I can say is that it is amazing how much is unknown about how to be a competitive professional bike racer. It;s like following conventional wisdom in baseball in the 50's.
A couple other guys who people are probably overhyping
4. Joaquim Rodriguez
Why he'll win- Hmm. Not coming up with much here. The highest I can see is the podium. I'm guessing that won't happen. Yeah, I've been bearish (get it? BEARISH? Hahahahahahahahaha!) on Itching all year. So far I've ridden the right pony too.
Here's the issue(s)- He's 35 years old and in the middle of a year where his performance has dropped off considerably and not solely because of injuries. Can he bounce back and seriously compete for the win? That's not clear. What has to be worrying is that he faded as the Tour winded down: did he come back too quickly and too hard?
5. Alejandro Valverde
Why he'll win- He won't. He may score high on GC but at the crucial times he'll help Quintana. He's done the Tour/Vuelta double a bunch of times and each time he doesn't quite have that extra gear to win. Podium, yeah, but that's different.
Is there a rivalry? Boy howdy some people reeeealy want a rivalry between Al and Nairo. Al last winter there was the question of will Nairo ride the Tour or Giro with Al being the incumbent Tour rider forcing Nairo to the lesser Giro. Note that we never heard confirmed just what Unzue's thought process was on this. And now we have unconfirmed reports that Al is throwing a hissy fit and will leave the team next year.
My take is that just doesn't seem to be his style. Through the years we've seen him on lower steps of various podiums and smiling (see lats year's Worlds RR) . He never acts angry or accuses his teammates in public. We've seen him help teammates win races (Rui Costa @ Suisse Tour in 2012, Ion Izzy this year at the Spanish road race.)
Perhaps this is different. Unlike J-Rid or Costa or Uran, Quintana is looking like Al's heir apparent. And perhaps Nairo is being shall we say very aggressive in making his position as the future clear to all who will listen. Nairo could be an asshole, which is a fairly common trait among ultra-competitive bike racers. That could upset Al. But until we actually see something or read direct quotes I'm saying that this is unlikely and we aren't about to see a reprise of Bert Lance (hehe) from 2009. I expect Al will be a good teammate for Nairo in Spain. Let's see how it plays out though.
Three riders who might not do quite as well as expected
6. Thibaut Pinot
Why not? Pinot was 7th in last year's Vuelta and of course 3rd at the recent Tour. He's saying he's just riding for stage wins, a rookie attempt at sandbagging, but still my assumption is that riders who seriously compete in the Tour lose their edge in the following Vuelta. They could still place high in the Vuelta, sure, but their legs don't; quite have the same explosiveness as they did in France. Think Froome in 2012. Or Valverde over several years.
So... Best case is probably the lower part of the top 10 with perhaps just a top 20 placing if he loses it. If he makes top 5 or the podium though that would bode well for him taking that last step of GC God and making the Big 4 a Big 5. That alone makes me root for him.
7. Rigoberto Uran
What's his problem? Last year 2nd at the Giro, 27th at the Vuelta. 2012: 7th at the Giro, 29th at the Vuelta. Here's the thing: doing the Giro/Vuelta double is tricky and Uran hasn't yet mastered it. Sure in the 2012 Vuelta he was riding for Froome but 29th pace is awfully low for being the main Sky domestique. At any rate he's got to prove himself.
Final placing? best case the podium. Probably...I haven't a clue. Since the Giro he's only ridden de l'Ain, finishing a not so robust 22nd. I like the Big Rig. But he's not a top tier GC guy.
8. Fabio Aru
Geez, more Giro troubles? Yep. Since his 3rd in the Giro he's only raced Poland, finishing a microscopic 64th on GC. This in itself wasn't awful as he was plausibly just getting back to racing. Nibali last year after his Giro win did Poland and just finished 53rd. But then he followed that up with a crisp 3rd at Burgos. Aru hasn't raced since Poland. Ya gotta wonder about his form. Another thing is that outside of the Giro, Aru has not shown much: 7th at Trentino, 20th at Catalunya. The Giro podium finish was where everything came together. can he do it again?
So...meh top 20. It would be weird for him to be so...average in non Grand Tour races and aces in the three week affairs.
And three who might surprise
9. Wilco Kelderman
What's different about this guy? Yeah he's another one doing the Giro?Vuelta double but unlike Aru the kid Kelderman just threw out a solid 5th place at Utah. And as I said above, propping for a climby race like the Vuelta with 2-3 weeks training at altitude including a race that had two-three climbs at least as hard as anything this Vuelta will throw at him this year seems like idea prep work.
Placing then? Top 10, easy. Top five good chance. Podium? Slight chance. Yeah: I'm saying Buy stick in young Wilco.
10. Cadel Evans
Again? You love Utah that much? Sure. I'm giving basically the same rationale as Kelderman, hell yeah. Cadel finished 6th at Utah and obviously throughly enjoyed himself. The way he caught up to the lead group on Empire Pass was impressive. So was his win at Snowbird while being out in the break all day. Speaking of the break, Utah showed a hyper aggressive BMC. Let's hope we see that attitude in Spain. I want to see the team that has the race leader get seriously worked over.
But... 37 is old regardless of what Horner says. Top 10 I can see. Higher? exhales loudly sure, why not? He's got a chance at a podium and Utah shows that he's willing to get aggressive and gamble.
11. Dan Martin
So could he win this thing? Very slim chance but then Horner had little chance either.
Come on! Seriously? He's only raced 34 days so far this year and as we recall he does better late in the year when the pollen count is lower. He's not been a very good GT rider in his career though with his best being 13th at the 2011 Vuelta. He is coming off a nice 3rd place a de l'Ain. Top 10 at this Vuelta? I can see that. He's this Vuelta's answer to Bauke Mollema. And YOU didn't know it was posing that question, right?
Other riders to consider
Two other riders who haven't ridden a Grand Tour yet this year: Sergio Pardilla and David Arroyo
Two former Valverde domestiques come back as leaders of their pro conty teams.
Arroyo had that one Giro (2010) remember? He got gifted reentry into the GC race on that rainy stage when seemingly half the peloton were in the breakaway but then fought tooth and claw to keep his lead. Remember that stage 18 where he finally lost the lead but where he fought so hard to get back on the descent and almost caught Basso, Nibali and Scarponi (who was on a different team but made an alliance with his Italian brothers? That was a totally thrilling stage. But outside of that Arroyo has not been total pants in GTs: 13th last year at the Vuelta, 13th at the 2011 Giro, This year he tuned up with a 10th at Burgos.
Pardilla landed 5th at Burgos. (12th at Suisse this year too.) This is his first GT as team leader. MTN Qhubeka has got to be sky high in their first GT. They would love a top 10 and Pardilla could deliver.
Danny Moreno and other super domestiques
How to figure? Seems like as goes J-Rod so goes Danny Moreno, boy backup. This year's Giro sees Rodriguez crashing out and Moreno finishes a distant 41st. Last year with Rodriguez competing strongly in both the Tour and Vuelta saw Moreno finish 17th and 10th. Year before saw Rodriguez finish 2nd at the Giro and 3rd at the Vuelta with Moreno 20th and 5th.
This race now? I say just out of the top 10.
And while we are onthe subject of super domestiques: Gesink, Hesjedal, Talansky, Nieve, Samu, Anacona, Kennaugh, Zubeldia etc
A bunch of descent domestiques are on hand, one of whom may creep into the top 10. Yeah, Zubes isn't a domestique but he sure acts like one.
Made his GT debut at last year's Vuelta where he finished 38th including two stage wins. Let;s see if he can be more consistent now.
Why? if Aru doesn't have it, Kangert could be Astana's man. At least I hope so even if Aru is feeling good as I think it is time that he's a GT race leader. Kangert finished a nice 20th while working for Nibali in July. Let's see him on his own.
Adam Yates, Johann Chaves, Rohan Dennis, and Mikel Landa
Fun fun fun watching the kids making their debuts.
Top five or top 30- I have no idea what to expect. Maybe he wins it going away. Total wild card.
Speaking of Wild cards...Alberto Contador
Count me as one who is seriously shocked that he's riding. That's totally crazy. Anything I said above about Froome and Rodriguez and form should apply in spades here. Maybe the Vuelta is the new prep race for Milan-Turin. Note: subject in picture is much thinner than that in real life.