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Racing For Red: Vuelta GC Preview

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Like last year, the Vuelta a Espana has a very impressive field. Who will take overall honours?

Jaime Reina AFP

The Vuelta is not a straightforward race. It's a little bit crazy, and it's very hard to predict the winner. The course is mountainous enough to crack anyone, and it's not unusual that there's a shock winner. Who'd have thought that Horner would have won in 2013, or that Cobo would have won from Froome in 2011? It's really not your ordinary race, and it's very hard to choose names for a winner. However, I've tried to bring it down to twelve, and here they are, in order of how likely I think they are to win.

Nairo Quintana, Movistar Team

History: Has ridden twice, in 2012 and 2014, doing a great job of domestiqueing for Valverde three years ago, before a crash in the red jersey during the stage ten time trial last year put him minutes behind, and a second crash in the early stages of stage eleven sent him out of the race, with an injured shoulder.

Form: Ehh...second in the Tour de France and the strongest climber in the last week enough for you? He hasn't done Burgos, or any other race since the Paris finale of the Tour, but he doesn't usually race when he can train, and will come to the Vuelta ready.

Why He Will Win: He has shown that he is one of the best climbers around, and has taken time off Froome several times, on Alpe d'Huez to start with. That red jersey seemed to suit him pretty well before his crash last year, and he has a good team, though whether it really will be behind him remains to be seen.

Will he this year? Well, I have reason to believe he will. Froome has never ridden to full potential in the Vuelta, and there's no one else I see capable of beating Quintana anyway.

Why He Won't: Two reasons. Alejandro Valverde is the first. Quintana was not supposed to ride the Vuelta at the start of the year, giving the reins to Valverde, who would be every bit the loyal domestique in the Tour de France. Though many had their suspicions, he really was, and he may want to lead the Vuelta, with Quintana as his team mate. While this can be stopped simply by Quintana climbing better than Valverde, will he be able to? This will be his second Grand Tour in a row, and it will be a big test for him to make it through without succumbing to fatigue.

Verdict: Saying all that, he is my favourite to win, his fantastic climbing skills should show, and he can limit his losses in the time-trial.

Nairo ITT kit JAIME REINA, AFP/Getty Images

(Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty)

Christopher Froome, Team Sky

History: Three visits to the race, two second places, in 2011 and 2014, with a fourth place behind the Spanish battle for the podium in 2012.

Form: Like Quintana, hasn't raced since the Tour de France, which he won. Another rider who will train hard rather than race.

Why He Will Win: He is the strongest all-rounder in the race. Froome is a fantastic time-triallist, and on his day can outgun anyone on a climb. See La Pierre St. Martin. He has two of the toughest Tours de France to his name, and has a very strong team behind him. Three of them have had GT top 10s, and one, Roche, has a top 5 in this very race. His main domestique will presumably be the able Geraint Thomas, who was one good day away from a Tour de France 6th place.

Why He Won't: Let's look at 2012 for reference here, the only time he rode the Vuelta after doing the Tour de France. He finished over ten minutes behind a below-par Alberto Contador, and he did sort of begin to wane at the end of the Tour this year. That's not saying anyone else will be any better.

Verdict: He will be Quintana's closest challenger, in all likelihood, and will probably get a third podium, though perhaps not the top step.

Alejandro Valverde, Movistar Team

History: Seventy-four thousand podiums*, and a win in 2009. He's been getting top 5s in this race consistently since 2003, and has held the leaders jersey in several years. He's also got eight stage wins.

Form: At 35, and 14 years as a professional, Valverde is having a better year than ever, winning Flèche and Liège, his nats, and a best ever Tour de France finish, while helping his team mate to second. His most recent race was in San Sebastian, where he finished in the chase group for a fine third place.

Why He Will Win: Well...he probably won't. But if something should happen to Froome and Quintana, he's in place to win. Where are those cobbles.

Why He Won't: Though he tends to recover quite well, it's hard to see him outgun Froome in a straight fight, even after the Tour, and even in the unlikely event of him getting in the pecking order ahead of Quintana, I don't think he can keep his place. However, a podium finish is likely.

Verdict: Podium finish, or a win if something happens to Froome or Quintana. (Note: The guy has never ridden the Giro. Get a podium there!)

Valv doll

(Jose Jordan, AFP)

Vincenzo Nibali, Astana

History: Pretty good record. A victory in his first time at the race was followed up by 7th in 2011 and 2nd to Horner in 2013. However, it's been speculated that freshness is a big thing in the Vuelta, with a lack of race days important, and this proved true then. Whether his poor Tour form will help or hinder him remains to be seen.

Form: Like...everyone else, hasn't ridden since the Tour, in which he seemed to get better as the race went on. He has been below par this year, but still managed fourth in the Tour, with a great ride to La Toussuire.

Why He Will Win: If he can somehow rekindle his 2014 form, he can win. He has a fantastic team behind him, and is a canny racer, good in tricky conditions, and if the Andorra stage is as cold and wet as it was in 2013, he is well suited to take advantage.

Why He Won't: He can't rekindle his 2013 form.

Verdict: Third or fourth. He's behind Valverde in this because it's the Vuelta.

Nibali and Indurain

(Fotoreporter Sirotti)

Tejay Van Garderen, BMC

History: One previous visit, a fairly nondescript ride in 2010, at the age of 22.

Form: Looked odds-on for a podium going into the Alps at the Tour de France, but he left them sooner than he might have expected, falling ill in the early stages of stage 17, and abandoning the race. Again, has not ridden since.

Why He Will Win: He counts among his best assets as a rider his time trial, and the flattest long time trial of the year in GTs is waiting for him on stage 17, and most, though not all of the climbs suit him. It's really a pretty good Vuelta for him.

Why He Won't: Well, he just doesn't quite have that extra gear that wins you GTs with fields of such quality. At least that's my view of it.

Verdict: A podium, if he's lucky. A real good shot at a top 5, he missed the hardest days of the Tour, and could make it count.

Joaquím Rodríguez, Katusha

History: One podium, in 2012. (Remember, that one he should have won?) A pile of fourth places, and eight stages.

Form: Erm, do two Tour de France stages in the middle of total failures in bids for both overall and KOM competitions count as good form?

Why He Will Win: The Vuelta obviously suits him more than any other race, with its short steep climbs and usual lack of TT kilometres.

Why He Won't: In a world where bike races started with one kilometre to go on all hills, he'd win everything. But they don't. And there are a few longer than usual climbs in the Vuelta, along with a long time trial, so it doesn't really suit him, if you ask me. Aso, one of his major team mates has just been popped. So...no.

Verdict: Another top 10.

Purito falters

(Fotoreporter Sirotti)

Domenico Pozzovivo, AG2R La Mondiale

History: One previous ride, in 2013, where he finished eight minutes down on Chris Horner in sixth. His best performance was his third place in the time-trial because, you know, Pozzerwagen's great at that stuff.

Form: He's had the least racedays of any of the favourites, only riding three Giro stages, and that may stand to him, as the Vuelta has often been won by fresh riders. Recently, he's ridden the Tour de L'ain, placing highly on the two hilly stages for tenth overall on GC.

Why He Will Win: As I said, freshness will count...probably. Loads of people were putting him forward to finish on the podium of the Giro, and perhaps he would have, if not for a bad TTT, a crash on stage 2, and a race-ending crash on stage 3. He's a good climber and a fresh climber.

Why He Won't: He's older than you think, at 32, and doesn't seem to be quite of the calibre or consistency of the best GT riders.

Verdict: A good bet for a top 10.

Fabio Aru, Astana

History: Has ridden one Vuelta, and a rather excellent one, last year. He came fifth and won two mountain stages, but just could not quite stick with the Contador, Froome and Valverde on the hardest climbs.

Form: He has only raced once since the end of the Giro, where he had a bad middle part of the race and came back to win the two final mountain stages and take second place, and it was in the Tour de Pologne, where he finished in fifth, with reasonably good finishes in the mountain stages.

Why He Will Win: He won't. None of these next guys will either. But if he rides as well as he did in the latter stages of the Giro he could mount a really good challenge. And he is the first of these guys not to have ridden the Tour...

Why He Won't: First of all, not much of a time-triallist. He lost lots of time to Contador in the Giro. He also seems to be kind of prone to bad patches in a race, and finally, will most likely find himself working for his team mate Nibali or even Landa.

Verdict: A likely top 10. One of the people who might crack in the first week, but if he does, Astana have two other contenders.

Aru and Froome sprint it out

(Jaime Reina, AFP/Getty Images)

Rafał Majka, Tinkoff-Saxo

History: Three previous Vuelta outings. A DNF, a 32nd place, and a 19th while doing a pretty good domestique job for Nico Roche.

Form: Pretty poor all year, really, though he hasn't led too many races. Both his best rides were in Switzerland, where he managed 7th in the Tour of Romandie and 10th in the Tour de Suisse. He has not raced since the Tour de France, where he worked for Alberto Contador, and won stage 11 to Cauterets.

Why He Will Win: He won't, he won't, he definitely won't. Majka is a good climber, don't get me wrong, but he's had two weak Giri to score a good result, and he's never even got a top 5. With Tinkoff beside him the best he can hope for is a top 10.

Why He Won't: As I said, he just isn't able to ride a good enough Grand Tour to a podium.

Verdict: Lower reaches of the top 10.

Mikel Landa, Astana

History: Has ridden the last three Vueltas, not doing much in any of them.

Form: Has only raced 6 days since the Giro, where he had the best performance of his career, winning the queen stage and one other, on his way to third place. Really, for most of it he outclimbed second-placed Aru, but a bad time-trial and Aru's resurgence of form near the end kicked him to the lowest step of the podium.

Why He Will Win: If you ask me, he was the best climber of the Giro. He set the pace for Aru in all the mountain stages, and still won two of them. That's some form right there. He seems to be rather comfortable on steep slopes, judging by his ride on the Mortirolo, and that will stand him in good stead for his home Grand Tour.

Why He Won't: In short, he's going to Sky next year. He would be much higher on this list if he were staying at Astana. With two guys who will be behind him in the Astana train, it's unlikely he'll repeat his Giro exploits.

Verdict: He needs to be very lucky to make a mark.

Daniel Martin, Cannondale-Garmin

History: The Vuelta suits him more than any other Grand Tour, with its steep climbs, and Martin has done well in it, winning one stage, in 2011, and riding consistently to 7th on GC last year.

Form: His Tour de France started out well, before a crash on stage 4 sent him down the general classification. Some post-rest-day weakness sent him further down, but with three top-four finishes it couldn't be described as a total washout. He also made the chase group behind Yates in San Sebastian, and was pulling the group along for a good part of the way. His classics season was marred with crashes.

Why He Will Win: He won't. But he is a good climber, and he rode very well last year. If he doesn't have an allergic reaction...or get sick...or one of the other myriad things that affect him...he could get a top 10 and a stage or two.

Why He Won't: He might have an allergic reaction...or get sick...or one of the other myriad things that affect him. Also, he's moving to Etixx next year, and Garmin are sending Talansky. While I don't think Talansky's going to do anything of much note, Garmin might want to turn to him for GC leadership. As he's said himself, he doesn't like GTs.

Verdict: Needs to be lucky for a top 10, though stages look more likely.

Daniel Martin Wins Lombardia

(LUK BENIES/AFP/Getty Images)

Daniel Moreno, Katusha

History: Pretty damn good. A top 5, two other top 10s, a day in the lead, and three stages. A couple of elevenths and twelfths as well.

Form: Good. Won a mountain stage of Burgos, the points classification, and came third overall. Fourth in San Sebastian, and had pretty good Ardennes classics, with two top 10s.

Why He Will Win: He missed the Tour as well, and is fresher than some others. He provides able support for J-Rod.

Why He Won't: Not the best on long climbs.

Verdict: More likely to win a few stages than have a good GC campaign, but it's still a possibility.

Other possible contenders are Jurgen Van den Broeck, Daniel Navarro, Samuel Sanchez, Johan Chaves and Pierre Rolland.

Though a close race is likely, my money is on Nairo Quintana narrowly prevailing over Christopher Froome, with Alejandro Valverde and the Astana team sniffing around as well.