The Vuelta a Espana is considered by some as the poor relation of the Grand Tours, supposedly relegated to a mere training race for the Worlds. That's so wrong.
For the under performers, it's the last big opportunity to show themselves and for the really desperate, the best chance to secure a contract for the next year.
However the Vuelta is better than all that training, last chance, and we got sent here because everyone else was unavailable stuff: it's a fantastic mix of terrain, weather and competition. Hot, cold, windy and rain, you can get it all but thankfully not usually on the same day, though the last week in the north could well prove otherwise. The Vuelta was my favourite Grand Tour not because it was easier or less stressful but because it was so unpredictable. That's a tradition I hope to see continue.
Looking at the riders for this year, you have to say it's a pretty impressive list with Froome, Quintana, Uran, Contador, Rodriguez, Sagan and Evans, all lining up in Jerez with different things to prove. Maybe Sagan won't be that fussed about reaching the last week, but he won't want to go home without at least one stage win. Not with Oleg watching.
Notice that I didn't include Chris Horner in the list of notables and for good reason. He's been struggling since last September and I couldn't see him getting through the first week in a good place. With the latest illness and subsequent withdrawal, it just proves you have to look after yourself more when you get older.
That first week is a bit of a dilemma for those serious about winning the race overall, like Sky. It's hot and windy down south and though Chris Froome might be used to the wind coming over from Africa, his teammates might not want to be working flat out from the first stage defending a slender lead. I can see a tactical move going after the opening team time trial to relieve the bigger teams of some responsibility of controlling things.
Basically it ought to boil down to Quintana and Rodriguez versus Froome in the last week with Contador hoping he's recovered enough to see some of it happen on the three mountaintop finishes. The little climbers have to stay near enough to Froome after the time trials, out of trouble on the plains and then they can do a rain dance because cruel though it may be, Spanish mountain roads are as slippy as you get and the Sky leader could be vulnerable there.
In other news, this is the one Grand Tour where I don't see AG2r winning the team classification, Betancur might lose some weight though.
Astana will be expecting Aru to win something, maybe even get involved in the GC but there's less pressure than the Giro. It's the same circumstances for Kelderman at Belkin and this Vuelta route will suit him better.
BMC need Philippe Gilbert to get his stage wins to whip up some hype for the Worlds, but Evans finds himself in a sticky spot. Expected to be in the GC fight but expected to fall apart too, unless he gets in the mythic break and takes the race lead, he may struggle on GC.
As for Caja Rural, they’ll be in every escape, hoping, praying, and causing trouble.
Cannondale minions have to look after Peter Sagan and then get on with it if he stops after 10 days. They have to do enough to keep themselves in bib-shorts because they won't all be included in the Garmin merger.
Garmin will want Talansky to ride in the top 10, top five if he's really good and have Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal as back up, but they really need some stage wins too. It would be good to see David Millar wear a pair of those shiny shoes to victory one day. The Millar name after all has a good reputation to live up to in Spain.
Giant Shimano will do the sprints as usual though Degenkolb might not be fast enough against Bouhani on the flat. Going uphill is different story. They'll like the stages up on the plains just as revenge for the suffering they'll get everywhere else.
IAM Cycling are racing with a decent looking team and they have a point or two to prove after a quiet Tour de France. It’s their second Grand Tour of the season though and it will be interesting to see how they cope with the pressure.
Katusha are just at the race to look ater Joaquin Rodriguez and nothing else will matter.
Have Lampre has turned into the Italian equivalent of Cofidis? With Horner out, they’ll be forced to rely on Cunego for success. The Italian is out of contract at the end of the season and has performed well at the Vuelta before but a lack of form and motivation has been levelled at him over the last few years.
Lotto Belisol have actually come for a suntan top-up though the Belgian press will follow Jurgen Van Den Broeck's demise slavishly.
Movistar will probably be the most aggressive team in the race and Alejandro might save his place in the squad for next year if he does as he's told and Quintana wins the race.
MTN-Qhubeka have been the next surprise so it'll be good to see how the little known African riders shape up with the big boys.
At Omega Pharma Quickstep, no Cavendish means all eyes and bets are on Uran who has to have the memories of the Giro fiasco sticking in his throat. The pressure won't bother him but he will be looking for payback for the Movistar/Quintana mugging.
As for Orica Greenedge, how come they've ended up relying on the Yates twins? Adam this time lines up as their main reason for starting and great though that is for youth and British hopes surely the management will be getting twitchy.
Sky, the dark machine has lost its ominous presence this year and Froome his air of invincibility. Backed up by an eager Kennaugh and the stalwarts that are Sitsou and Kiryenka they'll be wanting to rectify that. The man to beat certainly but the others are no longer afraid to try.
Tinkoff-Saxo, waiting to pounce anytime, anywhere with Contador eager to remind everyone that he’s still top-dog among the GC riders.
Trek find themselves in unknown territory, no Schlecks, and none the worse for it. They can rely on Arredondo and Cancellera but without the stress.
Of the French teams, only FdJ will be interested in doing some racing for Bouhani, who since he'll be seething after the Tour snub ought to be pretty angry. Pinot has arrived at the race too, but there are question marks over his post-Tour form. The Cofidis and Europcar line-ups don't hold any surprises so it'll be turn up, ride round and lets get back to France asap.