The Vuelta a Espana begins this weekend and with a high class field, it promises to be one of the most exciting editions in recent years. Cyclingnews picks through the peloton to look over some of the top 10 contenders.
Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank)
Is Contador such a clear favourite that this is his race to lose? This isn’t 2009, when he laid down one of the most astonishing displays the Tour de France has ever seen, nor is it the 2011 Giro d'ltalia, when he had the impressive audacity to inform his rivals when and where he would attack on the slopes of Etna. Those days are in the past, and Contador finds himself on the back foot.
He’s also not raced a Grand Tour since 2011’s limp Tour showing and while his recent Eneco ride shows that he’s in form, it doesn’t give a complete reflection of his three-week capabilities. Factor in that he’s not won a time trial since last year’s Giro d'Italia and he looks more beatable than ever.
However. it’s perhaps a similar state to 2008, when an undercooked Contador was parachuted into the Giro from his beach holiday. He won that race, more through brains than his brawn, and such a scenario could unfold during this Vuelta.
In Grand Tours past, Contador has been able to subdue his opposition with a mix of excellent time trialing and unmatchable climbing. However in the majority of those battles he’s faced riders who have had major deficiencies in one of those two disciples but Chris Froome – his most talked-up opposition – bucks that trend.
But despite any niggling doubts, Contador remains the race favourite. His climbing prowess is still the envy of all his competition and his hunger to succeed should be greater than ever after his doping ban.
Chris Froome (Sky)
Without being too melodramatic, these are the three most important weeks of Froome’s career to date. Beat Contador and win the Vuelta, and the Tour runner-up is in a position to renegotiate a bumper contract at Sky and at the very least argue a more than understandable case for leading the team at next year’s Tour. Lose, and Wiggins can breath a sigh of relief, safe in the knowledge that he’s still Sky’s top dog.
Back to Froome, and having already ridden a Grand Tour in the last few months, there’s the old adage that he will run out of steam in the back-breaking final week. However Sky has torn up the rule book this year, wiping away the clichéd doubts of "peaking too soon", doing "too much work" on the front and "diluting team aims". With their mantra of marginal gains, the team has been near unstoppable in stage races it has raced to win and there’s genuine discussion over whether they can attempt the triple Grand Tour slam in 2013. Sky has given Froome a decent support crew for the Vuelta, too. Sergio Henao and Rigberto Uran will marshal him in the mountains, while Danny Pate was unfortunate to miss out on Tour selection. It may not be as strong as the Tour team, but then it doesn’t need to be.
Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
While the men in orange will be thanking their lucky stars that Samuel Sanchez has re-signed for the coming years, there is still the question over who will take over his mantle once the former Olympic champion retires. Two year ago Anton appeared to be the heir apparent, as a swashbuckling display in the Vuelta yielded two stages and the overall lead until an untimely crash forced him to abandon.
There’s been success since – two Grand Tour stage wins – but the 29-year-old has failed to crack into the top 15 of a three-week race since. Euskaltel will certainly lose time in the opening team time trial, but stages 3 and 4 should reverse the majority of those lost seconds. Anton started the 2010 Vuelta flying, remember, wining the first hill-top finish to Valdepeñas de Jaé. If he can make it to stage 15 within five minutes of the leaders, a top five, even a top three could beckon. The only problem is that it’s a big IF.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
With only 40 kilometres of individual time trialing in the race, Rodriguez stands up well against his pre-race contenders. However it’s the element of time bonuses that really helps the Spaniard’s cause. This didn’t secure him a win in the Giro, however, and against Contador and Froome, he will need to be more aggressive on stages to Eibar and Jaca. Such tactics could see him move into the race lead inside the first week of racing, a dangerous move given how he rode at some points in the Giro, but it could play into his hands if he can limit his losses at Pontevendra.
The final week, with its five mountain top finishes, will see the most consistent rider win. Froome is coming off the back of a Tour and Olympics programme, while Contador hasn’t raced for three weeks since May 2011. Rodriguez has failed against weaker opposition in the past, but this could be his greatest opportunity.
Jose Cobo (Movistar)
He came into the 2011 race as a rank outsider and the 31-year-old carries on that trend in 2012. A lacklustre season and underwhelming Tour de France ride has seen the Spaniard’s star fade but he can’t be ruled out just yet. If he can summon whatever helped him to win last year’s race then a podium place is within his capabilities. The form book doesn’t do him any favours though: in 2010, his last season at Caisse (now Movistar) he failed to finish a single stage race.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
After a disastrous Tour for Rabobank’s Dutch contingent it’s a case of reluctant acceptance that has forced them to field both Gesink and Mollema for the Vuelta. The latter was fourth in 2011, while Gesink’s climbing talents have been notably visible for a number of years. Both riders are capable of stage wins, as well as top ten places overall, but crashes, and missed breaks seem to be a trend for Rabobank’s leaders.
Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp)
The 23-year-old goes into the Vuelta as a relative unknown having only competed in one Grand Tour and while last year’s Vuelta showed signs of promise, it’s Talansky’s 2012 form that has really shone. Second at the Tour of Romandie, eighth in Algarve and a recent win in the Tour de l’Ain all bode well for a rider whose career progress is similar to Tejay van Garderen’s. Mentally, Talansky appears to have his head screwed on properly too and while this year’s Vuelta will undoubtedly be his toughest test yet, there’s enough to indicate that a stage win or a top 10 overall are within his grasp.
Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM)
The Belgian’s career has enjoyed a fascinating upward trajectory. There were signs of promise when he rode on the Unibet development team with Michel Kreder way back in 2006, and picked up third in the Tour of Liege in 2007. This was followed up by a few one day successes, however a clearer breakthrough came in 2011. Most observers will point to his rides at Alpe d’Huez and Grenoble in that year’s Tour but his stage win in Paris-Nice, where he beat Jeremy Roy and Peter Sagan, and his stage in the Tour de Suisse where he held off Andy Schleck and Jose Rojas stood out even more.
At 25 and with his storming Giro ride in his back pocket, it’s De Gendt who lines up as Belgium’s most exciting prospect for the GC, not Jurgen van den Broeck. The Vacansoleil rider has underrated support too. Lagutin made the top 20 last year and Rafael Valls Ferri is always worth keeping an eye on.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
We could and probably should have included Alejandro Valverde but quite honestly we’re more excited about the 22-year-old climber than the aging former winner. Quintana has been on the radar for a number of years but became one of the most sought after talents when he won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2010 (Talansky was second, by the way).
However it wasn’t until this year that the climber was given his chance in the WorldTour ranks and having won five races in his opening season in Europe, he’s lining up at the Vuelta to gain experience. With Valverde unable to regain his old form and Cobo lacking any results this year, Quintana could be a good bet for the mountains jersey, a stage, and perhaps more.
Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol)
Like Froome, the biggest factor could be how much of the Belgian’s Tour form still remains. Van den Broeck was a distant fourth in Paris but again displayed enough to suggest that a grand tour win is possible. The route suits the wirey climber but unlike his main rivals, team support could be lacking on some of the toughest mountain stages. The pressure appears to be off at least with Marc Sergeant stressing that a stage win would suffice and that GC aspirations will be assessed after the second week of racing.