Opportunities abound in 2009's final Grand Tour
It's been a long hard season for many but in less than a fortnight the cycling world will turn it's attention to Spain for the Vuelta a España, the third and final Grand Tour of 2009. For some it's a chance to shine in their home race, while for others - quite a few others in fact – it's a chance to rescue a year lost to injury, lack of form or in one case suspension.
Cyclingnews looks over 11 riders who will be looking for a big performance.
Samuel Sánchez (Spa) Euskaltel – Euskadi
For a rider capable of winning almost any race on the calendar, Sánchez's decision to put all his huevos in a Vuelta basket came as a surprise. However, the reigning Olympic road race champion could pull off a racing masterstroke, with Andreas Klöden and the Schlecks – Fränk and Andy – coming off the back of a top 10 placing at the Tour de France and racing in Spain.
If Sánchez has the confidence to take the race by the scruff of the neck we could be looking at yet another Spanish Grand Tour champion and a much needed boost for Euskaltel-Euskadi, following the positive test for Mikel Astarloza.
Aiming for: Podium honours
CN Prediction: Glory beckons
Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre - N.G.C.
Cunego fans have had to endure a season of frustration, with their favourite flattering to deceive with distressing regularity. First there was the Spring Classics campaign that failed to draw a big win and then the shame of being trounced by nearly anyone with an ounce of climbing talent at the Giro d'Italia.
An average climber and a poor time trialist, his career mirrors that of Laurent Jalabert – a rider who also shone in one Grand Tour but who struggled to reach those heights again. There's no questioning Cunego's capabilities or class in one-day race but a combination of pride and national expectancy may have blurred his vision in determining that for himself.
Aiming for: Worlds form and a strong performance
CN Prediction: A stage and the rainbow jersey, maybe
Alexander Vinokourov (Kaz) Astana
Should 'Vino' get a ride in only his third race of the year he could be a potential dark horse. The Kazakh, who briefly retired after he was ejected from the 2007 Tour for a blood transfusion, is on the verge of walking back into the big leagues with his beloved team Astana.
There's already been a brief cameo at the Tour de L'Ain where he won a stage. It might only be the preview to the main event at he Vuelta. What's he capable of? Well, he won the race in 2006 and on paper is one of the most seasoned and accomplished riders on the start list this year.
Aiming for: World domination
CN Prediction: A stage, possible top 10, and selling 'Vino forever' merchandise
Tom Danielson (USA) Garmin – Slipstream
Whisper it quietly but Tommy D might be hitting form at the most critical point in his career. The Garmin-Slipstream rider has had a disappointing three years, crippled with illness, injury and a lack of morale. Jonathan Vaughters took him under his wing in 2008 and has coached Danielson to somewhere near the peak of his capabilities.
The cotton wool and pep talks seem to be paying off with Danielson winning his first race in three years, a time trial in the Vuelta a Burgos. The opposition might not have been stellar but a win is a win in this business. And now the stage is set for Danielson, whose contract is up for renewal, to back that performance up with a strong showing. The rider once unfairly dubbed as Lance Armstrong's successor has that chance.
Aiming for: A stage win, anything but a DNF
CN Prediction: Aid Daniel Martin into the top 10 and earn another contract at Garmin
Daniele Bennati (Ita) Liquigas
If you're new to cycling then you've probably not heard of Daniele Bennati, or 'Bennati the hottie' – as one CN production editor refers to him with blushing regularity. Good looks aside, there was a time when Bennati was a big deal in cycling, winning stages in every Grand Tour and at one stage he was the biggest two-wheeled threat to Mark Cavendish's superiority. However, the Italian injured his ankle before last year's Philadelphia Classic, pulled out mid-race and hasn't been the same rider since, wining just one stage in the Vuelta last year and a few small races in 2009.
He raced the Classics this year and even made it through three weeks at the Tour without making a noise. Now, 12 months since his last win in a Grand Tour, he has the chance to get back some lost pride and take a stage win he so desperately needs.
Aiming for: A stage win
CN Prediction: The Panther finally returns to form
Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas
'Judge me on my racing' was Basso's auto-generated sound bite before he made his Grand Tour comeback at this year's Giro. Well we did, and on the evidence we've seen so far he's not the rider he was when he destroyed the competition in the 2006 Giro with what seemed like consummate ease.
With Liquigas teammates Franco Pellizotti and Vincenzo Nibali snapping at his heels this could be crunch time for the CN diarist. A top-three finish and he'll probably aim for the Tour next year, but another disappointment and his comeback will be labelled a flop.
Aiming for: Is 'redemption' too strong a word?
CN Prediction: Top 10 and a stage.
Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Caisse d'Epargne
Is this the last hurrah before the International Cycling Union (UCI) finally catch up with him or the pinnacle of a racing career that has never quite managed to succeed in Grand Tours? Operación Puerto allegations aside, there's no doubting Valverde's ability to make his rivals suffer in races. The problems lay in whether he can sustain top form for a three-week period.
In last year's Tour he arrived in peak condition and blew in the mountains, while at the Vuelta he was dropped and lost contact on a fairly flat stage in the first week.
Aiming for: Overall honours
CN Prediction: A place on the podium but that one bad day will cost him
Daniel Martin (Irl) Garmin - Slipstream
Will the real Daniel Martin please stand up? In 2008 Martin was tipped for greatness after winning the Route du Sud, his national road race and competing strongly in the Tour of Portugal. However this year he's been beset with illness and lacked form when it really mattered most.
Missing the Tour may have been just a set back – he's still 22 don't forget – but he'll finally get his chance to ride a Grand Tour at the Vuelta. Expectations will be lower and the media glare, so often a factor in the Tour, will be off.
Aiming for: He'll say 'experience' but he's an outside bet for a high placing on general classification.
CN Prediction: A top 10 overall is possible.
Alessandro Ballan (Ita) Lampre - N.G.C.
Curse of the rainbow jersey? What curse? Since riding himself into form at the Tour, Ballan has begun to show glimpses of his true quality, dominating the Tour de Pologne and winning the overall for good measure. Whether he'll complete the Vuelta isn't guaranteed but expect to see the famous jersey make it into a number of breaks. The Italian could be a dark horse to even lead the race in the first week.
With rumours still flying as to where he'll ride next season, he'll be extra motivated to make sure he earns the best contract he can. Of course there's also the small matter of using the race to prepare for a tilt at defending his world title.
Aiming for: A stage win and new contract
CN Prediction: Does the rainbow jersey justice
Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick Step
What a roller coaster season it's been for Boonen. In Paris-Roubaix he gave a master class in cobbled classic riding, decimating the opposition with panache and brute strength. However, it all started to unravel thereafter, with news of multiple cocaine positives coming out and then Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) unsuccessfully trying to bar him from the Tour.
In the end, he and his team won and Boonen raced for a dismal two weeks in France, rarely performing and then abandoning. He looks to be regaining form at the Eneco Tour but the acid test (pun intended) will come in the sprint finishes at the Vuelta, where he won two stages in 2008.
Aiming for: A stage win and possibly the points jersey
CN Prediction: A repeat of 2008 before he pulls out
Cadel Evans (Aus) Silence-Lotto
Anyone who keeps up with his Twitter feed knows he's been training hard all year and barely a day went by during the Spring when Cuddles didn't tell us how long he'd been riding for. However, when it came to the Tour – his biggest aim for the year – he came up drastically short.
Rather alarmingly for his Silence-Lotto team, he's still one of its most successful riders this year, taking two wins and the points jersey at the Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré. Explanations for his poor show at the Tour were hazy at best, but Evans will have something to prove at the Vuelta with his team already muting Jurgen Van den Broeck as a possible joint leader for next year.
But having something to prove and actually performing are two different matters entirely – remember Indurain's forced ride at the Vuelta in 1996?
Aiming for: A place on the podium
CN Prediction: It's his race to win
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