Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)
Three Grand Tour podiums in 12 months, including one win, speaks for itself and Nibali’s consistency – and not his descending prowess – is what truly marks him as a genuine Grand Tour rider. In last year’s Vuelta, he raced methodically, playing the averages and displaying a tactical awareness that is so often lacking in many of his generation.
The 26-year-old Italian will undoubtedly start as the favourite as the profile and number of mountain stages count in his favour. With explosive climbers including Igor Anton and Joaquim Rodriguez both challenging, Nibali will ride defensively on occasions but his general all-round strength, coupled with his superior time trialing abilities over the Spaniards, should see him challenge for a step on the podium at the very least.
If there’s a question to be answered, it’s whether he has reached a plateau as a rider. Not a bad plateau though, is it?
Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
We’ll never know how close Anton would have come to overall victory in last year’s race, but before his crash on stage 14 there was no doubting the fact he was the strongest rider in the race. With two stage wins, one on stage 4 and the second coming at Andorra on stage 11, he lay 45 seconds ahead of his closet challenger – Nibali – before his fall.
This year Anton has shown flashes of that scintillating form. A courageous stage win at the Giro d'Italia stage to Monte Zoncolan was so full of panache it would have blown the scales apart on the IG Market ranking system, but from that moment the Spaniard faded badly, leaving certain question marks over his ability to go the distance over three weeks.
But the Vuelta is a different proposition and it’s unquestionably Anton’s biggest goal of the year. The fact that the route ventures into the Basque country will act as a catalyst for what potentially could be Euskaltel-Euskadi’s first Grand Tour win.
Jurgen van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto)
A small chuckle escaped our lips when Marc Sergeant declared that VDB could crack the top five in the Tour de France in 2010. We ate our words three weeks later when he finished fifth and since then the Belgian has looked the part.
Fast forward to this year’s Vuelta and the biggest question surrounds his fitness and form. Unlike Wiggins’ clean collarbone break at the Tour, VBD suffered a collapsed lung, three broken ribs and a wrecked shoulder. Now back on the bike and preparing in the Sierra Nevada, he will need to hit the ground running in the Vuelta.
A dark horse, perhaps, but one that could win the race if his form is as strong as it was pre-July’s crash.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD)
Photo: Roberto Bettini
Whisper it quietly but Scarponi could end the season as the number one rider in the world. Currently fourth, a stellar GC ride, coupled with strong performances in the Italian one-day races later in the season, could elevate him to the top spot in the world. We’re just as speechless, too.
First things first and Scarponi has already talked himself up a genuine contender for the race. His climbing ability will count in his favour and his performance at the Giro, where he finished ahead of Nibali and was Contador’s closest contender, will make him a dangerous proposition.
Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC)
On paper Menchov is the most successful GC contender – two Vueltas, a Giro and podium in the Tour – but he has been a shadow this year. The fact he hasn’t won a single race since 2009 and that Geox-TMC failed to receive invitations for most of the biggest races this year certainly doesn’t improve his billing, and at 33 you can’t help but see his stint at Gianetti’s team as one final paycheck before the Russian totally vanishes back beyond the curtain.
However, if Menchov gets his head together the route certainly gives him an opportunity. Against the clock he can be crushing, while like Nibali he can follow and even probe on the climbs. With Andy and Frank Schleck and Alberto Contador both missing, he should be there or thereabouts and at his best he could make the podium.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Photo: Roberto Bettini
Quite just how his rivals view Rodriguez is a bit of a mystery. On his day, he can climb with almost anyone but his time trialing is without doubt the weakest of all the GC riders. In fact, it’s so bad that it makes the Schlecks look like hour record contenders. Yet with only 40-odd kilometers of individual racing against the clock, not all is lost for the Spaniard.
If he can stay within a respectable three minutes of his rivals on the stage 10 time trial, he may still challenge for a podium place. Lose close to the six minutes he did in last year’s race against the clock and he’ll be hunting for stage wins – although one suspects that’s his best role anyway.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky)
There’s no doubt that Wiggins was in the form of his life when he crashed out of the Tour de France in July, but despite the British press’s love affair, that doesn't necessarily suggest that he would have challenged Cadel Evans and the Schlecks for a podium finish. Remember, Levi Leipheimer won the Tour de Suisse around the same time as Wiggins took the Dauphine and the lesson remains: Not since Armstrong's years of domination has a rider won in June and gone on to really challenge at the Tour.
Still, Wiggins has the chance to prove any doubters wrong over his true GC credentials. The opening TTT could see him lead the race, while the stage 10 time trial should see him distance the likes of Anton, Scarponi and Rodriguez by at least two precious minutes. Unlike many of his rival GC contenders Wiggins also has a team of genuine climbers to support him. Away from the glare of the Tour, three weeks in Spain could see the making of Wiggins. 2009 seems like a long time ago now, so it’s time the Brit proved it wasn’t a fluke result.
Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervelo)
Photo: Riccardo Scanferla
While Johan Bruyneel’s record of Grand Tour wins is beyond comparison in the modern era, a closer look reveals the pool of talent he gave up in his pursuit of preparing Armstrong for success. Comparatively it’s hard to knock Jonathan Vaughters’ record of picking up where the Belgian failed or at least decided not to look. First there was Christian Vande Velde’s fourth in the 2008 Tour, before two more former Postal riders, Ryder Hesjedal and Tom Danielson, went on to crack Tour top 10s.
Vaughters certainly has a talent for spotting what others have failed to develop or notice and in Dan Martin he could have another Grand Tour contender.
Martin was laughed at when he turned up to race at VC Pomme but Vaughters took a chance and Garmin has one of the most exciting climbers of a generation. But while his palmares has steadily improved the Irishman has done virtually nil in Grand Tours. Harsh perhaps as the Vuelta in 2009 was his first test over three weeks and last year’s Giro was affected by allergies, but this year’s race marks a potentially seminal moment in Martin’s career.
Heading into the race with form, fitness and confidence, he will be hoping to last the distance as a top 10 contender. While failure to do that would certainly not be the end of his ambitions in major tours it would perhaps take some of the shine from his star.
A stage win or two is certainly within his grasp, though, and with Christophe Le Mevel also riding the pressure will be evenly spread.
Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank)
If Martin deserves inclusion at the expense of Nicolas Roche and Carlos Sastre then Kruijswijk deserves his place here as well. At 24, he appears like the real deal as a stage racer, confirmed by this excellent ninth place in the Giro. He followed that up with third in the Tour de Suisse which suggests that he has the head as well as the legs – how many riders would have simply put their feet up after the Giro?
The course again suits his climbing ability, while the only doubt is whether he can handle two Grand Tours in a single season. We think he’ll take it in his stride and walk away with the best young rider's jersey in the process.
Andreas Klöden (RadioShack)
He says he’s still not at 100 percent following his Tour de France crash but the German wouldn’t head to Spain just to pedal through the heat. At 36, he’s closing in on the twilight of his career but there’s still enough power in the legs to mount a genuine challenge on the top ten. If it all goes to pot expect to see him joining up with his old pal Jan Ullrich at a sportif or two.