With defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) racing at the Tour of Britain in September, Vuelta a España organisers have handed bib number one of their race to former winner Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), though the Italian has played down his chances of overall success.
Nibali crashed out of this year's Tour de France on the stage to Alpe d'Huez after a fan's camera strap appeared to take him down. He finished the stage and climbed to fourth on GC but was later diagnosed with a fractured vertebra.
In recent weeks he has returned to health but his top form is still some way off, and he is expected to challenge for stage wins rather than target the red jersey he won back in 2010 as part of the Liquigas team. Instead, Ion Izaguirre will lead Bahrain-Merida's GC ambitions.
"A successful Vuelta for me would mean being a protagonist in some nice stages as I'm still in a recovery process, it's hard for me to think of the overall classification with so few days of training behind me," the Italian said in a press release issued by the race organisers.
"Ideally, for me personally, I'd love to win stages in the last week of racing", he added.
Nibali is not the only defending champion heading to the Vuelta, with Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde (both Movistar) and Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) all lining up for the final Grand Tour of this year. Nibali, however will be using the race to build up towards the World Championships. The Innsbruck course suits a pure climber, and Nibali has already seen the course having trained on it earlier in the year. For now, the focus is on the Vuelta and picking the stages to target between the start of the race and the finish in Madrid.
"I've always enjoyed racing in Spain. The courses are beautiful and I feel less pressure at La Vuelta than at the Giro and the Tour. The rhythm of a day in Spain reminds me of the south of Italy. Of course my best memory remains my overall win in 2010, the first Grand Tour I won. It's been a milestone in my career".
Nibali has not raced since his Tour de France challenge ended on stage 12 but Vuelta a Epsana race organizer Javier Guillen believes that the Milan-San Remo winner is the perfect rider to wear bib number 1.
"Very few active riders have a record book as brilliant as his. It's a luxury to have Nibali in contention once again. In addition to having won it, he showed his commitment to the race last year by doing his best to climb on the second step of the final podium [as in 2013]. He's an elegant rider, combative and charismatic. He deserves the bib number 1," Guillen said.
Bahrain-Merida announced their eight-man line-up for the Vuelta on Monday, with Ion Izaguirre to target the overall given the circumstances surrounding Nibali. The Spaniard is a week-long stage race specialist but has never really tested himself with a sustained GC bid across three weeks.
“I finished the Tour de France with a good condition and also in San Sebastián the sensations were good. It will be my first Vuelta in my career and will race for the GC," said Izaguirre.
"I have reconned several stages – especially the climbs in the north of Spain – and I like the route. There are also 40km TT and this is an advantage for me."
Izaguirre will be supported by his older brother, Gorka Izaguirre, along with the young duo of Mark Padun and Hermann Pernsteiner, both making their Grand Tour debuts. Nibali has his old ally Franco Pelizotti with him, while the team is rounded out by Ivan Garcia Cortina and Luka Pibernik.
“We have a very strong team with men who can do well on both the GC and the stage win. There are experienced athletes like Franco Pellizotti and young debutants like Mark Padun and Hermann Pernsteiner," said sport director Gorazd Stangelj.
"Our GC rider will be Ion Izagirre, with Vincenzo Nibali who can certainly make a good Vuelta. As usual, it will be a very special race, different from Giro d’Italia and Tour de France and with already a lot of climbs starting from the second stage."
Bahrain-Merida for the 2018 Vuelta a España: Vincenzo Nibali, Franco Pellizotti, Ion Izagirre, Gorka Izagirre, Ivan Garcia Cortina, Luka Pibernik, Hermann Pernsteiner and Mark Padun
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