Stars align for Vuelta

Defending champion Dennis Menchov is back to defend the Vuelta crown that he inherited by default...

Defending champion Dennis Menchov is back to defend the Vuelta crown that he inherited by default when initial winner Roberto Heras returned a positive drugs sample. Menchov will race alongside Tour stars Oscar Pereiro, Alejandro Valverde and Carlos Sastre. Alexandre Vinokourov, Iban Mayo and a host of local riders looking to make a name for themselves make the battle for the overall one to savour. The big-gun sprinters are ready as well. Robbie McEwen versus Alessandro Petacchi is the battle royale that observers missed in the Tour - who will emerge as the fastest in the world? John Kenny previews the final grand tour of the year.

The favourites

Dennis Menchov (Rabobank) is a good bet to defend his Vuelta crown. Menchov was denied the opportunity of standing on the final podium in Madrid as the initial winner, Roberto Heras, had not been disqualified by the end of the race. Heras returned a 'non-negative' sample for EPO on stage 20 of the race, but his guilt was not confirmed until November 25. The whole experience may sound vaguely familiar…. Menchov will surely want to savour victory at the final podium presentation, not months after the event and it may help inspire him to put in a great ride. Moreover, there is still a small amount of doubt concerning Menchov's win as Heras has not exhausted all the avenues of appeal.

Despite his obvious good form, Menchov is being coy about his chances for the overall. "I'd love to win the race, but the Vuelta is a secondary objective this year after the Tour and I don't feel as fresh this time," the Russian told Spanish newspaper Marca. It's not unusual for sportspeople to underplay their chances, however, so he should still be marked as a favourite.

Menchov had a great Tour de France, finishing sixth and winning stage 11 in front of Levi Leipheimer and Floyd Landis. He can also count on the assistance of Tour polka dot jersey winner Michael Rasmussen, who lent Menchov valuable assistance when he struggled on l'Alpe d'Huez.

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