61st Vuelta a España - GT
Spain, August 26-September 17, 2006
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.
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.
Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne - Illes Balears) will be looking to prove that his second place in the Tour was no fluke. He may well eventually be declared the winner of the Tour depending on what happens in the Floyd Landis affair, but he has indicated that if he does win it will feel hollow, "One would have liked to receive the prize in Paris after the race. It is not the same - it doesn't have the same flavour," he told Cyclingnews.
Pereiro may not be given the same freedom that he was afforded on stage 13 of the Tour when Phonak, T-Mobile and CSC failed to recognise him as a serious threat, allowing him to gain 30 minutes on the peloton. In his favour though, is the return from injury of team leader Alejandro Valverde, whose presence opens up the attacking options for Caisse d'Epargne, who seems to have quickly recovered from the broken collarbone that he sustained in the Tour. Vladimir Karpets will expected to lend assistance in the mountains.
CSC will be looking to the initially reluctant Carlos Sastre, who may finish third in the Tour depending on the outcome of the Landis case, to move up one place from last year to first. Sastre has already ridden the Giro and the Tour in 2006 but doesn't seem to be tired - he was in the break that escaped on the first category Jaizkibel at the Clasica San Sebastian - and seems mentally prepared, "I want to be at the maximum physically as well as mentally in order to achieve a result as good as last year, or that of the Tour. If not, it's preferable not to participate," he said.
Alexandre Vinokourov has been caught up in the Operacion Puerto Spanish police drugs scandal, without any direct accusations ever having been levelled at him - only at some of his Astana team-mates. Astana is still mired in bureaucratic red tape in the days leading up to the race start but it looks likely that the team will be permitted to start sans any riders who are under the Operacion Puerto blowtorch. He was in good form at the Tour of Germany and the Clasica San Sebastian and will be looking for a big result to compensate for being denied the opportunity to improve on his fifth place in the 2005 Tour.
Iban Mayo has tested the patience of tipsters over the years, but he was in great form at San Sebastian. He's an extremely gifted climber who has not come anywhere near realising his potential. He is young enough to reclaim his 2003 Tour form, although the sight of him abandoning in the feed zone on stage 11 would provide evidence to the contrary.
Discovery's Tom Danielson did not ride the Tour with the goal of arriving fresh at the Vuelta and bettering his seventh place from last year. The secondary goal is to give the relatively inexperienced rider some valuable grand tours blooding before tackling the Tour in 2007. Disco's Johann Bruyneel said, "When we decided Tom would be the leader for the Vuelta, which is something we decided in the beginning of the year, we decided Tom would focus on the Giro and the Vuelta -- the two big races he did last year. I wanted to see improvement in both of them. After his seventh place last year in the Vuelta, he had all the reasons to be the team leader this year if everything went to plan."
Haimar Zubeldia (Eusklatel-Euskadi) finished ninth in the Tour and will be keyed up for a big ride in his home race if Mayo falters again. Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) is an outsider worth watching after his second place at the Clasica San Sebastian on August 12.
Lampre-Fondital has nominated Evgueni Petrov and Marco Marzano as riders that could finish high in the overall standings. T-Mobile's Bernhard Kohl showed that he can climb with the best at this year's Dauphine Libéré and will want to show his 2007 employers, Gerolsteiner, that they have invested wisely.
The flat stages should provide some of the most exciting stages if the quality of the protagonists is any guide. All the big guns will be on the Vuelta start line from the Tour - Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Erik Zabel - plus his Milram team-mate Alessandro Petacchi, who has recovered from the knee injury that kept him out of the Tour. Petacchi should provide plenty of fireworks with McEwen as the two vie for the unofficial title of fastest sprinter in the world.
The winner of two stages in the Tour, Oscar Freire (Rabobank) has not recovered from a neck injury and has withdrawn. Promising young Australian rider Will Walker is a more than able replacement for Freire. Danilo Napolitano (Lampre-Fondital) has been in great form recently, winning the Coppa Bernocchi on August 17. Valverde is one of those rare riders can be counted among the favourites for the sprinter's prize as well as for the amarillo jersey. Of the other sprinters, Aussies Stuart O'Grady (CSC) and Mark Renshaw (Credit Agricole) will be hoping for a stage win or two.
The 2006 profile of la Vuelta a España does not look as hard on paper as the 2005 edition. The Pyrenees have been omitted for a start and there are none of the horror climbs that have featured in previous editions such as the Angliru and Lagos de Covadonga. Still, there are plenty of tough climbs in the parcours and the searing heat that can grip Spain in early September, the echelon-inducing crosswinds and the quality of the field are sure to make the race difficult.
The Vuelta starts at the southern coastal city of Malaga on Saturday with a team time trial covering 7.2 kilometres, which is not long enough for the strong teams to gain any real advantage. It is a crowd pleaser, however and will serve to sort out the GC. There are three mountain stages in the first week before the race turns to the northwestern part of the country for three more mountain stages. After the first rest day and a stage spent close to the Atlantic, the race heads south to Cuenca, where the first individual time trial over 33 kilometres will take place.
The race then heads to the Mediterranean Sea at Almussafes - and the second rest day and a transfer to the far south again for another three mountain stages. The final time trial before the traditional finish in Madrid will be carried out in Rivas Vaciamadrid. The parcours totals 3129 kilometres.