It hasn't done the Vuelta a Espana any favours being the final Grand Tour of the season as now there's always the sneaky feeling that it only concerns those who need redemption or have to prove their worth. This year is no exception but with the three pre-Tour de France favourites on the start line is this edition going to be more of a round two?
Lets start with the guy who bossed everyone at the Tour de France, Chris Froome. Why is the Sky team leader at the start at all? He doesn't need to prove anything. He won his third Tour in July in convincing style with no-one really challenging him and it's not like Sky have a great interest in the Spanish market. The clue lies in something Tejay Van Garderen said and a bit of personal ambition.
Froome has unfinished business with the Vuelta and it's a race he ought to have won in 2011 but team tactics and decisions meant otherwise, so he'd like to win it at least one time just because he knows he can. Add into that equation doing two grand Tours in a year seems to be part of the long term plan for him to ensure he has enough depth to his racing. Lots of training is OK but it's a big gap from one Tour de France to the next and doing the Vuelta seems to be filling that need of maintaining a certain degree of inner strength.
That's all very well, however Sky aren't putting out their A team (no offence) and Froome hasn't been through the same process of preparation for this three weeks of racing as he has for the Tour de France. There will be the residual fatigue from July, the travelling to Rio, and the perfectly natural decompression after having met his main targets. For him to win he's hoping his talent, form or what's left of it, and personal ambition will be enough but there won't be the burning hunger or need.
Which brings us to a man who has both for this race. Alberto Contador.
Crashing out of the Tour de France means the Spaniard doesn't have the same fatigue levels of his rivals. He didn't go to Rio so all he's been doing is recovering from his injuries and getting ready for this Vuelta. This race matters to him and it's his chance to prove what could have been in France. Add to that it's Tinkoff's last big Tour and he has a team at his disposal good enough to control most situations. He might have already won the Vuelta three times but this time around Contador needs to prove to himself and everyone else that he still has what it takes and he could/would/should have been in yellow in Paris.
The Vuelta isn't like the other Grand Tours. It's less predictable, less of a procession and to win it you need a strong team and an adaptability that can seize opportunities when they present themselves. It suits Contador to a tee.
The little Colombian looks like he is having one of those years. His Tour was lackluster and despite finishing third he never seriously challenged Chris Froome. He looked tired in the second half of the Tour and there was no sparkle to his climbing. The promised improvement in his time trialing came at the expense of going uphill with the brio we expect from him. Did being a Tour de France favourite get too much or was he over-trained? Either way you don't recover instantly from a kicking and that's essentially what he and his team got in July.
The only reason I can think as to why he’s at the start is because the Vuelta is Movistar's home race and they have demanded their strongest men get out there and show what they are worth following a disappointing French campaign. You need a degree of freshness going into such a hard race and Quintana and most of Movistar look like they are running on fumes at the moment.
Contador starts as the main favourite but he'll need to beat Froome, as it won't just happen for him. The other interesting part will be the progression of Esteban Chaves and how Teejay Van Garderen goes about racing without worries again. The Vuelta is the perfect platform for that.