Received wisdom suggests that fresher legs tend to win out at the Vuelta a España, and so Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale), who missed the Tour de France and all bar three days of the Giro d'Italia, leaps off the page as a dark horse for the podium in Madrid next month.
The man himself, however, is less convinced – of the theory rather than of his chances – pointing out that his 2015 season has not been lacking in intensity. Since beginning his campaign at the Tour Down Under in January, Pozzovivo had amassed 42 race days before the Vuelta began, despite two enforced breaks from competition.
"Freshness is all relative because I started my year early in Australia and I did decent race down there too," Pozzovivo told Cyclingnews in Cordoba on Thursday. "I've still raced a lot, and on top of that, I've had to recover from an operation in January [to remove pins from the tibia he broke in a crash last summer – ed.] and I had to get over the crash in the Giro in May, so it was a season of playing catch-up in a lot of respects. I might be a little fresher than the riders who've done a Grand Tour, but not by much, because it's still been a demanding year."
Less than a week after leaving the Giro by ambulance, Pozzovivo put in an appearance in the press room in Campitello Matese to announce his intention to make a prompt return to action and make a long-awaited Tour de France debut. As it turned out, he was back in time for the Tour de Suisse, where he finished 5th overall, but Ag2r-La Mondiale opted to withhold him from La Grande Boucle.
"It was a little bit of a regret, because I'd found my condition a bit and it would have been nice to be able to take advantage of it," Pozzovivo admitted. "But in any case, I did a nice Tour de Suisse and then I rested for a bit with an aim to finding another peak of form at the end of the season, so hopefully it comes at this Vuelta."
Pozzovivo's build-up to the Vuelta, too, was not without its complications. In early August, he was married in Cosenza, an event bookended by an altitude training camp on the Stelvio and the Tour de l'Ain, his final warm-up for the Vuelta. "It was a bit difficult alright, to prepare at altitude for the Vuelta at the same time as you're preparing for your wedding," he smiled. "But I was able to help my wife with the most important stuff."
The Italian arrived in Marbella for the start of the Vuelta understandably apprehensive about his prospects in the punchy opening exchanges in Andalusia, but since limiting his losses at Caminito del Rey on stage 2, Pozzovivo has grown in assurance. He was on the right side of the split in the final kilometre at Alcalá de la Guadaíra on stage 6, and he came home safely alongside all of the general classification contenders at Sierra di Cazorla on Thursday.
"On the first summit finish, I didn't have the best sensations, but then I'd only done one small race before coming here, so I think I was missing a bit of race rhythm," Pozzovivo said. "I felt a lot better on Wednesday. I think I'm going quite well, but on stage 7 I'll have a better idea of how I am and of where I stand compared to the others, because it's quite a long climb and there could be gaps."
Six stages in, Pozzovivo lies in 14th place overall, 1:19 down on leader Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) but just 24 seconds behind Chris Froome (Sky). Friday's stage to La Alpujarra finishes with an 18.7km haul to the line that should provoke the first major differences between the pre-race favourites. "I don't know much about it beyond what I've been able to find on the internet," Pozzovivo said. "It doesn't seems to be a very tough climb but it is very long, and it looks like it's going to be very hot, and down south there's not much vegetation or shelter on the roadsides."
The second week, with the demanding stage to Andorra and a troika of summit finishes in Spain's rainy northwest, ought to be more to Pozzovivo's liking, and if he is still in contention by week three, his surprisingly good recent record against the watch suggests that he might be able to limit his losses in the stage 17 time trial in Burgos.
"In time trials where the average speed is under 45kph, I normally go pretty well. This one is a bit faster, except for the finale, so it will be more a case of defending myself, but in any case I don't think there'll be huge time gaps," Pozzovivo said.
As for his final overall placing in Madrid, Pozzovivo dismissed the idea of challenging for the red jersey and, given the presence of Froome, Quintana, Valverde et al, hinted that fighting for a place on the podium might also be beyond him.
"Looking at the start list, I think aiming for final overall victory would be very, very difficult," Pozzovivo said. "But I am aiming for a place in top five, which would signify bettering my 6th place from two years ago, and it would also be a comeback after my Giro this year."