Vuelta a Espana preview: The key contenders

The Vuelta a España starts tomorrow and it looks to be an interesting two-man fight for the top step of the podium – but then that’s what we thought for the Tour de France and we know what happened there. That said, with Alberto Contador just coming back off his ban and Christopher Froome having ridden the Tour (and finishing second) and then riding the Vuelta less than a month later, it’s hard to believe either will be in invincible form, so let’s keep our fingers crossed for a rip-roaring Grand Tour. Let’s have a look at the field – and what the bookies think as well.

The main men

Contador’s back! (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

He’s back and the bookies figure he’ll take it – as do I. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) is quite simply the greatest Grand Tour rider of his generation and I don’t think anyone can really deny that he’s the favourite to win this race. Ladbrokes have him odds-on at 8/15 with good reason.

His clenbuterol ban wasn’t too long, he’s been training throughout, and he got some peloton practice by riding the Eneco Tour (where he finished fourth). The route will be to his liking – unlike at the Tour, this race will most certainly be won in the mountains.

Contador is an explosive climber who can both attack and counter others’ attacks so anyone who wants to win will have to shake him off by riding like hell at every opportunity – and then hope that he’s having a bad day as well. He is also a fine time-trialist in his own right, and should be able to keep in touch with the specialists while putting time into his fellow climbers.

Froome will want to prove he’s worthy to be team leader (image by Panache/ccarls1)

Finally given the opportunity to be the protected leader for Sky, Chris Froome (16/5) is hoping to move up one step on the podium in this Grand Tour. After his fantastic performance in the Tour this year, everyone assumes the GC will be between him and Contador.

His performance in last year’s Vuelta was eye-opening: clearly stronger than his team leader, Bradley Wiggins, if there had been no time bonuses he would have been wearing the red jersey on the podium in Madrid. But that was not to be and Froome is going to be all the more hungry for his first Grand Tour win. There are some explosive stages planned, which shouldn’t be a problem for him, as his climbing strength means he can go with any attacks that might come from his opponents, including Senor Contador.

The only question marks against Froome are whether he can cope with the mental demands of being the main man, added to the physical strain of trying to carry his form from the Tour and Olympics across an unforgiving parcours which will expose any fatigue.

The second wave

It almost seems like all the other riders are just vying for that third podium position, but any cycling fan will tell you races aren’t won by predictions. A bad day, an inopportune puncture, God forbid a crash and the top ten could be flipped on its head. So who else is in the picture?

Rodriguez had a smashing Giro (image courtesy of official website)

Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez is 9/1 with the bookies. His win in this year’s Flèche Wallonne and his magnificent second place and points classification win at the Giro d’Italia means he could give the two favourites a real run for their money. He likes a steep climb, he can hold his own in the mid-race individual time trial [maybe, but colour me sceptical on that one – Ed] and he rides with great tenacity and heart [no argument there – Ed]. With his support team including two-time Vuelta champ Denis Menchov, he is surely in with a shout.

Defending champion Juan Jose Cobo (image courtesy of Movistar)

Of course, we can’t just rule out defending champion Juan Jose Cobo (Movistar). He’s 16/1 but after his lacklustre Tour de France – where he finished an invisible 30th (which might be either a good or a bad thing, depending on your viewpoint) – it’s hard to believe he would give Contador and Froome too much bother. He did seem to be picking up form in the last week of the Tour and Movistar are putting some real firepower behind him, with Alejandro Valverde (33/1) and Nairo Quintana riding for him, so he might just surprise us.

Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Anton (20/1) just needs to get through the opening team time trial and individual time trial without too much of a deficit – Carrots aren’t especially known for their team time trialling ability [that’s putting it kindly – Ed] – and the mountain top-finishes in the last week could easily get him into the top five. Robert Gesink (Rabobank, 33/1), took a solid win in the Tour of California and there were high hopes for him in July, but his Tour de France went absolutely nowhere. With a few crashes and then no legs, he was forced to abandon on stage 11, so we can expect him to ride all out for the next three weeks to try to salvage the summer for both himself and his team.

Thomas de Gendt, 2012 Giro final TT (Image courtesy of Davide Calabresi)

Vacansoleil-DCM’s Thomas De Gendt (50/1) took on the Stelvio in the Giro and rode himself into legend. He missed the Tour this year to get married so he should be fresh and loved-up for this race. While everyone will be watching Froome and Contador, De Gendt might just pull a fast one on some of those monumental mountain stages – and will challenge Froome and Tony Martin in the time trials too. At the very least, let’s keep our fingers crossed that he gives us another spectacular solo stage win!

Mountains classification

David Moncoutie (Cofidis) has won the King of the Mountains jersey for the past four years and he’s hunting for a record fifth. The bookies put him at 6/4 and the incentive of setting this record should give him wings, although the sheer number of summit finishes may make it difficulty for him to gain and then defend the jersey against the big GC contenders. Our view? His odds are more reflective of past performance than a realistic view of this year’s competition. We’re steering clear.

Contador is 5/2 and Rodriguez is 8/1, while Anton (14/1), Cobo (16/1) and Froome (20/1) also feature prominently. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana, 20/1) held the KoM jersey in the Tour for eight stages before Thomas Voeckler decided that the polka dots were for him and outfoxed and outrode him. It would be worth keeping an eye on him in this race. He’s no threat for the GC, so may be allowed to slip away in breakaways to mop up big points.

Points classification

The mountains-heavy profile of this year’s race means the points classification is weighted towards the pure, explosive climbers rather than their pure, explosive sprint counterparts. This is reflected in the bookies’ odds, with six of the top seven identified riders being pure climbers. Contador and Rodriguez are joint favourites at 7/4, with Froome, Valverde, Anton and Cobo all 25/1 or better.

Having said that, we reckon there are nine stages with the potential to end in a bunch sprint – stages two, five, seven, ten, 11, 13, 18, 19 and 21 – although you can be sure a breakaway will scoop up at least one or two of these, particularly later in the race. And, as the old adage goes: to finish first, one must first finish. On the one hand, the trio of monster climbing days which conclude the second week (stages 14-16) may convince many sprinters to climb off their bikes and head for the beach. On the other, with none of the big sprinting names – Cavendish, Sagan, Greipel, Goss – present here, it is a real opportunity for someone new to make their mark with a slew of stage victories. Any fast-twitch man who survives beyond the second rest day will be salivating at the prospect of a potential closing hat-trick, as three of the last four stages are flat.

Swift could challenge in the points competition, though we think he will target stage wins instead (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Possibilities? Sky’s Ben Swift (16/1) is running into form, winning two stages and the points jersey at last month’s Tour of Poland. His most likely rival is Argos-Shimano’s ‘other’ German sprinter, John Degenkolb (28/1), who has been overshadowed this year by teammate Marcel Kittel but claimed a win in Poland. Both could potentially challenge for the jersey if they can string together a series of victories. But Degenkolb lacks consistency, while Swift will have to contend with the fact that Sky will prioritise Froome over him, just as they did for Wiggins over Cavendish at the Tour.

Among the other sprinters, the target is more likely to be stage victories than the points jersey. New French national champion Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ-BigMat, 50/1) has won plenty of smaller races this year, and will hope to make an impact on the big stage with a stage or two. Looking further afield, there is experience in Orica-GreenEDGE’s Allan Davis and RadioShack-Nissan’s Daniele Bennati, raw speed in Rabobank’s Lars Boom and Liquigas’ Elia Viviani, and Classics heavy-hitters in Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC).

It’s a genuinely tough call which way the points competition will go – climber or sprinter? – and it could provide the most interesting battle of the final week, as both the GC and mountains classifications could well be settled long before Madrid.

VeloVoices Vuelta a Espana previews

Teams and sponsors (part 1)

Teams and sponsors (part 2)

Key stages

Link: Vuelta a Espana official website