It’s time for the third and final Grand Tour of the season. This year’s Vuelta a España is a real climbers delight with no less than 12 stages finishing uphill. The favorites are many and there are no doubts that this is the most open of the three Grand Tours this year.
Once again, the race starts out with a team time trial but compared to the last couple of years, the time differences will be much bigger this time. We have an uphill finish already on the second day and this means you can’t afford to start out too far off your game. The first sprint stage isn’t due until Stage 5 and we can expect relatively big time differences in the overall classification already at this point. However, it’s nothing compared to the last week. Six out of the last eight stages finish on the top of a climb and with Angliru on the penultimate day, nothing is certain before the final stage to Madrid.
For this year’s Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, it was pretty easy picking out the few big favorites. Without Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali had no real competition in the Giro and since Alberto Contador wasn’t as strong as usually in the Tour, Chris Froome wasn’t really threatened at any point in the Tour. This Vuelta, however, is wide open. Vincenzo Nibali is my personal favorite for the overall win but it won’t be easy to repeat his 2010-performance. I expect Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, Ivan Basso, Sergio Henao and Samuel Sanchez to fight for the Red Jersey and I’m sure a we will see a couple of outsiders in the mix as well.
I don’t remember a Grand Tour with so many strong riders fighting for Top10. Just by a quick glans of the start list, I see at least 25 riders with an actual chance of finishing within the ten first. Veterans like Chris Horner and Michele Scarponi both start out the Vuelta with podium ambitions and even though I doubt it will happen, I won’t rule them out as possible Top5 in Madrid.
|These are the 21 stages of this year's Vuelta a España.|
Another very interesting ‘veteran’ is Ivan Basso. This season has been a nightmare for former Giro d’Italia winner and he’s now hoping to make it all right with a good performance in the Vuelta. Usually you never see Ivan Basso until it really counts. This year Chris Froome won everything leading up the Tour. Basso's preparation is completely different. He knows how to prepare in his own way and he always manages to deliver when it’s time. Still, in Tour of Poland Basso finished fifth on the first mountain stage and without doing much more in the race, he took 8th place overall. In Vuelta a Burgos he decided to test himself on the final mountain stage and he looked very strong when he dropped Vincenzo Nibali to finish third on Lagunas de Neila. Ivan Basso is not great on the short steep finishes but this Vuelta is lot more than that, and I’m sure Basso will make a great race and finish in the top.
Originally, I had Carlos Betancur down for a podium place but the Colombian climber has been sick recently and therefore hasn’t been able to prepare the way he wanted. Also, he hasn’t raced since the Giro. For Betancur, the World Champions in Italy is the big goal for this second part of the season. He may not start out this Vuelta in great shape but I’m sure he will be flying by the end of the race. It could easily be enough to make Top10 overall but I doubt he’ll be a player for the podium. Another strong GC rider from Ag2r is Domenico Pozzovivo. The Italian climber finished 7th overall in Tour of Poland and I expect him do very well in this Vuelta.
A Colombian rider has finished 2nd overall in the first two Grand Tours of 2013 and in case Carlos Betancur isn’t ready, it’s up to Sergio Henao to keep up the tradition. Henao started out this year in a very strong way by winning the mountain stage in Volta ao Algarve. He then went on to win a stage in Vuelta Pais Vasco, where he finished 3rd overall, before taking second place in Flèche Wallone. As expected, he faded in the end of the Giro but recently he looked strong in Tour of Poland with a 5th place overall. Last year, Sergio Henao finished 14th in the Vuelta after helping out team leader Chris Froome. This year, Henao is the leader and he has a very strong team to support him. Dario Cataldo - who I think will do very well in this race - and Rigoberto Uran will be at his service in the mountains. Team Sky have finished 2nd (Uran, Giro) and 1st (Froome, Tour) in the last two Grand Tours and they are eager to continue that streak. Both Purito and Valverde had to dig deep in the Tour de France and in case they end up paying for that in the final week of the Vuelta, Henao and others will be ready to take advantage of the situation.
This year’s Vuelta will be the last one with Euskaltel-Euskadi on the start list. The orange color of the Basque team will be dearly missed in the mountains but not just yet. With Samuel Sanchez, Mikel Nieve, Igor Antón and Mikel Landa among the nine starters, Euskaltel show they are ready to fight. The goal is to put Samuel Sanchez on the final podium in Madrid and it won’t be a surprise if they succeed. Sanchez is experienced and already knows what it takes to make Top3 in the Vuelta. He should be able to gain some time on his rivals in the individual time trial and if he hits his top level, he won’t be easy to drop in the mountains either.
Before I end, I’ll quickly mention Team Saxo-Tinkoff. The Danish team has a strong line up with Roman Kreuziger, Rafal Majka and Nicolas Roche. When announcing the team, DS Tristan Hoffman said he saw Kreuziger as the natural leader. However, the Czech rider himself says he won’t be targeting the overall classification. Kreuziger has already had a long and very successful season and he’s now focusing on the World Champions. Instead of going for the GC, Kreuziger will aim at a stage win and to help out Rafal Majka and Nicolas Roche. Especially Roche is eager to perform well. The Irishman has been aiming at the Vuelta the whole season and after dropping a few kilos, he’s now not afraid of talking about Top5 overall. It will be interesting to see if he can live up to his own expectations.
|The map of this year's Vuelta a España starting in Galicia and finishing in Madrid after 21 stages.|
As always, I have a few jokers for you as well. First up is David Arroyo. After more than 10 years on Movistar (and its former names), Arroyo moved to the little Spanish team, Caja Rural for this season. He didn’t do much to show his name in the first part of the year but lately he’s been getting better and better. He came close to winning Vuelta a Burgos overall a few weeks ago and he looked very strong in the mountains. Only super climber Nairo Quintana could distance Arroyo uphill on the final day and now the Spaniard hopes to shine in the Vuelta. David Arroyo surprised everyone when he finished second overall in the Giro d’Italia three years ago. I doubt he can repeat that performance this time but I definitely see him as a strong Top10 candidate. Maybe even more if everything goes his way again.
My second joker for the overall classification is Tomasz Marczynski. It’s a been a great year for Polish cycling and I wouldn’t be surprised if it continues in the Vuelta. Last year, Marczynski made a few mistakes in the last week of the race but still managed to finish 13th overall. There are a lot more candidates this year but I still think Marczynski has what it takes to make Top10. Vacansoleil-DCM are desperately searching for a new sponsor for next year and they bring their strongest team possible to the Vuelta. Riders like Wout Poels, Thomas De Gendt and Lieuwe Westra could all lead the team but according to my information, the Dutch team is putting their faith in Tomasz Marczynski.
Other good jokers for the overall classification are Movistar’s three super domestiques; Javi Moreno, Eros Capecchi & Beñat Intxausti. Sames goes for Lampre’s [future super] climber Winner Anacona and Team NetApp’s Leopold König.
There are about six stages for the sprinters is this year’s Vuelta a España. Still, we don’t have any super sprinters starting the race. Tyler Farrar will have a unique opportunity to regain status as a “top sprinter” without the competition of Cavendish, Kittel, Greipel, Sagan etc. etc. Farrar’s rivals will be Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gianni Meersman, Theo Bos, Leigh Howard and the youngsters Barry Markus, Michael Matthews and Adrien Petit. Personally, I expect a lot from Barry Markus. He has recently signed a deal with Team Belkin for 2014 saying he wants to learn from Theo Bos. However, in my opinion, he will already show that he is a level above Bos in this Vuelta.
In the beginning, I wrote I saw at least 25 riders with a chance of making Top10 in this race. I’ll leave you with the list of those riders. The order is irrelevant.
I will be publishing daily Stage Previews during the race. Each preview will be online the evening before the stage starts. For live coverage of Vuelta a España 2013 go to steephill.tv