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Spanish Stew: How the Vuelta a Espana GC contenders stack up

SANXENXO, Spain (VN) — There’s a saying that the best rider always wins the Tour de France. Every rider in the peloton brings his A game to the Tour, and inevitably the strongest rider on the strongest team wins. There have been exceptions, but nine out of 10 times, that axiom holds true.

The Vuelta a España, which opens Saturday with a team time trial in Galicia, is quite another story.

Almost no one targets the Vuelta specifically. It’s as if no one even considers the Vuelta until the Tour is over. Then everyone says, ‘oh yeah, there’s another grand tour to race, let’s see who can win!’

The Tour’s top guns — Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Vuelta defending champ Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) — are all steering clear of a mountainous Vuelta.

That leaves a huge vacuum that could produce the most exciting, and unpredictable, race of the year.

Filling out the startlist is an interesting mish-mash of riders who, for a variety of reasons and circumstances, are all over the map in terms of fitness, motivation, and goals.

Some are coming back from injury and hungry to save their seasons, as is the case of Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard). Others are desperate to find a ride for next season (see Chris Horner). Yet others are using the Vuelta as a springboard for the world championships, which takes place on a hilly course near Florence, Italy. More than a few riders are here because they’ve been ordered to. Some are keen to win the race, but they won’t know if they have the legs to do it until they hit the mountains.

Pre-race favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) admitted he was “more tired than expected” after riding to third in the Tour. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) estimates he starts the Vuelta “at 75 percent” of full strength. Sergio Henao (Sky) “hopes to do well” in his first crack as a protected GC rider.

All those different ingredients add up for a very interesting stew. Or estofado, as it’s called in Spain.

Add an explosive, sometimes brutal route, with no less than a dozen hilly and mountainous stages, the Spanish summer heat with temperatures north of 100 Fahrenheit, and a peloton full of weary legs, and things could get quite spicy.

It’s very unlikely that a rider is going to take control of the race from outset and grind everyone into the tarmac, a la Froome and Sky at the Tour.

Instead, there could be a gripping, seesaw battle all the way to the final ramps of the fearsome Anglirú climb on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage.

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