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Will anyone stop Quintana at the Vuelta?

CADIZ, Spain (VN) — This Vuelta a España just might live up to its billing as the best-ever field for the Spanish tour.

Without a doubt, more big names and established superstars rolled out of the start gate Saturday than any Vuelta before. Grand tour winners. World champions. Rising stars. Aging champions. They’ve all come to the Vuelta with varying goals and ambitions. Some are trying to save their season, others to build for the world championships. A few to say goodbye.

Yet when you press those big names about who’s going to win this thing, what’s a race organizer’s dream startlist quickly melts into the “not me” tour. Ask Chris Froome (Sky), and he’ll point to Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo). Ask the superstar Spaniard, and he’ll say he’s not yet over his crash-induced injuries. Like Contador, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) is also on the comeback trail, looking more to get a grand tour in his legs than seriously challenge for the Vuelta. Perennial favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) admits he won’t know his true form until the road tilts upward. Defending champion Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) couldn’t even take the start, while Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who slipped into the red leader’s jersey Sunday, simply shrugged and said, “we’ll see.”

Behind them is an equally illustrious pack of worlds-bound riders, such as Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Tom Boonen and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale), all riders who are sure to pick their moment and selectively light up the race, but none of whom will seriously contend for victory when the Vuelta ends in Santiago de Compostela on September 14.

So who is going to win this thing? There is almost universal agreement across the superstar peloton when asked the simple question, “If you’re not going to win the Vuelta, who will?” The answer: Nairo Quintana (Movistar).

“Quintana looks on good form,” said Sky boss Dave Brailsford.

“Nairo hadn’t raced since the Giro, and comes back and wins the Vuelta a Burgos,” said Tinkoff-Saxo sport director Philippe Mauduit. “That shows he’ll be good.”

In fact, if you privately ask most sport directors who they think will win, almost all agree Quintana is the hands down favorite to win his second grand tour of the season.

Quintana can climb; he has race savvy beyond his 24 years. He’s backed by a strong and ambitious Movistar team. And he’s not going to lose much time to his rivals in the individual time trials. This Vuelta seems his to lose, and win.

Quintana is also smart enough to play the “no pressure to win” card, just like all the other big names are doing, but he also doesn’t shy away about his ambitions.

When VeloNews sat down with Quintana during the Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month, he openly stated he hopes to win.

“I want to make a good Vuelta, and try to win if possible,” he said. “We also have Alejandro. The road will decide which one of us will be the team captain. If he’s stronger than me, I will help him.”

Despite capturing the leader’s jersey Sunday based on placement, Valverde all but admitted the Vuelta is for his younger teammate.

“We’ll see what happens, but everyone knows that Quintana will be stronger on the climbs,” Valverde said Sunday after taking the Vuelta’s leader’s jersey for a 24th time. “If Quintana is stronger than me, we will all work for him.”

Movistar’s victory in Saturday’s opening time trial certainly put Quintana in the pole position. Along with Valverde, Quintana took some important gains on all of his rivals. Nineteen seconds on Contador, 27 on Froome, and a whopping 38 seconds on Rodríguez.

More than just another race, there is also a quiet sense of a new power structure taking root during this Vuelta. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), one of the few big names not racing the Vuelta, Froome, and Contador are the top three strongest riders in the peloton. Quintana — whose meteoric rise began last summer, with his historic Tour de France (a stage win, second overall, and the best young rider’s and climber’s jerseys), and continued with his dramatic Giro victory in May — is clearly trying to muscle in on the party.

“We still don’t know how far Nairo can go,” said Movistar manager Eusebio Unzue following Quintana’s Giro victory. “He is still young. His body is still maturing. Sometimes it’s scary to think how much better he could become.”

Quintana revealed his intentions and his class loud and clear at the Burgos tour, when he returned to Europe after more than two months without racing, to win a stage and the overall. Even though it wasn’t the deepest field at Burgos, a victory is never easy anywhere in Europe, and Quintana pulled it off — albeit just three seconds over Dani Moreno (Katusha) — with panache.

Of course, behind Quintana and the uncommitted marquee names, there is quite a deep list of would-be contenders at this Vuelta.

In fact, that’s where the real GC battle will likely emerge. Not the Contadors and Froomes, but rather riders on the second tier who have the most to gain from a big Vuelta ride. Count on riders such as Wilco Kelderman (Belkin), Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin), Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano), and Samuel Sánchez (BMC) to press Quintana.

And the one rider who is perhaps Quintana’s most dangerous rival is his compatriot and Giro foil, Rigoberto Urán (Omega Pharma).

Though publicly he has said that Quintana was the worthy winner of the Giro, Urán will be looking to even the score if he has the chance. Many close to Urán said they believe their man would have won the Giro had it not been for the disastrous stage over the snowbound Stelvio. Urán was riding a solid lead, yet lost it all in one stage that many still insist should have been neutralized.

Like Quintana, Urán recently returned to Europe without racing since the Giro, racing in the Tour de l’Ain to stretch his legs before the Vuelta.

“The hope is to do a great race,” Urán said before the start. “The goal is to reach the podium. I don’t care which one. One always wants to win, but the Vuelta is a complicated race, and I am realistic.”

This Vuelta is also the first clash between Froome and Quintana since last year’s Tour. Even an off-form Froome will be riding on pride, and will want to put Quintana in his place if he can.

Sometimes it’s hard to remember that Quintana only made his grand tour debut two years ago at the Vuelta, when he rode to a discreet 36th overall. Flash forward two years, and it’s now the others who are chasing Quintana.

If Quintana can win the Vuelta, he will become the first rider since Contador in 2008 to win the Giro and Vuelta in the same season. That would be a tremendous achievement for any 24-year-old.

“Winning the Giro was important, not only because was it my first grand tour, but it proved to myself and to my team that I could do it,” Quintana said. “I have more confidence than ever before.”

Quintana is clearly just getting started. If he can manage to win this Vuelta, it could well mark the beginning of the Quintana era.

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