Vuelta a Espana

Andy Schleck, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre all struggle in brutal first week at the Vuelta a Espana

But Van Garderen, Danielson and Frank Schleck are still in the hunt.

Graham Watson PhotoTejay Van Garderen and Tom Danielson on stage 5 of the Vuelta a Espana. | <a href=
Tejay Van Garderen (right) and Tom Danielson (left) are still in the hunt.

A challenging first week of the 2010 Vuelta a España is causing some pain among several big names who have all but lost options of winning the season’s final grand tour.

Record heat and a hilly route that’s offered little reprieve has seen some pre-race favorites lose ground that could prove challenging to recover. Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Carlos Sastre (Cervélo) and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) are among the bigger names already handicapped in a very tight GC picture.

“This has been a very difficult start to the Vuelta,” Sastre told VeloNews. “Between the heat and the continuously climbing that we’ve seen so far, we are seeing people really suffering. And this race is just starting. The hard part is yet to come. The mountains in northern Spain will decide everything.”

Sastre, 17th at 2:11 back, says he’s feeling better after a slow start out of the gate and went on the attack in Saturday’s brutally steep climb over the Cat. 1 Xorret de Catí.

Menchov lost more than two minutes to the favorites Saturday and slipped back to 20th at 3:29 back and admitted that his chances for victory are gloomy.

“For the normal life, I’m OK, but for riding a bike, I don’t know yet. We’ll see how it goes,” Menchov said before the start. “I wished it was an easy stage today but it’s not. So I’m afraid of what can happen in the race.”

Schleck hadn’t raced since finishing second at the Tour de France and quickly realized he was not in condition to fight for overall victory. Schleck has lost time in all the important stages and has shifted his priorities to helping his brother, Frank.

“I knew it would be tough to come here and try to win. I was 200 percent for the Tour and now I am not in the same condition,” Schleck told VeloNews. “I will try to help Frank as much as I can and use the Vuelta to get in good shape for Lombardia.”

Frank Schleck struggled a little in Saturday’s stage, losing more a minute to the leaders and slots into 13th overall at 1:47 back. Frank Schleck crashed out of the Tour de France on stage 3 and said he’s hopeful his condition will improve going into the decisive final week.

Tejay Van Garderen (HTC-Columbia) and Tom Danielson (Garmin-Transitions) have both made it nicely through the first week. Vuelta-rookie Van Garderen is 11th at 1:26 and Danielson is 14th at 1:52 back. Both are aiming for top-10 finishes, and even more could be possible if they continue to ride with consistency in the mountains of northern Spain.

Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions), back to racing after crashing out of the Tour, ceded ground early and vows to help Danielson, with the goal of riding for a stage victory still in the back of his mind.

Race leader Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas) are separated by just two seconds. The leading trio has been the most dominant so far in this Vuelta, but the short, explosive climbs favor their riding styles.

“Nothing’s close to decided in this Vuelta. People say that some riders like Menchov have lost too much time, but it reminds me a little bit of last year’s Vuelta. My teammate, Sammy (Sánchez) lost 45 seconds early and everyone said it was a lost cause, but then he came back and almost won,” Antón said. “The most important thing is to not lose time in this first week.”

The already weary peloton faced a long, 400km drive just after Sunday’s rollercoaster stage. The Vuelta peloton enjoys its first of two rest days Monday, with the hard part of the race still to come.

(Related: Vuelta standings after stage 9)