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Vuelta a Espana

John Wilcockson: North Americans still in the hunt at the Vuelta, even with Horner gone

In terms of roadside spectators, the opening four stages of the 64th Vuelta a España through The Netherlands and Belgium were a huge success.. “Just like the Tour de France,” some of the riders said. But the interest in North America has been minimal, at best, even though the top U.S teams Columbia-HTC and Garmin-Slipstream are taking part.

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By John Wilcockson

Fans of the Vuelta line the road on stage 4, which went from the Netherlands into Belgium. The Vuelta returns to Spain Thursday.

Fans of the Vuelta line the road on stage 4, which went from the Netherlands into Belgium. The Vuelta returns to Spain Thursday.

Photo: Graham Watson

In terms of roadside spectators, the opening four stages of the 64th Vuelta a España through The Netherlands and Belgium were a huge success.. “Just like the Tour de France,” some of the riders said. But the interest in North America has been minimal, at best, even though the top U.S teams Columbia-HTC and Garmin-Slipstream are taking part.

Yes, it was unfortunate that Team Astana’s Chris Horner, a genuine GC contender, crashed Tuesday and ended his season with a fractured wrist, but U.S. and Canadian fans should take heart in the presence of other home riders — many of whom have ambitions for stage wins and even the race leader’s golden jersey.

2009 Vuelta a Espana Stages

Saturday, Aug 29 – stage 1: 4.5km around Assen (Netherlands), individual
time trial
Sunday, Aug 30 – stage 2: 202km from Assen to Emmen (Netherlands)
Monday, Aug 31 – stage 3: 185km from Zutphen (Netherlands) to Venlo
(Netherlands)
Tuesday, Sept 1 – stage 4: 224km Venlo to Liege (Belgium)
Wednesday Sept 2 – rest day
Thursday, Sept 3 – stage 5: 174km Tarragona (Spain) to Vinaroz
Friday, Sept 4 – stage 6: 186km Xativa to Xativa
Saturday, Sept 5 – stage 7: 30km around Valencia, individual time-trial
Sunday, Sept 6 – stage 8: 206km Alzira to col d’Aitana
Monday, Sept 7 – stage 9: 186km Alcoy to Xorret del Cati
Tuesday, Sept 8 – stage 10: 162km Alicante to Murcia
Wednesday, Sept 9 – stage 11: 174km Murcia to Caravaca de la Cruz
Thursday, Sept 10 – rest day
Friday, Sept 11 – stage 12: 174km Almeria to col de Velefique
Saturday, Sept 12 – stage 13: 175km Berja to Sierra Nevada
Sunday, Sept 13 – stage 14: 157km Grenada to La Pandera
Monday, Sept 14 – stage 15: 168km Jaen to Cordoba
Tuesday, Sept 15 – stage 16: 170km Cordoba to Puertollano
Wednesday, Sept 16 – stage 17: 175km Ciudad Real to Talavera de la Reina
Thursday, Sept 17 – stage 18: 187km Talavera de la Reina to Avila
Friday, Sept 18 – stage 19: 174km Avila to La Granja
Saturday, Sept 19 – stage 20: 26km around Toledo, individual time-trial
Sunday, Sept 20 – stage 21: 110km Rivas-Vacaimadrid to Madrid
Total distance: 3,266.50 km

Garmin has five North Americans in the race, headed by Tom Danielson, a former Vuelta stage winner and two-time top-10 finisher, who placed third in the recent Tour of Burgos. And his U.S. teammate, the sprinter Tyler Farrar, has a great chance of winning his first grand tour stage (and perhaps even taking over the golden jersey this week).

Then there are three Canadians on Garmin’s Vuelta team: GC rider Ryder Hesjedal, the promising Christian Meier, and 2008 worlds time trial medalist Svein Tuft — who has an outside chance of winning this Saturday’s 30km TT stage in Valencia. There’s another Canadian in the race, the Cervélo team’s Dominique Rollin, who’s due for a top performance in his first European season.

VeloNews readers are also familiar with many others in the Vuelta peloton, including six Australians, three New Zealanders, two Brits and two Irishmen. The top Kiwi, Greg Henderson of Columbia-HTC, won a stage earlier in the week — only the second New Zealander to win a grand tour stage, 29 years after Paul Jesson took a solo victory at the Vuelta in Santander ahead of a small breakaway group.

The other Kiwis in the race are Tim Gudsell, a team worker at Française des Jeux, and Julian Dean, a lead-out man for Farrar at Garmin. The Garmin team also boasts the eclectic Brit David Millar, who’s another candidate to win Saturday’s TT — three years after he defeated current race leader Fabian Cancellara by a split second in the 33km Vuelta time trial in Cuenca.

There’s also much interest in Garmin’s Irish rider Dan Martin, who’s competing in his first grand tour. His father is former British champ Neil Martin and his mother is the sister of 1987 Tour de France winner Stephen Roche. Not yet 23, Martin has high hopes of doing well in the Vuelta’s many mountain stages. His climbing strength saw him place second to Alejandro Valverde at this year’s Tour of Catalonia; and last year he won the mountainous Route du Sud in southern France.

The two other riders from the British Isles at the Vuelta are Irishman Philip Deignan of Cervélo, who placed fifth on the Bologna stage of this year’s Giro d’Italia, and his English teammate, sprinter Roger Hammond, who placed third on stage 2 of the Vuelta last Sunday.

… perhaps the greatest concentration of summit finishes in grand tour history.

The best known of the six Aussies in the field are Cadel Evans of Silence-Lotto, Stuart O’Grady of Saxo Bank and Simon Gerrans of Cervélo. Evans, the two-time Tour runner-up, says he is at the Vuelta to both prepare for the world championships at the end of this month, and shoot for a GC victory if his legs feel better than they did in his disappointing Tour performance. O’Grady, who celebrates his 36th birthday this Sunday, is at the race to help his team leaders, Jakob Fuglsang and the Schleck brothers Andy and Fränk. While Gerrans would love to add a Vuelta stage win to his palmarès after victories at this year’s Giro and last year’s Tour.

The other riders from Down Under are Matt Lloyd, who will be helping his team leader Evans in the mountains; Adam Hansen, a team worker for Columbia leaders Kim Kirchen and Michael Albasini; and Allan Davis, who’s ready to step in for his Quick Step team leader Tom Boonen, should the Belgian sprinter drop out of the race.

First big stages this weekend

Besides the Schlecks, Evans and Kirchen, this Vuelta has a dozen or more contenders sitting within a minute of the race leadership going into the first critical stages. Former grand tour winners Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Damiano Cunego (Lampre) and Alexander Vinokourov (Astana) all have strong reasons to prove they are still potential winners. And Spaniards Valverde (Caisse d’Épargne) and Samuel Sanchez (Euskadi-Euskaltel) are both convinced they can break through and win a grand tour

Others who could shine in the upcoming weeks are Czech Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), the 2008 Tour of Switzerland winner; Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia), last year’s fourth-place finisher, if he can overcome the badly bruised ankle sustained in Tuesday’s big crash; Dutch climbing hope Robert Gesink (Rabobank), who crashed out of the Tour before the mountains; Linus Gerdemann (Rabobank), who appears to be regaining the great form he had before breaking his leg in last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico; and Rein Taaramae (Cofidis), a young Estonian climber who recently beat Horner at the Tour de l’Ain.

This coming Saturday’s flat TT through the orange groves of Valencia will handicap the pure climbers like Mosquera, Gesink and Taaramae, but they will get a chance to show their form on Sunday’s monster stage in the mountains of Murcia. That 205km stage 8 features no less than eight climb: four Cat 3s, three Cat 2s and the especiale summit finish at Alto de Aitana — which average almost 6 percent for 21.7km, with some pitches at 9.5 percent.

The Aitana is the first of five mountaintop finishes in eight days, which is perhaps the greatest concentration of summit finishes in grand tour history. These other four crucial stages take place this coming Monday (at Xoret del Catí), followed by the most difficult ones next Friday (Alto de Velefique), Saturday (Sierra Nevada) and Sunday (Sierra de La Pandera).

So if you are not already, start following the live action on velonews.com or watch it on the Universal Sports cable station. It’s turning into quite a show!