By Andrew Hood
Reigning Olympic road race champion Samuel Sánchez will wear the No. 1 bib for the upcoming Vuelta a España in the season’s third and final grand tour, August 29- September 20.
With none of last year’s top-3 podium finishers back for the 2009 edition, race organizers released a preliminary start list Thursday that includes the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader with el número uno.
A total of 22 teams will line up in Assen, Holland, for the start of the 64th Vuelta in what should see quite a competitive race for the overall title as well as in the sprints and breakaways.
Sánchez skipped the Tour de France to focus on trying to win the Vuelta as well as prepare for the world championships, which come a week after the Vuelta concludes September 20 in Madrid.
Other riders expected to duel for the final podium include Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne), Juan José Cobo (Fuji-Servetto), Ivan Basso (Liquigas), Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia).
Several other big names are also racing the Vuelta with potential to have a major impact on the GC, but without the same kind of pressure and expectations as the top Spanish riders. Some of those “wild-card” GC riders include Frank and Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Andreas Klöden (Astana), Kim Kirchen (Columbia-HTC) and Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto).
It remains to be seen if Alexander Vinokourov will line up with Astana. The Kazakh rider – back from a two-year blood doping ban and the winner of a time trial this week at the Tour de l’Ain – is currently listed as an alternate for the team.
That indicates that at least race organizers are not trying to impede his return to the Vuelta, which he won in 2006, as well as suggests that behind-the-scenes negotiating is still ongoing.
Fans can expect some strong performances from the North American contingent. Chris Horner, fresh off a podium at the Tour de l’Ain, will be keen to make up for missing out on the Tour with Astana. Craig Lewis (Columbia-HTC) and Jason McCartney (Saxo Bank) are both listed as alternatives.
Three Canadians could start the Vuelta, with Dominque Rollin making his grand tour debut with Cervélo while compatriots Svein Tuft and Ryder Hesjedal are on the list for Garmin-Slipstream.
Tom Danielson, Thomas Peterson and Tyler Farrar (back for his third grand tour of the 2009 season) are also on the preliminary start list. So is Christian Vande Velde, but he’s expected to defend his title at the Tour of Missouri instead.
Along with Farrar, there’s a highly competitive sprinter’s field, with Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), André Greipel (Columbia-HTC), Gerard Ciolek (Milram) and Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank).
There will be plenty of stage-hunters and head-bangers to liven up the transition stages, with the likes of Carlos Barredo and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), Egoi Martínez and Igor Anton (Euskaltel-Euskadi), the Efimkin twins (Ag2r), Xavier Tondo (Andalucia CajaSur), José Marchante (Cervélo), David Moncoutie (Cofidis), Sandy Casar (FDJeux), David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream), Philippe Gilbert (Silence-Lotto), Linus Gerdemann (Milram) and Alexandr Kolobnev and Jacob Fugslang (Saxo Bank).