By Andrew Hood
The 64th Vuelta a España clicks into gear Saturday on the Assen race track with one of its deepest and most competitive fields ever.
Not only are riders racing the Vuelta to prepare for the world championships, but some of the biggest names are lining up with nothing less than all-out victory as their stated goals.
With none of last year’s top-3 back to defend their podium spots, the 2009 Vuelta is wide open.
A challenging course well-suited for aggressive attacks in the mountains will promise to keep things interesting all the way into the final week.
Here’s a look at some of the top favorites:
1. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne): Valverde is proving to be the Teflon Don of the peloton. He’s had more Puerto allegations thrown at him than just about anyone alleged to be in the Fuentes file, but nothing’s stuck. The Italians have come closest, slapping him with a two-year ban from racing on Italian roads. Unlike the Tour de France, the Vuelta doesn’t dip into Italy, so incredibly, Valverde starts the 64th Vuelta as the pre-race favorite.
After his forced July vacation, Valverde seems impatient to finally win the Vuelta that’s eluded him so far in his otherwise prolific career. Spain’s Balaverde has finished 2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th in his national race, and came closest to winning in 2006, only to be broadsided by Alexander Vinokourov in the final week. With the UCI trying to expand the two-year racing ban to anywhere, it could be now or never for Valverde. He’s demonstrated that he be there in the key moments in grand tours, now he just has to avoid that one bad day that he inevitably seems to have. A strong Caisse d’Epargne team will fight to keep Valverde at the front of the pack and out of trouble. Valverde likes to float at the back of the bunch and risks getting caught out by echelons or getting tangled up in crashes.
2. Ivan Basso (Liquigas): Unlike so many others, Basso fessed up to his Puerto shenanigans (granted, only when the Italians had him in the crosshairs). His Clintonesque excuse of only “intending to dope” when he was a regular visitor to Eufemiano Fuentes’ Madrid lab caused some to roll their eyes, but the forgiving Italians welcomed him back with open arms.
A somewhat disappointing fifth in his comeback grand tour at the Giro d’Italia in May — especially when compared to his winning margin of more than nine minutes in the 2006 corsa rosa — will only fuel Basso and his determination to prove that he is still as good as he was before his 18-month racing ban. The mountainous Vuelta course, with five summit finishes and likely heat in the south, which Basso revels in, coupled with two shorter time trials favors him more than the odd-ball Giro course of this spring. If Valverde chokes again, Basso will be first in line to turn the knife.
3. Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto): A strong Vuelta will be the perfect salve for Evans and his tumultuous Tour performance, when he finished a distant 30th and seemed to do nothing right to appease the pundits. Evans was one of the few riders who even dared to attack Alberto Contador, but when he did – with his infamous sortie up the Envalira climb in the Andorran Pyrenees – the arm-chair quarterbacks all blasted him for his tactical savvy (or some might argue a lack thereof).
Whether or not everyone agrees with his racing acumen, Evans enters the Vuelta perfectly positioned to win. Without a doubt the strongest all-rounder in the field, if Evans can take some serious time in the decisive Valencia time trial in stage 7, the Aussie could be in the driver’s seat. That means all he would have to do is follow the mountain goats up the climbs, something he’s already shown he’s pretty good at.
4. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi): Almost inexplicably, the reigning Olympic gold medalist skipped the Tour de France because he believes he can win the Vuelta and the worlds in a daring, late-season coup. Third overall in 2007, Samu can time trial and climb with everyone except the specialists. His all-round consistency, coupled with his legendary descending skills and finish-line punch, will prove decisive, especially if it’s a tight race and the time bonuses come into play on GC.
5. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank): Second at the Tour, Andy Schleck would normally be at the top of the list of the favorites. But the younger of the Schleck brothers is playing it coy, trying to convince everyone that he’s racing the Vuelta only to prepare for Mendrisio. That might be true, but with Contador not defending his title, Schleck will certainly take a run at the overall if he has the legs. His loaded Saxo Bank team is the only squad strong enough to potentially blow apart the race. Always ambitious, Schleck won’t let an opportunity pass him by if it’s there for the taking.
6. Chris Horner (Astana): Horner is hoping he’s left his bad luck in the rear-view mirror. In arguably the best form of his career, Horner simply has not had a chance to show his full potential due to some untimely falls that derailed his spring. Back in fighting form, Horner could be the dark horse during this Vuelta. A strong time trialist, Horner has the racing savvy to play off the in-fighting Spanish riders racing in their home tour. A strong Astana squad will be protecting his flanks, including the unpredictable Alexander Vinokourov. This is Horner’s best – and perhaps last – shot at riding for GC in a grand tour.
7. Robert Gesink (Rabobank): It must be tough to have the entire nation’s expectations heaped upon your shoulders, especially if that nation is the cycling-proud Netherlands. That’s the sad situation for climbing prodigy Gesink, who is struggling to live up to expectations for some impatient observers within the Dutch cycling community. Gesink crashed out of his Tour debut without making much of an impression, so he will be keen to remind everyone he’s one of the most dangerous climbers of his generation.
8. Tom Danielson (Garmin-Slipstream): Tommy D wants to prove to all the naysayers that his two-year run in cycling purgatory is officially over. After posting two Vuelta top 10s, Danielson crashed out of the 2007 edition with a broken clavicle in the first stage. Since then, his career has been like an episode of Ophrah, suffering through confidence-draining injuries, low morale and doubts about his future.
Showing grit, Danielson fought through and revealed glimpses of the rider many believe he can be with a strong performance at the Vuelta a Burgos in August, winning the time trial and hanging tough with Valverde in the mountains to finish third overall. Garmin-Slipstream is bringing a strong squad, including stage-hunter Tyler Farrar.
9. Michael Albasini (Columbia-HTC): Never count Columbia-HTC out of any race. André Greipel will be bashing elbows in the sprints, but it’s unsung Michael Albasini the team is hoping will be making headlines. The 28-year-old Swiss rider has enjoyed a breakout season, winning stages at the Basque Country tour and Tour du Suisse before another stage win and the overall at the Tour of Austria. Keen to show he can ride for GC in a three-week tour, Albasini will try his best to stay with the Spanish mountain goats.
10. Carlos Barredo (Quick Step): Barredo enjoyed that long sought-after breakthrough victory earlier this month at the Clásica San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque Country. He’d trade a stage victory for a top 10 finish, but Barredo is stubbornly consistent and has overcome some health problems that kept him from his best at this year’s Tour.
Follow Andrew Hood’s twitter at twitter.com/eurohoody