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By Andrew Hood
Ever since the Vuelta a España moved to September in the racing calendar a decade ago, the Spanish race has been trying to reinvent what a three-week grand tour should look like.
High-octane shorter stages, opening day team time trials, closing day time trials, finales inside 80,000-seat football stadiums, nothing wasn’t worth a try for season’s third big tour. There was once an even a zany idea about having 26 or so teams starting and then get rid of the four slowest squads through elimination rounds.
It all gave the Vuelta an exciting, unpredictable edge. No one really knew what to expect, especially when riders were uncorking attacks before rolling out of the neutral start zone.
For the 62nd edition of the Vuelta Ciclista a España, race organizers have once again turned the grand tour concept upside down – this time literally.
A top-heavy 21-stage course starting Saturday in Spain’s lush Galicia region packs in three of the race’s four summit finishes and the longest individual time trial all into the first 10 days of racing.
It would be hard to imagine that an unmistakable candidate for overall victory won’t pull clear by the time the Vuelta rolls out of the Pyrénées for the first rest day Sept. 11.
“After the Pyrenees, the favorites will be pretty well defined. It’s going to be a race that requires strength right from the gun in Vigo, because if not, you’re in for a surprise,” said Eusebio Unzue, sport director at Caisse d’Epargne. “It’s a demanding Vuelta, harder than most years and nothing will be decided until the final summit and time trial.”
There’s no opening prologue or team time trial to kick-start the action. Instead, the race jumps right in with a hilly, 146.6km road stage starting and ending in Vigo that will give the sprinters a chance to grab the jersey.
They won’t hold it for long. The Vuelta wastes no time turning on the pain button and steers the peloton up the steep Lagos de Covadonga in the rugged Picos de Europa in stage four. Typical foul weather along Spain’s Costa Verde could make the suffering worse.
Some tricky transition stages push the Vuelta east along the northern coast and then across the windy Duero and Ebro valleys, where dangerous echelons can cut the field.
The second weekend of racing will be a doozy, with summit finishes at Cerler in the Spanish Pyrénées and Arcalís in Andorra before a long, 52km individual time trial in windy Zaragoza.
It seems that Vuelta organizers wanted to give the shell-shocked peloton a chance to catch its collective breath. The course then weaves between small towns across Valencia, Murcia and Andalucia in transition stages well-suited for head-bangers and any surviving sprinters.
Organizers delivered on its promise to avoid larger cities and the traffic delays due to road closures and directed the course off the big wide-open highways onto smaller, more challenging roads that lead to new host cities.
Any rider hitting form in the final week will their chances in the final weekend of racing around Madrid to make a raid on the GC.
The rollercoaster Stage 18 into Ávila and mountainous Stage 19 with the fourth and final summit finish at Alto de Abantos on the jagged mountains west of Madrid could reshuffle the pecking order.
The Vuelta jefes would love nothing better than to have the winner crowned on the penultimate stage in the pancake-flat 20km final TT at Collado Villalba.
At least they followed the script when they included the 104.2km finale into Madrid serving up a sprinter’s paradise.
“We are trying to create the myths of the Vuelta,” said race director Victor Cordero. “When we designed the course, with did it as if it were a play at the theater, thinking about who is going to play the roles and about what could happen. Things will remain unsettled until the final time trial. The Vuelta will deliver an all-round rider who can climb and time trial.”
And then there are the Vuelta’s famous post-stage parties for race officials, sport directors, VIPs, podium girls and hard-at-work journalists. At least that much hasn’t changed.
So who can win?
The Vuelta starts without any of its top-three podium finishers from its previous edition. Winner Alexandre Vinokourov and third-place man Andrey Kashechkin both tested positive for homologous blood doping and their Astana team was told they are not welcome.
Last year’s runner-up Alejandro Valverde was already planning on skipping the Vuelta to focus on the world championships. Now that he’s been told by the UCI he’s not welcome, could he try to start the Vuelta? Not likely. The Vuelta doesn’t want any stain of Operación Puerto on its baby this year.
As it looks now, the favorites come from a mix of Spanish (Carlos Sastre, Samuel Sánchez, Oscar Pereiro and Angel Gómez Marchante) and a handful of foreign riders who roll into the Vuelta with unclear ambitions.
Cadel Evans, fresh off second in the Tour de France, 2005 winner Denis Menchov and 2004 Giro champ Damiano Cunego are enter the Vuelta with chances to win, but we’ll have to wait to see if they have the legs or the motivation to try.
Discovery Channel – in its swan song grand tour before closing its doors at the end of the season – could be the surprise with the likes of Janez Brajkovic, Stijn Devolder and Tom Danielson hoping to give the American team a winning sendoff.
Many riders use the Vuelta as a trampoline for the world championships. Both Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini won their respective world titles after racing the Vuelta and, not surprisingly, both are back are this year.
A herd of world-class sprinters – Boonen, Bettini, Alessandro Petacchi, Erik Zabel, Daniele Bennati, Allan Davis and Oscar Freire – should keep the racing interesting in the transition stages.
Smoking out the cheats
Vuelta organizers are putting money on the line to assure that there are no doubts about this year’s winner.
Hoping to catch the cheats before they come to the race, the Spanish grand tour took the unprecedented step to spend 180,000 euros (about $250,000) to carry out an estimated 80 surprise anti-doping controls ahead of the race. The extra cash gave a big boost to the UCI’s out-of-competition testing program.
The money has already been well spent.
On Aug. 1, Kashechkin was located in the remote Turkish town of Belek (Astana team manager Marc Biver admitted he didn’t know where the Kazakh rider was) and he tested positive for banned blood transfusions. Astana later saw its invitation revoked.
“We have to keep fighting to guarantee the credibility and that’s why we’ve announced the anti-doping plan,” said Vuelta race director Victor Cordero. “It demonstrates that the anti-doping controls work and there remain fewer and fewer options for cheaters. It’s the only guarantee we can offer.”
For the Vuelta, it’s a small price to pay to deliver a clean winner.