By Andrew Hood
The Vuelta a España clicks into gear on Saturday for three weeks of racing which organizers hope provides the sport’s beleaguered fans drama on the bike, and not off it.
After a summer of doping scandals, the Vuelta hopes to avoid following in the controversial slipstream of the Tour de France.
After a scandal-plagued start, when race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were among those suspended over doping suspicions, American Floyd Landis won the Tour’s yellow jersey in July only to test positive for after stage 17.
Landis is likely to lose that title, which would then go to Spaniard Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne) who finished runner-up behind the former Phonak rider in Paris.
Vuelta bosses are keen to avoid such fate, but given the controversy which clouded their own race last year they will have to be vigilant. Spaniard Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) claimed what appeared to be a record fourth Vuelta crown in Madrid last September, only to lose the title to Russian Denis Menchov (Rabobank) after a positive doping test. Heras tested positive for the banned blood booster EPO (erythropoietin).
Menchov, who was a yellow jersey contender in July, will be a contender in Spain – although he admitted the Tour, in which he finished seventh, was his biggest aim this season.
“I’d love to win the race, but the Vuelta is a secondary aim this year after the Tour,” he recently told the Spanish daily, Marca, “and I don’t feel as fresh this time.”
The Rabobank rider, as well as Kazakkh Alexandre Vinokourov (Astaná), will be watched closely by some of the Spanish aces keen on making sure the race’s golden jersey stays on local shoulders. Spanish ace Alejandro Valverde, Pereiro and Carlos Sastre of CSC each look capable of maintaining the local fans’ hopes.
While Caisse d’Epargne’s Valverde will be looking to make up for his withdrawal from the Tour de France for a second consecutive year through injury, he knows it won’t be easy.
Valverde is considered Spain’s next big stage racing hope and while he feels he can keep pace with Menchov in the race’s potentially decisive time trials, on stages 14 and 20, he added: “Menchov is one of the guys who makes me afraid in the high mountains.”
The race’s 21 stages start with a 7.2km prologue time trial in the southern coast city of Malaga, and while the Pyrénées has been left out of the route there are plenty of other, tricky mountain stages.
Like the Tour, the first few days will be relatively easy on the legs, and likely offer sprinters a chance to steal the limelight. The first real climbs do not appear until stage five, a 178km ride from Plasencia to the ski station of La Covatilla which features three very nasty climbs.
Stage seven offers the first summit finish of the race, while stage nine two days later will prove the first big climbing test over 206km and two third category climbs, three first category climbs and an unclassified climb. It’s at this point a dark-horse, like American Tom Danielson, may emerge from the field to put his stamp on the race.
Danielson told VeloNews that he’s ready for this year’s Vuelta.
“I know I am capable of being one of the best climbers in the peloton and now I want go out and show it,” he said.
Another four days of undulating terrain awaits before the 14th stage time trial, over 33km, gives those with real aims in the general classification a chance to steal time on their rivals.
After the Vuelta’s second rest day, its back into the mountains for three days before the final time trial, over 28km, is held the day before the traditional finish in Madrid.
Compared to the Tour de France, the Vuelta’s stages are not as long – a fact which has boosted Vinokourov, who was as unable to race the Tour owing to his team’s implication in Spain’s anti-doping “Operación Puerto.”
“I am in good form – the race is tough but the stages are not very long and I think I can adapt,” Vinokourov said.
Stage 1, Aug. 26
Málaga-Málaga (TTT), 7.2km – Interesting twist on team time trial discipline, short and sweet Stage 2, Aug. 27
Málaga to Córdoba, 167km – Flat stage across the heat of the Andalusian plain Stage 3, Aug. 28
Córdoba to Almendralejo, 220km – Longest stage pushing north Stage 4, Aug. 29
Almendralejo to Cáceres, 142km – Transition stages pushes Vuelta into Extremadura Stage 5, Aug. 30
Plasencia to Estación de Esquí La Covatilla, 178km – First summit finish always comes early in Vuelta Stage 6, Aug. 31
Zamora to León, 155km – Sprinters have another chance ahead of more mountains Stage 7, Sept 1
León to Alto de El Morredero, 148km – Rough roads will make this summit finish even tougher Stage 8 – September 2
Ponferrada to Lugo, 173km – Vuelta dips into Galicia, site of 2007 start Stage 9 – September 3
A Fonsagrada to Alto de La Cobertoria, 206km – New climb near the fearsome steeps of the AngliruRest Day No. 1 – September 4Stage 10 – September 5
Avilés to Museo de Altamira, 190km – Hilly stage along Asturian coast cannot be overlooked Stage 11 – September 6
Torrelavega (Velódromo Oscar Freire) to Burgos, 165km – Climbs over Cantabrian mountain back onto central meseta Stage 12 – September 7
Aranda de Duero to Guadalajara, 162km – Transition stage ideal for breakaways Stage 13 – September 8
Guadalajara to Cuenca, 170km – Finish-line climb will produce sparks Stage 14 – September 9
Cuenca-Cuenca (ITT), 33km – Longest TT might not be long enough for specialists to make up ground Stage 15 – September 10
Motilla del Palacar to Factoría Ford (Almussafes), 175km – Watch out for winds on flat transition stageRest Day No. 2 – September 11
TransferStage 16 – September 12
Almería to Observatorio Astronómico de Calar Alto, 145km – Highest point of 2006 Vuelta Stage 17 – September 13
Adra to Granada, 167km – Hilly stage past white-washed Andalusian villagesStage 18 – September 14
Granada to Sierra de la Pandera, 153km – Steep mountain climb above JaénStage 19 – September 15
Jaén to Ciudad Real, 195km – Transition stage with another danger of high windsStage 20 – September 16
Rivas Futura to Rivas Vaciamadrid (ITT), 28km – Decisive if podium isn’t decided yetStage 21 – September 17
Madrid-Madrid, 150km – Spain’s capital shuts down to host Vuelta finaleThe Vuelta in total
3129.2km, 21 stages, two rest days, 32 rated climbs, five summit finishes, two individual time trials and one team time trial