SANXENXO, Spain (VN) — There’s a saying that the best rider always wins the Tour de France. Every rider in the peloton brings his A game to the Tour, and inevitably the strongest rider on the strongest team wins. There have been exceptions, but nine out of 10 times, that axiom holds true.
The Vuelta a España, which opens Saturday with a team time trial in Galicia, is quite another story.
Almost no one targets the Vuelta specifically. It’s as if no one even considers the Vuelta until the Tour is over. Then everyone says, ‘oh yeah, there’s another grand tour to race, let’s see who can win!’
The Tour’s top guns — Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and Vuelta defending champ Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) — are all steering clear of a mountainous Vuelta.
That leaves a huge vacuum that could produce the most exciting, and unpredictable, race of the year.
Filling out the startlist is an interesting mish-mash of riders who, for a variety of reasons and circumstances, are all over the map in terms of fitness, motivation, and goals.
Some are coming back from injury and hungry to save their seasons, as is the case of Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard). Others are desperate to find a ride for next season (see Chris Horner). Yet others are using the Vuelta as a springboard for the world championships, which takes place on a hilly course near Florence, Italy. More than a few riders are here because they’ve been ordered to. Some are keen to win the race, but they won’t know if they have the legs to do it until they hit the mountains.
Pre-race favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) admitted he was “more tired than expected” after riding to third in the Tour. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) estimates he starts the Vuelta “at 75 percent” of full strength. Sergio Henao (Sky) “hopes to do well” in his first crack as a protected GC rider.
All those different ingredients add up for a very interesting stew. Or estofado, as it’s called in Spain.
Add an explosive, sometimes brutal route, with no less than a dozen hilly and mountainous stages, the Spanish summer heat with temperatures north of 100 Fahrenheit, and a peloton full of weary legs, and things could get quite spicy.
It’s very unlikely that a rider is going to take control of the race from outset and grind everyone into the tarmac, a la Froome and Sky at the Tour.
Instead, there could be a gripping, seesaw battle all the way to the final ramps of the fearsome Anglirú climb on the Vuelta’s penultimate stage.
Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez (Katusha)
Vuelta history: Going into his 10th Vuelta start, his career-best was third last year.
Strengths: Purito’s slight build makes him an ideal climber for Spain’s mix of mountainous terrain. Some of the climbs are longer grinders, where he can stay with the best and then pip them at the line for time bonuses. Other climbs are brutally steep, and he’s almost untouchable when the gradient punches above 15 percent.
Why he can win: With a new generation coming up, this could be Rodríguez’s last chance to win a grand tour. This route seems almost specifically designed for him, with a blend of short, punchy summits mixed in with longer, steeper climbs. The hilly time trial means that he shouldn’t lose too much time against the clock, and Katusha brings a loaded squad. This Vuelta is Purito’s to lose.
Where he can lose: Rodríguez may have dug too deep fighting through the final week of a brutal Tour to realize a dream of reaching the podium, with third. He admitted in an interview last week that he was feeling more fatigued than he expected. If he’s not at the top of his game, those same mountains that typically suit him so well could prove his executioner.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Vuelta history: Winner in 2009; three podiums; seven stage wins and one TTT; points jersey in 2012
Strengths: The “Green Bullet” brings a full quiver of skills, with the double punch of being able to climb with the best, and then finish it off with a lethal finish-line kick. Movistar will bring one of the strongest teams to the Vuelta, and with Nairo Quintana savoring his Tour success back in Colombia, the team is all for Valverde.
Why he can win: Settling scores. After losing out on a chance at the Tour podium when he suffered a mechanical and then bled 10 minutes in the crosswinds in the Tour’s second week, Valverde comes to the Vuelta intent on victory. He has a score to settle with last year’s Vuelta as well, when a week-one crash in crosswinds (again) knocked him out of the leader’s jersey, before he battled back to finish second.
Where he can lose: The Tour and last year’s Vuelta confirmed yet again that Valverde often makes life difficult for himself, either with bad luck, crashes, or being out of position. If the “Imbatido” can avoid that one bad day, he’ll be hard to beat.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Vuelta history: Winner in 2010, 7th in 2011
Strengths: Nibali has a distinct advantage over the Spanish mountain goats in that he can time trial as well as climb. Astana brings a crack team to the Vuelta, as strong, if not even stronger, than the Giro-winning team. His descending skills are legendary, and they will come in handy in this mountainous Vuelta.
Why he can win: By far the most complete of the GC contenders in this Vuelta, Nibali knows what it takes to win a grand tour. His time trialing skills will be a huge advantage. En route to winning in 2010, he took six minutes out of Rodríguez in a flat, 40km time trial. This year’s test against the clock is lumpier, but Nibali can take gains in the second week, and ride defensively through the Pyrénées.
Where he can lose: Even Nibali admits he’s not in top shape coming into this Vuelta, estimating his fitness at “75 percent.” Whether that will be enough to seriously challenge for the red leader’s jersey remains to be seen. The first week could prove disastrous to his GC ambitions.
Sergio Henao (Sky)
Vuelta history: 14th in debut last year
Strengths: An improving rider in all areas, Henao can climb with the best on a good day, and his time trialing is improving. Sky is backing him as its top GC option, so he will all the support that comes with the team’s deep reservoir of talent and resources.
Why he can win: He will be able to chase the time bonuses, and perhaps lay a trap for some of the top favorites in some unpredictable terrain. The final week, with Cabarga and Anglirú, are ideal for a late-race raid.
Where he can lose: He’s never ridden to win before in three grand tour starts, so he’ll be unproven until he reaches Madrid. Any crack could quickly turn into gaping losses.
Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Vuelta history: First start
Strengths: Perhaps only compatriot Nairo Quintana can get up a climb with as much explosiveness as Betancur. He barnstormed through the spring classics and rode to fifth and the best young rider’s jersey at the Giro to confirm he’s a grand tour rider in the making.
Why he can win: He boasts the fastest finishing kick out of the GC favorites, rivaled only by Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), and could open significant gaps in the final charge to the line in the steepest stages, meaning time bonues could lift Betancur onto the podium.
Where he can lose: With the worlds looking prime for the picking on a course ideal for Betancur in Italy, he might save his matches and give up the GC fight, hunt for some stages, and aim for the rainbow jersey instead.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Vuelta history: Two podiums in five Vuelta starts
Strengths: Consistency and experience will help keep Sánchez within striking distance of the favorites. He’s one of the most intelligent riders in the bunch, so he will be able to exploit any openings that come his way.
Why he can win: He skipped the Tour to race the Vuelta and worlds in top condition. Like Rodríguez, this Vuelta could be his last realistic chance to win. And with Euskaltel folding at season’s end, he’ll be doubly motivated to ride well to secure a solid contract for 2014. Winning the Vuelta would provide excellent job security.
Where he can lose: Father time is catching up, and Sánchez doesn’t seem to have the same hunger that he did when he won the 2008 Olympic road race or the king of the mountains jersey in the 2010 Tour.
Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp)
Vuelta history: Two starts, with 13th in 2011 and a stage win
Strengths: An improving all-rounder, with solid climbing legs, and improving consistency and resistance over three weeks.
Why he can win: Sporting one of the best finishing kicks, Martin, winner of Liège–Bastogne–Liège, will be able to hunt time bonuses in the mountain stages to put himself in contention for the leader’s jersey.
Where he can lose: The time trial could be his Achilles heel, and even though this year’s TT course favors his style, Martin could bleed too much time to seriously challenge for the win.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida)
Vuelta history: Only three starts, his best was 11th in 2005
Strengths: A steady climber who never seems to have a bad day; Scarponi is almost always there in the decisive moments. After a sub-par Giro, he’s riding into the Vuelta with no pressure, but a lot of ambition.
Why he can win: Almost no one will be looking at Scarponi, so he could slip away, gain some time, and then hold on for dear life.
Where he can lose: Italians typically struggle on Spanish roads, especially with the Giro being their season’s top goal months before. Scarponi could lose huge time early on, converting his Vuelta into a stage-hunting expedition.
Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard)
Vuelta history: Two starts and one withdrawal
Strengths: One of the cagiest riders in the peloton, Horner knows well how to measure his efforts and exploit openings by forcing the tactical hand.
Why he can win: Why not? Horner has defied the odds throughout his career; who says he cannot become a grand tour winner at 41? No one will be watching him, and he will have zero pressure, outside of his undetermined 2014 contract situation. He can ride as far as his legs will take him.
Where he can lose: When his tank runs empty. Horner is way behind the others in terms of race days in 2013. After recovering from his knee injury, it’s hard to imagine he would have the legs to challenge for three full weeks.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin)
Vuelta history: Two starts; 4th overall and the points jersey in 2011
Strengths: Improving against the clock to match his already solid climbing credentials.
Why he can win: Combative and a never-say-die attitude will go a long way in this Vuelta, when everyone is weary and bleary at the end of a long season.
Where he can lose: It remains to be seen how he’s recovered from his deep Tour effort, where he rode through the final stages in the Alps quite ill.
David Arroyo (Caja Rural)
Vuelta history: 19th in 2006; stage win in 2008
Strengths: A veteran rider who knows the Spanish roads and can read the Vuelta like the back of his hand.
Why he can win: He will be out to prove that his second place in the 2010 Giro was no fluke. He’ll also be keen to stick his nose to the ProTeams that ignored him.
Where he can lose: Caja Rural isn’t the deepest team in the bunch. He might be saving his legs for a big stage win at the expense of fighting to ride into the top five on GC.
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff)
Vuelta history: Three starts
Strengths: A solid all-rounder, and perhaps the best time trialist behind Nibali.
Why he can win: Unshackled with Contador giving the Vuelta a miss, Kreuziger can ride his own race (though it looked like he did the same at the Tour as well). A solid Saxo-Tinkoff team will be at his beck and call as well.
Where he can lose: He’s been riding strong since March, and he might be using the Vuelta to carry form into the worlds.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale)
Vuelta history: Just once, 4th in 2010
Strengths: An aging warrior who still rides on pride.
Why he can win: Basso will be out to prove he’s not washed up, so that might spur him to dig deeper than some of this wearier rivals.
Where he can lose: In the final week, Basso’s engine will keep burning diesel when high-octane is needed to survive the Angliru.