Two Grand Tours down - one to go. The Vuelta occupies an intriguing position on the yearly calendar. For some, it's the biggest race of the season (read: Spanish riders), for others it's a tune-up for the World Champions, and for still others, it's the last chance saloon to salvage a season.
'Salvage a season' might be too strong of a wording for some of the below, but following broken July's, the Vuelta takes on new importance for at least five of the ten, the Vuelta will be critical.
For my top two picks, however, the Vuelta is a goal all by itself.
1. Igor Anton
The 28-year-old Anton went to this year's Giro as an outside favorite to win, but spurned all notion of overall hopes from the get go, instead choosing to target stage wins. He managed a wonderful stage win on the Zoncolan along with a fifth and an eight place to eventually take 18th overall.
Why no motivation for the overall at the Giro? He wants the Vuelta of course. While Nibali will always be rightly written into the record books as the 2010 Vuelta winner, had it not been for Anton's race ending crash in the second week, we would have most likely had a different rider on the top step of the podium.
If Anton has the form and fitness of last year at his disposal, this could be his first Grand Tour victory.
2. Michele Scarponi
Scarponi was labeled as an outside favorite by many ahead of this year's Giro, but after three weeks of the hardest Grand Tour in memory, he proved to be the only one that could hold a candle next to the Grand Tour dominator, Alberto Contador.
If Scarponi can get to that level again at the Vuelta, there's no doubting that he's going to play a major role over the next three weeks.
With that said, it has been a long year for Scarponi, and like most Italians, the Giro is King and the Vuelta only an after-thought. Along with the question of a second solid peak - does he have the energy for a second mental peak? I think so.
3. Jurgen Van den Broeck
Jurgen Van den Broeck's early exit from the Tour de France was a major disappointment for the promising Belgian who had just weeks before finally got the monkey off his back with his first ever professional victory - a stage at the Dauphine.
I had it told to me by a few people close to the rider that had Van den Broeck stayed upright, he would have been a serious contender for a podium spot in Paris in July. His 5th place in last year's Tour de France confirmed his talent, and this July was supposed to show that there is truly another great name in Belgian cycling without the initials PG. I think the Vuelta will accomplish what his missed opportunity at the Tour de France didn't.
Third could end up being a gross underestimation of Van den Broeck's talents. I wouldn't be surprised if he took the top spot on the podium.
4. Vincenzo Nibali
A predicted fourth overall for the defending champion? Judging from the Giro, Nibali didn't really impress all that much. He was excellent - no question, but there were some big expectations on the young Sicilians shoulders. Victory at last year's Vuelta was fantastic, no question, but I think this year's Vuelta offers a major step forward in the talent on offer. I could and probably am completely wrong though.
5. Bradley Wiggins
For Wiggins and Brajkovic, I could be once again underestimating their chances. I feel like the overall theme of this year's Vuelta is a big question mark - who will factor? Most of the time, it's pretty clear who is coming in with good form, but for the Tour crashers or absentees, there are very few indicators as to who will be great.
If Wiggins goes into the Vuelta with the same form and focus as he did at the Tour de France, it would be silly to think that he couldn't win the thing outright. If he's not all-in, he could be a quiet presence. I think we'll see something in between.
6. Janez Brajkovic
Same as above.
7. Denis Menchov
Who knows? After his best ever result - a 3rd at last year's Tour de France, Menchov has been but a shadow of 2010 all season. His Geox-TMC move hasn't panned out at all, and now, Menchov heads into the Vuelta desperately hoping to salvage something out of 2011.
Can he do it? He has surprised before, but I don't get the feeling he'll do it this year.
8. Andreas Klöden
See Janez Brajkovic and Bradley Wiggins.
9. Daniel Martin
First Grand Tour? Expect a top ten. Many are saying this is a crucial three weeks for Daniel Martin. I think it's just a matter of Martin confirming on the immense talent he clearly has. Barring accident, illness, or bee sting, he's going to be a solid factor over the next three weeks.
10. Joaquim Rodriguez
Rodriguez fits somewhere in there as well. The recent Tour of Burgos winner can climb with anyone and make the Schlecks look like Cancellara incarnate in a time trial. He'll be super fast, and he'll likely podium.
For some reason, I forgot to include him above, but that's kind of how Rodriguez rolls. For such a great rider, he never seems to sit very prominently on the radar.
Don't forget about Rabobank's Steven Kruijswijk either. His ascension to the top of the Dutch Grand Tour pecking order will continue. If he pulls off a big result in Spain, he could topple Gesink as the next big thing. Improbable? Nope.