Since the Vuelta a Espaa was moved from late spring to late summer in 1995, the worlds third grand tour has adopted many different roles. It is (1) a consolation race for those who crashed or failed at the Tour de France and are looking for redemption, (2) a race for those whove already contested the Giro dItalia or the Tour and are shooting for a second goal, (3) a single target for riders making a comeback from periods of suspension or injury or those from teams that werent eligible for the other grand tours, (4) a race of confirmation for young riders leading their teams for the first time or starting their first grand tour, and (5) a preparation event for those looking ahead to the world road championships.
Last year, the Vuelta ended with a surprise podium made up of Spains winner Juanjo Cobo, and the British runners-up Chris Froome and Brad Wiggins. It was a race of redemption for Wiggins after he broke his clavicle in a first-week crash at the Tour. Froome had ridden grand tours in previous seasons for previous teams, almost anonymously, but he was riding his first as a member of Team Sky and he became the squads first-time team leader in the final week after teammate Wiggins faltered on the ultra-steep Angliru climb. As for Cobo, he was riding his only grand tour of the year because his Pro Continental squad, Geox-TMC, didnt gain wild-card slots for the Giro or Tour.
At this years 67th Vuelta, which starts on Saturday with a short (but very important) team time trial in Pamplona, both Cobo and Froome are returning, but they come as very different riders. Cobo is now on a ProTeam formation, Movistar, and after racing the Tour as a back-up to Alejandro Valverde his role at the Vuelta has several facets. As defending champion, he is the designated team leader, but that role could change quickly if he shows any weakness on the races first two summit finisheson the short Alto de Arrate climb at Eibar this coming Monday and the much longer one to the Valdezcaray ski station on Tuesday. If Cobo falters, Valverde will assume the Movistar teams leadership, leaving Cobo to ride support and shoot for stage wins on this Vueltas eight (yes, eight!) other mountaintop finishes.
While Cobo has been almost invisible since his Vuelta victory, Froome has grown enormously in stature because he followed up his second place at the 2011 Vuelta with second place (to Wiggins) at the 2012 Tour, where he proved to be the strongest climber and second-best time-trialist. The brilliant 27-year-old Brit now starts the Vuelta as a team leader for the first time, and should he confirm his status with another podium (or even the overall win) then Froome could go on to become one of the most successful grand tour riders of his generation.
Besides Cobo and Froome, there are some 20 others from the five different categories of rider who will be working toward a variety of targets in this 3,360-kilometer Vuelta that finishes in Madrid on September 9. Heres an assessment of their goals and likely performances.
(1) Looking for redemption
Victims of crashes or poor form (or both) at the Tour, Robert Gesink, Denis Menchov and Alejandro Valverde all need to get back on track at the Vuelta. After an impressive victory at the Amgen Tour of California, Gesink went into the Tour as one of the favorites; but the Dutchman never showed the ace climbing form he needed to be a true challenger. With the prospect of 10 summit finishes over the next three weeks, the Rabobank leader has to win at least one stage while helping his teammate Bauke Mollema shoot for the podium.
Menchov began this years Tour strongly, but gradually faded from sight. As the winner of two Vueltas and one Giro, he knows what needs to be done to take a grand tour; but with only one individual time trial, his specialty, the Russian veteran wont get a chance as a GC rider and so will ride support for Katusha teammate Joaquim Rodriguez. Thats the same role Menchov played at the 2011 Vuelta, helping then Geox teammate Cobo score the overall win. As for Valverde, he saved his Tour by winning the last Pyrenean stage, and that success may inspire the Movistar rider (whos in his comeback season after a doping suspension) to try for a second Vuelta victoryunless teammate Cobo can find his best form.
(2) Shooting for a second goal
Four riders who had mixed results at this years GiroThomas De Gendt, Jean Gadret, Roman Kreuziger and Joaquim Rodriguezall have a chance of finishing high on the GC at this Vuelta. Rodriguez only lost the Giros maglia rosa in the last-day time trial to Ryder Hesjedal (whos not starting in Spain after crashing out of the Tour), but with a more favorable, hilly TT at the Vuelta (on August 29) and with 12-second time bonuses awaiting the winner of every summit finish, his specialty, this is the Katusha riders best chance yet of winning a grand tour.
Team Vacansoleils De Gendt was the shock third-place finisher at the Giro thanks to a do-or-die breakaway on the last mountain stage up the Stelvio, but the Belgian is likely to be kept on a tight leash by the Vuelta contenders. AG2R-La Mondiales Gadret is another solid climber, but stage wins are likely to be his main goal, while in theory helping his teams GC hope Nicolas Roche. The ambitious Kreuziger will again have full support from Astana, but the Czech racer has yet to prove his staying power over the full three weeks of a grand tour.
Lotto-Belisols Jurgen Van den Broeck put his season-long focus on the Tour, and he came up with an excellent fourth place after being one of the events more aggressive climbers, along with Italian Vincenzo Nibali. If the Belgian can repeat his Tour form, he has a great chance of reaching the podium in Spain.
(3) Making a comeback
In a race that stays in the very north of Spain and never goes farther south than Madrid, Basque climber Igor Antn will feel right at home. He crashed out of the 2010 Vuelta when he was the race leader entering the final week and finished a disappointing 33td last yearwhich he put down to riding the Giro beforehand, even though he won stages at both grand tours. This year, he has focused everything on the Vuelta, and if he can find good early form his Euskaltel-Euskadi squad will give him the strong support he needs to shine in his home region.
After a string of victories in the Tour, Giro and Vuelta, and after a never-ending doping saga that resulted in his being suspended until last week, Alberto Contador looks and talks like the rider who dominated the grand tours for four years from late July 2007even though he was retroactively stripped of his 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro victories because of that positive drug test for Clenbuterol. The big question waiting for him to answer at the Vuelta is: Can the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader from Madrid race like the old Contador and take advantage of all those mountaintop finishes? Or will he falter along the way, somewhat like he did at the 2011 Tour?
(4) First timers
We can expect some of the most exciting performance at this Vuelta from Sergio Henao, Bauke Mollema, Zdenek Stybar and Andrew Talansky. Though Henao is starting the race as a principal support rider for Team Sky leader Froome, the talented Colombian racer is going to feel at ease on this climbers course and should Froome show any signs of weakness, or experience bad luck, expect Henao to step up to the plate.
Rabobanks Mollema, a winner of the under-23s Tour de lAvenir in 2007, was a surprise fourth-place finisher and won the points classification at last years Vuelta. Now, as the co-team leader (with Gesink), he has to show whether that 2011 performance was a once-in-a-lifetime result or that he can be a genuine grand tour contender.
Stybar, 27, the former world cyclo-cross champion, has shown some excellent climbing form in weeklong stage races in his breakout road season for Omega Pharma-Quick Step; he could well be a surprise top-10 finisher at his first grand tour. As for Talansky, 23, he made an anonymous grand tour debut at last years Vuelta, finishing 79th overall, but after winning last weeks Tour de lAin in France and placing second to Wiggins at Mays Tour de Romandie in Switzerland, hell be the first-time leader for Garmin-Sharp at this Vuelta with a top-ten finish on his radar.
(5) Preparing the worlds
This Vuelta is much too mountainous to prepare perfectly for next months world championships in the NetherlandsSpains Samuel Sanchez has chosen to ride the Tour of Britain insteadso the Spanish grand tour doesnt feature that many sprinters. But with the worlds being on the hilly Valkenburg course, some serious all-terrain worlds aspirants have come to the Vuelta. Italys Damiano Cunego will be looking to win a stage or two for his Lampre-ISD squad, and may even be among the leading GC riders by the finish.
Belgiums Philippe Gilbert is (inexplicably) still looking for his first 2012 victory for BMC Racing, and he can dispel all the anti-Gilbert rumors by taking a few stage wins in the next three weeksbefore starring at his (almost) hometown worlds. Gilbert will have his near Belgian neighbor Maxime Monfort of RadioShack-Nissan as a teammate at the world championships, and while Monfort is more of a GC rider after an excellent showing at the Tour, he too would be thrilled to win a stage in Spain.
Finally come two men who have GC relevance at the Vuelta, but who may play a stronger role at the worlds. French-based Irishman Nicolas Roche has already placed top 10 at a Vuelta, and he is consistent enough to replicate that performance, but the frequency of the summit finishes more favors his French teammate Gadret. The climbs will suit Colombias Rigoberto Uran, but hes sure to be racing for Froome and Henao in Spain, but that hard work will set him up as a potential world champion after his impressive silver medal at the London Olympics road race.