Unlike the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, Spain’s national grand tour still generally tends to see a home winner; only once in the past five editions has a foreigner triumphed.
This trend could well continue with a number of lightweight Spanish climbers lining up for the 2013 Vuelta a Espana (August 24 – September 15) with perfectly suited attributes to this year’s mountainous route, but Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) could spoil the party with a repeat of his springtime Giro d’Italia success.
Vincenzo Nibali, 28, Astana
The 2010 champion now has two grand tour wins to his name following his triumph in Italy back in May, and will look to add a third at the Vuelta. There were doubts surrounding his form when, in the Tour of Poland, he was shelled out the back as soon as the road went uphill, but a third place overall at the Vuelta a Burgos a fortnight ago suggests that he’s back on track. He possesses the class, experience and all round ability to succeed, but winning two grand tours in a season is a feat that has only been achieved once in the last 14 years (Alberto Contador, 2008), and he may be distanced by the smaller climbers on the steeper slopes.
Alejandro Valverde, 33, Movistar
Valverde has looked good all year, with impressive rides in the spring classics and at the Tour de France, but, remarkably, he has not won a single race since February. He’ll be looking to put that right in Spain, and looks a very good shout for overall victory too. His second place in last year’s edition revealed how he is able to flourish in a route consisting of relentless mountains, and his early surrender in the GC battle at this year’s Tour means he ought not to be as tired as others who completed three weeks of riding in France.
Joaquim Rodriguez, 34, Katusha
Despite clearly being the strongest rider in last year’s race, Rodriguez was out-thought by Contador and ended up finishing down in third place. He’ll be looking to make amends this year, and ought to wreak havoc on the uphill finishes. At 34 years of age, time is running out for the Spaniard to win his first ever grand tour, though this Vuelta represents a very good chance. His main concern will be how well he recovers from the Tour; he has not competed since the Paris stage and no rider since the Vuelta was moved to the autumn has won there following a podium at the Tour.
Sergio Henao, 25, Sky
With British stars Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins not riding, Sky has elected young Colombian Sergio Henao as team leader for the Vuelta. He has placed ninth, 14th and 16th in his three previous grand tours, however this edition marks his first effort not riding in support of someone else. His compatriot Rigoberto Uran lines up too, which could be either a hindrance or benefit; Uran would make a great domesique in the mountains but, as he is leaving Sky, may feel less inclined to ride for another.
Carlos Betancur, 23, Ag2r
Betancur has been one of the revelations of the season, first impressing in the spring classics with third at the Fleche Wallonne and fourth at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and then winning the white jersey and finishing fifth overall at the Giro d’Italia. He has not, however, raced since his success in Italy, and therefore his form going into the Vuelta is unknown. At just 23 years old of age, he will likely find a second grand tour bid in one season too much to sustain, but he could yet surprise us again.
Thibaut Pinot, FDJ, 23
Pinot’s primary aim this season had been the Tour de France, however that turned sour when illness and a crisis in confidence forced him to retire after the 15th stage. Instead he now turns his attention to the Vuelta, where, given his obvious climbing talents and the nature of the course, he could be a wildcard for the GC. His rapid rise in the peloton means that we don’t know yet what his limit is, and it will be fascinating to see whether he can improve further in Spain in the coming weeks.
Samuel Sanchez, 35, Euskaltel-Euskadi
At 35 years old Sanchez is something of a veteran now, but his palmares continues to sorely lack a grand tour. He’s come close, especially at the Vuelta where he finished third in 2007 and second in 2009, but he seems to lack the legs to win one now. However, he has displayed decent form all year, with 12th at the Giro, ninth at the Dauphine and eighth most recently at the Vuelta a Burgos, and should therefore put in another good ride. Along with Igor Anton and Mikel Nieve, he’ll be looking to end Euskaltel-Euskadi’s 19-year dynasty in style – as well, of course, as resolving that pressing matter of a contract for next season.
Others to Watch
Edvald Boasson Hagen, 26, Sky
In a field depleted of first rate sprinters, Boasson Hagen looks the best bet to win bunch sprints. The Norwegian champion was in good form at the Tour before being forced to abandon with a fractured shoulder blade. He’ll be looking to build form for his primary late season target, the world championships in Italy.
Gianni Meersman, 27, Omega Pharma-QuickStep
Meersman has picked up several WorldTour wins this season, but has yet to make the break through at grand tour level. Though he favours sprints with a bit of an incline, his two stage wins at the Tour de Romandie proved that he can win on flat finishes too. As a result he should be able to battle on both fronts at the Vuelta, and so a first grand tour win is certainly achievable.
Dan Martin, 27, Garmin-Sharp
Martin goes into the race with eyes on the GC, but should he find his legs failing to respond in the first week and should he lose lots of time, he could refocus his aims towards stage wins. Either way, we can expect the Irishman – who has been one of the riders of 2013 with Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Catalunya and a Tour de France stage to his name – to animate the race.