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RCUK's Vuelta a Espana preview

Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans have won the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in 2011 but who will triumph in the final Grand Tour of the year? The 2011 race begins on Saturday (August 20) – here are the names to watch out for and the stages where the race will be won and lost.

The Route
The Riders
Key Stages
Television Guide

The Route

The 2011 route includes 10 mountain stages

“It is a very hard Vuelta,” said defending champion Vincenzo Nibali when the route for the 66th edition of the Spanish Grand Tour was announced in January.

And the Italian wasn’t wrong. The 2011 race features ten mountain stages (yes, nearly 50 per cent of the route favours the climbers), with six summit finishes.

With the race organisers also required to the keep the sprinters happy, that leaves little room for much else, with a 13.5km team time trial kicking off the race before a 47km individual test on stage ten.

The race will also return to the Basque Country for the first time in 33 years, with stages 19 and 20 finishing in Bilbao and Vitoria respectively before the final transfer to Madrid.

The Vuelta last visited the politically-sensitive region in 1978, when protesters blocked the course. “Cycling fans in the Basque Country are going to be delighted to have the race in their home once again,” said Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Igor Anton, whose team’s riders are all born in, or at least connected to, the area.

GC Contenders

A host of crashes at the Tour de France, combined with riders forced to sit out or play second fiddle in July, has made for a competitive field at the Vuelta. Who’s in contention for a spot on the podium? See the full provisional start list here.

Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)

When Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the Tour de France – where he said he was ‘in the form of his life’ – the Brit immediately turned his attention to making his Vuelta debut.

Bradley Wiggins, who won the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, returns to action at the Vuelta

The route, with six summit finishes and just one individual time trial, is not one on which Wiggins, who has not raced since the Tour, naturally thrives – but the Team Sky leader remains optimistic about his form heading to Benidorm.

“Everything suggests I’m in as good shape as going into the Tour, the numbers are pointing to good form,” he said. “You don’t get many opportunities to ride a Grand Tour for the overall standings – I have to take every one that comes, so I will put my hand up and give it 100 per cent every day.

“The time trial after nine days is there for me; my first goal will be to stay out of trouble until there. It’s the only Grand Tour I’ve not done. I feel fit and healthy whereas normally at this time of year you are tired from the Tour [de France] and want to see the season out. It almost feels like the start of the season again.”

Igor Aton (Euskaltel-Euskadi)

Igor Anton crashed out of last year’s Vuelta on stage 14 while wearing the leader’s jersey – this time out the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider will want to top the general classification when the race heads back to his native Basque Country for its crescendo before the final transfer to Madrid.

The 28-year-old won atop Monte Zoncolan on one of the toughest stages in this year’s Giro d’Italia and, while team-mate Samuel Sanchez was winning the King of the Mountains classification in the Tour de France, bookies favourite Anton was previewing the Vuelta’s key stages, undoubtedly looking to peak for his home Tour.

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)

Splitting Grand Tour team leader duties with Ivan Basso, defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will spearhead Liquigas’ attack at the Vuelta.

The 26-year-old – an all-rounder who is strong in the mountains and a quick time trialler –  finished third at the Giro d’Italia behind Alberto Contador and Michele Scarponi and has since consolidated his training, and missing the Tour, with a view to arriving at the Vuelta in peak condition.

Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC)

A three-time Grand Tour winner, after Vuelta victories in 2005 and 2007 before triumphing at the Giro in 2009, Menchov will arrive at the start line chomping at the bit after his Geox-TMC team were left out of the Tour de France.

With that in mind, Menchov has a strong team to support him, including 2008 Tour champion Carlos Sastre, who will in effect share Geox-TMC’s leadership with the Russian.

“The route is gruelling and I’ll be going up against some very competitive rivals,” said Menchov. “Fortunately, I’ll be able to count on the support of some excellent riders. I think our squad is well equipped to put in a good race.”

Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto)

Another of the Tour de France’s crash victims – along with Bradley Wiggins, Janez Brajkovic and Andreas Kloden – to harbour general classification ambitions, Jurgen Van Den Broeck has made a remarkable recovering since suffering a broken shoulder blade, broken ribs and a collapsed lung.

A pure climber, Van Den Broeck should thrive on the Vuelta’s ten mountain stages and six summit finishes – as long as the Belgian is fully fit again.

How the Bookies See It

Igor Anton 18/5
Vincenzo Nibali 6/1
Michele Scarponi 6/1
Joaquim Rodriquez 6/1
Denis Menchov 6/1
Jurgen Van Den Broeck 6/1
Bradley Wiggins 20/1
Janez Brajkovic 20/1
Andreas Kloden 25/1
Carlos Sastre 50/1

Odds from William Hill. Correct at time of publication.

Key Stages

Stage four – 170.2km
Baza > Sierra Nevada

Rather than a first week where general classification riders stay out of trouble and let the sprinters lock horns, organisers have thrown an early spanner in the works with the first high mountains stage just 72 hours after leaving Benidorm.

The first category one ascent starts from the opening kilometre and will stretch any legs whose form’s deserted them, before a category three climb after 125.2km sets up the final hors categorie summit finish in Sierra Nevada at 2,112m.

While some riders may not want to assume the red leader’s jersey so early in the race, others could see their GC hopes take a critical hit after just four days in the saddle.

Stage ten – 47km individual time trial
Salamanca > Salamanca

With just one individual time trial over the three week race, stage ten offers riders in the mould of Bradley Wiggins their only opportunity to rescue any time lost after week one or open a time gap heading into the rest of the race.

The largely straight roads could see some suffer in the wind on the out-and-back course, where a false-flat on the opening leg will suit the power houses of the peloton before the fast finish will slow the TT specialists.

Stage 15 – 142.2km
Avilés > Anglirú

The brutal climb of Angliru stars on stage 15

Among the climbs to star in this year’s is the Alto del Angliru where, in 2002, David Millar memorably removed his number and refused to cross the finish line in protest to the stage being run in the rain.

The infamous climb has featured four times since first introduced in 1999 and tops out at 1,557m – not especially high but the ascent starts just 300m about sea level, with an average gradient of more than 10 per cent and a maximum approaching 25 per cent.

Stage 15 is not especially long, but that should mean a lightning-fast pace – just like this year’s Tour de France epic to Alpe d’Huez, when Alberto Contador attacked from the gun.

Television Guide

ITV4 will broadcast two hours live coverage of every stage for the first time, as well as a half-hour daily highlights show at 7:00pm. Ned Boulting will present, while Matt Rendell will provide race analysis. ITV television guide

Eurosport will continue to show live coverage, along with a highlights programme each evening and the follow morning. David Harmon and Sean Kelly will provide the commentary. Eurosport television guide

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