The last of the season’s three Grand Tours begins on Saturday when the 68th Vuelta a Espana descends upon Vilanova de Arousa.
Some of the biggest names in cycling will roll from the start house for the 27km team time trial.
More than 3,300 kilometres will lie ahead of the men contesting this year’s Spanish national tour.
We’ll consider the chances of the men bidding to be crowned king of Spain.
Vincenzo Niabli (Astana)
After winning La Vuleta in 2010, the Sicilian added another Grand Tour victory to his palmares this season by triumphing in the Giro d’Italia. Is a second Vuelta victory beyond him? The official line is that Nibali will compete in Spain purely in preparation for the world road race championships in Florence next month, a major goal for the Italian.
When the racing begins, however, and Nibali finds himself competing on a parcours ideally suited to his abilities, will he be able to resist the challenge? He showed supreme resolve in sitting out the centennial Tour de France when clearly in the form of his life and holding the distinction of being the only man this season to have beaten Chris Froome (at Tirenno-Adriatico). The Shark may reveal his intentions for the Spanish race as early as stage two when the road turns skywards for the first time.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
‘Purito’, third at last year’s Vuelta, is no stranger to the podium at Grand Tours, and was last seen accepting bouquets and champagne in Paris after finishing third at the Tour de France. The performance clearly indicated a man in form, and with only one individual time trial to contend with, Rodriguez is likely to find the Vuelta parcours more to his taste.
That said, Purito has shown an ability to produce a decent time trial when it matters, with the final stage test in Milan at last year’s Giro, and stage 17 of the centennial Tour two recent examples. Should he deliver on stage 11 of the Vuelta, he could find himself with a realistic chance of victory.
The pain in Spain will come mainly on the climbs, of which there are many – a prospect Rodriguez will relish. The Spaniard, winner of three stages in last year’s race, will be ably supported when the road rises. Katusha are sending a heavyweight line-up with La Fleche Wallonne winner, Daniel Moreno, and Luca Paolini, winner of stage three at this year’s Giro and race leader for four days, among those riding in support.
Sergio Henao (Team Sky)
The 25-year-old has been handed the daunting task of making his debut as team leader in a Grand Tour. As a Colombian, Henao’s climbing class is almost taken as read, but this season is littered with examples: victory on stage three of the Volta ao Algarve marked the first significant result of his most successful season to date and was followed by a thrilling, last gasp triumph over countryman, Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale), at the Tour of the Basque Country.
A competent campaign in the Ardennes Classics yielded sixth at the Amstel Gold Race and second at Fleche Wallonne, while a series of solid if unspectacular performances in support of Wiggins and then countryman, Rigoberto Uran, at the Giro d’Italia proved again that he has the legs for a Grand Tour (Henao rode for Froome at last year’s Vuelta).
Henao’s leadership poses many questions. Can he cope with the pressure having always ridden as a domestique? Would Uran have been handed the status of protected rider if his departure for Omega Pharma-QuickStep at season’s end not already been announced? And most significantly, given the strength of Team Sky’s line-up (Kiryienka, Cataldo, Boasson Hagen, Uran et al) could he win?
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Valverde has the most impressive record at La Vuelta of any of this year’s contenders. The winner in 2009, and three times a podium finisher, including second place last year, Valve has also finished in the top three on 27 stages, winning seven of them. A two-year doping suspension, however, which expired at the beginning of 2012, has cast a shadow across his career.
Valverde produced a strong performance at the Tour but saw his chances effectively ended on stage 13 when a damaged wheel cost him nearly 10 minutes. The Spaniard’s misfortune, however, turned out to be good news for his young team-mate, Nairo Quintana, and by extension, cycling. A de facto change of leadership saw the 23-year-old Colombian race with Valverde’s support for the remainder of the Tour, propelling him to second overall.
This year’s Vuelta may represent Valverde’s last, best chance to win a Grand Tour. It’s mildly surprising then that Movistar has not registered it’s A team. Quintana, Rui Costa, and Giovanni Visconti are all missing from the start list, but the presence of the talented Benat Intxausti and dependable Sylvester Szmyd means ‘Valve’ should not be entirely devoid of support when the road rises.
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff)
Domestique deluxe to Alberto Contador at Le Tour, Kreuziger will be handed the reigns of leadership at La Vuelta: a role in which he has previous experience and a promotion justified by a season of excellent performances beginning with victory in the Amstel Gold Race.
Kreuziger was more than equal to the task of supporting Contador at the Tour and on several occasions appeared the stronger rider. Further evidence for his form this season in stage races can be found at the Tour de Suisse, where he finished third overall.
If Kreuziger fails to shine as the star of Saxo-Tinkoff’s Vuelta show, another rider rejuvenated by a supporting role at the Danish squad will be waiting in the wings. Nico Roche seems to have grown in confidence since being freed from the pressures of leadership at Ag2r-La Mondiale.
The 2013 Vuelta a Espana begins on Saturday August 24. Don’t miss our daily race reports, photo galleries, and weekly analysis.