Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Vuelta a Espana 2011 Preview: Route & Riders

In my admittedly unfashionable opinion, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the best of 2010’s grand tours. While it lacked the controversy of the Tour’s chaingate and the enormous breakaways and redemptive victory served up by the Giro, it more than compensated for it with on the road action.

While its bigger brothers left us debating the absence of Contador’s sportsmanship and Vinokourov’s tactical savvy, the 2010 Vuelta was all about Philip Gilbert blasting up a Malagan precipice, Igor Anton’s two stage wins and devastating crash, and the battles on Lagos De Covadonga and the newly discovered Bola Del Mundo.

Vincenzo Nibali pulled out an intelligent win in a hard fought race over an interesting course, a combination that made you wonder if the Vuelta had finally stepped out of the shadow of its French and Italian counterparts. Of course, the Vuelta has had false dawns before-wins by Jalabert in 1995, Zulle in 1996 and Ullrich in 1999 had you thinking that the race had become prized by the men who usually give it their all in July rather than September -but this time we reckon the sun is set to shine for a good long time. This year’s route is just as interesting as last years, there are some exciting contenders and hey, we get live daily coverage on ITV 4, so the riders have the added incentive to ride hard and avoid being the butt of Gary Imlach’s withering jabs.

The Route
As is traditional these days, there’s stacks of climbing, minimal time trialling and a few stages that look more like a Spring Classic than a GT stage. As is equally common these days, at least one of the mountain stages is somewhat blunted by disposing of all its climbs before it's half done, and another will probably be left to the chancers while the GC men keep their powder dry for the monster that follows it. Nevertheless, there are plenty of pivotal looking stages.

Stage 1: Benidorm Team Time Trial.
Like a holidaymaker in Pataya, the opening time trial is a bit twisted and likely to be exposed along the beaches, but for all its technicalities, the 13.5K opener is too short for anyone to lose really serious time. Except for Euskaltel, of course. They’ll somehow manage to lose a shedload.

Stage 4: Baza-Sierra Nevada.
A summit finish on an Hors Categorie climb on stage four means that that the sprinters will be fighting elimination before they’ve even finished tightening their cleats, while the GC men will have to show their cards early.

Stage 10: Salamanca TT.
47 kilometres against the clock with nothing that resembles a climb and very little in the way of twists and turns, there’s a chance here for strong time triallists like Menchov and Wiggins to wipe away losses and build a cushion. It will need to be a bloody big cushion though, given what’s still in store...

Stage 11: Verin-Montana Manzaneda.
Two 3rd Cats and a 2nd Cat will weaken the rider's legs before the new climb of Montana Manzaneda. It takes nearly 30K to climb just under 1800 metres-this isn’t brutally steep, but it's loooong and draggy and likely to live as long in the riders legs as their memory.

Stage 15: Aviles-Angliru.
For a comparatively new climb, the Angliru dominates the Vuelta. Since its first appearance in 1999, Alto Del Angliru is the first name people look for each year when the route is announced.

The opening 6k are merely tough, but the final 6 are evil. The average gradient never drops below 12%, wavers frequently between 13 and 17%, and peaks briefly at 23%! Even the best climbers can be reduced to a crawl on the Angliru, and it tends to be attritional rather than tactical. The pace will drop, even team cars will struggle, and if there’s rain there will be all sorts of wheel slipping, bike weaving agony. Igor Anton proved he can handle the most sadistic climbs back in May, and I reckon he’ll use the Angliru to stamp his name on this year’s Vuelta. If he hasn’t fallen off by then.

The Riders

Vincenzo Nibali
The defending champion oft-touted next-big-thing-in-stage-races, Nibali’s a good but not explosive climber, a middling but not disastrous Time Trialist, and an exhilarating descender. You can shake him off in the mountains but he doesn’t fall too far behind, and his refusal to lose more than a few seconds sees him in good stead when everyone else is taking a minute one day and losing 45 seconds the next. His steady pursuit of Ezequiel Mosquera up Bola Del Mundo last year was the same sort of gutsy defensive riding that we’re all praising Cadel Evans for, having marked his rivals for three weeks. The only trouble is, Evans has nearly a decade on Nibali. What looks canny on an older man looks a little dull on Nibali, and I doubt that conservative tactics will see him in red a second time. I reckon he’ll be one step down this year, in second.

Igor Anton
He can climb with the best of them, and his victory on the Mt Zoncolan in this year’s Giro proves that he can climb on the worst of them. With the rider’s facing up to an ascent of the preposterously vicious Alto De Angliru, Igor Anton’s experience of winning on cycling’s sado-climbs will see him in good stead. On the other hand, he falls off a lot. Really a lot. He’s already crashed out of two Vuelta’s, and spent most of one Tour repeatedly picking gravel out of his legs. I reckon he’ll finish the Vuelta in first, or in hospital.

Michele Scarponi
He’s had a great set of results in stage races this year, so it’s a little unfair that when I think of Michele Scarponi I don’t think of him standing on the second step of the Giro’s podium, I think of him giving away the farm by tearing after Contador’s very first attack on Mt Etna and being utterly unable to sustain the chase. In that, he’s no different from anyone else in cycling, but where everyone else rode conservatively and kept the mystery alive, Scarponi had made it clear that the top step was beyond him. Of course, there is no Contador at this Vuelta, but there’s not likely to be much fear of Scarponi either. I reckon he’s looking at third.

Joaquim Rodriguez
Joaquim Rodriguez is just about the only rider whose uphill accelerations are scarier than Alberto Contador’s. Sadly for Rodriguez, he doesn’t have Alberto’s ability to repeat the trick time and time again. I reckon he can get away from anyone else in this Vuelta, but when he does so he won’t build big enough time gaps to trouble the podium.

Bradley Wiggins
How long can you maintain your best form? Four weeks, maybe five? And that’s assuming you can keep busy - something that hasn’t been possible for Wiggins, despite being back on the bike within a week of his collarbone surgery. The Wiggins we saw in the Dauphine might have had a shot at the podium, but two months and one fracture later, we’re guessing that Top Ten is the best he can hope for, and if he manages that we’ll be proper proud of him.

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