2010? Great battle between Nibali, Anton and Mosquera. 2011? A strong, clever ride from an injury hit Wiggo preceding a scrap between Froome and Cobo. 2012? An attritional war that saw Valverde and Froome drop away before Rodriguez and Contador matched legs and wits, with Rodriguez winning the legs before Contador stole the race with wits. It might not always be pretty, or have have the strongest field, but the Vuelta is rarely dull.
After 2010, Vuelta watchers knew to keep an eye on Tejay Van Garderen long before everyone else. Ditto for Sagan after 2011, and prior to last year's event, we were pondering Quintana's chances. It'll be interesting to see who raises their status in this year's race. Meanwhile, Samuel Sanchez & Joaquim Rodriguez are there to give their teams and careers a final fillip, and Nibali will be trying to repeat his 2010 victory. It's shaping up nicely already, especially when you look at the bonkers parcours: thirteen mountain stages, one more than last year's ridiculously mountainous route. A quick scan of the stages and their profiles turns up a greatest hits of recent Vuelta climbs, along with a few highlights from recent Tours de France.
Among those highlights, we have an early return to the Mirador de Ezaro, the incredibly short but torturously steep climb that Rodriguez won last year. There's a rerun of the Port de Envalira, Tour de France favourites Port de Bales and Peyragudes, a return to Pena Cabarga, and of course, the Angliru. The long, steep, misty, Wiggo-ruining Angliru that was once rumoured to be impossible for cyclists. About the only thing missing is Lagos de Covadonga, and you can't blame Unipublic for holding back a few treats for next year.
Just in case you're interested, this is Rodriguez and Contador having it out on Mirador de Ezaro last year:
Of course, any overly mountainous route can stifle the racing, like we saw in the 2011 Giro, but I doubt that's what will happen this year. Rodriguez must still be smarting from the way the victory was snatched out from beneath him last year, and must also be aware that every passing season reduces his chances of winning a grand tour. Poor Euskaltel can't really rescue their season, but their riders need to find new teams and Sanchez and Nieve have things to prove, with Nieve having shown flickerings of form recently. Sky's Colombians will be let off the leash for the first time, which will be a last hurrah in black and blue for the departing Uran. Nibali has won a GT already this season but he has enough quality and, hopefully, enough rest, to chase another. There are racers coming, and they'll be coming to race, even if us mere mortals look at the route and emit nothing more than a nervous whistle from the back of our bibshorts.
Who's going to win? Tough one. I've been saying for a while now that, at 34, I think Joaquim Rodriguez is probably on the wane. But you know what? I'm going to pick him. He slowly, methodically went from anonymous to podium during the Tour. He's strong on the big climbs and absolutely lethal on the short, monstrous ones like Ezaro and Pena Cabarga. Ezaro is probably too early in the race and too far from the stage finish to be decisive, but still, this is Vuelta full of good omens for Rodriguez.
I'm going to discount both Nibali and Valverde from podium spots, Nibali because his early season campaign was so good, but his recent appearances have been lacklustre showings accompanied by the old saws that there's still time, things are where they should be, progress is being made etc. I'm discounting Valverde simply because we know he can fade, and we can be damn sure he has no luck. If there's a crosswind, he won't be in the Echelon, if there's a mechanical, he'll fluff the changeover. It's almost like karma is mad at him for some reason. Can anyone think of any reason why fate is pissed at Valverde? Something he might have done that's upset the Gods of Cycling?
I was actually expecting Rigoberto Uran to get the leadership nod from Sky rather than Sergio Henao, and one hopes we're not about to see yet another of Sky's patented dramas over pecking order. It seems unlikely, as the two are a complimentary pairing, and I'd be surprised not to see one of them on the podium. I'll go with Henao, but I wouldn't put it past Uran to find a way of taking some points to OPQS next year despite not being given the leadership.
I'm also going to disregard Scarponi's chances. I know, I know, I'm supposed to go through all the serious GC contenders and weigh them up sensibly, but really, I can't remember the last time he did anything particularly impressive. It's been two seasons since his last stage or overall win in any event, and he's become one of those anonymous, aging riders. In fact, in order to get all the accusations of ageism out of the way in one go, I'm also disregarding Ivan Basso, Chris Horner and Sammy Sanchez.
Other riders I'm supposed to give consideration to probably include Igor Anton, Roman Kreuziger and Bauke Mollema. Guys who have nipped at the heels of the podium placers and should be considered candidates to take a step up. Except I don't think they are... I think the latter two are third week faders, and Anton is a luckless, crash happy type who will probably come into his own at the end of the race at exactly the point where two preceding weeks of skidding and yo-yo-ing have put him into irretrievable arrears.
Which leaves my third podium spot up for grabs. When you see riders win stages in devastating fashion, it's easy to assume that they will improve to the point at which they can seize a grand tour, which is why the romantic in me ponders predicting a podium spot for a Thomas De Gendt, or a Domenico Pozzovivo, but the realistic part of me (not to mention the part that has seen Pozzovivo time trial and descend) thinks it's unlikely. For consistent performance over three weeks, combined with proven ability to distance competitors, I'm thinking Carlos Betancur. His Giro ride made me expect big things, and this Vuelta might be where it comes good.
So, my podium picks are Joaquim Rodriguez, Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur. I'm thinking stage wins for Dan Martin, Alejandro Valverde and maybe Mikel Nieve.
EDIT: Wow, these predictions went South pretty quickly, didn't they? Mea Culpa.
Just in case you're interested, my Vuelta team in Road.cc's fantasy league has most of the names I've pegged: