It’s back to school time, so that means it’s time for the annual 3-week party known as the Vuelta d'Espana. Seriously, I remember hearing of fights among team personnel over who would get to work the race—it’s that much fun.
For the riders though, it’s a bit of a different story, especially for those coming to the race with ambitions of one sort of another. Looking over the latest start list in fact, it’s pretty easy to sort the riders into categories based upon their expectations and hopes for this year's race. Let's take a stab at it.
The Redeemers come to the race hoping to salvage their seasons. Maybe they were injured and missed a big race or two, maybe they were suspended and are trying to return to their former glory days, or maybe they just spent the season searching for form that never came. Regardless, these men come to this year’s Vuelta hoping to erase the past with a win in the year’s final Grand Tour.
1. Cadel Evans tops the list of Redeemers this year. An utter disappointment at the Tour de France (a race he was expected by many to win), Cadel comes to the start in Rotterdam looking to win his first Grand Tour. Silence-Lotto has given him a solid team capable of getting him where he needs to be for the victory, but it will be all up to Cadel to keep his head in the race against some fierce competition. When he’s on his game, he’s a force to be reckoned with; but when he’s not he races with the temperament of a pubescent teenager. He better take advantage now, in what could be his last real shot for Grand Tour glory.
2. Alejandro Valverde makes his 2009 Grand Tour debut at a race he would most certainly love to win for his home fans. He wasn’t allowed to start the Tour this year due to his Italian racing ban, and his team appears to be eager to sign one of his fiercest rivals, fellow Spaniard Alberto Contador. A win by Valverde might convince his management that Albie’s not worth the extra millions, a poor outing might just put the nail in his Valverde's Grand Tour coffin. For my money, I’m hoping Valverde makes this his last attempt at Grand Tour greatness; he’s much more suited to the Ardennes Classics and shorter stages races. Can you imagine how he would do were he to focus exclusively on those?
3. Remember last year when Kim Kirchen won Flèche-Wallone and then spent a week or two making everyone think he could win the Tour? Seems long ago, doesn’t it? Yes, he was injured for the better part of the season, but he’s better now and has enough racing in his legs to warrant consideration here. His situation isn’t nearly as critical as Evans’ or Valverde’s, but he certainly could use a good result to remind everyone of just how talented he is—or was.
4. And of course, one cannot forget Alexandre Vinokourov, whose need for redemption needs no explanation.
Other candidates: Philipe Gilbert, FDJ, Euskaltel-Euskadi
The Builders come to the Vuelta hoping to build form for the season’s final month, namely the World Championships, Paris-Tours, and the Tour of Lombardy. Most of these riders can’t logically claim to have ambitions for the GC; they’ll be looking for stage wins and opportunities to test their legs against their peers. In many cases, these men are also seeking redemption, using the Vuelta to help them find it in the season’s waning moments. A bit risky perhaps, but a stage win or two along the way never hurts, no?
1. Tom Boonen might also be considered a Redeemer in the sense that his Tour de France was an entirely lackluster affair. He started the season well with his usually impressive Classics campaign. Then the wheels fell-off when Tommeke tested positive—again—for cocaine—again. His team fought for and won the right to bring Tom to the Tour where he spent more time flatting and falling than sprinting and winning. He then announced he would ride the Vuelta in the hopes of reminding everyone that he’s one of the top sprinters in the world--and to gain some form for World’s. If can build the fitness he needs for a big win later, while winning several stages, he might just kill two birds with one stone. If he can’t, his fans will spend the off-season wondering what could have been instead of celebrating what was.
2. Like Boonen, Damiano Cunego comes to Spain hoping to build the form he needs to make everyone forget what’s been a pretty disappointing season so far. He failed to score a Spring Classic win and was nowhere close to being a factor in his beloved Giro. Perhaps more so than Boonen, the Worlds parcours actually suits Cunego’s strengths though, and now without Danilo “It’s A Conspiracy” Di Luca in the picture, he might have a team entirely dedicated to helping him get it. Cunego needs to ride smart, treating the Vuelta strictly as training, lest he risk doing too much too soon. Sure, he can go for a stage win now and again, but he cannot do so if it means burning too many of the matches he’ll need for success at Mendrisio and Lombardy.
3. Alessandro Ballan would like to defend his World Title; unfortunately, he might find the course and the competition a bit too much for his talents. That said, there’s always Paris-Tours, a race much more suited to his skills. The Vuelta will help him get where he needs to be. Fabian Cancellara would also like another World Title in the ITT. He’s racing for his home fans at Mendrisio, and the Vuelta will provide just the training he needs to ensure they don’t go home disappointed.
Others: Bjorne Leukemans, Lars Boom, Oscar Freire, and Carlos Barredo
The Asserters come the Vuelta hoping to prove that they warrant the hype they've been given at point or another. They could be a young sprinter hoping to show everyone they deserve to be considered one of the World’s fastest, or an all-round rider looking to make the jump from weeklong race contender to Grand Tour favorite. To them, the Vuelta is a chance to assert themselves as deserving a place at the top of the sport.
1. Andre Griepel was pretty disappointed to have been left-off his team’s roster for the Tour. He comes to the Vuelta hoping to re-assert himself as one of the world’s fastest sprinters. In doing so, he might simultaneously build some form for a race like Paris-Tours and earn himself a fat new contract for 2010—either with Columbia or someone else.
2. Along with Edvald Boassen Hagen, Tyler Farrar was perhaps August’s most successful rider. He comes to the Vuelta looking for a Grand Tour breakthrough. He’s already beaten just about everyone he’ll be competing against in Spain, now he just needs everything to fall into place. His confidence is brimming, his team is dedicated to helping him win, and all that’s left is for him to make it happen. I think he will—several times.
3. Samuel Sanchez comes to the race wearing race number 1. His only task is to end the 3-week race at the same place on GC. He has a team that will certainly be motivated to help him win their home tour and draw attention from the scandal surrounding them after July’s Tour. Frankly though, I don’t see Sanchez as a rider capable of winning a Grand Tour. Like Valverde, he might be suited to hillier classics and weeklong stages races of the Paris-Nice/Pais Vasco sort. Should he prove me wrong though, he will have convincingly asserted himself as one of the world’s finest.
4. And finally, there’s Andy Schleck. Does Andy need to assert himself as one of the world’s best Grand Tour riders? Absolutely not. That said, he’s finished on the podium in both the Giro and the Tour now, and a win at the Vuelta would assert his status as perhaps the greatest threat to Alberto Contador in the years to come. If I were Andy, I would love to go into the off-season with a Grand Tour win under my belt, thus fueling the fire for an impending re-match with Contador in next year’s Tour.
Other Candidates: Roman Kreuziger, Rinaldo Nocentini, Ignatas Konovalovas, Allan Davis, and Fuji-Servetto
To put it simply, the Seekers come to the race looking for one thing: a contract for next year. September marks the beginning of the official transfer period as well as the start of the stagiaire audition season. A good ride in Spain can make the difference between a good contract and a bad one, or in extreme cases, no contract at all.
1. Ivan Basso needs the Vuelta to remind everyone—and his potential suitors—that he still has what it takes to win a Grand Tour. His return at the Giro was positive, but it did little to strike fear into the hearts of his rivals. A win or solid placing in Spain might convince a team that Basso’s best days are not behind him. A bad race, and Team Radio Shack might be able to change a digit or two in their latest offer.
2. Simon Gerrans will certainly have offers for next season; the Vuelta will just give him a opportunity to make them as high as he wants them to be. A stage win in Spain and he’ll have bagged one in all 3 Grand Tours—in 2 seasons, no less. The race might also give him a chance to show what he can do on GC; his team contains no threat to his leadership should he choose to go that route.
3. As we mentioned earlier, Tom Danielson finally looks to be worthy of at least some of the hype surrounding him during his Pro Tour career. A good Vuelta will solidify his place on someone’s team next season—maybe even Garmin. A bad race, and he could be looking for work back home on a team hoping to make him their leader for Redlands. (Now I'm sounding like Bobby Julich.)
4. If I were to make a list of Indefensible Claims for this year’s Vuelta, I’d pick Chris Horner to win. Like Gerrans, he’ll have no problem finding a team next year—especially if he decides to follow Lance. But Chris is a wily veteran, and his inclusion on Astana’s Vuelta team shows me that he’s willing to go it alone to prove to anyone watching that he’s got talent. With Alain Gallopin (the man responsible for bringing Chris to FDJ way back when) driving the car, Chris could pull-off the result of his life, giving him the right to demand more dinero from Team Lance or elsewhere.
Other Seekers: Kurt-Asle Arvesen, Matti Breschel, Michael Albasini, Xacobeo Galicia, and Contempolis-AMPO
That said, here are my predictions for this year’s Vuelta Top-5:
1. Andy Schleck
2. Roman Kreuziger
3. Cadel Evans
4. Alejandro Valverde
5. Chris Horner
What about you? Who are your Redeemers, Builders, Asserters, and Seekers for this year’s race? Share your comments below.