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La Vuelta a Espaсa 2005: The Contenders

It’s nearly September, which can only mean one thing in European cycling: La Vuelta! The Vuelta is in that most interesting spot on the calendar: some will use it to train for the World Championships, some hope to salvage a decent season, some make it the high point of their season, and still others will be just hoping to get through it and be done. PEZ takes a look at the potential winners in Madrid.

This year’s Vuelta will be a bit different from last year’s obscene climb-fest. The mountains will still be present and will definitely bite hard, but they seem to be, at least on paper, tamer. There will be no Angliru or Aitana. There will be the climbs to Arcalis and Covadonga – Tour de France type mountains though. There will also be a lot of solo time trial kilometers – 94 of them. Two long time trials and a quality 7k prologue. This route does not favor, at least on paper, a pure climber like Roberto Heras, it does favor a rider who climbs with the best and time trials at the same level, a person like Aitor Gonzalez (when on form), or Santiago Botero (if he could ever ride three weeks without at least one terrible day), or Floyd Landis, or Paco Mancebo. Still, since Roberto Heras has pulled off the feat of winning the last two editions of the Vuelta, he will be honored with defending champion status – the favorite.

Liberty Seguros
Roberto Heras is the defending champion and Spain’s first ever three-time winner. Heras had a very rough Tour de France where he was a complete non-factor. This is no different from 2004 though where he was invisible during the Tour, but the main man in La Vuelta. Heras has to be the pick to start the Vuelta, if only because of his impressive palmares in the race. It doesn’t hurt either that his team is strong and very focused on taking the Golden Fleece again.

The Vuelta could also provide, at long last, Joseba Beloki’s true return to the fore. He has shown improvement in each of his two Grand Tours this year, finally putting in an ok performance at the Tour de France, but perhaps the Vuelta could be where Beloki really gets the train a-chuggin. How many times have we said that since Beloki returned to racing?

After Heras, there are two real contenders, but the first comes with an asterisk: Aitor Gonzalez: *IF and only if Gonzalez races the Vuelta with the same form he did at the Tour de Suisse in June. Gonzalez had an absolute break-out ride in the Tour de Suisse after a couple of years in the Wilderness. The Tour de Suisse seems like ages ago, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that Gonzalez absolutely stormed the crucial stages of the race, basically riding everyone off of his wheel.

Gonzalez has been very quiet over the past month (he didn’t do Le Tour), but if he has used this time wisely and honed his form, he could very well take the win. Don’t forget how strong Gonzalez is in a time trial. It was 2002 when Termin-Aitor swiped the Vuelta right out of Heras’ hands on the final stage time trial. Heras would probably need to take 4 minutes or so from Aitor throughout the rest of the race – just to have a reasonable cushion in the nearly 100 km of time trials.

There’s also a certain someone – Iban Mayo – who has to pull off a good ride at some point. It’s starting to look odd that Mayo had about 12 months of quality riding and then completely dropped off the face of the earth.

Euskaltel needs a good ride at the Vuelta probably more than any other team – look for some motivated riders.

Francisco Mancebo! This man is just WAITING for his break-out win. The ultra-consistent Mancebo rode an excellent Tour de France, and a superb final TT to take 4th overall. If he has retained most of that form, he could very well be the man to beat.

When he does go on to win the Vuelta, you’ll be lucky if you even know it happened. Mancebo seems to have a knack for staying almost completely off the radar – he’s always there, and yet always overshadowed by the riders around him – be it Valverde, Armstrong, Basso, or Ullrich. He has proved consistently that he has the class to contend with the superstars, and yet, he never seems to get a 1/100th of the recognition. A win at the Vuelta could put a quick end to that.

Phonak is bringing its three-headed monster of Pereiro, Landis, and Botero to the Vuelta. Botero was pretty much non-existent in the Tour, but Pereiro and Landis rode well. Pereiro did his best Piil/Voigt impression and got himself into virtually every break throughout the Tour taking a stage and a host of high placings, while Landis suffered the plight of a contender and the short leash that goes with it. He rode consistently throughout the Tour to finish 9th overall in his first Tour de France as a leader.

If Landis carries some residual form from Le Tour, he could very well be a very strong contender at the Vuelta. The 94 km of time trials should also suit Landis, at least much moreso than someone named Heras.

Discovery is sending a formidable line-up to the Vuelta with Jose Azevedo and Manuel Beltran as leaders, and Tom Danielson as the Wild Card. Any of these three could contend for the overall, it just remains to be seen if they have that certain something extra to take the whole shebang.

Danielson had his Grand Tour debut at the Giro cut short due to knee problems, but if he stays healthy for the Vuelta he could very well impress.

Beltran and Azevedo are the more logical picks for overall honors. Beltran has ridden to some excellent Vuelta finishes, but has not been able to crack the podium. It will be interesting to see what Azevedo can do – it is a very rare sight to see Azevedo working for himself.

Of course there are still many more contenders. Gilberto Simoni should never be overlooked, but one gets the impression that once the Giro is over, his season has hit its highwater mark. Oscar Sevilla will be leading the T-Mobile squad, and one has to believe that at some point, Sevilla will finally live up to the promise he showed by finishing 2nd in the Vuelta, it seems like ages ago – in 2001. Denis Menchov has said that he plans on racing the Vuelta to win, and should not be discounted. Bradley McGee is doing the Vuelta in the hopes of salvaging something of his season after a horrendous Tour de France, which he had carefully centered his entire season around. McGee is still not one to be written off though, he proved that he has the capabilities last year in the Giro, as well as countless other times.

Saunier Duval is coming to the Vuelta with a host of possibilities – Joaquin Rodriguez and Constantino Zaballa have had impressive August’s, and Leonardo Piepoli is always a man to watch in the mountains. If they don’t contend for the overall, be assured that Saunier Duval will be animating the race.

Mr. Bookmaker Odds
Don’t believe us? Check out what Mr. Bookmaker has to say about the favorites’ chances of winning:

Heras 3.00
Gonzalez 4.50
Mancebo 7.00
Azevedo 12.00
Landis 14.00
Sastre 14.00
Menchov 16.00
Pereiro 20.00
Botero 25.00
Simoni 25.00

For more fun, head to www.JeredGruber.com

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