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PEZ Previews: 2006 Vuelta a Espaсa

The third and final Grand Tour of 2006 begins in Malaga on Saturday. After the first two scandal-ridden GTs of 06, there is a lot resting on the slight shoulders of the Vuelta and everyone seems to be praying for a clean event. If that can happen, the super-tough route will take care of the rest and there won’t be anything to be done but enjoy a damn fine bike race.

The Route
The 2006 Vuelta a Espana seems, on paper at least, to be a reasonable request of a bike racer. There are mountains aplenty, but the race has avoided some of the more ridiculous possibilities. It sounds almost humorous to say it, but there are really ONLY five mountaintop finishes this year. It’s a well-rounded race starting with a probably completely ineffectual TTT of a whole 7.5k, five real deal mountain stages, two middle-length TT’s (33 and 27k), and a lot of up’s and downs, wind, and heat to be dealt with.

Seriously, apart from the five HARD mountain days, there’s really only one other day that would be prohibitive to a bunch sprint. There could, theoretically, be 12 bunch kicks. Of course, that will NOT happen, but it goes to show that the course is not nearly as obscene as some years past, and surely nothing like the Giro this year, where sprint finishes were a rare commodity.

With that said, it looks like a fantastic route. The mountain stages are spread nicely throughout the three weeks – no Tour style mountain expeditions for days on end and then what seems like months of flat stages. The Vuelta could end up being one of the more entertaining races in recent memory, but then again, that depends on the racers, so let’s have a look at the possibilities.

Last Year
Of course, last year Roberto Heras won his record-setting fourth Vuelta, then bombed an EPO test, and Denis Menchov subsequently was awarded the numero uno spot. Bye bye Roberto, congrats to Denis Menchov.

Seriously, it needs to be written all by itself so it can be readily known and recognized.

Menchov didn’t get a chance to enjoy the top step of the podium, so we’ll do our best and give him his due props right now.

Denis Menchov was the 2005 champion of the Vuelta a Espana with an incredible ride.

Carlos Sastre was 2nd – how about Sastre’s performance in the Grand Tour’s of late? 2nd last year in the Vuelta, and probably 3rd at this year’s Tour de France.

Two Of Your Favorites Right There
Carlos Sastre will be riding his third Grand Tour of the year, but he doesn’t look to be slowing by any means. Menchov will be on his second. Menchov claims that the Vuelta is a lesser goal for 2006, and that he’s not very fresh going into it.

Three hot riders at the moment: Menchov, Mayo, and Sastre.

His performance from San Sebastian recently doesn’t quite reflect this staleness he professes to have. The critical break of the three strongest riders went on the Jaizkibel containing: Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, and Iban Mayo.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but that’s going to be your Vuelta final podium.

Yes, I just said that Iban Mayo will not only finish the Vuelta, he’ll be on the podium. After what I’m about to write in the next paragraph, you’ll understand just how outrageous this claim is.

Wait A Second…
What about Alejandro Valverde? Ah yes, that guy. Of course, everyone and his/her mother is calling for an Alejandro Valverde win this year. You know what, it’s probably going to happen, but I ain’t picking him until he finishes a Grand Tour. It’s been a little bit now since he made it to the end…

Barring accident or injury, there is a very high likelihood that Alejandro Valverde will be the overall winner of the Vuelta in three weeks’ time. Just a little nervous to put some money where my mouth is at the moment though, because you can’t fall down and break things and expect to win Grand Tours…even if you’re doped to your gills (cough cough Tyler Hamilton).

See, the difference between Iban Mayo and Alejandro Valverde in this case is that it looks like Mayo is on a hot streak, and Mayo on a hot streak is REALLY REALLY fast. If he manages to stay hot, he could win. Seriously. He’s that fast when things are going his way. Problem is, his hot streaks never seem to coincide with the really important races…so that’s the question mark.

The question mark with Valverde is more of a physical one – he had to bow out of the Tour in 05 with an injury. This year he fell down and broke his collarbone. Those are his last two Grand Tours. Sure he looks good right now, but still, coming back from injury to contend in a Grand Tour – namely the Vuelta, doesn’t seem a sure-fire bet – look at Levi Leipheimer a few years back. Then again, in 99, Ullrich pulled it off. So take your pick on that one.

The Dark Horse Favorite
…has to be Leonardo Piepoli. Haven’t heard much from him of late have you? Methinks that could indicate a very strong push for the Vuelta…or I’m completely wrong, one or the other. Piepoli was pretty close to the only rider that could stay within a month of Ivan Basso at the Giro (we won’t get into why he was going so fast).

Piepoli, for whatever reason, was going up hill frighteningly fast as well, and if he goes that well in the mountains here at the Vuelta, he could be vying for a podium finish. Time trialling is a huge question mark with a little person like Piepoli, but if he rocks and rolls on the vertically inclined roads, the 60k of TT’s shouldn’t prove his undoing.

Still More Contenders
The beautiful thing about this Vuelta is that, sure, there is an elite group of favorites, but there is no dominator (at least it doesn’t look like it right now), meaning, it’s still anybody’s show. Want some more evidence of that? Unibet.com’s odds for the overall win only go out to five riders (Valverde, Sastre, Vinokourov, Mayo, and Menchov), after that there’s an option for Someone Else. Odds? 2.5:1.

Let’s take a look at the riders waiting in the wings…

Oscar Pereiro will probably be the 2006 Tour de France champion at some point, unless Floyd Landis manages to pull off a major coup. So, being the Tour de France champion should entitle him to at least contender status at the Vuelta. Still, Pereiro will not be getting any favors from the field anymore, so banking on a 30 minute break? Not gonna happen. He’ll have to win it straight up if he does – which, barring a bad day, he could damn well do.

Ah yes, who could forget about Tom Danielson. Danielson no doubt has the goods to ride with anybody, the question is whether his body will let him make it to the end. Danielson was top 10 last year at the Vuelta – he could well make podium this year barring sickness or injury.

There’s a notable list of other possibilities as well: Markus Fothen will be riding the Vuelta for some more experience – he had a quality Tour and just missed out on the Best Young Rider Jersey. He could fare well, but Top 10 would be a fantastic ride.

Liquigas has some possibilities in both Danilo DiLuca and Dario Cioni. Both have had lacklustre seasons so far, but both have shown in the past that they can contend in Grand Tours. This morning PEZ talked to Dario, who’s just back from 5 days of high-altitude training in the Dolomites, where he was based out of the ski station atop the Stelvio at 2800 meters – you try finishing every ride with a 22km hc grunt. (If that doesn’t help your climbing… maybe you should become a sprinter.) Perhaps the stars will align and we’ll see DiLuca and Cioni making the race in Spain over the next three weeks.

Astana will be fielding a quality team, headlined of course by Alexandre Vinokourov. Vino will probably win a stage, he’ll probably be Top 10, but I don’t think he’ll be a man for the top overall spots. His teammate, young Andrey Kashechkin is definitely a rider to watch – it will be interesting to see how he rolls – he could definitely surprise.

T-Mobile will be led by Dauphine 3rd Placer, Bernhard Kohl. The young Austrian just signed for Gerolsteiner, but he’ll be top dog for T-Mobile at the Vuelta. He didn’t get a chance to show off his impressive climbing skills in July, as he didn’t make the T-Mo Tour team, but the Vuelta could be a damn good stage for the young talent.

Rider to watch? David George of the Relax team could do some serious damage in the mountains if he can get his early season form which he uses to great effect at the Tour de Langkawi. It would be cool to see the South African pull off a good ride or two.

The Stage Hunters…Sprinters Too!
Thankfully, there’s a lot more to a Grand Tour than just overall classifications. Boring. There are 21 stages that need sorting out, and usually the GC boys only really come out to play on a few of them, leaving a LOT of other stages for the rest of the field to have their say.

Robbie McEwen will be at the Vuelta, and he’s a virtual shoe-in for a few stages, if not a lot of them. If his form is reasonable, he could win a ton of stages. He’ll have a healthy Freddie Rodriguez to look after him, as well as Chris Horner who could be aiming at the GC, and at least a stage win.

At long last, we will be treated to the highly-touted Petacchi-Zabel duo. We won’t get a 100% Petacchi though, as he’s been out for a LONG while due to his injury to the knee which he suffered early on at the Giro in May. He’s on the comeback trail, but hasn’t been close to contesting any sprints just yet. Still, he should get a stage…As for Erik Zabel? It would be fantastic, it seems like everyone wants him to win, but the odds don’t look so good.

Oh yeah, that big guy from Norway, he’ll be at the Vuelta. He’ll get a stage. He’ll get beat most of the time by Robbie Mac though.

What’s going on with Paolo Bettini? He has been very quiet of late, perhaps preferring to hold his form for yet another bid at the World Championships in Salzburg. If that’s the case, we could be talking a lot about Il Grillo at the Vuelta. If he’s just riding crappy though, you won’t even know he’s there.

What about ol Michael Rasmussen? Last time we saw him he was lost in a complete mega-overdone polka dot explosion. Rasmussen won’t be a man for the overall (probably), but if he brings some quality form, he can make the race in the mountains – perhaps get two mountain jerseys in one season… Oooh, nice.

Watch the Vuelta on Cycling.TV
• Catch live daily stage action anywhere you can get online – just tune in to CYCLING.TV It’s only Ђ19.00 (Euros) – that’s chump change for big wheels like us PEZ Readers!

Unibet.com Odds
Overall General Classification
Valverde 3.75
Sastre 5.00
Vinokourov 7.00
Menchov 8.00
Mayo 11.00

Points Classification
Petacchi 3.00
Valverde 4.50
Hushovd 10.00
Bettini 12.00
Napolitano 12.00

Think I’m crazy? Drop me an email: [email protected] and yell at me.

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