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Vuelta’07: The Contenders

The 2007 Vuelta is set to begin this coming Saturday, the 1st, and if there was ever a Grand Tour in recent memory so up in the air, I can’t think of it. Sure, the Tour lacked favorites this year, but going into the Vuelta, the question marks are so entirely large, it’s nearly impossible to make any kind of guess. Of course we have to try though, and thus we shall. Read on…

One of the best ways to start such works of prediction and idle opinion is to look straight back to last year, because it’s easy and it just seems the correct place to start. I reckon some might contend it the simplest, most logical place to begin any forecast.

So what exactly did the final podium look like at the Vuelta?

1. Vino
2. Valverde
3. Kash

Oh wait, not a one of them are here for 2007. Alexandre Vinokourov (1st) and Andrey Kashechkin (3rd) are both off for long vacations following nailage for blood doping, whilst Alejandro Valverde (2nd) is not in attendance either; Valverde was hoping to target the World Championships and ditched the Vuelta in hopes of better preparation elsewhere, but he has now been informed that he will not be riding in Stuttgart due to findings from Puerto and the opening of proceedings against him. That seems to have worked out well then. Maybe a late late edition to the Vuelta? Doubtful.

There will be no Kazakh Surprise in ’07.

So taking out last year’s podium and the entire Astana team, we can look to two big names that should theoretically factor highly: The top two ‘favorites’ are both coming off of high quality Tour de France rides: Cadel Evans was a stunning 2nd, whilst the constantly constant Carlos Sastre was 4th.

Valv? Pity he’s out as well.

To follow the Tour with the Vuelta is absolutely not a big deal for most, but how good the rider’s form (or mental ability to suffer again for three weeks straight) will be in the Vuelta, or whether it holds, is the big question: some come out of the Tour and roll into the Vuelta flying (think – Heras), others try it often and never can do it (think – Sastre and Beloki). Most of the times it seems a dicey proposition (like maybe getting busted for doping) but that seemed to work crazy well for Heras …till he got caught. Moving on.

Hi, I Rode The Tour De France
Thinking of the Vuelta favorites in terms of having ridden the Tour or not separates them nicely:

Cadel Evans (2nd), Carlos Sastre (4th), Denis Menchov (DNF), Vladimir Karpets (14th, won the Tour de Suisse), Manuel Beltran (18th), Haimar Zubeldia (an amazingly quiet 5th), and Oscar Pereiro (also quietly good in 10th) all rode the Tour de France, the first two of course made up half of the Top 4, whilst Menchov and Karpets slaved away in support of another rider. In Menchov’s case, it was a depressing three weeks.

The ever-aggressive Pereiro could pull off a notable ride at the Vuelta, he seems a good fit for this tough, but not too tough circuit.

Both Zubeldia and possible 2006 Tour winner Oscar Pereiro were solid and quiet. Zubeldia would seem an ideal dark horse in Spain, but he just made a point of saying that he’s riding the Vuelta for his very capable teammate Sammy Sanchez.

Sammy Sanchez is my not-so-Dark Horse for this year’s Vuelta.

Speaking of Sammy Sanchez, along with Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans, I see him as a strong favorite for the overall. He has been incredibly quiet of late, he didn’t ride the Tour, and after a good Vuelta overall finish last year, complete with solid TTs and capable climbing – he has to fancy himself a possible contender – and I do too.

If Cadel comes to the Vuelta motivated and still fit – why couldn’t he win the overall? I can’t think of any reason. That would put him in a strong position to take the ProTour overall as well…

Seeing Cadel Evans’ name on the start list after such a fantastic Tour de France was surprising, but it Evans comes in on something even vaguely resembling his Tour form, he could get himself a Grand Tour win. I wonder about Carlos Sastre though. Sastre is the sport’s Mr. Consistency for GT GC’s. If it’s the Vuelta or the Tour he’s been Top 5 on numerous occasions. Can he actually win an overall title? I really don’t know and going off of history…well, there always seems to be someone better. This Vuelta should be an entirely different affair to everything else Sastre has participated in, and he could well be a top dog if he’s going well post-Tour.

Quiet and consistent – you can’t discount Sastre, but I’d be hesitant to lay anything on the line for a Sastre win.

Denis Menchov is a former winner of the Vuelta after Heras’ expulsion for EPO, and he’s more than capable. He has had a quiet year so far, mainly due to the sacrifice of his Tour chances for one booted Dane: Michael Rasmussen. If Menchov isn’t fired up for the Vuelta, there’s not much hope for him now is there?

Menchov is a steady, consistent climber and a good time triallist – he’s done it in the past – is a 2nd Vuelta in the cards?

I’m Fresh And Ready To Go!
Then there are a large number that did not ride the Tour and will most likely start the Tour fresh and highly motivated – either to win a stage, win the Vuelta outright, or to prepare for the Worlds at the end of the month.

Jose Angel Gomez Marchante, Sammy Sanchez, Tom Danielson, Stijn Devolder, Janez Brajkovic, Manuel Beltran, Damiano Cunego, Leonardo Piepoli, and Luis Sanchez are all perfect examples and have to be considered dangerous threats for the overall.

Notice anything about three of the riders? Yeah, they’re all Discovery riders and they all go uphill quite quickly, and can do that TT thing pretty well too: Stijn Devolder, Tom Danielson, and the pint-sized Janez Brajkovic.

Stijn Devolder has had a break-out season highlighted by a fantastic Tour de Suisse where he climbed with the best, and then followed that with a win at the Belgian National Championships. Devolder can time trial well, and can apparently climb with crampons. He skipped the Tour intentionally to focus on the Vuelta. My eyebrows are raised, and methinks we have a real possibility here.

Behind Devolder, there are two well-known climbers: Tom Danielson and Janez Brajkovic. Both had barn-burner Vuelta’s last year – Brajkovic wore the Golden Tunic for a little while and Danielson won a stage and rode a supremely strong final week to top it off and finish an excellent 6th overall. Both can vie for stages and if things go right, both can be factors on the overall. If Danielson’s stomach woes are under control, perhaps the Vuelta can serve as redemption for a missed shot at the Tour.

Looking over at the Italians, Damiano Cunego stands out immediately. After a prodigious rise to the top of the Grand Tour heap in 2004, his progress has slowed a bit, but has taken on that very regular, very steady upward tilt that should see him a real deal favorite in the near future. In the meantime, it’s somewhat of an unknown just how good he’s going, but I’m going to go with GOOD. This should be a good Vuelta for Cunego – and I’m going with him somewhere in the Top 5, maybe surprising with a podium.

One more Italian that I’d love to see fare well? Leonardo Piepoli. How can you not love this quiet climber? Piepoli was hands down the best climber at the Giro – is he coming to the Vuelta with ambitions for the overall, or just stage hunting? If he’s climbing as well as he was at the Giro, it seems fair to say that he can be up there. The time trials will see him lose time, but hey, under the right circumstances… I’m going with little Piepoli as my true Dark Horse, as Sanchez is a well-rounded contender with legit eyes for the podium. Piepoli will need a little help, a lot of aggression, and very, very fast climbing legs to have any shot – I’ll be pulling for him.

One more name I’d just like to throw out there for the sake of saying it: Santiago Perez. Perez rode a stellar Vuelta in 2004, nearly toppling Roberto Heras in the final week. Of course, he was subsequently nailed for blood doping the same time as Tyler Hamilton. Unlike T-Ham, Perez (more or less) quietly served his time and returned this year with Relax. He hasn’t done anything of note, but perhaps he’ll pull off a similar ride as ’04…except this time clean…hopefully. I like to think there’s a place for a rider who has served his time. It would be nice to see Perez return to the Vuelta and do a fair circuit of his home country.

My Picks
Of course, since this is an opinion piece, it only seems fair to stick my neck out a bit and make some completely unsubstantiated guesses at the overall. I’m going to go with Cadel Evans for the win in the hopes that he’s still going strong and still all mentally there. If that’s the case, I do not see him losing. If that’s not the case, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if he finished well down in GC or didn’t finish at all. I figure it’s kind of an all or nothing type thing.

1. Cadel Evans
2. Denis Menchov
3. Sammy Sanchez
4. Carlos Sastre
5. Damiano Cunego
6. Stijn Devolder

Unibet Odds
Sastre 4.00
Evans 6.00
JAG Marchante 8.00*
S. Sanchez 8.00*
Menchov 9.00
Karpets 12.00
Pereiro 15.00
Cunego 16.00*
Efimkin 25.00*
Danielson 25.00*
Devolder 25.00*
Brajkovic 30.00*
Beltran 30.00
Zubeldia 35.00
Piepoli 40.00*
LL Sanchez 50.00
* = fresh rider

The Stage Hunters
One of the big pluses to moving the World Championships up to the end of September is the heightened prestige the Vuelta now enjoys as direct training for the Worlds. True, a lot of riders training specifically for the Worlds won’t finish La Vuelta, but they’ll at least start and ride about half and most likely animate some finishes or breaks. I’d call that a positive.

There will be some great finishers in Spain come Monday. QuickStep is sending two of their best in Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini. Both are without a doubt looking for solid training before Worlds and a shot at keeping the Worlds jersey in the QS camp for a third straight year.

After a solid Tour with two stage wins and the Maillot Vert, Tom Boonen has to be feeling pretty good. He’s about to run into two of his arch-nemeses at the Vuelta though.

Numero Uno and fifteen-time winner already this year, the returning Alessandro Petacchi. Petacchi still has the irritable pleasure of a dumb doping investigation over his head, but nonetheless, he’s steadily regaining form, and should see at least a stage win at the Vuelta, possibly gobs of wins if he hits Giro form again. Ale-Jet will have the ever trusty, non-aging Erik Zabel at his side. The pairing of the two hasn’t produced nearly as much success as might have been expected when they first came together, but with the two on-form, they could really stick it to any field sprint available.

The one rider that should make all of the others a bit uneasy is Mr. October himself, Oscar Freire. Freire recently commented in an interview on CyclingNews that his health is returning and he feels better and better by the day. Anyone who has seen a healthy Oscar Freire knows that he’s one of the best riders on the planet…and the Worlds are less than a month off…it’s about time for Oscarito to get down to business. Expect a stage or two from the Worlds-master.

Bennati is fresh off his first ever Tour stage win and the recent news that he’s moving to Liquigas for ’08.

Don’t forget about Lampre’s Daniele Bennati either. His upward progression to one of the world’s preeminent sprinters continues unabated. It would be nice to see him take a stage over some of the sport’s best.

So that’s all for now. Remember, the racing starts Saturday, and PEZ will be all over everything and anything, so keep it PEZ for all the latest.

Comments, concerns, thoughts? Think my picks are pure idiocy? Lemme know, I’d love to hear your thoughts (maybe): [email protected]

Think you can put together a capable team for the Vuelta? Head on over to PodiumCafe.com and try out their super-fun Virtual Director Sportif competition. It’s free, it’s good stuff, a good reason to follow the race closely, and hey, who doesn’t like winning? Check it out.

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