In the hierarchy of cycling’s Grand Tours, the Vuelta a Espana ranks third out of three. But this season, it could prove to be the best of the lot.
Nairo Quintana’s dominance amid a dearth of real contenders made the Giro d’Italia seem all too easy, while injuries decimated the Tour de France field and left the door wide open for Vincenzo Nibali.
And so fans are looking to the Vuelta – where six former Grand Tour winners will line up for Saturday’s opening team time trial in Jerez de la Frontera – for a real battle to be fought.
Team Sky’s Chris Froome and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador – the latter a two-time winner of his home grand tour – return after injuries ended their bids for Tour de France glory, but whether either yet has the form or fitness to challenge for victory remains to be seen.
What is clear is that neither man is talking like a potential winner.
“Perhaps in the last week, I can fight for a stage win,” Contador said of his prospects, while Froome simply spoke in general terms of getting back on track after the disappointment of the Tour.
“I have always really enjoyed racing at the Vuelta, it’s a tough race but a great opportunity for the whole team,” he said. “I know that the level of competition will be incredibly high this year, but we have got a strong lineup so we hope to be as competitive as possible.”
That leaves Movistar’s Quintana as the clear favourite after he skipped the Tour entirely, with the young Colombian apparently in much better shape than his older teammate and co-captain, former Vuelta winner Alejandro Valderde.
Garmin-Sharp, meanwhile, will have a three-pronged attack with Irishman Dan Martin and American Andrew Talansky returning from injury and former Giro winner Ryder Hesjedel bringing plenty of experience to the table.
Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, 35, is missing a grand tour victory off an otherwise impressive palmares, and where better to win one than on home soil.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who are without sprinter Mark Cavendish, will instead put everything into Giro runner-up Rigoberto Uran’s bid for glory, while Nibali’s Astana team will be backing 24-year-old Italian Fabio Aru, who was third in Italy.
Defending champion Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida) has been withdrawn from the race by his team after treatment for bronchitis took his levels of cortisol below the minimum level expected by the Movement for Credible Cycling.
The 42-year-old had been given a therapeutic use exemption for the treatment by the International Cycling Union but Lampre-Merida have replaced the American with Valerio Conti.
Besides Froome, British interest will come in the form of his Sky teammates Pete Kennaugh and Luke Rowe, as well as Orica GreenEdge’s 21-year-old Adam Yates, who gets his grand tour chance a little under two months after twin brother Simon started the Tour de France in Yorkshire.
Although the battle gets under way with what promises to be a tough, technical team time trial full of roundabouts on Saturday, the real fight will take place in the mountains with no fewer than eight summit finishes – the first coming on stage six – and plenty of tough descents in between.
The real business comes at the end of the second week, with three consecutive summit finishes testing the legs of the contenders.
It is little wonder then that Quintana, who showed he could challenge Froome on the biggest climbs of the 2013 Tour, that finds himself as the favourite.
The 24-year-old Colombian showed his form with victory in the Vuelta a Burgos last week and will take the start on a high.
“It’s a real important win for me, not just for the sake of victory, but also because it gives me massive confidence before the Vuelta a Espana,” Quintana said after that race.
“I’m sure there are rivals quite stronger than me at the moment, but this shows I’ll be getting to the race in good condition, and provided that Alejandro [Valverde] and the rest will be strong again, this can only be good.”
Follow us on Twitter @SprtNationalUAE