Admittedly, itâ€™s been a slim August here at PavÃ© as work, family, and other obligations have led me astray from my regular schedule.Â But with a new school year beginningâ€”and my regular work week as well, Iâ€™m hoping to get back on trackâ€”beginning with a preview of the yearâ€™s final grand tour: the Vuelta Espana.
Hereâ€™s a run-down of each teamâ€™s chances:
1. Cervelo TestTeam â€“ The big news this week is the demise of the Cervelo TestTeam and the absorption of its remnants by Garmin.Â Before heading their separate ways, Thor Hushovd and Carlos Sastreâ€”two of the teamâ€™s three biggest starsâ€”take another stab at a grand tour.Â (For Sastre, itâ€™s his third this year.)Â While a podium finish in Madrid might be a bit of a long shot for the Spanish veteran, multiple stage wins for the team certainly are not.Â As for Hushovd, heâ€™s looking for stage winsâ€”and some form for worlds later in the month.Â Theo Bos and Philippe Deignanâ€”a stage winner and ninth-place finisher last yearâ€”are two other men to watch.Â Can Vroomenâ€™s men go out on top?
2. AG2R â€“ The French team comes to the Vuelta hoping Irishman Nicolas Roche can build upon on his 15th-place finish in this summerâ€™s Tour de France.Â With a solid team and some lackluster competition, Roche is a good bet for the top-10.Â Rinaldo Nocentini rides as wellâ€”he leads the group of AG2R riders on the hunt for stages.
3. Andalucia-Cajasur â€“ The Spanish wild card squad hopes it can do enough in this yearâ€™s race to justify its invitation.Â Despite winning the overall title in 2009, Spanish riders won only 2 of the raceâ€™s 21 stagesâ€”Andalucia-Cajasur would love to be one of the teams to help improve upon that number this year.
4. Astana â€“ Astanaâ€™s Vuelta line-up is a far cry from the team that won the Tour de France.Â Tour heroes Alberto Contador and Alexandre Vinokourov are staying home, leaving the Kazakh squad to rely on imports Allan Davis and Enrico Gasparotto to take a stage or two.
5. BBox Bourges Telecom â€“ BBox comes to the Vuelta hoping to continue the success its merry band of opportunists found in the Giro and the Tour.Â Look for the William Bonnet, Johan Tschopp and Nicolas Vogondy to lead the charge, while Pierre Rolland tries for a finish inside the top-10.
6. Caisse dâ€™Epargne â€“ Caisse dâ€™Epargne lost last yearâ€™s Vuelta champion Alejandro Valverde to a doping suspension earlier in the season, but that does little to harm the teamâ€™s ambitions in its home tour.Â Luis Leon Sanchez leads the squad with Italian Marzio Bruseghin and David Arroyo Italian serving as his lieutenants.Â Should Sanchez choose to ride for the GC over stage success, heâ€™s a good bet for the top-10 (and an outside contender for the top-5).Â As for Bruseghin, he always seems to be there in grand tours and David Arroyo finished second in this yearâ€™s Giro. Â Together, these three might surprise us.
7. Cofidis â€“ Frenchman David Moncoutie skipped his home tour for a better chance at success in the Vuelta.Â With a stage win and the KOM jersey in last yearâ€™s race, he might prove to have made the right choice.Â With talented men like Tony Gallopin, RÃ©mi Pauriol, and Samuel Dumoulin hunting for stage wins, it might be a profitable September for the French squad.
8. Euskaltel â€“ Euskaltel lost some firepower when Samuel Sanchez decided to skip this yearâ€™s Vuelta.Â A two-time podium finisher in Spain and the fourth-place rider in this yearâ€™s Tour de France, Sanchez would have been popular pick for the win.Â Instead, Euskaltel brings its usual mix of Spaniards and Basques to its home Tour hoping for stages and a top-10 GC finish.
9. Footon-ServettoÂ – Mauro Giantettiâ€™s Footon-Servetto becomes Team Geox next year with big names Denis Menchov and Carlos Sastre joining the fold.Â This year, the team brings a multi-national squad to Spain for its final grand tour of 2010. Â With no clear GC leader, look for Footon to try and place riders in as a many breakaways as possible with the hope of taking a stage win or two. Personally, Iâ€™m rooting for Johnny Walker.
10. Francaise des Jeux – FDJ had a bittersweet Tour de France this summer. Sandy Casar earned the French team a stage win, but Christophe Le Mevel failed to build upon his 2009 tenth-place finish.Â In the Vuelta, Le Mevel gets another shot to prove that heâ€™s more than just a one hit wonderâ€”Iâ€™ll be surprised if he does. Â As for the rest, Yoann Offredo and Yauheni Hutarovich are the teamâ€™s best hopes for stage success, while Remi DiGregorio will try to live up to the hype he received as a neo-pro.
11. Garmin-Transitions – Garmin won three stages at last yearâ€™s Vuelta with Tyler Farrar, Ryder Hesjedal, and David Millar all finding success. This year, the team has one of the deepest squads in the raceâ€”even without Tour-revelation Hesjedal.Â The opening nightâ€™s TTT should be the first item on the teamâ€™s wish listâ€”on paper they have by far the fastest squad against the clock.Â Then the focus should shift to Farrars sprint chances, while Vande Velde and Danielson wait patiently for the GC battle to begin.Â And donâ€™t forget David Zabriskie and David Millarâ€”they likely have their eyes on Stage 17â€™s 46km (pan flat) time trial.
12. Lampre-Farnese Vini â€“ Lampre comes to the Vuelta with Alessandro Petacchi hoping to build upon the sprint success he found in this yearâ€™s Tour de France.Â That said, Petacchiâ€™s participation is uncertain following allegations of pre-Tour doping.Â In his absence, look for Danilo Hondo, Grega Bole, and recent suspension-returnee Andrey Kashechkin to be the teamâ€™s best hopes for stage wins.Â As for Damiano Cunego, heâ€™s staying in Italy to build form for autumnâ€”a good call considering he seemed to peak too soon last year while winning two Vuelta stages.
13. Liquigas â€“ Liquigas had a banner Giro dâ€™Italiaâ€”but a bummer Tour de France.Â But with Vincenzo Nibali and Roman Kreuziger leading the teamâ€™s Vuelta squad, the team could easily end the season on a high note with a grand tour victory in Spain.Â Nibali finished third in the Giro, while Kreuziger took tenth in the Tour.Â Nibali is the teamâ€™s captain on paper, he finished third in the Giro while riding for teammate and eventual Giro-winner, Ivan Basso.Â He can climb, time trial, and descendâ€”a handy skill on Spanish roads that are often steep, technical, narrow and wet.Â Nibaliâ€™s a future Italian grand tour championâ€”he could get his first taste of the podiumâ€™s top step here.
14. Omega Pharma-Lotto â€“ Lotto comes to this yearâ€™s Vuelta looking for little more than stage wins and some good training.Â Philippe Gilbert leads the charge, hoping the Vuelta will once again give him the fitness that saw him take Paris-Tours and the Tour of Lombardy over the course of a week last autumn.Â For Gilbert, Worlds is a big target this seasonâ€”a solid Vuelta is the first piece of his rainbow puzzle.Â As for Greg Van Avermaet, he won a stage and the points competition at the Vuelta in 2008â€”and hasnâ€™t done much since.Â Can BMCâ€™s new recruit turn it around this September, punching his Worlds ticket in the process?
15. Quick Step â€“ Quick Step brings an interesting mix of stage win candidates and possible GC surprises to Spain.Â For stage wins, Wouter Weylandt is not to be ignored in field sprints, while Carlos Barredo is one of the most aggressive riders in the peloton.Â For the GC, Kevin De Weert finished anonymously inside the Tourâ€™s top-20, while Dario Cataldo and Branislav Samoilau showed potential in the Giro.Â Does one of the three have a top-10 ride in his legs?
16. Rabobank â€“ With two-time Vuelta champion Denis Menchov and 7-time stage winner Oscar Freire, Rabobank has all the makings for a successful Tour of Spain.Â By far the most accomplished grand tour rider in the race, Menchov hopes to build on the form that saw him take third in this yearâ€™s Tourâ€”his best French result to date.Â As for Freire, he might be looking ahead to Worlds more than heâ€™s looking to win stages hereâ€”especially with Hushovd, Farrar, Cavendish, and Petacchi participating (that might be a good idea for the 3-time World Champion). Talented rouleurs like Nick Nuyens and Sebastian Langeveld along with climbers Juan Manuel Garate and Laurens Ten Dam will be charged with keeping their men safe and soundâ€”but all four could be stage threats if given the green light.
17. Team Sky â€“ It hasnâ€™t quite been the banner year Team Sky had anticipated.Â Few big wins coupled with a relatively anonymous Tour de France have left team feeling a bit down and out.Â That said, thereâ€™s some potential on the teamâ€™s Vuelta rosterâ€”if they let the riders do what they have proven to do best: win stages.Â Simon Gerrans, Juan Antonio Flecha, and Thomas Lokvist are the teamâ€™s best chances, with Lokvist an outside bet for a good GC ride if he can stay out of trouble.Â Iâ€™m also eager to see what John-Lee Augustyn can do in the mountainsâ€”could he be this yearâ€™s Vuelta surprise?
18. Team HTC-Columbia – Any early doubts about the losses HTC-Columbia suffered before the season have officially been dashedâ€”theyâ€™re clearly the deepest and most talented team in the peloton. This yearâ€™s Tour of Spain will be our first chance to see if the team has discovered the one thing itâ€™s lacked throughout the past two seasons: a true grand tour contender.Â Tejay Van Garderen impressed everyone with a fine third place in this yearâ€™s DauphinÃ©.Â The Vuelta is the young Americanâ€™s first chance to show his mettle in a 3-week event.Â And oh yeah, Mark Cavendish and Matthew Goss are racingâ€”look for 4-6 stage wins as well.
19. Team Katusha â€“ Katushaâ€™s an interesting team to watch in this yearâ€™s Vuelta.Â Joaquin Rodriguez finished seventh in Spain last year and won a stage and finished eighth in this yearâ€™s Tourâ€”he could easily earn a podium spot in Spain.Â As for Alexandre Kolobnev and Filippo Pozatto, theyâ€™re likely searching for stage wins and fitness for Worlds.Â With a solid roster of support men, Katusha could be one of the raceâ€™s more successful teams.
20. Milram â€“ Unable to find a new sponsor for 2011, the Vuelta looks to be the beginning of Milramâ€™s swan song.Â Several men on the teamâ€™s Vuelta squadâ€”such as Niki Terpstra and Robert Forsterâ€”have already found new homes for 2011.Â For those who have not, the Vueltaâ€™s a good chance for them to audition for teams with roster spots still unoccupied.
21. Team Saxo Bank â€“ Fabian Cancellara and both Schlecks come to this yearâ€™s Vuelta, making Saxo Bank one of the tourâ€™s more favored teams.Â Cancellara hopes to once again use the race as preparation for Worlds (he wants to win the time trial and road titles in Australia).Â As for Andy Schleck, heâ€™ll serve as one of the worldâ€™s best lieutenants, riding at the service of his older brother Frank.Â With the usual top-notch supporting cast, thereâ€™s little reason to think Frank canâ€™t take a victoryâ€”after all, heâ€™s one of the most talented riders in the race and the only GC contender without a full grand tour in his legs.
22. Xacobeo Galicia â€“ Xacobeo Galiciaâ€™s always good for a stage win in its home tourâ€”last year, Gustavo Veloso won the team a mountain stage. But the bigger story is Ezequiel Mosquera, a man who has quietly scored three consecutive top-5 finishes in the Spanish grand tour.Â Mosqueraâ€™s results this yearâ€”top-5 results in the Tours of Castilla Lyon, Asturias, and Burgosâ€”prove heâ€™s up to the challenge.Â Could the 34-year-old shock the world?
There you have itâ€”a brief preview of the teams in this yearâ€™s Vuelta.Â But who will emerge as this yearâ€™s champion?Â Hereâ€™s my top-5:
1. Vicenzo Nibali
2. Frank Schleck
3. Ezeqiuel Mosquera
4. Denis Menchov
5. Tejay Van Garderen
Overall, I think weâ€™re in for a fantastic race for sprint fans, with Hushovd, Farrar, Cavendish, Petacchi (maybe), and Freire all participating.Â This yearâ€™s Vuelta is also suited to US riders, with Van Garderen, Vande Velde, and Danielson all good bets for top-10 finishes.Â And of course, thereâ€™s the men using the race as training for Worlds and the autumn classicsâ€”Cancellara and Gilbert are foremost among them. Expect an aggressive and wide-open event.
And what about youâ€”who are your picks?Â What questions do you hope to have answered?Â Who are your sleepers and busts?
Share your comments below.Â And as always, thanks for reading.