The Vuelta d’Espana continues this weekend with two difficult stages in the regions of Alicante and Valencia. Saturday’s 190-kilometer Stage 8 includes five categorized climbs on the way from Villena to Xorret del Cati—the toughest of which (the Cat. 1 Alto Xorret del Cati) summits a mere 4 kilometers from the finish. While not particularly long, the climb is steep and comes after what should be a long, hot day in the saddle featuring constant attacks and tempo changes.
Omega Pharma-Lotto’s Philippe Gilbert isn’t a lock to lose his red leader’s jersey, but he’ll face tough challenges from several men with aspirations to win the race overall—even though they might be better served to let Gilbert’s team maintain the responsibility of controlling the race for a few more days.
Of the men closest to Gilbert, Euskaltel’s Igor Anton and Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez look to be the most likely candidates for the win Saturday—for the two Spaniards, a chance to wear the red jersey is an opportunity too good to ignore. Liquigas’ Vincenzo Nibali is another rider to consider, especially since the finish comes after 4 kilometers of descending—the Italian’s one of the best at the art of the downhill escape.
Saturday should also be our first chance to see if HTC-Columbia’s Tejay Van Garderen is a true candidate for a top-5 result by the end of the 3-week grand tour. Van Garderen’s team has several riders—including Peter Velits and Konstantin Siotsou—ready to support the young American in his GC bid. Velits actually sits one place ahead of Tejay on GC currently; the former U23 World Champion is another rider to watch tomorrow. And don’t forget Caisse d’Epargne’s Luis Leon Sanchez—he’s well-suited to both weekend stages.
Last but not least, tomorrow should give us our first indication as to the prospects of Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, Garmin’s Tom Danielson and Cervélo’s Carlos Sastre. Menchov and Danielson have been sitting quietly inside the top-20, while Sastre lies just outside at more than 2-minutes behind Gilbert. Of the three, Menchov’s the one to watch—Sastre’s already shown himself to be a step behind the rest and Danielson’s too inconsistent. That said there are still weeks left to race with several hard days on tap—anything’s still possible.
As for Sunday’s 187-kilometer from Calpe to Alcoy, there’s no “summit finish” per se; but with seven categorized climbs on the day—six of which come densely-packed in the last 90 kilometers—expect more fireworks. Of the two stages, Sunday’s is actually more suited to a rider like Gilbert; he could certainly take another stage win in Alcoy—especially if he loses his jersey the day before to one of the GC favorites. Depending on Saturday’s events, Anton, Rodriguez, Sanchez, and Velits could all be men to watch Sunday as well. And don’t rule out Rodriguez’s Russian teammate, Alexandre Kolobnev—he’s had a quiet Vuelta thus far, but the course favors a rider someone like him and there’s less GC risk in letting him into a break.
All in all, it should be a difficult, but exciting weekend of racing—for many, Monday’s rest day will be a welcome treat.
Who are your picks for the weekend? Who will go into the first rest day wearing red?
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