The Vuelta dâ€™Espana continues this weekend with two difficult stages in the regions of Alicante and Valencia.Â Saturdayâ€™s 190-kilometer Stage 8 includes five categorized climbs on the way from Villena to Xorret del Catiâ€”the toughest of which (the Cat. 1 Alto Xorret del Cati) summits a mere 4 kilometers from the finish.Â 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-Lottoâ€™s Philippe Gilbert isnâ€™t a lock to lose his red leaderâ€™s jersey, but heâ€™ll face tough challenges from several men with aspirations to win the race overallâ€”even though they might be better served to let Gilbertâ€™s team maintain the responsibility of controlling the race for a few more days.
Of the men closest to Gilbert, Euskaltelâ€™s Igor Anton and Katushaâ€™s Joaquin Rodriguez look to be the most likely candidates for the win Saturdayâ€”for the two Spaniards, a chance to wear the red jersey is an opportunity too good to ignore.Â Liquigasâ€™ Vincenzo Nibali is another rider to consider, especially since the finish comes after 4 kilometers of descendingâ€”the Italianâ€™s one of the best at the art of the downhill escape.
Saturday should also be our first chance to see if HTC-Columbiaâ€™s Tejay Van Garderen is a true candidate for a top-5 result by the end of the 3-week grand tour.Â Van Garderenâ€™s team has several ridersâ€”including Peter Velits and Konstantin Siotsouâ€”ready to support the young American in his GC bid.Â Velits actually sits one place ahead of Tejay on GC currently; the former U23 World Champion is another rider to watch tomorrow.Â And donâ€™t forget Caisse dâ€™Epargneâ€™s Luis Leon Sanchezâ€”heâ€™s well-suited to both weekend stages.
Last but not least, tomorrow should give us our first indication as to the prospects of Rabobankâ€™s Denis Menchov, Garminâ€™s Tom Danielson and CervÃ©loâ€™s Carlos Sastre.Â Menchov and Danielson have been sitting quietly inside the top-20, while Sastre lies just outside at more than 2-minutes behind Gilbert.Â Of the three, Menchovâ€™s the one to watchâ€”Sastreâ€™s already shown himself to be a step behind the rest and Danielsonâ€™s too inconsistent.Â That said there are still weeks left to race with several hard days on tapâ€”anythingâ€™s still possible.
As for Sundayâ€™s 187-kilometer from Calpe to Alcoy, thereâ€™s no â€œsummit finishâ€ per se; but with seven categorized climbs on the dayâ€”six of which come densely-packed in the last 90 kilometersâ€”expect more fireworks.Â Of the two stages, Sundayâ€™s is actually more suited to a rider like Gilbert; he could certainly take another stage win in Alcoyâ€”especially if he loses his jersey the day before to one of the GC favorites.Â Depending on Saturdayâ€™s events, Anton, Rodriguez, Sanchez, and Velits could all be men to watch Sunday as well.Â And donâ€™t rule out Rodriguezâ€™s Russian teammate, Alexandre Kolobnevâ€”heâ€™s had a quiet Vuelta thus far, but the course favors a rider someone like him and thereâ€™s less GC risk in letting him into a break.
All in all, it should be a difficult, but exciting weekend of racingâ€”for many, Mondayâ€™s rest day will be a welcome treat.
Who are your picks for the weekend?Â Who will go into the first rest day wearing red?
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