Since its move to be the last Grand Tour of the season, the Vuelta has had the perhaps-unenviable position as the GT of last resort. It’s a last chance for GC contenders, teams, sprinters, and stage-hunters alike to pull in results. Its schedule just ahead of the World Championships also serve as a springboard for preparation, and for a final showcase to convince the team selectors of the riders’ form. Who are on the hot seat as we begin the 2011 Vuelta a Espana and how might they perform?
Garmin-Cervélo: Huh? Given how successful their season has been, how can Garmin-Cervélo possibly be on the hot seat? For one thing, their high-profile omission of reigning world champ Thor Hushovd has generated murmurs all across the cycling world. Given that he is moving to BMC next season, and the team prefers to deploy riders whose points are staying with them for next season – this makes sense from G-C’s perspective. Further in G-C’s defense, manager Jonathan Vaughters has cited the need to give other riders room to perform, namely Dan Martin and Johan Van Summeren. However, though the Vuelta may not matter much to the North American fanbase, the expectation is still on G-C to perform well to justify their team selection.
Jurgen Van den Broeck: The Great Belgian Grand Tour Hope is another in a long line of Tour disappointments who left France prematurely in July. He’s got a 5th place in the 2010 Tour de France to his name, but a 7th place in the 2008 Giro is the only other of his slim four Grand Tours to make an impression. This year’s Vuelta could be what he needs in order to turn pressure and potential into performance; if he doesn’t, it’s a disappointment.
Team Geox-TMC: Despite boasting two GT GC winners and multiple stage winners in Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov, team Geox-TMC has had an uphill fight since its inception. Their TdF snub was particularly painful, coming at the heels of Denis Menchov joining the team, and they made no impression during the Giro d’Italia, even with the double-header of Sastre and Menchov. Sponsors Geox and TMC had expressed dissatisfaction last year due to the team’s failure to earn a ProTeam license, So the team is definitely on the hot seat for results in the Vuelta. How might the team perform? They are bringing both Menchov and Sastre, with the former having won 2.5 editions of the Vuelta. Neither has performed strongly this season – will their outing to be a bust?
Nicholas Roche: The offspring of the great Stephen Roche first put in a respectable Grand Tour ride three years ago, at the 2008 Vuelta, to finish 13th in the GC with 3 top-tens on stages. Since then he has failed to improve, instead finding solace in stage top tens and middling GC results. Is that all one can expect of Roche? If the answer is no, then he’ll have to prove it at the Vuelta.
Vacansoleil: As the newer kid on the WorldTour block, Vacansoleil has invested significantly in GT resources. Unfortunately, their high-profile signing of Ezekiel Mosquera, the revelation of the 2010 Vuelta a Espana, revealed a complicated doping case that is still unresolved. Their hiring of Ricardo Ricco further dragged their reputation through the mud. Their top team status earned them invitations to all three GTs this season, but they have little to show for it – except for Johnny Hoogerland’s heroic soldiering after his crash in the Tour de France, which earned him legions of fans, and gave a new H to HTFU. Their ProTour license is in jeopardy for 2012. If they want to stay on stable ground, they’ll need stage wins. With no GC contender to speak of, Vacansoleil is expected to launch long stage-hunting sorties with the likes of Stijn Devolder and Wouter Poels. Will they succeed? Luck will play a big role, and given the number of squads and riders with the same idea, it’s all a matter of chance.
Euskaltel: This year’s Vuelta is a very meaningful milestone for the Basque Orange Boys: it is the first time in a very long time that it enters Basque country. The last time such a crossing happened, rock boulders and trees were felled along the route, in protest of Generalissimo Franco’s oppression of the Basques.
Euskaltel has a squad that has grown significantly in cohesion in the last few years. No longer do we see an implosion of orange as the road tilts upwards; we now see a flotilla of orange at the front, ready to battle on the behalf of their leader instead of on behalf of each of themselves. With Igor Anton eager to make up for last year’s crash while wearing the leader’s jersey, the pressure is on Euskaltel to support him strongly on their home terrain.
Katusha: Has Katusha’s poor performance been due to bad luck (like Pippo Pozzato’s flat coinciding with that of his team car, for example), or bad performances like botching bike changes in the TTT of the Giro and bringing an invisible all-Russian team to the Tour? Manager Andre Tchmil is prone to public pronouncements of his grand strategies and peer pressure – Tchmil, the man who upon moving to Belgium to specialize in cobbled races decided to first learn French instead of Flemish. It could be that his sense of strategy is as misled as was his understanding of history and culture. Katusha’s had a dismal season.
For the Vuelta, the team is bringing Joachim Rodriguez, who put in a blistering performance in last year’s edition only to lose minutes in the ITT. Before his 5th place in this year’s Giro, Rodriguez was perhaps the most luckless contender in this season’s spring classics. His blistering uphill attack was matched only by a superhuman Philippe Gilbert, and Rodriguez had to settle for second at Amstel Gold and La Fleche Wallone. He arrives at the Vuelta after winning the Vuelta a Burgos. However, we have seen little improvement in his ITT skills so it remains a mystery how he will do.
What do you think? Who else are on the hot seat and how do you think they will do? Should RadioShack and QuickStep have made the list, too?