This year’s Vuelta is shaping up to be an exciting race. A ripe General Classification battle is set to take place, featuring several big names who were either left out of their teams’ Tour de France selection, or crashed out in the attrition-riddled first half of the race. Let’s take a look at those from whom we expect big things this Vuelta:
Vincenzo Nibali: The defending Vuelta a Espana champion has finished on the podium of the last three Grand Tours he’s raced, with two third places in the Giro and his win in Spain last year. He’ll need another good showing this year if he wants to live up to expectations and build confidence for a run at Giro victory or a good Tour performance in 2012, but is his team strong enough? Nibali may miss the exceptional domestique work of Roman Kreuziger; however, Peter Sagan may be good for a stage win early on, which would take some initial pressure off Nibali. Nibali’s a punchy racer who’s fiercely determined uphill (for reference, see his pursuit of Ezekiel Mosquera in last year’s Vuelta) and a stunningly death-defying descender – his defense of his Vuelta championship should be exciting.
Igor Anton: Anton had a heart-breaking Vuelta last year, crashing out with a broken elbow while wearing the leader’s jersey. Euskaltel-Euskadi plans to come out swinging on their home turf – not only is this the Spanish Grand Tour, but this year’s race spends plenty of time in the Basque Region. They’ll do so in support of Anton’s General Classification hopes.
Peter Sagan: This young, exciting Slovak talent has a host of wins to his name and is coming off of GC and Points victories in the Tour of Poland. This year’s Vuelta is his first crack at a Grand Tour – look for him to outclimb the sprinters, outsprint the climbers, and attack the attackers. You’ll see him at the pointy end of the race.
Michele Scarponi: It may seem like ages ago, but Milan-San Remo still sticks out in my head because of Scarponi’s performance – bridging a huge gap alone between two halves of the split peloton before getting into the winning move up the Poggio and finishing 6th. He followed this up with a second place at the Giro, improving on his 4th from 2010. Can he podium the Giro?
Bradley Wiggins is likely out for blood after crashing out of the Tour, and delegates from Sky have dropped hints that had his collarbone remained intact, he would have ridden to an impressive result. The question for him is whether or not he’s been able to rest, maintain his fitness, and plan his peak appropriately. If he wants to be considered a reasonable Tour contender, he’ll need to impress at the Vuelta – it’s a perfect opportunity for him.
Mark Cavendish: I think it’s safe to say that Cav sealed the deal on his rep as the fastest man on the planet during the Tour – winning the Points Competition and showing grit and power by winning 5 stages. Most notably among them was a bumpy Stage 5 without his leadout train, triumphing over Phillipe Gilbert, J.J. Rojas, Tony Gallopin, and Geraint Thomas – the kind of difficult, high-threshold power sprint that people like me had deemed out of Cav’s hands. If the World Championship Road Race in Copenhagen does indeed come down to a group gallop, Cavendish just might wear rainbow – and he’ll prepare for it with a handful of wins at the Vuelta.
Who are your “Men of the Hour” of the 2011 Vuelta? Who are you keeping your eyes on, and from whom do you expect big things in August and September? Share your thoughts below!