Vuelta a Espana: Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde & Vincenzo Nibali among favourites
Matt Westby looks at ten riders who could win the Vuelta a Espana
Last Updated: 25/08/13 2:07pm
Alejandro Valverde, left, and Joaquim Rodriguez, right, will both be contenders for overall victory
The likes of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Sir Bradley Wiggins may have decided to give this year's Vuelta a Espana a miss, but the field is nevertheless packed with Grand Tour pedigree and a host of riders who could fight out a thrilling general classification battle.
Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be on the start line and will face off against last year's second and third-placed finishers, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez.
There is also a clutch of young climbers who could upset the establishment and steal the limelight, such as Sergio Henao and Carlos Betancur.
Here, we look at ten riders who could walk away with the winner's red jersey.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Vincenzo Nibali will look to repeat his imperious display at the Giro d'Italia
The 28-year-old Italian was magnificent at this year's Giro, dominating all aspects of the race as he wrapped up a comfortable overall victory. He is now bidding to become the first rider since Alberto Contador in 2008 to win two Grand Tours in the same season and also add a second Vuelta victory to his maiden triumph in 2010. The Astana leader can now climb with the best riders in the peloton and has also made great strides with his time-trialling, finishing fourth and first in the two tests against the clock in the Giro. However, Nibali goes into the Vuelta short on form after underwhelming performances at the Tour de Pologne and Vuelta a Burgos in the past few weeks, with his Astana team manager admitting that his star rider had taken too much time off after the Giro. Expect him to start slowly but grow stronger as the race wears on.
Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Joaquim Rodriguez finished the Tour de France strongly
Alongside Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana, the 34-year-old Spaniard is one of the top three climbers in the world and, as such, this year's brutal Vuelta parcours plays right into his hands. Rodriguez recently completed a hat-trick of Grand Tour podiums by finishing third at the Tour de France - and that could have been higher had he not made a sluggish start to the race and lost time in the early Pyrenean stages. He returned to his best form towards the end of the Tour to pinch third place from compatriot Alberto Contador and will no doubt look to continue that momentum in the Vuelta. He also has a score to settle with his home Grand Tour, having led last year's race for 13 stages before being mugged by a surprise attack from eventual winner Contador on stage 17, a blow that he never recovered from. Nevertheless, he was magnificent in the mountains in that race and can be expected to once again illuminate the 11 summit finishes in this year's edition.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Alejandro Valverde is looking to improve on his second place in last year's Vuelta
Another Spaniard who will be relishing this year's tough course, Valverde proved his pedigree on steep summit finishes by winning two stages of the 2012 race on his way to claiming second overall. Like Rodriguez, he too will be looking to improve on that result this year and also goes into the race carrying regrets from the Tour. A cruel stroke of luck on stage 13 saw the 33-year-old's chances of finishing on the podium and challenging Chris Froome for victory evaporate, and he will now no doubt be keen to make amends at his home Grand Tour. He has also carried good form out of the Tour - which he proved by finishing second in the Clasica de San Sebastian - and is likely to be active at the front right from the first summit finish on stage two.
Sergio Henao (Team Sky)
Sergio Henao will lead Team Sky aged just 25
The diminutive Colombian climber has a golden opportunity to lead Team Sky after being selected ahead of compatriot Rigoberto Uran, who is on his way to Omega Pharma - Quick-Step next season. Still only 25 and having never led a team at a Grand Tour before, he lacks experience but unquestionably has the climbing pedigree to be a contender on such a mountainous course as this year's Vuelta. His 16th-place finish at the Giro d'Italia was a slight disappointment, but he didn't look his usual self in that race, and a more accurate barometer of his potential was his displays at the Ardennes Classics, in particular his second-place finish atop the Mur de Huy climb in La Fleche Wallonne, which is not too dissimilar to some of the Vuelta's sharp summit finishes. He also finished third at the Vuelta al Pais Vasco in April and fifth at the recent Tour de Pologne, and with a full team supporting him, he could be equally competitive over three weeks in Spain.
Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Carlos Betancur produced some excellent displays at the Giro d'Italia and Ardennes Classics this year
Another young Colombian climber who will be right at home on the Vuelta's summit finishes, Betancur proved his Grand Tour pedigree - and potential - by finishing fifth in this year's Giro d'Italia and winning the best young rider classification. Still just 23, he finished second, second and fourth on the respective summit finishes on Altopiano del Montasio, the Col du Galibier and Tre Cime di Lavaredo in that race, and also impressed in the Ardennes Classics, taking third in La Fleche Wallonne and fourth in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Betancur is at his best when the gradient is at its steepest, but he also has the strength and composure to haul his way up long climbs at a strong pace. The only thing counting against him is he has not raced since the Giro, so is likely to be ring-rusty in the opening week of the race. Don't be surprised to see him regularly climbing side by side with Henao and the Colombian duo forming a potent counter-foil to the big-name Spaniards.
Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi)
Mikel Nieve has shown good consistency throughout the season
It remains to be seen who will lead Euskaltel-Euskadi at the Vuelta, but should Nieve get the nod over veteran team-mate Samuel Sanchez, expect the 29-year-old climber to feature prominently on your TV screens throughout the three weeks of the race. At first glance, he doesn't appear an obvious contender, but study his results over the last couple of months closely and you will find a rider who is getting stronger in the mountains with every passing race. Nieve fared well on the summit finishes of the Tour, placing sixth on Ax 3 Domaines on stage eight, third on Mont Ventoux on stage 15 and ninth on Alpe d'Huez on stage 18 (sixth among the GC contenders), and finished a respectable 12th overall. Also take into account that he is looking for a new team for next season and that a strong Vuelta display will earn a better contract with a bigger squad, and Nieve could well be in the picture come the final stage into Madrid.
Rafal Majka (Saxo-Tinkoff)
Rafal Majka is one of the brightest young climbers in the sport
The 23-year-old Pole has been one of the season's stand-out young performers. He failed to impress at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie in the opening months of the campaign, but then far exceeded expectations with a superb showing at the Giro d'Italia, where he finished seventh overall, came second in the young rider classification and took top 10s on no fewer than four stages, including on the Col de Galibier. He later finished fourth overall at the Tour de Pologne after impressive displays in the opening two stages in the Dolomites and takes good form into the Vuelta. He is one of three men who could end up leading Saxo-Tinkoff at the race - the others being Roman Kreuziger (see below) and Nicolas Roche - and is almost certain to be a competitive on the summit finishes.
Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff)
Roman Kreuziger enjoyed strong campaigns in both the Ardennes Classics and Tour de France
The Czech rider enters the Vuelta insisting that his main intention is to use the race as a build-up for September's world championships in Florence. However, with the leadership of Saxo-Tinkoff up for grabs in the absence of Alberto Contador and Kreuziger coming off an impressive fifth-place finish in the Tour de France, it is difficult to see him disappearing into the background. He has stated Majka and Roche will be the two men to spearhead the team's bid for glory, but should he show the same sort of climbing form as he produced at the Tour, it could well be that duo are superseded. Kreuziger frequently out-climbed Contador in France and had to wait for his team leader on several occasions, most notably on Mont Ventoux on stage 15. The 27-year-old further proved his pedigree by winning Amstel Gold earlier this year and finishing third at the Clasica de San Sebastian.
Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida)
Michele Scarponi will look for consistency rather than explosivity
The 33-year-old Italian reaffirmed his Grand Tour credentials by finishing fourth overall at this year's Giro d'Italia and, with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador absent, he will no doubt be keen to post another strong result at the Vuelta. He may not have the explosive climbing of the likes of Joaquim Rodriguez, but his time losses are generally quite low and a consistent level of performance generally stands him in good stead.
Ivan Basso (Cannondale)
Ivan Basso has shown signs of a recent return to form
It had appeared that the veteran Italian's days of being competitive at Grand Tours were long since over - and they may well be the case. However, a couple of decent performances on summit finishes in in the build-up to the Vuelta in recent weeks suggest he may yet have one last tilt at a podium in the legs. A fifth place on the climb to Madonna di Campiglio on stage one of the Tour de Pologne was the first indicator, and he followed that up by finishing third on the ascent to Lagunas de Neila at the end of the final stage of the Vuelta a Burgos, 25 seconds behind the peerless Nairo Quintana but 23 seconds ahead of Nibali. It is difficult to envisage Basso riding away from the Spaniards, Colombians and Nibali on the Vuelta's steepest summit finishes, but consistency could see him place well on the general classification.