The 2014 Vuelta a Espana is poised to be one of the most keenly fought Grand Tours in years.
Aside from Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali, almost all of the best stage-race riders in the world will be taking part and targeting the red jersey.
Here, we pick out the favourites and assess their credentials.
The most exciting young talent in Grand Tour racing, Quintana has already proven his pedigree over three weeks by winning this year’s Giro d’Italia in impressive style. His outstanding climbing ability means he should flourish on the Vuelta’s eight summit finishes, but his Achilles’ heel could well be the two individual time trials, a discipline in which he has traditionally lagged behind the other contenders. An overall victory at the Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month – including a win on a summit finish – showed he is back in form following his post-Giro break. He starts the Vuelta as the favourite.
Team: Team Sky
Froome has gone into recent Grand Tours as the favourite, but this time he is somewhat of an unknown quantity. He crashed out of the Tour de France with fractures to his left wrist and right hand, and it remains to be seen how complete his recovery from that setback has been. Team Sky have been careful not to overplay Froome’s chances of victory, but the 2013 Tour winner has several weeks’ training under his belt and even if he doesn’t win, he should be somewhere in the picture.
Like Froome, analysing Contador’s chances is a guessing game. The two-time Vuelta winner followed Froome in crashing out of the Tour with a broken leg and although he initially said the season’s final Grand Tour would come too soon for him, a block of training earlier this month – culminating with a pain-free climb of a mountain pass – proved he could indeed take part. However, whether he is in condition to live with the climbing talents of Quintana or Joaquim Rodriguez (see below) is something we will have to wait to find out. If he is in good shape, he will be there or thereabouts.
After crashing out of May’s Giro, Rodriguez made the Vuelta his priority for this season and subsequently rode the Tour de France to fine-tune his condition in preparation. He was far from at his best in France, but will hope to peak at the Vuelta, where he finished third in both 2010 and 2012 and then fourth last year. Rodriguez will no doubt have been demoralised to see both Froome and Contador crash out of the Tour and subsequently sign up for the Vuelta, but his smoother build-up should put him a better position to contend than both of those riders. The eight summit finishes play perfectly into his hands, but like Quintana, he is likely to ship time on the time trials.
Team: Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
Uran finished second behind Quintana at May’s Giro d’Italia and will be keen to repeat that sort of form in Spain. He lacks the explosive climbing prowess of the likes of Rodriguez, Froome and Contador, but is usually there or thereabouts on the summit finishes and can also churn out a competitive time trial. Uran is knocking on the door of a win in a Grand Tour, but against a field as strong as this, he will have to perform exceptionally well to break through at this Vuelta.
The talented Italian climber announced himself as a Grand Tour contender at this year’s Giro, where he finished an impressive third overall behind Quintana and Uran. He won a stage on the summit finish at Plan de Montecampione and then produced an outstanding performance to finish second on the mountain time trial on Monte Grappa, beaten only by the peerless Quintana. The strength of the competition at the Vuelta will make another Grand Tour podium a tall order, but don’t be surprised to see Aru competing for a place in the top five.
Valverde will be riding principally in support of Quintana, but as a former Vuelta winner and a proven Grand Tour contender, he will also be looking for a good result for himself. He finished fourth at the Tour de France, after wilting in the final week and surrendering his place on the podium, but he showed he had maintained form with a fine win at the Clasica San Sebastian at the start of August. A strong climber and dogged competitor, he will be hoping for a place in the top five.
The up-and-coming Kelderman is enjoying an impressive season, having finished seventh at May’s Giro d’Italia and then fifth at June’s Criterium du Dauphine. He had a break in racing over the summer but stepped up his preparations for the Vuelta by finishing fifth at the Tour of Utah earlier in August. An accomplished climber who can also time trial well, he will be hoping to challenge for a place in the top five, or a top ten at least.