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2011 Vuelta a España preview: Antón a top favorite among those who want to see red in Madrid

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale)

The 2010 Vuelta a España champion. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

“The Shark of Messina” rode a perfect Vuelta last year to claim his first major grand tour victory of his promising career.

Last year’s late-race time trial favored Nibali and he powered back into the red leader’s jersey after playing a cautious game of marking the Spanish climbers, knowing that he could take back important gains in the TT. A strong defense up the Bola del Mundo delivered Nibali the Vuelta crown. This year’s Vuelta waters could prove more dangerous for Nibali. Though he’s no slouch in the mountains, Nibali will need to be more aggressive there if he hopes to repeat in the Vuelta.

Unable to challenge Alberto Contador for the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia in May, Nibali has reloaded in time to defend his title at the Vuelta.

“Winning the Vuelta last year changed my career. It gave me the confidence knowing that I could win a grand tour,” Nibali said. “I believe this year’s Vuelta is more difficult than last year’s, but I will start with the ambition of aiming for victory. I have good sensations, but the course demands that you’re good all the way through the race.”

Liquigas-Cannondale also brings Peter Sagan and Eros Capecchi, two younger riders keen on making their presence known in the peloton. Nibali will be content to stay out of the limelight — both within his team and against his rivals — and wait for the appropriate time to strike.

  • Pros: Peloton’s best descender; strong time trialist
  • Cons: Time trial comes too early; no downhill finishes

While not quite Contadorian in scale (Alberto Contador’s streak of winning six consecutive grand tours he started ended in July’s Tour with fifth), Nibali has reached the podium in the past three grand tours he’s started. (third 2010 Giro; first in the 2010 Vueltal, third in the 2011 Giro), so he will be a favorite to keep that streak alive. On what step he’ll finish on the podium remains to be seen.