MADRID (AFP) — Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will aim to back up his win on home soil back in May with a second success in the Veulta a España when the final grand tour of the season gets underway on Saturday.
The 28-year-old should be fresh after deciding against participating in the Tour de France, and that could be key during a demanding three-week tour that includes nine mountaintop finishes.
Most daunting of all those climbs is likely to be that up the Alto de l’Anglíru on the penultimate stage, which includes a 23-percent ramp in the final few kilometers.
Nibali believes a few demanding stages could make all the difference, come the procession into Madrid on September 15.
“The Vuelta is a very difficult race this year,” he said. “There are some really important stages, like l’Anglíru, that will be decisive for the final classification, and a lot of riders are up for the challenge.”
Nibali’s quest for success will be helped by the fact that three of the top four finishers from this year’s Tour de France — Chris Froome (Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and defending Vuelta champion Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) — will not be taking part.
The Italian is convinced he will also have the team around him to help guide him to victory. Joining him in Spain are Jakob Fuglsang and Janez Brajkovic — each a top-five contender in his own right — and a supporting cast that includes 2012 Liège–Bastogne–Liège winner Maxim Iglinskiy, mountain domestiques Tanel Kangert and Paolo Tiralongo, and strongmen Andry Grivko, Andrey Zeits, and Alessandro Vanotti.
“One attack by Contador changed the results of the entire Vuelta last year,” he said. “Stages like that are a little bit extraordinary, but they are extraordinarily difficult as well. They happen when everybody is looking for an advantage, and when a team is strong enough to go to the front and do something exceptional.
“I think we have a really strong team, and I think we are going to race extremely well at the Vuelta.”
In Contador’s absence, Spanish hopes will be pinned on 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim “Purito” Rodríguez (Katusha), who was third behind Valverde and Contador in last year’s race.
Valverde endured a frustrating Tour de France after a broken wheel on the 13th stage ended his hopes of finishing on the podium, but he told Spanish sports daily AS this week that he has recovered well and believes he belongs among the favorites on home soil.
“I feel fresh; I rested [after the Tour] and have now had a couple of weeks training hard,” he said. “I feel like I wanted to. In the first week there are a few tricky stages, like the team time trial or the climb on the second stage, and I hope to be up there.
“I have changed my mentality. I now know that I belong among the leaders in the peloton.”
Spanish cycling is certainly in need of a boost after Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi announced it would shut down at the end of the season due to a lack of funding. The Olympic gold medalist from the 2008 Games in Beijing, Samuel Sánchez, will lead the team for the Vuelta and its riders will have plenty to prove with all nine having been given permission to speak to other teams about signing contracts for next season.
In the absence of the last two Tour de France winners, Froome and Bradley Wiggins, Sky will be led by Colombian Sergio Henao. He starts Saturday in his first leadership role in a grand tour and will look to upset the top favorites with his attacking style and sharp finishing kick.
“We’ve watched Sergio develop since he joined the team and this is a great opportunity for him to demonstrate what he is capable of on a big stage like the Vuelta,” said Sky principal Dave Brailsford.
Ireland’s Dan Martin (Garmin Sharp) is another dark horse for the 68th edition of the race, having already tasted victory in Spain this year in the Volta a Catalunya, while Czech Roman Kreuziger (Saxo) looks ready for a first grand tour podium finish after an impressive fifth overall in the Tour last month.
The 68th Vuelta a España starts Saturday with the 27km stage 1 team time trial from Vilanova de Arousa to Sanxenxo.