CAMBADOS, Spain (VN) — While there might be a dozen riders who could potentially win the 68th Vuelta a España, which clicks into gear Saturday with a team time trial along Galicia’s spectacular coast , there are two men who begin as the riders to beat.
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) will be under pressure to carry the race, to set the pace, and, ultimately, to win.
With Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) out of the picture, the weight of the season’s third grand tour falls collectively on their shoulders.
Both are up to the task, and both are ambitious, perhaps even desperate to win, yet only one can stand atop the podium when the Vuelta concludes September 15 in Madrid.
Right now, they’re motivated to race, and full of hope and illusion. How that shakes out over the next three weeks remains to be seen.
“I am going to fight to go as high as I can on GC,” Valverde told the assembled press Friday afternoon. “This is a race that I like a lot, and I start with a lot of motivation and expectations, so the idea is fight for the overall.”
Two hours later, Rodríguez also sat down with the media. Like Valverde, he’s tan, rested, and ready. Unlike Valverde, who won the 2009 Vuelta, Rodríguez has never won a grand tour. But he doesn’t think time is running out.
“I think I still have a few good years left,” Rodríguez said. “I’ve been close to winning a grand tour now several times, and that only gives more motivation. Of course, I want to win one before my sporting career ends. I think myself and my team deserve it.”
Both riders are at interesting crossroads in their respective careers.
”Purito carrying Tour momentum”
Rodríguez is still flying high off the fumes of reaching the Tour de France podium for the first time of his career, with third behind Chris Froome (Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
The diminutive Spaniard known as “Purito” did it in spectacular, calculating style, chipping away steadily at Contador in the Tour’s final week, before finally vaulting clear of the “Pistolero” on the Semnoz summit to reach cycling nirvana.
For Rodríguez, the Tour success only fuels his ambitions for the Tour. With both Froome and Quintana skipping the Vuelta, Rodríguez lines up as the best-placed Tour rider starting the Spanish tour.
“The Tour podium only gives me more motivation to win this Vuelta,” he said. “I’ve recovered well from the Tour. At first, I was very tired, but over the past week, I’ve started to feel much better. The sensations are good going into the Vuelta. I am here to race to win.”
Reloading the “Green Bullet”
It’s a different story for Valverde, at least in the context of the Tour.
The “Green Bullet” started in Corsica as Movistar’s designated leader, but everything unexpectedly unraveled in the crosswinds in the Tour’s second week. He bled more than 10 minutes as Belkin and later Saxo ripped apart the peloton, and his GC chances sunk like a rock, falling out of contention from second on GC.
The momentum then switched to Quintana, who rode to an incredible Tour debut with second overall and became the toast of Colombia.
Valverde, who’s endured more than his fair share of setbacks and hardships during his career, took the twist of fate like the veteran pro that he is.
“I have to admit, it took me awhile to get over the disappointment of the Tour. I was down for a few days, but that’s sport. Sometimes you win, other times you suffer,” he said. “I don’t know if how the Tour turned out will help me or not to be fresher during this Vuelta. The big difference from last year was the crashes I had in the first 10 days of the Tour. This year, I’ve come out of the Tour without any physical problems. I have motivation, and we’re going to do the best we can.”
Carrying the weight of the race
Both captains bring strong, deep, experienced squads to back them up.
Rodríguez has loyal sidekicks Dani Moreno, Angel Vicioso, and Alberto Losada, while Valverde can count on Beñat Intxausti, Sylvester Szmyd, and Pablo Lastras.
Despite equally strong teams from Sky and Astana, everyone will be looking to Katusha and Movistar to carry the weight of the race. The Vuelta is a Spanish race, so the Spanish teams are expected to step up.
Rodríguez, however, insisted that there is no “clear favorite.”
“I think the GC contenders are all on equal footing,” Rodríguez said. “It’s not just me or Alejandro. There’s also [Vincenzo] Nibali, who brings a strong Astana team. [Ivan] Basso, who likes to have the team around him, the Colombians, Samu [Samuel Sánchez]. We are starting from zero, and the race will soon put everyone in their place. I have confidence in my team to be there in the key moments.”
Rodríguez and Valverde were both enthusiastic about the Vuelta route. The blend of short, steep kickers mixed with longer, steadier climbs, and the brutal Anglirú and a new climb waiting in Sierra Nevada, all adds up to ideal terrain for both Rodríguez and Valverde.
With time bonuses waiting at the finish line, both can count on their respective strong finishing sprints to take valuable seconds to open gaps in the GC.
Last chance for grand tour victory?
Despite their relative advancing ages — 34 for Rodríguez and 33 for Valverde — neither feel this is his last chance at grand tour victory.
From the outside, with the rising forces of Quintana and Froome, not to mention the other Colombians and Nibali, it might appear that the sun is slowly setting on the current generation of Spanish riders.
Valverde, Rodríguez, and Contador have dominated cycling over the greater part of the past decade, winning innumerable grand tours, stages, and one-day classics across the most important races on the calendar.
Rodríguez said the imminent disappearance of Euskaltel-Euskadi at season’s end only makes things worse for Spanish cycling.
“It’s not that there aren’t young Spanish riders, it’s just that there are not any places for them,” he said. “Before, the top 15-20 amateurs would be able to find rides each season with top teams. Now, with only Movistar, there might be only one or two spots.”
As much as they dominate now, they cannot help but feel the pressure coming from younger, ambitious, improving riders in the peloton. This Vuelta presents a chance for the Spanish duo to remind everyone they’re still at the top of the pack.
“I am more motivated than ever,” Rodríguez said. “I come to this Vuelta with the clear goal of winning. Now, it’s sport, anything can happen, so I want to be in the position I deserve. If there are three riders better than me, and I finish fourth, well, I have to congratulate them. Now, if I end up second, due to some sort of accident or problem, and I feel like I was the strongest, then that would make me angry.”
With the worlds looming on the horizon, Rodríguez insisted that he’s only thinking about the Vuelta. Valverde, however, had some interesting comments about the Italian worlds race, set for two weeks after the Vuelta ends.
“I’ve won the Vuelta, been on the podium, won stages, but the worlds I’ve been close with some medals, but have never won,” Valverde said. “It would be hard to say if I had to choose. Right now, I am thinking about the Vuelta, but I do not hide the fact that I would like to win the worlds one year before I retire.”
With so much at stake, and with everything stacking up in their favor, both at the Vuelta and the worlds, it’s all right there for the taking. Now all the veteran Spaniards have to do is deliver.