LA ZUBIA, Spain (VN) — In a Vuelta a España packed with superstars, most of the attention has been focused on the GC contenders. And for good reason, with the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Chris Froome (Sky), and Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) headlining what should be a blockbuster battle for victory.
Behind them, there is an equally impressive field of heavy hitters pedaling through this Vuelta for very different reasons. Some of the biggest names in the pro peloton are here, all honing their form for the one-day race that truly matters in the second half of the racing season — the world road championships — set for September 28, two weeks after the Vuelta concludes in northwest Spain.
Four of the biggest favorites for Ponferrada are at this Vuelta: Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).
Call them the “Fab Four,” among the peloton’s most successful and important riders, all at the Vuelta, with one thing in mind: the rainbow jersey.
“I am here at the Vuelta to prepare for the worlds,” Boonen said. “I’d like to try to win a stage, but the most important thing is to leave the Vuelta with good sensations for the worlds.”
That sentiment is echoed among all four of the marquee riders. So far in this Vuelta, there have been glimpses of their ambitions. Gilbert tried to win Wednesday’s stage, finishing seventh after beginning his sprint a touch too early. Cancellara, too, has been active, using the Vuelta to ease back into competition.
Of the four, it’s Sagan who seems to need the Vuelta to rediscover a winning kick. Sagan took a break following his third consecutive green jersey at the Tour de France, and signed a multi-million-euro deal to join Tinkoff-Saxo for 2015 and beyond.
Sagan has been uncharacteristically quiet so far in this Vuelta, and clearly is not on his best form. Some are questioning whether or not he has the desire to seriously make a run for the world title.
“Peter needs this Vuelta to regain his best form before the world championships,” said Cannondale sport director Mario Scirea. “He came here without racing, and he needs to use the first week or so to improve his condition. We hope to win a stage in the second or even third weeks.”
All four are hoping to leave the Vuelta with winning form heading toward Ponferrada. The rolling circuit course, with two short, steep climbs, is perfect for their powerful, puncheur style of racing. Many view Sagan as the outright favorite for the world title.
Two of the “Fab Four” have already won world road titles — Boonen in Madrid in 2005, and Gilbert in Valkenburg in 2012 — while Cancellara and Sagan are perennial favorites.
Cancellara already packs four world titles in his wardrobe, but all of those have come in the time trial. It’s the rainbow jersey of the road that has become Cancellara’s quest as he enters the closing years of his illustrious career.
“I have said many times I would like to win that rainbow jersey,” Cancellara said in an interview earlier this year. “I have been close a few times, but I have not had the luck. This year I will try again.”
Most of the favorites for the worlds are racing the Vuelta. Others include such riders as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Carlos Betancur (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and overnight race leader Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), three-time defending world time trial champion, also is at the Vuelta to hone his form.
Since its move from April to September in 1995, the Vuelta has become the race of choice for worlds-bound riders. In fact, defending champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) is the first world champion since 2000 who did not participate in the Spanish grand tour. Recent Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is another notable absentee at this Vuelta, but typically, the world champion is honed on the roads of Spain.
Gilbert, for example, used the 2012 Vuelta as a springboard to his world title, salvaging what was an otherwise unspectacular season with two stage victories before his dramatic coup up the Cauberg.
“I hope to win a stage, but I came here not feeling great after the Eneco Tour,” Gilbert said. “The Vuelta is the best preparation for the worlds. There is no better way to train for the worlds than to race here.”
There is also a bit of jostling going on, especially between Boonen and Gilbert. Both will be fighting to prove their worth to lead the powerful Belgian team. Add Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and Belgium will be one of the favorites for the rainbow jersey.
“Anyone who says they can win the worlds at 90 percent should be locked up in the loony bin,” Boonen said. “I have to earn my place as team leader. I have to show that I am strong during this Vuelta. If I do not feel like I can win the race, I will say it. I’ve missed a few worlds due to illness and crashes, so I am motivated for this world championships.”
If this Vuelta wasn’t already exciting enough, the preparation for the world championships adds another layer to what could be the most interesting grand tour of the season.