Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Pro Team) will aim to back up his win on home soil back in May with a second success in the Vuelta a Espana when the final Grand Tour of the season gets underway today.
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 encompasses 11 mountain-top finishes.
Most daunting of all those climbs is likely to be that up the Alto de l’Angliru on the penultimate stage that includes a 23 percent gradient climb in the final few kilometers.
Nibali believes a few demanding stages could make all the difference come the procession into Madrid on Sept. 15.
“The Vuelta is a very difficult race this year,” the Italian said. “There are some really important stages, like l’Angliru, 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 Pro Cycling), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and two-time winner Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) will not be taking part.
The Italian is also convinced he will also have the team around him to help guide him to victory.
“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 of 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim “Purito” Rodriguez (Katusha), who came 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 amongst the favorites on home soil.
“I feel fresh, I rested [after the Tour] and have now had a couple of weeks training hard. 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,” Valverde said. “I have changed my mentality, I now know that I belong amongst 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.
Olympic gold medalist from the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, Samuel Sanchez will still lead the team for the Vuelta and their 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 Pro Cycling will be led by Colombian Sergio Henao.
“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,” Sky team principal Dave Brailsford said.
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 Tour of Catalonia, while Roman Kreuziger of the Czech Republic (Saxo-Tinkoff) looks ready for a first Grand Tour podium finish after an impressive fifth place in the Tour de France last month.