2015 Vuelta a Espana preview – Quintana vs. Froome… again

The latest edition of la Vuelta a Espana rolls off on Saturday and a high-calibre field is set to grace the final Grand Tour of the season.

Many of the world’s best climbers are in attendance, with the only notable absentee being Alberto Contador, who is resting after having already ridden the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Just as in the Tour last month it looks set to be a battle between Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. Or does it? In usual Vuelta fashion, that is not the case.

The contenders

Quintana and Froome are the headline grabbers after their fantastic duel in the Tour de France and it is clear that Froome will be the leader of Team Sky.

In Quintana’s Movistar team however, the leadership role is more of a conundrum.

Movistar are renowned for their flexibility, their tricky tactics and are arguably the strongest WorldTour squad on the roster.

It’s no surprise, then, that they are keeping their cards close to their chest as Alejandro Valverde, a Vuelta specialist, is also capable of leading the team.

To add to the mystery, Valverde has been handed the bib with a 1 suffixing his race number – an indication of a team leader.

There is a similar situation at Astana, where 2010 Vuelta champion Vincenzo Nibali is riding in support of Fabio Aru.

Astana have three options for team leadership, with Italians Aru and Nibali joined by Spaniard Mikel Landa. Aru and Landa lit up the Giro as they hunted down Contador for the win, but Nibali is the undisputed number one at the team.

Like Valverde, Aru has been given the leader’s bib so it will be intriguing to see if Nibali plays ball or not.

The strongest Vuelta for years can also boast the presence of Tejay van Garderen, whose Tour was cut short by illness, while Vuelta dangerman Joaquim Rodriguez will be on the hunt for a podium finish too.

Rafal Majka will lead Tinkoff-Saxo in the absence of Contador and there is a welcome return to Grand Tour racing for Domenico Pozzovivo, who crashed so horrifically at the Giro.

The stages

La Vuelta is renowned for being a brutal race. With temperatures often exceeding 40C and summit finishes a regular occurrence, it can break any rider who struggles to deal with its unique demands.

This year there are eight summit finishes, with a further two uphill drags to the line.

By far the most challenging week is the second, with trips to the infamous Andorra region and three stages in the mountainous Asturias region of Spain.

Stage 11 in Andorra is a climber’s dream with one category two climb, four cat ones and one highest-category climb. It also takes the peloton up to the loftiest point of the race at 2,110m.

There is also plenty for the sprinters to feast on as there are seven, maybe eight flat stages that look perfect for a bunch sprint.

The sprinters

Inevitably, the green jersey for the points classification went to Peter Sagan in the Tour, and he will line up for a rare tilt at the Vuelta in preparation for the World Championships in September.

He is joined by Vuelta expert John Degenkolb, who has won nine stages in just two participations.

Sagan and Degenkolb will face a formidable rival in the sprints, with Nacer Bouhanni looking for redemption after a Tour ruined by injury.

Fabian Cancellara, who broke two vertebrae in a high-speed crash at the Tour, also makes his Grand Tour comeback and will animate several of the hilly stages as he goes in search of a fifth Vuelta stage win.

The Brits

The British contingent in the Vuelta is fairly low, but of high-quality. Froome is joined by Geraint Thomas, who worked so tenaciously for him at the Tour, while Steve Cummings, who won a stage at the Tour, will ride for MTN Qhubeka.

Team Sky again fly the flag for Britain and also include Ian Boswell, Sergio Henao, Vasil Kiryienka, Christian Knees, Mikel Nieve, Salvatore Puccio and Nico Roche in their line-up.

Tapas

The Vuelta takes the riders on a 2,086 mile route this year and will feature 21 stages – with ten of those packing an uphill finish.

It will start in Puerto Banus with a short 7.4km team time trial, while stage 17 could decide the destination of the title with a 39km individual time trial around Burgos.

Interestingly, the Trek team include Frank Schleck in their squad and there is also a place at Lotto Soudal for dark horse Jurgen van den Broeck.

It promises to be a fascinating Vuelta with so many things to look out for, but the overriding feeling is that this Vuelta is too close to call.

Nobody knows how Quintana will react after riding back-to-back Grand Tours for the first time and how will Froome perform in a race he has twice finished second in?

Then there is the challenge of Valverde and the collective threat of the trio of Astana riders.

Who will win? We’ll have to wait until Madrid to find out.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089

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