2013 Vuelta a Espana preview – Nibali bids for rare Giro/Vuelta double

Vincenzo Nibali will be riding for an historic double when the Vuelta a Espana starts at Vilanova de Arousa tomorrow.

The Italian, 28, won his home Grand Tour, the Giro d-Italia, in convincing style earlier this season and is the bookmaker’s favourite to take his second career Vuelta win after his 2010 success.

A win in the General Classification would propel the Astana rider into cycling folklore as he would become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro and the Vuelta in the same season.

Standing in his way though, is a terrifying parcours. Over half the stages (eleven) in the 2013 Vuelta will be summit finishes, while 13 of the 21 stages are classified as mountainous.

The Vuelta may be the youngest Grand Tour, but it is without doubt the most brutal because of the fierce heat experienced in late August, with temperatures rising to 40C on occasions.

If the riders thought the 2013 Giro was tough enough with sharp gradients peaking at close to 20% on some stages, the 2013 Vuelta’s queen stage is even more demanding.

Step forward the Alto de l’Angliru, a fearsome climb on the penultimate stage that kicks up to around 23% in the closing kilometres.

L’Angliru’s reputation proceeds itself. Some have called it ‘barbaric’, others have simply had their races wrecked by it.

If you are sitting here now and wondering what it is like to ride up it, search for a clip on YouTube of the stage ascending to its summit in the 2011 Vuelta. The severity of the steepness is mindblowing.

In the build-up to the Vuelta, Nibali has suggested that l’Angliru could be the defining climb of the race. It would, however, be surprising if this comes into fruition.

With 12 other mountainous stages sandwiching a time-trial on stage 11, fans can expect the race leader, whoever that may be, to arrive at the foot of l’Angliru with a healthy lead – as seen in the Tour de France this year which featured a notably hilly parcours.

Big time gaps are expected then, but for the GC contenders winning the final Grand Tour of 2013 will be a monumental battle.

With so many mountains to navigate, attacks will be frequent as the riders fight for any advantage they can.

Nibali’s greatest rival for the win seems to be Spain’s Alejandro Valverde, who so agonisingly missed out on Tour de France contention after the combination of a puncture, crosswinds and an attack by Team Belkin off the front put paid to his chances.

He eased off for the remainder of the race as a result and is expected to be fresh ahead of an assault on his home Grand Tour.

His compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez, by contrast, started poorly in the Tour but rode himself into good form and an eventual podium place was no less than he deserved.

If he has recovered from the Tour and built upon that form he will be a significant threat to Nibali and Valverde. Currently rated as the world’s best rider, his combative style is backed up by a dazzling burst of acceleration on the toughest climbs.

Another Spaniard, Sami Sanchez, will be making a first appearance in his home race since 2009, when he finished second.

The popular rider, whose Euskaltel-Euskadi team recently announced failure in their bid to save the team from folding, has finished on the Vuelta podium twice, with his other podium finish coming after claiming third in 2007.

The 2008 Olympic road race gold medallist will be looking to give his team the perfect send-off with an emotional win in their home race after he skipped the Tour to concentrate on elevating his level to coincide with a tilt at the Vuelta.

Other GC contenders of note include Team Sky’s Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran.

Henao has been handed the team leadership role, but if he cracks along the way Uran, who finished a tremendous second to Nibali in the Giro, will assume control.

As far as British interest in the Vuelta goes, there is not much to get excited over – there are just two Brits in the race.

Andrew Fenn, who rides for Mark Cavendish’s Omega Pharma – Quick Step team, is an exciting all-round cyclist, or rouleur, and at 23 will be riding his maiden Grand Tour.

The other is Sky’s Luke Rowe, who will also be participating in his first Grand Tour.

Rowe, who won a stage of the Tour of Britain last year, is regarded as a sprinter who can also aim for one-day classic races, and could later convert himself into a GC contender.

With many of the riders in this race looking to use the Vuelta as a springboard onto the subsequent World Championships, it is possible that a good proportion of them might drop out.

Yet, with the parcours in Tuscany also deemed hilly, a few of the GC contenders for the Vuelta may abandon to focus on the rainbow jersey if they have lost too much time.

Mountains, though, are what this year’s Vuelta is all about. The route could obliterate the peloton early on stages which traverse the Pyrenees and the infamously mountainous north of Spain. The climb up the l’Angliru is just the crowning glory on what promises to be a spectacular race.

All the signs point to a Nibali win when the riders roll into Madrid on the final stage three weeks from now, and with his Astana team looking immensely strong with quality riders such as Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang and Tanel Kangert to work for him, it will take a rider possessing extraordinary form to beat him.

Wiggins embarks on Giro d’Italia mission

Sir Bradley Wiggins will begin his quest to become the first British winner of the Giro d’Italia tomorrow when the opening Grand Tour of the 2013 season departs from Naples.

Team Sky’s Wiggins, who has never finished higher than 40th in the Giro, will attempt to claim the ‘maglia rosa’, or pink jersey, from 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal, who is aiming to defend his title with his Garmin-Sharp team.

Wiggins’ bid is significantly helped by 92.3km (57 miles) of time-trialling across the 21 stages, which is his main strength – a fact underlined by his superb gold medal-winning performance in the time-trial at London 2012.

However, the brutal high mountain stages of the Giro will likely play into his rivals’ hands.

One such rival is home favourite Vincenzo Nibali, who has already beaten Wiggins at the Giro del Trentino this season – a race seen as perfect preparation for the difficult parcours of the Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins did have a mechanical failure on the queen stage of that race, but the form of the Astana man in the high mountains will be of concern to the Briton, who can struggle at times with steep gradients.

However, Wiggins claims to have made improvements in the climbing discipline and, with two of the three time-trials completed by the time the riders enter the Italian Alps in the second week, he will hope to have built up a lead over his General Classification rivals.

The final week looks particularly hazardous, with the Giro entering the French Alps for a summit finish on the legendary Col du Galibier on stage 15, before ascending the infamous Tre Cime di Lavaredo in the Italian Dolomites on the penultimate stage.

Attacks will almost certainly be fired at Team Sky’s train of climbers, but whether they will be fruitful depends on the strength of Wiggins’ team of dedicated domestiques.

Colombian’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, the latter an Olympic road-race silver medallist, will provide the power when the gradients, biting the riders at close to 20% in some places, start to kick up.

Christian Knees, Konstantin Siutsou and Dario Cataldo will also assist Wiggins in the higher terrains as Sky look to control the pace at the front of the peloton in typically robust style.

The Giro will also take in the stunning views of the revered Passo dello Stelvio on stage 19, and this could be a perfect opportunity for Nibali to strike a telling blow to Wiggins’ hopes if he is fresh enough.

Nibali and Hesjedal, although seen as Wiggins’ main rivals, will not be the only threats with a number of dangerous riders also joining the peloton.

Australian rider Cadel Evans, who has battled a debilitating virus for the past season, will be aiming for a top five finish at least with his BMC squad, while Spain’s Sami Sanchez is also a formidable climber.

Dark horses, and riders to watch for the future, include Mauro Santambrogio, who finished just behind fellow countryman Nibali in the recent Giro del Trentino and Holland’s Robert Gesink, who will be competing in his maiden Giro d’Italia.

Ivan Basso, a two-time Giro winner, will miss out owing to a buttock cyst, but Wiggins would have expected to beat the veteran Italian regardless of his injury.

Elsewhere, Mark Cavendish will spearhead the Omega-Pharma Quick-Step team as he goes in search of stage victories ahead of the Tour de France.

He will face competition from seasoned sprint rival Matt Goss and the electric John Degenkolb, who dominated the Vuelta a Espana sprint classification last season.

Other Britons include David Millar, who will work diligently for Hesjedal on the Garmin-Sharp team, the duo of Adam Blythe and Steve Cummings on Evans’ BMC squad, and the talented Alex Dowsett who will ride in support of 2011 Vuelta winner Juan Jose Cobo on the Movistar squad.

But the focus will undoubtedly be on the Wiggins, Nibali and Hesjedal fight at the pointy end of the race. All three riders look to be in peak form – with some tipping Hesjedal, who has impressed in the Spring classics this season, to retain his crown.

Wiggins, though, will be a prominent force in the time-trials and, if he can perform to the best of his abilities, may well have the race sewn up by the time the peloton rolls into the Alps during the second week.

His dream of emulating boyhood hero Miguel Indurain in standing on the top step of the podium in Brescia wearing the famous maglia rosa could not be closer and a victory in this illustrious race would unquestionably move the popular Briton a step closer to cycling immortality.

Is Ferrari’s legendary reputation in Formula One fully merited?

Ferrari. The name synonymous with the scintillating sport of Formula One. For many fans their existence on the grid is reason alone to watch one of the world’s most exciting sports. Having been an integral and prominent constructor from the very first World Championship in 1950, and the only one to have featured in every season since its inception, few people could doubt how important Ferrari is to both the history of the sport and indeed its future.

Yet, when you deeply examine the history of the sport, including drivers’ titles and constructors, some cracks begin to appear in the revered standing of the famous Italian marque.

Starting at the very beginning of Formula One history, Ferrari were immediately a big team and were always challenging for wins and podiums. Alfa Romeo, however, dominated the first two seasons in 1950 and 1951 with Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio respectively. Alfa subsequently pulled out of the sport and a major change of rules for the 1952 season to Formula Two specification was designed to avoid a Ferrari landslide. That failed dramatically.

For the next two seasons Ferrari, who had a successful Formula Two setup prior to the rule change, won the title with the legendary Alberto Ascari. They dominated in ’52 and ’53 with Ascari winning all six races he entered in ’52 and winning a further five in ’53.

Ferrari would not have it all their own way in 1954, however, as the emergence of Mercedes as a powerhouse and Ascari’s switch to Lancia for financial reward saw them beaten to the title. Ascari had endured a frustrating season that year, waiting for Lancia to get their car ready in time, and he would not be able to defend his title, instead watching Fangio race to his second world crown.

The following year was a horrific season for the sport, and one which still resonates to this day. At the Monaco Grand Prix, Ascari crashed his Lancia into the harbour and escaped with minor injuries. Just four days later, in a testing accident at Monza, he died. It is known that Ascari drove in that test without a helmet, although the exact cause of the crash which killed him will never be known.

Ascari’s death came in the same year as the Le Mans 24 Hours tragedy in which 80 people died. It was a dark year for motorsport, and too dark for some. Mercedes withdrew from racing altogether whilst Gianni Lancia, who was close friends with Ascari, was so distraught at his death that he signed his entire team over to Ferrari. This was to be a significant move.

The Lancia’s had been widely tipped as title-winners in 1956 with their innovative design and super-quick performance. Such was Ferrari’s confidence in them they entered Lancia’s cars under their name and ‘Prancing Horse’ logo and won the title with Fangio.

Fangio left them the following season for Maserati where he won his fifth and last title and Ferrari retaliated by signing British driver Mike Hawthorn in 1958. His team-mate, Peter Collins, also British, died in a crash at the infamously dangerous Nürburgring and, after Hawthorn won the title for Ferrari, he quit before tragically dying in a road accident a short time after.

Ferrari’s progress went into remission over the next few seasons as they were overhauled by a number of new and fast British constructors with a more powerful rear engine configuration. They would not win the title again until 1961 when new 1.5 litre engine regulations were introduced. USA driver Phil Hill won the title, but only after more tragedy when German driver, and championship leader, Wolfgang von Trips, died in a crash at the steep-banked Monza.

In 1962, Enzo Ferrari’s staff walked out on him and he was forced to enter old cars into the championship. It was an unmitigated disaster for the team as the British constructors continued to improve and the Italian giants were soundly beaten.

Ferrari owed much to the emerging talent of John Surtees in 1964 when they took both the drivers and constructors titles. Surtees became the first man to win the World Championship on two wheels and four wheels, having previously been a motorcycling World Champion.

The British teams had gathered strength though and Lotus, led by the ambitious Colin Chapman, were chief architects of Ferrari’s downfall with their revolutionary cars which put speed before safety. Other British teams, in the shape of Brabham and Tyrrell, played their part in dominating the next decade of racing and it was only in 1975, eleven years after their last title, that Ferrari next tasted success with the Austrian driver Niki Lauda.

Lauda was to suffer horrific burns in a crash at the Nürburgring during the 1976 season and, despite making an astounding comeback just six weeks later, lost the title to McLaren’s James Hunt in the final GP of the season at Suzuka. Ferrari did win the constructors title though and, in 1977, despite not having the best season, Lauda regained the title for Ferrari in a triumph of consistency over speed.

Lauda then left for Brabham after being replaced by Gilles Villeneuve, a quick young French-Canadian. Villeneuve enjoyed a popular status amongst fans for his driving style and, although he never won a title, was considered to be a Ferrari legend.

Jody Scheckter, a highly-regarded South African driver, was signed to partner him and pipped Villeneuve to the 1979 title in a double-triumph for Ferrari who had comfortably sealed the constructors’ title in the same year.

The subsequent 1980 season was perhaps one of Ferrari’s worst ever. They lost ground in the continuously evolving race for development and came tenth in the constructors’ title having scored just eight points.

Ferrari would not win another drivers title until 2000, after 21 years of being ruled over by the dominant McLaren and Williams teams. They did manage three constructors’ titles in that barren period, but they were not enough for a team of Ferrari’s wealth and ambition.

Their luck started to change in 1999, when they built a seriously competitive car for double world champion Michael Schumacher to drive. But, when he broke his leg in a crash at Silverstone, McLaren driver Mika Hakkinen won the title ahead of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvine.

Schumacher would have his day though, going on to win five consecutive drivers and six constructors crowns with the dominant Italian team as years of frustration in their pursuit of glory were washed away triumphantly – almost as easily as they brushed aside the competition.

French manufacturer Renault then halted the Italian charge, winning back-to-back titles with Fernando Alonso before Kimi Raikkonen stole the title at the last GP of the 2007 season in Brazil from McLaren to give Ferrari their sixth ‘double title’ of a distinctly red-liveried decade.

Since then, Ferrari have only won a solitary constructors title in 2008 (although it was their seventh of the decade) and have hampered themselves with a succession of complex and ambitious, yet fruitless, car designs as they continue their passionate quest for success in Formula One.

So, having looked at the highs and lows of Ferrari’s participation in Formula One, it has to be said that not only do they deserve their reputation in the sport as a result of their colourful and captivating history, but also on the basis of their achievements within the sport.

Although they have been massively inconsistent, with periods of domination often followed by unprofitable and hapless spells of drought, they were always searching for wins and success – winning was their vocabulary, their language. Their fifteen drivers titles and sixteen constructors titles may not statistically carry a better win percentage than other famous teams like Williams and McLaren, who have not been involved in the sport since its inauguration, but the sheer scale of contribution to the sport that Ferrari has been responsible for is, perhaps, immeasurable.

Ferrari’s intrinsic value to F1 is incalculable and there is a magnetic love for them across the world which illustrates just how significant and resounding their impact has been throughout the 62 seasons that Formula One has spanned. Historically they are priceless and their success is unrivalled. They are Formula One royalty – the very embodiment of the sport – and their legendary reputation is unquestionably deserved.