Nairo Quintana will start the 2014 La Vuelta a Espana on Saturday bidding to secure a rare double feat.
If the Colombian Movistar rider wins he will become only the fourth man in history to have won the Giro d’Italia and La Vuelta in the same season after Eddy Merckx (1973), Giovanni Battaglin (1981) and Alberto Contador (2008).
Of course, Quintana will have to battle Contador himself to carve his slice of history after the Spaniard withdrew from this season’s Tour de France with a fractured shin bone.
Contador’s quicker than expected recovery has convinced his Tinkoff-Saxo team that he is 100% fit for a tilt at earning a third Vuelta win, but there is another huge challenger for the win.
Britain’s Chris Froome who, like Contador, also withdrew from Le Tour after sustaining a broken wrist and hand, is perhaps Quintana’s closest rival for the Vuelta this year.
After making an almost unnoticed comeback from contracting the bilharzia parasite, Froome blasted his way to prominence with second place at La Vuelta in 2011, a heartbreaking thirteen seconds behind Juan Jose Cobo.
With three Grand Tour superstars in the race, La Vuelta’s route will be a constant battleground for them as it features no fewer than eight summit finishes and just five flat stages out of 21.
There are also three time trials, one team and two individual, with the final 10km time-trial in Santiago de Compostela breaking a 21-year-old streak of finishing La Vuelta in Madrid.
The 12.6km team time-trial kicks off the Vuelta in Jerez, before the race winds through southern Spain in a mixed opening parcours.
The opening nine stages before the first rest day are composed of two mountain stages, three hilly stages, three flat stages and the team time-trial.
Race organisers Unipublic have seemingly decided to incorporate all four types of parcours to add early uncertainty to a race which gets down to business in the second week.
After the opening rest day, the riders tackle a 34.5km time-trial to Borja – which could expose Quintana and play into the hands of strong time-triallists Contador and Froome.
But the Colombian could retaliate to any potential time losses incurred against the clock when the race hits the mountains of northern Spain.
Stage 11 includes a summit finish before stages 14, 15 and 16 loom large.
That trio of mountainous stages looks set to decide the race and, with time bonuses available throughout La Vuelta, the main general classification (GC) riders will be attacking for maximum gains.
Stage 16, with its five first category climbs includes a destructive sting in the tail.
Traversing the highest point of the race, the riders will encounter the summit finish to La Farrapona, Lagos de Somiedo which tops out at 1,715m.
The final week looks progressively harder, but not as taxing as the middle week.
A flat-looking stage 17 is followed by two medium mountain stages and a mountainous penultimate stage ending in a highest-category summit finish in Puerto de Ancares before the 2014 Vuelta ends with a zippy 10km time-trial.
Quintana looks ideally placed to win the Giro/Vuelta double, but with Contador and Froome bailing from the Tour de France in its opening week they should be fresh and ready to salvage an esteemed result from their season.
Other noteworthy contenders include Joaquim Rodriguez, who has used the Tour to prepare for the Vuelta, and Alejandro Valverde but reigning Vuelta champion Chris Horner has been withdrawn voluntarily by his Lampre-Merida team.
The 42-year-old delivered an abnormally low cortisone level and, although that level is not illegal under UCI rules, Lampre have acted upon the Movement for Credible Cycling’s (MPCC) regulations and pulled him out without external request.
Elsewhere, rising star Wilco Kelderman is also a serious danger to the established GC contenders after a superb seventh place in the Giro, while Rigoberto Uran will also demand respect after a second-consecutive second-place at the Giro.
There is healthy British representation this year, with Garmin’s David Millar recovering from his late Tour relegation to aid Andrew Talansky and Dan Martin in their bid for a top ten finish.
Orica Greenedge’s Adam Yates, winner of the Tour of Turkey this year, will make his Grand Tour debut after watching brother Simon compete in the Tour de France in July.
Team Sky are fielding a trio of Britons in Froome, Tour of Austria winner Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe – indicating the presence of plans B and C should Froome’s form deteriorate.
Of course, the British team will be hoping to recover from a disastrous Tour which saw the absence of an alternative plan hopelessly exposed by Froome’s withdrawal.
But the pointy end of the race will likely involve Quintana, Contador and Froome. Rodriguez could also be together with them and that could form an interesting dynamic as happened in 2012 when Froome was attacked by a Spanish alliance of Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez.
Race favourite Quintana appears to warrant his candidacy as the best of the contenders, but much depends on the form of Froome and Contador. Have they recovered enough fitness after their injuries to challenge the diminutive Colombian?
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