On the eve of the third and final Grand Tour of the season, our cycling guru Blazin' Saddles tries to answer some key questions about the 2013 Vuelta a Espana - and makes his bold top ten predictions.
Will Nibali show the same form as he had in the Giro?
Things looked ominous for the 2010 Vuelta champion after he finished 53rd in the Tour of Poland but a third place finish in the Vuelta a Burgos has since made Vincenzo Nibali the bookmakers' favourite to secure his second Grand Tour of the season. The big question now is whether or not his second 'peak' of the season will be more pronounced than that of his Spanish rivals Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who both rode the Tour to contrasting success. His team is strong and he'll be the only rider who in the peloton who has won a Grand Tour in the last few years.
Can Rodriguez finally secure that elusive Grand Tour win?
Third in this year's Tour, third last year in the Vuelta, third in 2010 and second in the 2012 Giro, Joaquim Rodriguez has his fair share of Grand Tour podium finishes - but he's never been on the top step. Time is running out for the 34-year-old Catalan, who showed consistency but lacked flair over the roads of France in July. One off day cost him the Vuelta last year to Alberto Contador - and the Katusha rider knows that this is as good a chance as any to notch his first major overall win. Stage wins are a certainty - that's what Purito does best - but it remains to be seen how fatigued the Spaniard is from his Tour exertions. There's a question mark over his team too.
Will Uran's impending switch from Sky affect his chances?
The Colombian is a professional but it's hard to see his performance not being touched by his imminent departure. Already, leadership of the British-based team has gone to his compatriot Sergio Henao - even though Uran's superior climbing ability seems to make him a better prospect for the overall. Sky, of course, have to look after what is theirs - and as of the close season, Henao, and not Uran, will be their Colombian of choice. In a very cosmopolitan team, Edvald Boasson-Hagen will be out to pick up sprint wins after crashing out in the Tour - but it remains to be seen which Colombian the rest of the team throw their allegiance to.
Answer: NOT TOO MUCH
Will Euskaltel bow out with a bang?
If Samuel Sanchez wins what will be his first Vuelta in five years, then it would be Euskaltel's first and last Grand Tour victory in their 17-year history. This will be Sanchez's sixth Vuelta and each participation has seen the Spaniard build on his previous result - starting with 15th in 2004 through to his podium spots in 2007 and 2009 in third and second respectively. First place would complete the sequence - although the 35-year-old could well be distracted by the fact that his (and his team-mates') careers are all up in the air. With Euskaltel folding at the end of the season, expect all manner of fireworks from the riders in orange.
Answer: YES - BUT NO OVERALL WIN FOR SAMU
Which team will end up bossing the peloton?
0627 - Tour de France: Team Movistar
We have grown accustomed to Sky dominating proceedings but their heterogeneous squad doesn't look like it will control the race in Spain. With Roman Kreuziger, Nicolas Roche, Rafal Majka, Michael Morkov and Chris Anker Sorensen, Saxo-Tinkoff look very strong and have a whole host of riders who can make the podium. Movistar look strong with the likes of Eros Capecchi and Benat Intxausti alongside Alejandro Valverde. Astana also look like a mean preposition with Janez Brajkovic, Jakob Fuglsang, Tanel Kangert and Paolo Tiralongo all riding in support of Nibali.
Answer: ASTANA, SAXO AND MOVISTAR TO MIX IT UP
Can any sprinter do a Degenkolb?
Last year, John Degenkolb won an historic five sprint victories in what was deemed a very sprinter-unfriendly race. Well, this year the fast men will have even fewer opportunities - but that's not to say we won't see a bunch sprint or two. With all the big guns staying at home, the race is likely to be a showcase for a blend of young upcoming stars (Barry Markus, Andrew Fenn, Michael Matthews, Leigh Howard and Nikias Arndt) and proven competitors (Edvald Boasson Hagen, Gianni Meersman, Philippe Gilbert, Greg Henderson and Tyler Farrar). Throw in the likes of Geoffrey Soup, Theo Bos and Adam Blythe and there's no shortage of sprint talent - but it's highly unlikely anyone will be able to replicate the performance of last year's stand-out star from Argos-Shimano.
Will the rainbow curse end?
Well, already Thor Hushovd, the 2010 world champion, has pulled out of the race so BMC are down to just the one of their four world champions past and present, Philippe Gilbert. The current rainbow jersey has enjoyed a rotten season to date, crashing hard in last week's Eneco Tour and still without a win to his name this year. Gilbert said he was "optimistic" he could overcome a knee injury to be competitive in Spain as he ramps up his preparation for defending his world championships crown in Tuscany, but given his form and the recent accident, it's hard to see his bad run ending any time soon.
Can Hoogerland finally prevail?
At this rate, Johnny Hoogerland will be remembered more for getting his bib shorts ripped off by a barbed wire fence than standing on a podium celebrating a major win. Injury has disrupted his season, although the Dutchman did become national champion days before the start of the Tour de France. The Tour was quiet for his standards, but the 30-year-old has always enjoyed racing in Spain: his breakthrough year in 2009 saw Hoogerland place 12th in the Vuelta. With Vacansoleil likely to follow the same road to perdition as Euskaltel at the end of the season, fans can expect Hoogerland to revert to his scattergun attacking approach to racing. Alongside Thomas De Gendt and Wouter Poels, Hoogerland will look to add Vuelta stage wins to his palmares and put himself in the shop window for the close season. This time round, he may just do it.
Will Belkin suffer from exhaustion?
Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam, sixth and thirteenth in the Tour, will lead the line for the Dutch squad - but they could well suffer from fatigue during what should be a blazing hot and arduous three weeks. Considering that it was the final week of mountains that saw both men drop out of the Tour top five in July, those 11 summit finishes may prove too much. It's unlikely that either will feature in the top five come Madrid. Stage wins it is, then.
Can Dan Martin lead the line for Garmin-Sharp?
After winning the 2012 Giro d'Italia through Ryder Hesjedal, things have been rather rotten for Jonathan Vaughters' squad. Dan Martin was a ray of light in the Tour, but after his stage nine win, the 27-year-old faded from contention in a tricky final week in the Alps. Martin has been given a free role for Garmin in the Vuelta with the aim of picking up stage wins and getting as high up on GC as possible. The mountainous route will suit him, but lack of team-mates could be his downfall. Expect him to appear on the podium - but not in Madrid.
Answer: NO - BUT WILL WIN A STAGE
Can Carlos Betancur be the surprise package?
Ag2R-La Mondiale's Colombian finished second on three occasions during the Giro, which he lit up with his predictably unpredictable attacks and explosive riding. On one occasion, the Colombian youngster even thought he had won a stage, raising his arms aloft in erroneous celebration in Florence despite finishing 44 seconds down on stage nine winner Maxim Belkov. You'd think that the 23-year-old will finally have something to punch the air about - although you expect that some of the key stages (Angliru, Pena Cabarga and Peyragudes) may see him drop out of contention for a podium finish.
Answer: TO AN EXTENT
Who is the best prospect from the outsiders?
Domenico Pozzovivo, the piano-playing climber from Ag2R-La Mondiale is well suited to the course and will be happy that the spotlight's falling on his team-mate Betancur in the lead-up to the race. Cannondale veteran Ivan Basso may be considered as one of the favourites by many, but for others even calling him an outsider is a bit generous (ditto the ageing Michele Scarponi of Lampre). Portugal's Andre Cardoso could well be a bit of a dark horse for Caja Rural. Mikel Landa of Euskaltel should roll well uphill, and watch out for two other young climbers, France's Warren Barguil (Argos) and Kenny Elissonde (FDJ). Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) will look to put right his forgettable Tour while Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) is due a decent race. Robert Kiserlovski (RadioShack) could hit form while Eros Capecchi (Movistar) certainly has the talent. Rafal Majka is probably Saxo-Tinkoff's best bet seeing that he didn't race the Tour.
BLAZIN' SADDLES PREDICTS THE TOP TEN:
1. Nibali, 2. Pozzovivo, 3. Uran, 4. Rodriguez, 5. Valverde, 6. Betancur, 7. Kiserlovski, 8. Vanendert, 9. Intxausti, 10. Kangert