Blazin' Saddles

Vuelta 2014: Froome, Quintana, Contador – Clash of the Titans

Blazin' Saddles

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The strongest field of any Grand Tour in recent memory takes to the start at Jerez de la Frontera on Saturday with the 69th edition of Vuelta a Espana set to be the stand-out race of the season.

With Nairo Quintana decision to ride the Giro this spring the script was set for Chris Froome and Alberto Contador to go head-to-head in July's Tour de France. But with both Froome and Contador crashing out of the Grande Boucle fans will finally get to see the pair do battle on two wheels - with the Colombian Giro winner thrown in for good measure.

In fact, the only major absentees of this year's Vuelta are the men who lit up the race the last time round: veteran American Chris Horner and man-of-the-moment Vincenzo Nibali of Italy.

Horner, the defending champion who has proved about as much value for money to Lampre-Merida as an ice machine in the Arctic, was dramatically pulled from the race by his team owing to low cortisol levels following a recent TUE for cortisone to treat bronchitis, will not defend his crown, and will be ruing the fact that - unlike the more relaxed Team Sky - his employers are members of the MPCC and so not so carefree about such trifles as TUE guidelines.

As for Nibali, the recent Tour de France winner is taking a well deserved break before returning next season with a delightfully wistful pop at a Giro-Tour double. In the Sicilian's place there are a whole host of riders who either couldn't keep up with him during the Tour, or who crashed out while trying to match the yellow jersey's impressive showing from Sheffield and beyond.

THE ROUTE: Oddly for a race that habitually uses watches for calculating bonus seconds as opposed to timing individuals down a ramp, there are three races against the clock in this year's edition: it starts with a 12.6km team time trial in Jerez, followed by a largely flat 36.7km individual offering to Borja (stage 10) and a final day 9.7km "epilogue" ITT to Santiago de Compostela.

Add to that eight summit finishes, six potential flat bunch sprints and four ramped finales, and you get quite a diverse course that won't overly favour any one individual. There are 10, 6 and 4 bonus seconds available for the top three on non time-trial stages, as well as 3, 2 and 1 seconds up for grabs in the intermediate sprints. Froome will bear this in mind: he finished just 13 seconds behind Juan Jose Cobo in 2011, with the Spaniard having amassed 32 more bonus seconds over the course of the race.

Incidentally, the enigmatic Cobo is the last rider to defend his Vuelta title; his 67th place in 2012 marked the worst defence in Vuelta history. As for Horner, he is the fourth rider in the past decade to be ruled out of defending his Vuelta crown - not that his case is in anyway similar to those of Roberto Heras (2006), Alexander Vinokourov (2007) and Alejandro Valverde (2011).

THE FAVOURITES: At the top of a very large pile rests last year's Tour champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar), the man who proved his biggest rival 13 months ago. More than a year on and Quintana seems to have the edge: the 24-year-old beasted the Giro and showed his form recently in the Vuelta a Burgos. Sure, Froome will hold the aces for the time trials - but the entire kilometre count of all three time trials is shorter than the longest ITT in this year's Tour, a test the Briton couldn't face because of his withdrawal. It remains to be seen how Froome has recovered from those wrist injuries - and a training crash on an oil patch on Friday suggests the nerves still linger. Both physically and psychologically, Quintana may have the edge.

Joining Quintana on the Giro podium, fellow Colombian Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Italian youngster Fabio Aru (Astana) will have high hopes - although you expect Aru's inexperience may make it tricky for the Sardinian to trump his performance in his home tour.

Spanish triumvirate Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) are podium contenders for any Grand Tour on paper - but there are huge question marks over them all: has Contador recovered enough from his shin fracture; can Purito turn things round after a rotten season since victory in Catalunya; will Valverde be sacrificed for team leader Quintana?

THE OUTSIDERS: Garmin-Sharp have three cards to play in Andrew Talansky, Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin - but that's hardly a royal flush in such illustrious company. Talansky looked a broken man in the Tour, Hesjedal's best days are behind him, while Martin - who crashed out of the Giro in Northern Ireland - showed glimpses of promise in the Tour de l'Ain. As long as Martin can stay upright in the opening TTT at Jerez, he may be the team's best shout - but even a top 10 may be ambitious.

Old boys David Arroyo (Caja Rural) and Haimar Zubeldia (Trek) may have had a slim chance in any normal year but they'll be eclipsed by such a strong field. A better bet, perhaps, is young Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) or the rangy Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol).

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THE SPRINTERS: Although he famously won the green jersey without a single stage win in July, it would be almost inconceivable to imagine Peter Sagan (Cannondale) not taking a scalp in Spain. In fact, unless Sagan is on pace-setting duties for Tinkoff team-leader-to-be Contador, he should notch a win or two - especially on those ramped finishes.

In the absence of Mark Cavendish, the best pure sprinter will probably be Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and the Frenchman will duel with in-form Italian Andrea Guardini (Astana), Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) for wins. Germany's Degenkolb should flourish in the absence of Giant team-mate Marcel Kittel and, if he stutters, then Nikias Arndt will be on hand.

Lampre boast a sprinting trio of Max Richeze, Roberto Ferrari and Filippo Pozzato but don't expect too much bang for your buck if you have a punt on any. The days of Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) winning bunch sprints in Grand Tours seem to be long gone - ditto Daniele Bennati (Tinkoff-Saxo), although you'd think the Italian veteran would have a better chance than his Belgian counterpart.

Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Moreno Hofland (Belkin) will look to get in the mix but don't expect them to surge ahead of Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) - the Australian looked very strong in the Giro and will push some of the big guns for a stage win.

THE LIVEWIRES: Not complete enough to target the GC, Julian Arredondo (Trek) will have one eye on stage wins and another on the blue polka dot mountains jersey - as he did during his successful Grand Tour debut in the Giro. In a pre-Sagan era, ramped sprint finishes were the bread and butter of Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and, with the world championships in Ponferrada looming, expect the Belgian to test his legs.

With his brother taking his Grand Tour bow in July, Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) will target stage wins following his earlier success in the Tour of Turkey. Another Brit, David Millar (Garmin-Sharp), looks to put his Tour non-selection heartbreak behind his back with a Spanish tryst before divorcing himself from the pro peloton for good.

The most aggressive rider in the Tour, Italian Alessandro De Marchi (Cannondale) will target a stage win and it's a quest that will be helped by his team's lack of any genuine GC hope. Peter Kennaugh (Team Sky) will have a key support role to play for Froome, but should the top dog falter, you can bet the Manxman will target glory himself as a further repudiation to his snub in July.

After finishing a surprise third in the Tour, Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) won't look to repeat this feat in Spain - but the French climber will look to pick up a first stage win of the season. Diminutive team-mate and compatriot Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) - a stage winner last year - has been quiet ever since; Winner Ancona (Lampre-Merida) will look to take some of the Colombian spotlight away from his more illustrious countrymen; while Dani Moreno (Katusha) habitually proves an able deputy when Rodriguez falters.

THE UNKNOWNS: Can Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) - a double stage winner from last year - cope with the pressure of repeating his superb debut, especially in the wake of France's most successful Tour in two decades? The 23-year-old doesn't time trial well but climbs like a dream, although he is a very raw talent.

If Barguil is lean, then Carlos Betancur (Ag2R-La Mondiale) is positively obese, even at the best of times. The mercurial Colombian has seen his star fade this year: overweight and out of shape ahead of the Tour, Betancur was pulled from his team and told to focus on the Vuelta. Out of contract at the end of the season, Betancur is still a few kilos above his target and it remains to be seen if he has the form or motivation to make a splash (other than the huge one when jumping into the rest day swimming pool).

Another rider who has a point to prove is Dutchman Robert Gesink (Belkin), who was pulled from the Tour owing to a heart complaint and now makes his comeback despite earlier fears that his career could be in jeopardy. Of course, the form of Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) has a big question mark hanging over it: the 2012 Vuelta champion only decided to race last week and he will surely lack a bit of competitive edge.

Another huge unknown is the morale and shape of Fabian Cancellara (Trek) who experienced one of his most wretched Tours to date in July. Outdone by Nibali on the cobbles, Cancellara had withdrawn before his expected tussle with Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in Tour's time trials. Can Spartacus show the form of old in Spain or are his chrono antics a thing of the past?

Finally, a word on Cadel Evans (BMC). Poor Cadel - the Australian veteran sensibly stayed clear of the Tour knowing that team-mate Tejay van Garderen stood a better chance at making an impact. But the Vuelta will be far from a final swansong with a potential stab at a podium place for the 37-year-old: Evans now finds himself coming up with all the men he hoped to avoid and - having struggled in the second half of the Giro - it's hard to see how Cuddles will keep in touch with the sport's best. A stage win (or two) would be a more realistic target - let's just hope both BMC and Evans realise this.

PREDICTED TOP 10:

1. Nairo Quintana, 2. Chris Froome, 3. Rigoberto Uran, 4. Alejandro Valverde, 5. Alberto Contador, 6. Joaquim Rodriguez, 7. Wilco Kelderman, 8. Fabio Aru, 9. Jurgen van den Broeck, 10. Andrew Talansky

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