Post-Tour Hangover Ends As Vuelta a Espana Begins Saturday

James ThompsonCorrespondent IAugust 28, 2009

One month after the end of the Tour de France, cycling fans once again have something to cheer for. 

Small races have been going on in the past month, such as the Tour of Poland, the Vuelta a Burgos, and the Eneco Tour, but all pale in comparison to the thrill and mystique of a genuine three-week Grand Tour. 

Most of the big name riders have been taking it easy after the Tour as several of the key riders are finalizing their plans on how they can attack the overall classification in Spain.

Some faithful domestique, or helping, riders will also get their chances to fight for the general classification.

Without the intense media pressure of the Tour forcing riders to stick to the plan and conserve as much as possible, the Vuelta gives some riders more freedom to test themselves against their rivals and make daring attacks when such things would be scoffed at the Tour.

Starting tomorrow with a 4.8-kilometer prologue time trial in the Netherlands, the Vuelta will have a more international flavour than in previous years. 

As in any three-week Grand Tour, there will be several decisive days that can decide the final classification. 

The first week will be a sprinters' delight, as fast men such as Tyler Farrar (Garmin), Daniele Bennati (Liquigas), Tom Boonen and Allan Davis (QuickStep), and Andre Griepel (Columbia-HTC) battle it out for the Vuelta's blue sprinter's jersey. 

Then, the general classification favourites must come out of their shells to face in stage seven a decisive time trial in the city of Valencia.

Immediately after the time trial comes the first of many mountaintop finishes on stage eight.

Stage 12 hits riders hard once again, with three massive climbs with a mountaintop finish, and Stages 13 and 14 also feature grueling mountaintop finishes.

With several consecutive days of mountaintop finishes, this might prove to be an even tougher route than the rather mundane Tour's route was a month ago. 

General classification favourites will need to shine, and more importantly, not make any mistakes, on these crucial days.

Who are those GC favourites?  Olympic champion Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) has done what almost no other big name rider has managed to do, to focus his entire season around the Vuelta. 

The Spaniard chose to skip the Tour despite finishing in the top 10 on several occasions in that race to try and win his home country's race. 

Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) is in a similar situation but for different reasons.  Being the subject of the old Operation Puerto scandal, where Italian prosecutors managed to produce some suspicious evidence that Valverde participated in the three-year-old doping scandal, Valverde was banned from racing on Italian roads for his alleged involvement.  The Tour crossed through Italy, effectively ending his chances at racing the Tour.

Valverde is a highly accomplished Grand Tour rider, though.  Having placed in the top five of the Vuelta on multiple occasions and the top 10 in the Tour, the two-time Dauphine Libere champion has shown that he has the consistency to challenge for the win. 

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) is hoping that his dismal Tour performance can be turned around for this race.  Having finished runner-up in the Tour in 2007 and 2008, Evans suffered through a bad performance at the hands of the dominant Astana squad.

As a very complete rider who can time-trial and climb equally well, he could upset the hometown favourites.

Ivan Basso (Liquigas) and Andy Schleck (Saxobank) will also be looking to capitalize on their good form and proven performances.  Basso won the Giro d'Italia three years ago and Schleck has finished in second place in both the Giro and the Tour. 

Look out for last year's Vuelta fourth place Ezequiel Mosquera (Xacobeo-Galicia), who will no doubt be arriving in top form to battle with the big boys.

Even without the entire podium from last year (first place Alberto Contador, second place Levi Leipheimer, and third place Carlos Sastre), the race looks set to deliver a thrilling performance.

The Post-Tour hangover ends now.