This Saturday will see the 66th edition of the final Grand Tour of the year. This year's Vuelta promises much excitement with six mountain top finishes. With just one individual time trial, it is the climbers who will look to get to the finish in Madrid with the leader's red jersey on their shoulders.
The climbs are spread throughout the race, with the first coming early on with stage four's 25 kilometre climb to Sierra Nevada. Then in the second week four mountain-top finishes should shape the leader-board with stages 9, 11, 14 and 15 all climbs to the top. It is stage 15 up the Angliru which could provide us with a winner. The climb is mercilessly steep, averaging over 10% and reaching over 20% in parts. The race could explode on this road, and whoever reaches the top first should be near the podium come the finish in Madrid.
Here we look at the top ten contenders who will be hoping to stand atop the podium in Madrid after 3,300 km of tough racing.
Igor Anton comes into this year's Vuelta with revenge on his mind after crashing out of last year's Vuelta while wearing the leader's jersey on stage 14. Anton has focused on the Vuelta all year and comes into the race in good form after a top ten finish in the recent Vuelta a Burgos.
With the race going through the Basque region for the first time in decades due to political tensions, Euskatel will want a strong showing and to have built a strong team to support Anton. With climbers like Egoi Martinez to aid him in the mountains, he goes into the race as the favorite. If he avoids crashes, then it looks like a good bet for him to be on the top step of the podium in Madrid.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali also has a strong team behind him. The 21 year old Peter Sagan is seen as one of the best young riders in the world and will be competing in his first grand tour, while Eros Capecchi looks set to be Nibali's most important General in the mountains.
Nibali will be looking for back to back Vuelta wins and has the opportunity to do just that. Nibali will look to the individual time trial as a stage in which he could gain much time on his rivals. And if he has the legs to climb with the likes of Anton and Rodriguez, he will have high hopes of defending that time.
Last years fourth placed man has never finished on a grand tour podium. This year could be his best chance yet. Rodriguez has been in fine form this year, with fifth places at both the Giro and the Dauphiné showing him to be in good stage race form.
However, Rodriguez finished behind both Scarponi and Nibali in the Giro, and the same fate could await him in the Vuelta. His time trialing is his main flaw, and this could hurt him. In last year's race, Rodriguez led going into a time trial in which he lost over 6 minutes to the stage winner. Having only one time trial will help him minimize his losses, but he will still be forced to attack in the mountains. Look for stage wins in the mountains and a high finish from the Spaniard, but the podium may elude him once again.
After finishing second in this years Giro, ahead of defending Vuelta champion Vincenzo Nibali, Scarponi has high hopes going into the race. He told Gazzetta dello Sport, "I'm going to Spain to try and win my first ever Grand Tour. I've been working carefully, and I'll have the same determination and aggression I had in the Giro, in the hope of having a great Vuelta"
Scarponi has the right to be confident; after a great season, he is now ranked fourth in the UCI standings and is experienced in three week races. After his showing in the Giro, Nibali will be watching him closely, and he may find it hard to break away. Despite this, Scarponi is my favourite for victory in the Vuelta.
Menchov has had a troubled season. After struggling with allergies in the Giro and finishing in 8th place, his Geox team then missed out on an invitation to the Tour De France. After these hardships, Menchov is primed for a strong showing in the Vuelta. With a strong team including Carlos Sastre, David Blanco, Juan Josè Cobo and Mauricio Ardila, he should have plenty of help in the mountains.
Along with Nibali and Wiggins, Menchov will be looking to gain time on his rivals in the Salamanca time trial on stage 10. The Russian knows how to win the race after victories in 2005 and 2007 and is bullish going into Saturdays start in Benidorm. "I know the climbs and key points well, and I know how you need to ride there."
Menchov has also dismissed the idea that Igor Anton is the favourite for the race. "Igor has been riding well and there’s no doubt he’s well prepared, but for one reason or another he’s never managed finish things off. I think there are three or four riders who could be in the hunt for the title." Menchov seems confident and should be there or thereabouts come the finish line.
Van Den Broeck is the first of four Tour De France casualties who will be looking to make amends in the Vuelta. After a nasty fall that saw him left with a broken shoulder blade, broken ribs and a collapsed lung, Van Den Broeck has remarkably recovered and will lead the Omega Pharma-Lotto team in Spain.
The Belgian has proven form in stage races after a fifth place finish in last year's Tour De France and a fourth place in this year's Dauphiné. An out-and-out climber, Van Den Broeck should thrive in the mountainous route of this years Vuelta. He has the potential to win the race; however, all will depend on how well his injuries have recovered. A stage win is the least that the Belgian should expect.
Wiggins will be looking to bounce back from the broken collarbone that forced him to withdraw from the Tour De France on the road into Chateauroux. Team principle Dave Brailsford described Wiggins as being "in the best form of his life" going into the tour, but much will depend on how well Bradley has recovered since the fall.
The make-up of the course may also not be to Wiggins' advantage. Being the most accomplished time trial rider of the main contenders, the fact that this year's course only has one individual time trial and six mountain-top finishes will play against the Briton. However, if he can find his climbing legs, expect to see Wiggins in or around the podium places come Madrid.
Hoping to impress for Team RadioShack will be Janez Brajkovic. After crashing out of the Tour De France and suffering concussion and a broken collarbone, like Wiggins, much will depend on how well he has recovered going into the race.
Along with co-leader Andreas Kloden, Brajkovic's chances of the podium appear slim. The pelaton contains riders who have the potential to be more explosive on the climbs, and Brajkovic could find himself on the back foot. A top 5 finish for the Slovenian is possible and would be a good result.
Leading Team RadioShack with Brajkovic will be the experienced Andreas Kloden. For Kloden and Brajkovic, much will depend on the team dynamic. Team RadioShack goes into the race with arguably the deepest squad in terms of climbers. Accomplished names Haimar Zubeldia and Sergio Paulinho will be there to support the two men.
It is in attacking their GC rivals that Kloden and Brajkovic will have to co-ordinate well. If he can do this and avoids the crashes, then Kloden could be in for a top ten finish. The podium may be a step too far for the German; however, expect to see him gapped by the favourites in the high mountains.
When asked about the route for the Vuelta, Sastre seemed encouraged. "The organisers are really keen to keep the climbers happy, and we're grateful to them." The 2008 Tour De France winner has finished second twice and third once. A part of Menchov's Geox team, Sastre may find himself riding in aid of the Russian, but if given the freedom to ride for himself, Sastre may be in line for a sucessful 3 weeks.
At 36, this may be the Spaniard's last chance at victory in his home tour. While there appears to be stronger challengers in the pelaton, Sastre is a wily rider who will look to spring attacks and could be allowed to go up the road while the others are watching each other. He may be a long shot, but Sastre is more than capable of a podium finish.