24 hours from the Tour de France

The title of the Gene Pitney song is actually 24 Hours from Tulsa, but what the hell? For both die-hard and occasional cycling fans, the biggest day in the sport’s cycling calendar is now just one day away. Tomorrow, in Liege in Belgium, the 2012 edition of the Tour de France begins. Three weeks of hell. Two wheels. One amazing race.

Will Sky’s Bradley Wiggins live up to his billing as the bookies’ favourite and become the first British rider to wear the coveted yellow jersey in Paris (let alone the first to finish on the Paris podium)? Or will Australia’s Cadel Evans be able to defend the title he won with such battling panache last July?

Will the combination of Mark Cavendish‘s preparations for the Olympic road race and Sky’s focus on Wiggins compromise his effectiveness as he seeks to add to his 20 Tour stage wins in defence of his green jersey? Or will we see a new sprint king crowned in Peter Sagan or perhaps Andre Greipel, Matt Goss or Mark Renshaw, all former teammates of Cavendish at HTC-Highroad?

Who will delight us with their daring attacks on the steep climbs and equally precipitous descents of the Alps and Pyrenees? And who will provide us with the drama and romance which featured protagonists such as French media darling Thomas Voeckler and Johnny ‘Barbed Wire’ Hoogerland?

In previous years I have provided stage-by-stage recaps and analysis here. However, all cycling coverage has now transferred over to our new dedicated site velovoices.com, where you will find full previews, daily recaps, stats and analysis throughout the next three weeks. Just click on the banner above and come and join us!

Vuelta a España review: Five rising stars to watch in the future

The 2011 Vuelta a España concluded in Madrid yesterday with Peter Sagan claiming his third sprint finish of the race and Juan José Cobo safely defending the red leaders’ jersey he had worn since the pivotal Angliru stage the previous Sunday. The British Sky pair of Chris Froome (a mere 13 seconds behind) and Bradley Wiggins completed the general classification podium, while Bauke Mollema and David Moncoutié secured the points and mountains classifications – for the latter it was his fourth consecutive win in the competition.

Coming late in the season and as the least prestigious of cycling’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta is often a showcase for younger riders to prove themselves. At 30, Cobo’s success is likely to be the pinnacle of his career – his only previous stage race triumph of any note was the Tour of the Basque Country back in 2007 – joining the likes of 2001 and 1991 winners Ángel Casero and Melcior Mauri as ‘home’ champions who failed to convert their Vuelta triumphs into sustained international success. But here are five riders, all aged 25 or under, who had already made their mark in lesser races but seized the opportunity to move into the limelight in a Grand Tour for the first time. Watch out for all of them in the future.

Kittel followed up his Tour of Poland success with a win on stage 7

Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano)

The 23-year old German sprinter is in his first year as a professional, but quickly established himself in the winner’s circle with a stage at January’s Tour de Langkawi before taking four more victories at last month’s Tour of Poland. At the Vuelta, he claimed the bunch sprint on stage seven in a finish marred by a dramatic crash at the front of the bunch in the closing metres.

Blessed with an electric finishing kick, he forms one of a trio of powerful top-class German fast men alongside the established André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who will join him at Skil-Shimano next season from HTC-Highroad at the forefront of a new generation of up-and-coming sprint talent.

Martin won from a select group of five at La Covatilla (image courtesy of Petit Brun/Flickr)

Dan Martin (Garmin-Cervélo)

Cycling is written into the DNA of the 25-year old, who is the nephew of Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and world champion Stephen Roche and cousin to AG2R’s Nicolas Roche. A climber capable of launching and sustaining prolonged attacks, Martin turned pro with Garmin-Cervélo in 2008 and has gradually built his reputation in the peloton with a number of wins in minor races including the overall at last year’s Tour of Poland.

This year was Martin’s second attempt at the Vuelta – he finished 53rd in 2009 – and he regularly showed impressive form and aggression in the mountains en route to a 13th place finish. He won stage nine at the summit at La Covatilla after outsprinting an elite group of five which contained the final top four (Cobo, Froome, Wiggins and Mollema). He also finished third and fourth on the vertiginous summit finishes at Sierra Nevada (stage four) and Peña Cabarga (stage 17), amassing enough points to finish fourth in the King of the Mountains competition. Martin looks set for a bright future as both a climber and an overall GC contender.

Four top four finishes (and six other top tens) won the points classification for the consistent Mollema

Bauke Mollema (Rabobank)

Now in his fourth year as a pro, the 24-year old Mollema is one of three talented young Dutch climbers on the Rabobank squad. Robert Gesink (25) enjoyed his breakthrough last year in finishing sixth at the Tour de France, while Steven Kruijswijk (24) has featured at the Giro, where he finished ninth this year after placing 18th in 2010.

Mollema had a disappointing Tour de France (he finished 70th) after placing ninth at Paris-Nice and fifth at the Tour de Suisse, but showed both strength and consistency in the mountains at the Vuelta. Although he did not win a stage, he finished in the top four four times among a total of ten top ten placings – enough to win him the green points jersey – and was second only to Martin at La Covatilla. Fourth overall in Madrid (just 2:03 behind Cobo), he is a good enough time trialist to be considered a serious GC contender, and could certainly form part of a formidable two or three-pronged attack alongside Gesink and Kruijswijk in the future.

Sagan won three stages at his first Grand Tour (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale)

The Slovakian sprinter is still only 21, but already has two years of professional experience under his belt and a palmarès any rider would be proud of. Among others, he has won stages at the Tour de Suisse, Paris-Nice, Tour of California and Tour de Romandie, and added overall wins at this year’s Giro di Sardegna and Tour of Poland.

Sagan capitalised on Mark Cavendish’s early withdrawal to take three sprint wins at the Vuelta – Joaquim Rodríguez was the only other multiple stage winner, with two – claiming victory on stages six and 12 before edging out his rivals at the final gallop in Madrid. Sagan relies as much on power as he does acceleration – he is more of a Thor Hushovd or Erik Zabel than a Cavendish or Greipel – but undeniably has a nose for victory. Hampered only by the fact his Liquigas team are generally more focussed on the general classification, he looks set to become a major player in the sprints for several years to come.

Taaramäe crowned a consistent 2011 with victory on stage 14 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rein Taaramäe (Cofidis)

In his fourth year with Cofidis, the 24-year old Estonian has developed into an all-round rider who combines time-trialling skills with strong performances in the mountains. 2011 had already been a breakthrough season for him, with impressive early season showings (third at the Critérium International and fourth at Paris-Nice) propelling him to 12th overall at the Tour de France, boosted by a tenth-place finish in the individual time trial.

Off the back of the Tour a sustained challenge at the Vuelta was always unlikely, but an impressive seventh at La Covatilla was then trumped by an outstanding victory on the summit of La Farrapona, when he was the only survivor of a 17-man break to claim his first Grand Tour stage, and his first international win of any type in over two years. Hopefully this will boost him to even better performances next season, as he possesses the all-round skills to develop into a genuine Grand Tour contender.

Honourable mentions

Finally, a quick mention for three other riders who caught my eye over the last three weeks.

After Wiggins cracked on the Angliru on stage 15, the Kenyan-born Chris Froome took up the mantle of British hopes and pushed Cobo all the way to Madrid, eventually succumbing by just 13 seconds. (Paradoxically, in real time he actually covered the course 19 seconds faster than Cobo but lost out due to time bonuses.) Nonetheless second overall equalled the best ever result by a Briton at a Grand Tour for a rider who has largely spent his career as a domestique rather than a protected rider. The 26-year old is out of contract with Sky at the end of the season and is likely to attract interest from several other teams looking to strengthen their rosters for 2012.

Tony Martin dominated the individual time trial around Salamanca, winning by 59 seconds, to add to his time trial victory at the Tour de France. In 2011 alone he has won a total of six ITTs and the overall at Paris-Nice, while serving as a key member of Cavendish’s HTC-Highroad lead-out train. In addition to now being a serious challenger to the pre-eminence of Fabian Cancellara in the time trial discipline, he is also a decent enough climber in the medium mountains who could further develop as a serious GC contender in the week-long races, as well as targeting a good top 20 finish at the Grand Tours.

Finally, Vacansoleil’s 23-year old Wouter Poels is yet another promising Dutch rider – perhaps more of an all-rounder than a pure climber – who was able to follow-up a pair of second-place finishes with 17th overall. I suspect he may not quite have the climbing legs of a top GC contender, but he could certainly profit in the week-long tours, the classics and as a breakaway specialist.

Anyway, that’s the end of the Grand Tours for 2011. Bring on the World Championships next week!

General classification:

1. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) 84:59:31

2. Chris Froome (Sky) +0:13

3. Bradley Wiggins (Sky) +1:39

4. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) +2:03

5. Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) +3:48

6. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +4:13

7. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +4:31

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +4:45

9. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +5:20

10. Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel-Euskadi) +5:33

Points classification:

1. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) 122 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 115

3. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) 101

4.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 100

5. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) 92

Mountains classification:

1. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 63 pts

2. Matteo Montaguti (AG2R La Mondiale) 56

3. Juan José Cobo (Geox-TMC) 42

4. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 33

5. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 32

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Debut wins for Sagan and Kittel promise open 2012 sprints

Rodríguez soars then stumbles in the mountains

Vuelta a España: Sagan and Kittel debut wins promise end to Cavendish domination

Contrasting maiden Grand Tour stage wins by a pair of Vuelta a España debutants – Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel – punctuated what should have been a relatively quiet couple of days for the big names, but turned out to be anything but. A late team attack by the Liquigas team of defending champion Vincenzo Nibali on Thursday’s stage was followed by a crash within sight of the finish today to leave many riders cursing a combination of unexpected time losses and crash injuries.

Stage 6: Úbeda to Córdoba, 196.8km

Stage six to Córdoba saw a four-man break reeled in by the peloton with 27km remaining, just before the final second-category climb. Stuart O’Grady (Leopard-Trek) set a fierce pace on the front which soon had several riders hanging on desperately at the back, including the now familiar sight of a struggling Igor Antón. It’s safe to say now that the Euskaltel-Euskadi leader’s general classification hopes have vanished.

Defending King of the Mountains David Moncoutié predictably popped off the front to collect maximum points over the summit and was joined early on the subsequent descent by Tony Martin (HTC-Highroad), David de la Fuente (Geox-TMC) and Kevin Seeldraeyers (Quick Step). However, with just under 10km to go to the finish, Liquigas launched a pre-planned attack, with four men – including 2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali – breaking away from the bunch at speeds touching 90kph and flying past the Moncoutié group. Only stage three winner Pablo Lastras – who had previously won in Córdoba back in 2002 – was able to go with them as the Liquigas attack put clear daylight between themselves and the other GC contenders.

Having executed their plan to perfection, you would imagine that in the final few kilometres there would have been a communication from the Liquigas team car to its four riders saying something along the lines of:

Right, we want Vincenzo to get as many bonus seconds as possible, ideally the 20 seconds for the win. So let’s set him up for the sprint. If he can’t beat Lastras, make sure none of you finish ahead of him so he gets second place and 12 seconds. Okay, everybody got that?

Sagan won a stage on his Grand Tour debut (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

But no. As the lead quintet approached the finish, the four Liquigas riders seemed unclear what to do and as Lastras opened up his sprint Sagan shot forward to cover the move and at least ensure the stage victory stayed within the team. Lastras crossed the line two lengths behind as Nibali, Valerio Agnoli and Eros Capecchi all looked at each other and, having already shot themselves in one foot, promptly put a bullet in the other as Agnoli took the four bonus seconds for third ahead of his team leader. It was, quite simply, a comedy of basic errors at the end of a superbly executed tactical move.

The key GC contenders all finished in one of two groups, either 17 or 23 seconds behind – red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was in the first of these – meaning a Nibali victory would have effectively doubled his gains and earned him enough time to put him into the overall lead.

At 21 years 203 days, Sagan claimed his first Grand Tour stage on his debut, making him the youngest winner at one of the three biggest races of the year since Heinrich Haussler at the 2005 Vuelta.

Stage 6 result:

1. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 4:38:22

2. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) same time

3. Valerio Agnoli (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

5. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) s/t

Stage 7: Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 187.6km

Today’s stage had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it, and first year pro Marcel Kittel delivered not only his own maiden Grand Tour stage victory but a similar first for his Skil-Shimano squad in their sixth year of racing. However, the finish was marred by a massive high-speed crash near the front in the final 100 metres when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo) drifted right as Michał Gołaś (Vacansoleil-DCM) edged to his left beside him. The two touched wheels, immediately went down heavily, and set off a domino effect which sent several other riders tumbling to the ground.

A first Grand Tour win for both Kittel and Skil-Shimano

Earlier, a four-man break had built a lead of nearly nine minutes, but on a flattish day with a predominantly downhill final 40km a mass finish was always going to occur. With the sprinters’ teams all jostling for position, Skil-Shimano moved decisively to the front under the flamme rouge and provided a strong lead-out for Kittel, who held off yesterday’s winner Peter Sagan by a bike length as the carnage unfolded behind him.

Leading contenders Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim RodríguezMichele Scarponi and Jurgen Van den Broeck all came down in the crash – none appeared to suffer anything more than cuts and bruises – but red jersey Sylvain Chavanel was able to pull up in time to avoid being unseated. Farrar did not remount for several minutes and was taken to hospital immediately afterwards with muscular and tissue injuries to his left leg, but reportedly no broken bones. However, it seems likely he will be forced to abandon.

The crash held up more than half the peloton, but because it occurred in the final 3km everyone in the bunch received the same time. Even without the accident, Kittel would have won anyway as he was in pole position already. Chavanel retains his 15-second lead over Daniel Moreno, with both Nibali and Rodríguez in close attendance. That is likely to change after tomorrow’s finish in San Lorenzo, which features ramps of 27% and 28% on a climb which rises 200 metres in the final 2.4km.

An end to Mark Cavendish’s sprint domination?

For the past four years, the combination of the world’s fastest pure sprinter, Mark Cavendish, and cycling’s best lead-out train in HTC-Highroad have dominated the bunch finishes in every major race they have entered. Cavendish alone has won a remarkable 30 individual stages in nine attempts at the three Grand Tours in that period, while André Greipel added six more before leaving for Omega Pharma-Lotto last winter.

Degenkolb's departure from HTC-Highroad will add to the competition next year

However, HTC-Highroad is disbanding at the end of this season, and Cavendish and arguably the finest collection of sprint talent the sport has ever seen are being scattered across the professional peloton. That roster includes Matt Goss (winner of Milan-San Remo), lead-out man extraordinaire Mark Renshaw, and 22-year old John Degenkolb, who won twice at the Dauphiné and will be joining his compatriot Kittel at Skil-Shimano next year.

Cavendish has yet to confirm who he will ride for next year – Sky are assumed to be his most likely destination – but no matter where he goes he is unlikely to have the kind of well-drilled train that the likes of Renshaw, Goss, Tony Martin and Bernhard Eisel guaranteed him. The Manxman will still win races next year – and plenty of them – but the break-up of his team means the stranglehold he has had on flat stages, where his rivals have generally been racing only for second place, will be broken. That can only be a good thing for the sport.

Already this year we have seen Greipel, Farrar and Edvald Boasson Hagen win their first Tour de France stages, and the addition of Sagan and Kittel to the winner’s circle at Grand Tours will ensure a broader spectrum of potential winners at the biggest races next year.

At 23, Kittel is in his first season as a professional, but announced his presence immediately with a victory at January’s Tour de Langkawi. But it was at the Tour of Poland earlier this month where he really sprang to prominence, winning four stages with devastating final bursts. His win today was equally impressive.

The 21-year old Sagan is already in his second year, and emerged as the overall winner at the Tour of Poland after two stage wins and some dogged defensive climbing on the hillier stages. The Slovakian is well suited to finishes requiring power as well as speed, and had already enjoyed a hugely successful 2011 before the Vuelta, winning three stages at the Giro de Sardegna, one at the Tour of California and two at the Tour de Suisse. He is also a two-time stage winner at Paris-Nice.

The elite group of sprinters will soon be saying goodbye to veteran stalwarts such as Alessandro Petacchi and Robbie McEwen but now includes newcomers Kittel and Sagan. Add to that the established Greipel and Farrar, powerful classics men such as the Norwegian pairing of Thor Hushovd and Boasson Hagen and a number of others who are not quite in that top bracket but are all potential big race winners on their day – Degenkolb joins the likes of Daniele Bennati and J J Haedo in this category – the sprinters’ field looks deeper and stronger than it has done for several years. Bunch sprints in 2012 should be quite a sight to behold.

Stage 7 result:

1. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 4:47:59

2.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) same time

3. Óscar Freire (Rabobank) s/t

4. Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) s/t

5. Lloyd Mondory (AG2R La Mondiale) s/t

General classification:

1. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) 27:29:12

2. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +0:15

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) +0:16

4. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) +0:23

5. Jakob Fuglsang (Leopard-Trek) +0:25

6. Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) +0:41

7. Maxime Monfort (Leopard-Trek) +0:44

8. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:49

9. Sergio Pardilla (Movistar) +0:49

10. Marzio Bruseghin (Movistar) +0:52

Points classification:

1.  Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) 50 pts

2. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) 48

3. Pablo Lastras (Movistar) 48

4. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 41

5. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) 41

Mountains classification:

1. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) 20 pts

2. Chris Anker Sørensen (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 15

3. Koen De Kort (Skil-Shimano) 13

4. David Moncoutié (Cofidis) 10

5. Daniel Martin (Garmin-Cervélo) 10

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Vuelta a España posts

Vuelta a España preview

Team time trial winners & losers

Stage 2 recap & analysing the sprints

Chavanel leads as heat picks up in GC competition

Rodríguez floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee

Vuelta a España preview

The 66th edition of the Vuelta a España, the last of cycling’s three Grand Tours, gets under way in Benidorm on Saturday and concludes three weeks later with its traditional finish in the centre of Madrid. Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali returns in search of a second Vuelta victory against a field packed full of big names, including two-time winner Denis Menchov.

The route

Like last year, this year’s route is designed with climbers in mind, with six summit finishes and a number of other difficult ascents. It is also designed to throw challenges at the riders right from the start, with the first high summit finish coming as early as the fourth day and several other late climbs scattered throughout the first week ready to catch the unprepared.

Unusually the race does not venture into either the Pyrenees or Catalunya this year, although it does make a return to the Basque country after a 33-year absence. In total, the race features ten mountain stages – including six summit finishes – and nine flat stages, with just two time trials (one team, one individual) which bookend a punishing ten-day opening stint which will most likely see the effective elimination of several contenders before the first rest day.

This race starts with a short 16km team time trial around Benidorm, and is then followed by ‘flat’ stages on five of the next six days. However, only stages two and seven are traditional sprinters’ days. Stages three and six each feature categorised climbs in the final 20km which will make life difficult for pure speedsters such as Mark Cavendish, while stage five finishes on the uncategorised but murderous ascent of Valdepeñas de Jaén, where long-time overall leader Igor Antón won last year.

Stage four sees the first – and highest – of the six summit finishes, at the Sierra Nevada ski resort in Andalucia, with the line at 2,112 metres. This climb was last visited in 2008, where David Moncoutié won en route to his first of three consecutive King of the Mountains titles. Coming so early in the race, one or more of the general classification contenders could easily lose big chunks of time here.

Stage 4 profile

After the sprinters have had their day, the race takes a distinctly uphill turn. A rolling eighth stage ends with a short, sharp shock at the finish in San Lorenzo, where the punishing final climb features ramps of up to 28% in gradient. Stage nine is a more traditional high mountain stage, with a flat run to the 1,970-metre high Sierra de Bejar. A tricky individual time trial on an up-then-down 47km course in Salamanca will provide a stern challenge for tired legs before the peloton is afforded a pause for breath at the end of ten gruelling days.

After the long opening stint, the middle ‘week’ of the race is just five days long, but includes a decisive sequence of four mountain stages and three summit finishes. Stage 11 takes the race back to Galicia for the first time since 2007 and concludes with the 30-kilometre climb of La Manzaneda, which is new to the Vuelta. After an ordinary transition day – the sprinters’ only opportunity between stages seven and 16 – the riders will spend one final day in Galicia which features two first-category climbs but a benign 50-kilometre run to the finish in Ponferrada.

The next two days, however, will most likely mould the final general classification into shape. Stages 14 and 15 will be painful for everyone, with each featuring a second and first-category climb before hors catégorie summit finishes at Lagos di Somiedo (a Vuelta debutant) and Anglirú. The latter is a beast of a climb – regarded by many as the toughest in Spain – which features a savage section between six and 12km averaging 13.8% (kilometre 11 alone is an eye-watering 17.5%). It is more than a match for anything the Giro or Tour have to offer, and with the second rest day following immediately after it is likely to prove to be the key battleground on which the race is won and lost.

Stage 15 profile

The closing stretch, while hardly straightforward, lacks an obvious headline-grabbing profile. Stage 17 finishes with the HC climb of Peña Cabarga, on the approach to which Antón crashed out of the race lead last year, while stage 19 sees the Vuelta return to the Basque region after a 33-year absence with a stage finish in Bilbao. The penultimate stage includes two first-category climbs, but these will be negated by a flat run-in of nearly 50 kilometres. And the final stage, of course, is the usual processional affair with the sprinters taking centre stage as the peloton completes several circuits of Madrid city centre.

The men to watch

Nibali returns to defend last year's win

This year’s Vuelta can boast arguably its strongest line-up in several years, with the ranks of GC contenders swelled by several top riders who were forced out of the Tour de France early on.

2010 champion Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) is back to defend his title, and will face a strong Spanish contingent led by Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi), who crashed while leading last year’s race on stage 14, and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha). Antón had raced sparingly this year but won on the Zoncolan at the Giro, while Rodríguez finished fifth in Italy and took strong second places at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne behind Philippe Gilbert, who has been unbeatable in the hilly classics this year.

Denis Menchov opted for the Giro-Vuelta combination when his Geox-TMC team did not receive an invite to the Tour. The 2005 and 2007 champion has raced a light programme this year, but finished a useful (if somewhat anonymous) eighth at the Giro. Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD) was second behind Alberto Contador at the Giro and has been in good form all season, but has yet to finish in the top ten in Spain.

All of the above had always intended to ride the Vuelta, but the list of genuine contenders is swelled by the presence of Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and the RadioShack pair of Janez Brajkovič and Andreas Klöden. All started the Tour in excellent form, but none finished it after a succession of crashes. Their current condition is uncertain, but each is capable of challenging for a podium position.

Will we see more of this from Cav over the next three weeks? (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

Despite the distinctly hilly finishes to a number of the flat stages, the world’s best sprinters are also well represented here. In their farewell Grand Tour before the team’s dissolution, HTC-Highroad will feature a three-pronged sprint attack. Mark Cavendish will look to add to his two Giro and five individual Tour stages in defending his 2010 points classification victory. Matt Goss – winner of Milan-San Remo – will come to the fore on the hillier finishes. And 22-year old John Degenkolb, twice a winner at this year’s Dauphiné, will be an effective plan B should either of his more senior teammates falter. The team will also be favoured to repeat last year’s victory in the team time trial, which could put Cavendish in the overall leader’s red jersey for the first two or three days.

Cavendish will face plenty of competition though. The Garmin-Cervélo squad of Tyler Farrar won the Tour’s team time trial and the American (a three-time winner at the Vuelta) also took his first individual stage in France this year. J J Haedo has run Cavendish close in the past and will be free of the need to support absent Saxo Bank-Sungard leader Contador. Marcel Kittel (Skil-Shimano) won all four bunch sprints at the recent Tour of Poland. And the powerful Peter Sagan (Liquigas) is also a notable threat, although he is more of a direct rival for Goss on the lumpy finishes which require strength as well as speed. Similarly, the strength and experience of Óscar Freire should not be underestimated.

Cancellara will be the hot favourite for the stage 10 ITT

In the mountains classification, David Moncoutié (Cofidis) returns to target a fourth consecutive win but will face stiff competition from the GC contenders and any of a dozen or more Spanish climbers. Fabian Cancellara will be expected to top the time sheets in the individual time trial, although his arrival in Spain has been delayed after he was hospitalised by a bee sting.

Antón is the bookies’ favourite (ahead of Nibali) to make up for last year’s disappointment and claim his maiden Grand Tour win. Although I think any of the top five or six contenders could win a closely-contested race I find it hard to disagree with the odds-makers, not least when you look at the strength of the Euskaltel team, which is packed full of top climbing talent.

The sprinters’ and mountains classification are even more open. Cavendish may well win the most stages, but given the lumpy nature of many of the stages he may struggle to match the consistency of strong men such as Sagan. Will Moncoutié make it four in a row? At 36, this may prove to be a year too far, although his legs should be fresh having ridden a relatively light programme in 2011 including a fairly minimalist effort at the Tour, which he appeared to use more as a tune-up for this race.

So there you have it. A mouth-watering line-up of talent and a course which will remorselessly seek out any weakness in the riders. The Vuelta may be the youngest and the least prestigious of the three Grand Tours, but it is a thrilling race which never fails to deliver incredible drama. Miss it at your peril.

The 2011 Vuelta a España begins in Benidorm on Saturday and concludes in Madrid on Sunday 11th September. I will be writing occasional posts reviewing key stages and relevant topics during the race.

Video walk-through

Link: Vuelta a España official website

The week in numbers: w/e 7/8/11

Rudisha appears unbeatable over 800 metres (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

30 – World record holder David Rudisha ran a new UK all-comers record of 1:42,91 for the 800 metres in the Diamond League meeting at Crystal Palace. It was his 30th straight win at the distance.

24 – Number of seconds Britain’s Helen Clitheroe knocked off her previous best time in the 5,000 metres as she finished second to the USA’s Lauren Fleshman. Clitheroe clocked 15:06.75.

319England‘s margin of victory in the second Test against India as they took a 2-0 lead in the series. If they can avoid defeat in the remaining two matches, they will overtake India at the top of the Test rankings.

4 – The last four winners of football’s Community Shield have gone on to win the Premier League title (Manchester United, United, Chelsea, United). Manchester United defeated Manchester City 3-2 after Nani scored his second goal of the game in injury time to complete United’s comeback from a 2-0 halftime deficit.

21 – Points scored by Port Adelaide in their 138-point defeat against Collingwood in their AFL match-up, the second-lowest total by any team in the last 20 seasons.

25Alistair Brownlee‘s margin of victory (in seconds) in yesterday’s Hyde Park triathlon, on the course which will be used for next year’s Olympic event. Brother Jonathan was third.

4 – Australian Adam Scott won the WGC Bridgestone Invitational in Ohio by four shots after a final round of 65. World number one Luke Donald tied for second, while Rory McIlroy was tied-sixth, seven shots back. Seven-time winner Tiger Woods finished 18 shots behind Scott, who was caddied by Woods’ former right-hand man Steve Williams.

Carberry scored an unbeaten triple century

523 – Stand shared between Michael Carberry (300 not out) and Neil McKenzie (237) during Hampshire’s County Championship draw with Yorkshire at the Rose Bowl. It was the ninth-largest partnership ever, 32 short of the record set in 1932.

10 – Somerset’s Alfonso Thomas took match figures of 10/88 as they beat Sussex by nine wickets at Taunton.

4Nottinghamshire lost four wickets for no runs in the space of just six balls as they collapsed from 21/0 to 21/4 against Durham. Nonetheless the match was drawn.

6 – Winning margin for Peter Sagan at cycling’s Tour of Poland – equal to the time bonus he received for finishing second in the closing sprint at Saturday’s final stage.

4 – Stage victories for German sprinter Marcel Kittel in Poland. He won all four flat sprint stages.

484 – Wins for HTC-Highroad‘s male and female cyclists – including British sprinter Mark Cavendish – since the start of 2008, more than any other team. Team owner Bob Stapleton announced the team would fold at the end of this year after failing to secure a sponsor.

98In Brighton & Hove Albion‘s first game since promotion to the Championship in their new home at Amex Stadium, debutant Will Buckley scored two late goals to give them a 2-1 victory over Doncaster Rovers. Buckley’s winner came in the 98th minute.

(Some statistics courtesy of Opta Sports, The Times and Infostrada.)

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