The Vuelta a Espana 2015 is upon us.
First job is for everyone to negotiate the sand and the temporary beach boulevard of the opening team time-trial, which looks sketchy to say the least. So sketchy, in fact, that the race organisers have decided that the times recorded by riders will not count towards the general classification.
Then there is the small matter of nine summit finishes and well over 3000 kilometres under the scorching Spanish sun.
It’s hard to think of the Vuelta without bringing to mind the hot sunshine and parched Spanish terrain. In fact, being British and therefore obsessed with the weather, I tend to think of all the Grand Tours first and foremost in terms of the weather.
I associate the Giro d’Italia with snow and thick foggy mountain finishes, and that peculiar TV spectacle of a fixed camera at the summit transmitting live pictures of a sparsely populated finish line, in lieu of any usable footage from the helicopter or the media motorbikes.
The Tour de France is always a mixed bag with a few torrentially wet stages (usually in the north, over cobblestones, or through sodden Belgian forest), plenty of scorching hot days, and usually the odd thunderstorm in the Alps or the Pyrenees just keep the riders (and the TV crews) on their toes.
But the Vuelta is wall to wall sunshine (give or take).
With this year’s race two key questions spring to mind:
Firstly, just how much deeper can Alejandro Valverde’s mahogany tan get?
Secondly, in a race that’s notoriously hard to predict (Juan Jose Cobo, anyone..?) who’s going to win?
The Vuelta is always brutal, and only a few weeks have passed since Chris Froome finished the Tour looking well and truly cooked. In addition, the two-time Tour winner has been talking in interviews about the fact that he would happily revert to the role of team player if he’s too tired to contest the race…
Which immediately tells me he’s too tired to contest the race.
Alberto Contador, of course, has a Tour de France and a Giro d’Italia in his legs already this year and is taking a well earned rest.
Nairo Quintana, despite the monolithic Easter Island stare has to be tired too, having dug deep in almost reeling in Froome over the final week of the Tour.
Vincenzo Nibali spent the last ten days of the Tour making up for the losses he incurred in the first ten. Add that to the general sense of unhappiness surrounding him and his Astana team bosses and it’s hard to make a case for the Italian as Vuelta winner this year.
Tejay Van Garderen is a bit of an unknown having exited the Tour early with illness, and with its preponderance of steep tarmac the Vuelta is surely less suited to his diesel climbing style than the Tour.
Has Joaquim Rodriguez still got the hint of a Grand Tour GC win in him at 36? Heart says yes. Head definitely says no.
Alejandro Valverde will always be there, peeping out from behind the others, solid top five but never looking anything like actually winning the race (as per every Grand Tour).
So I find myself thinking not ‘who is the best man for the job’, but ‘who is least tired?’
Which brings me to Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa, both of whom rode the Giro d’Italia back in May and were probably rubbing their hands with glee during the Tour watching their rivals hack lumps out of each other. Landa performed well at the Giro, winning two stages and finishing third overall, but Aru has even more Grand Tour pedigree having finished on the podium twice in that same race in recent years.
But, to further muddy the waters, they are both on the same team – Astana – as is Nibali.
How is that going to work then?
Picking a winner in the Vuelta is always a tricky game because of the perfect storm of brutal terrain, scorching sunshine, and the end of season patchwork of riders managing their varying degrees of tiredness – presumably ranging from ‘really rather tired’, to ‘please…no…don’t make me get on that bike again!’
If I were a betting man I might have a small wager on Aru, an even smaller one on Quintana and, to make the podium, a pound each-way on Dan Martin at 200/1 which is long odds, but is it really beyond the bounds of possibility?
Thankfully I’m not a betting man so I’ll just sit back, bask in the sunshine radiating from my telly, and watch it unfold.