The third and final 3-week Grand Tour for 2011 started this weekend - the Vuelta a Espana (or the 'Tour of Spain'). This Grand Tour always suffers a little in comparison to the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia many cycling fans are still in 'post-TdF fatigue', plus the cycling world is also looking forward to the World Championships held just after the Vuelta (this year in Copenhagen, Denmark).
This year, a few big names have opted to skip the Vuelta - namely Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans, and the Schleck brothers, Andy & Frank. However, the battle for the 'red jersey' (worn by the overall leader) will still be keenly fought.
For the overall winner, my tips are:
1. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha)
Rodriguez is a Spanish rider, who skipped the Tour after a hard-fought 5th place in the Giro. He'll be hugely motivated, with the Vuelta being his home tour). He also has a punchy sprint finish for a climber, so is well-placed to benefit from the time bonuses (20sec for every stage winner) available on every stage. His weakness is the time-trial - he fel off the Giro podium thanks to a poor time-trial this year. My tip - 1st.
2. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)
Nibali is also skipped the Tour this year, after coming 3rd in the Giro. I think this is a key to success - riders can either focus on the Tour, or the Giro/Vuelta double. Otherwise, they are just too fatigued.
Nibali is a huge talent, and is the Vuelta's defending champion. He has also podiumed in all 3 of his last Grand Tours. If Rodriguez falters, Nibali will take the win. My tip - 2nd.
3. Michelle Scarponi (ISD-Neri)
Scarponi took 2nd place in this year's Giro (won by Contador). I don't think he'll do the job in the Vuelta though - he's an 'old man' now, and I reckon he can only peak for one Grand Tour each year. He's wily and experienced, so that will keep him near the pointy end of the field. My tip - 4th.
4. Igor Anton (Euskatel)
A Spanish climber on a Spanish team - what more motivation does he need? Crashed out of the Vuelta last year while leading, and must be wondering what could have been. Don't think he'll win, but will push Rodriguez & Nibali to the limit. My tip - 3rd.
5. Jani Brajkovic (Radioshack), Jurgen Van den Broek (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky).
These three guys are lumped together as the "Tour de France redemption bunch". All three started the Tour in great form, but crashed out and abandoned very early in the race. While they are all terrific contenders, I question their ability to recover from injury and re-peak for the Vuelta. They will finish in the tip 10, but expect them to have at least one 'bad day' in the mountains that will keep them off the podium. My tips - Brajkovic 5th, Wiggins 6th, Van den Broek 7th.
Of course, there is also the Sprinters Jersey. The hype this year is all about Peter Sagan (Liquigas), a young sprinter who has had great form this year. However, this is his first Grand Tour ever - how will he handle his first 3-week race?
My tip is that Tyle Farrar (Garmin-Cervelo) and Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) will fight out the jersey, with Sagan 3rd. Super-sprinter Mark Cavendish (HTC) is also racing, but I suspect he'll drop out before the end to prepare for the World Championships.
For my fellow-Australian cycling fans - about 8 key stages willbe televised live on SBS this year, so we get to see some of this great race!! Hopefully we are all fully recovered from our 3 weeks of late nights on the couch watching Cadel Evans win the Tour... :)