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La Vuelta ’11: The Contenders!
‘Winning isn’t everything, but the will to win is everything,’ The words of Vince Lombardi, arguably the most successful American Football coach in the history, his quote applies directly to the 66th Tour of Spain – who wants it most?

But in professional cycle racing it’s not a level playing field, as well as the will to win, the physical characteristics of the riders plays a big part – if Andy Schleck could time trial then Cadel Evans would still be a ‘nearly man,’

Let’s look at who wants it most – and has the skills to back it up.

Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas & Italy) is defending champion and in between times stepped back on the podium at the Giro to make his sequence three podiums in three Grand Tours – impressive.

But that Giro podium held disappointment too, no one expected him to beat Contador, but instead of the second spot he was relegated to third by Michele Scarponi – that would have stung this proud young man.

Supported by the squadra that sets the benchmark for professionalism and free of the huge expectation that the Italian public placed upon him in May, the Sicilian will wants to retain his title – a brilliant descender, solid time triallist and with the grinta to absorb the punishment the Spaniards will dispense in the mountains, he has to start favourite, especially with the Sagan ‘joker’ card in his pack.

Igor Anton: (Euskaltel & Spain) a broken bone whilst wearing the leader’s jersey last year prevented us from discovering if the inspired Anton could have taken red all the way to Madrid.

Given his exit in 2010 he’ll want this race badly.

A brilliant win on the Zoncolan in the Giro means there’s little need to question his climbing and with the race venturing back to his Basque Homeland for the first time in decades his motivation will be sky high.

But can Basque heroism defeat Italian discipline and experience – probably not.

Joaquim Rodriguez: (Katusha & Spain) with strong rides in the Ardennes Classics, Dauphine, Burgos and Basque Country there’s no denying the diminutive Spaniard’s 2011 form.

His explosive climbing is a joy to watch, but he doesn’t have the reserves to prize open race winning gaps over a longer distance – and his time trialling is brutal.

But he has class and that all important will to win on home soil.

Michele Scarponi: (Lampre & Italy) since coming ‘back in from the cold’ the genial Italian has rarely ridden a bad race.

He’s calculating, not prone to panic and there’s no lack of grinta behind that smile.

But it’s hard to see him winning the Vuelta, he’s an Italian and thrives in his homeland; that said, he knows better than us that time is running out if he’s to win a Grand Tour.

Dan Martin: (Garmin & Ireland) free of the allergies which blight his spring, the slim Irishman won the Giro di Toscana and was excellent against Sagan in Poland.

He’s ridden the Vuelta before so knows what to expect – and he wants to prove himself.

He can’t win, but the podium is possible – and he’ll already have planned his stage win.

Denis Menchov: (Geox & Russia) Not the same man who picked himself up from the cobbles outside the Coliseum to win the 2009 Giro, but not a rider to under estimate either.

The tough parcours will suit his ‘diesel’ style of riding and if he gets a sniff of the podium the spark might come back – but probably not.

Peter Sagan: (Liquigas & Slovakia) Nibali’s rivals know that they can’t cut this young man too much slack.

With excellent performances in Sardinia, California, Suisse and Poland this year, Sagan’s Grand Tour debut is much anticipated.

He’s talked down his chances; ‘here to learn’ etc. but talent like his isn’t content to ‘get round.’

The 21 year-old wouldn’t be on the start sheet if Liquigas didn’t think he was ready and in tandem with ‘The Shark of the Straights,’ it’s conceivable that the ‘full gas’ squadra could put two on the podium.

Jurgen van den Broeck: (Belgium & Lotto) big, strong and a PR’s nightmare with his old school ‘let his legs do the talking’ attitude, it’s hard to say how he’ll perform.

His Dauphine proved that he was running perfectly into Tour form until he was felled in that brutal crash.

But motivation for the Tour is one thing, to find it again when the season is drawing to a close is another.

Bradley Wiggins: (Sky & GB) excluding sentence one, see VDB above – there’s been little hype around Bradley’s return, no talk of ‘numbers,’ but maybe that’s deliberate, and the word is that he’s ‘fully focussed’ on it.

With a TTT and 40 kilometre chrono in the mix he has the opportunities to use his considerable strengths before those little Spanish climbers get really nasty – and if he shows the same TTT form he did in le Tour then an early red jersey is very possible.

Andreas Klцden: (Radio Shack & Germany) If you’d been racing since the Algarve, had a good but very hectic early season and then crashed hard out of the Tour would you be pumped up for the Vuelta?

Me neither.

For us it’s Nibali from Anton – but there’s no ‘super favourite’ and a very open race is on the cards.

PEZ will be there from the startling speeds of the TTT around Benidorm until the peloton streams onto the boulevards of Madrid, 23 days later – we’re going to enjoy it, we hope you do too.


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