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CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: Tinkoff-Saxo / BettiniPhoto

ANDREW TALANSKY

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DANIEL MARTIN

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PIERRE ROLLAND

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PREVIEWS

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RAFAL MAJKA

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SAMUEL SANCHEZ

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VUELTA A ESPAÑA

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20.08.2015 @ 14:00 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Vuelta a Espana has a reputation as a revenge race for riders that have had little success in the first part of the season, mainly in the Tour de France. Vincenzo Nibali, Joaquim Rodriguez, Domenico Pozzovivo and Tejay van Garderen are looking for redemption after their disappointments earlier in the year but this year the Spanish grand tour is more than a race for the losers. Chris Froome is the first rider since Carlos Sastre to chase the Tour-Vuelta double and with the Movistar duo of Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana and the Astana pair of Mikel Landa and Fabio Aru all trying to continue their run of success, race director Javier Guillen has had a hard time believing the formidable start list that will make the third grand tour highly contested. CyclingQuotes.com takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses.

 

With its position at the end of the season, the Vuelta a Espana has always been different from the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. While the first two grand tours are the big objectives for most riders, the Spanish race is often the chance for redemption and many riders usually make a late decision whether to do the race. Often that has led to less spectacular start lists and less motivated riders, with many using the race to prepare for the World Championships.

 

However, things have changed and for the last two years the race has had a much stronger field than the Giro. Last year it was the misfortune of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome that suddenly meant that the race could boast no less than three riders from the Fabulous Four in addition to a huge talent like Fabio Aru and the usual veterans Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde. After Nairo Quintana had crashed out of the race and Chris Froome had slowly ridden himself into form, it came down to a thrilling battle between Froome and Contador in a match that allowed us to get what we never got in France during the summer.

 

Race director Javier Guillen must still be pinching himself to see if he is dreaming as this year’s field is maybe even stronger. Unlike last year, all the big favourites completed the Tour but they have not had enough racing yet. While Vincenzo Nibali will be looking for redemption on Spanish roads and Nairo Quintana has always planned to do the Vuelta, Chris Froome has made a late decision to try to become the first rider to win the Tour-Vuelta double since the Spanish race was moved to its current autumn slot. Only Alberto Contador who also did the Giro, has put an end to the season as even not the Tinkoff-Saxo captain has been inspired by team owner Oleg Tinkov’s dreams of a grand tour treble.

 

As usual veterans Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde will try to continue their love affair with the Spanish grand tour after hugely different Tours that saw the former fade and the latter achieve the biggest goal in the remaining part of his career. Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa will again team up after they so successfully finished on the podium in the Giro and with Nibali and most of the formidable Giro squad at their side, they will be ready to go for grand tour glory for Astana.

 

Tejay van Garderen saw his podium dreams fade away when he was struck by illness in the Alps and is now looking for revenge in Spain. The same goes for compatriot Andrew Talansky who had a disappointing Tour while Domenico Pozzovivo will try to turn his fortunes around after he crashed out of the Giro. Add the veterans Samuel Sanchez and Frank Schleck, huge talents Sergio Henao, Joe Dombrowski, Rafal Majka and Esteban Chaves and consistent grand tour contenders like Pierre Rolland, Daniel Martin, Daniel Navarro and Daniel Moreno to the list and you have the recipe for three weeks of excellent racing in Spain.

 

CyclingQuotes.com has taken an in-depth look at the race's favourites, assigning 5 stars to the race's biggest favourite, 4 to his two biggest rivals, 3 to three other potential winners, 2 to four of the podium contenders and 1 to 5 of the race's minor outsiders. In this article, we take a look at the 1-star riders that may finish on the podium if everything goes their way.

 

Rafal Majka (*)

With Alberto Contador having led Tinkoff-Saxo in the last four grand tours, it is not easy for an ambitious grand tour contender to get the chance to test himself in the three-week races. However, retirement is looming for the Spaniard and Rafal Majka is patiently biding his time as he waits for the moment when he can take over the stage race leadership in the Russian team. Having proved his potential in the 2013 and 2014 Giro, he will finally get another chance to ride for GC when he lines up as the leader at the Vuelta.

 

Majka didn't have an awful lot of results from his youth career and so it didn't attract a lot of attention when he was a late addition to the Saxo Bank roster in February 2011. However, the young Pole gradually proved that the Danish team had made a real coup. He didn't have a great first season but gave indications of his talents during the Vuelta and those performances earned him the chance to lead the team in the Giro.

 

He missed that race due to injury. Instead, he lined up as a domestique for Alberto Contador in the Vuelta and that was when the world finally got to see what this strong Pole is capable of. Taking some immense turns on the front at the end of the mountain stages, he was one of the riders that made the peloton explode and set up Alberto Contador's attacks.

 

He finally got his own chance in the 2013 Giro and he delivered on his promises. He was involved in a close battle for the white jersey with Carlos Betancur and despite coming away without the coveted tunic, his 7th place was a very good result. First of all it proved that he was climbing good enough to be up there with the best in the big mountains but more importantly it revealed that he has the ability to recover and consistently be in contention for three weeks of racing.

 

Last year it was all about confirmation for Majka. In the 2013 Vuelta, he got another chance to lead his team in a grand tour as he lined up as part of a four-pronged Tinkoff-Saxo approach but he faded out of contention in the Andorran cold. However, he proved that his first Giro performance was no one-hit wonder as he rode even better in the 2014 edition to finish the race in 6th.

 

However, Majka had been overshadowed in the Italian race by his peers Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru and his star was probably waning slightly until he lined up at the Tour de France to replace Roman Kreuziger. The late decision was much against his personal desire and he publicly expressed his frustration before retracting his comments. Today there is no doubt that he is extremely pleased with his participation as the race turned out to be his big breakthrough.

 

When Contador crashed out of the race, Majka suddenly had the chance to ride for himself and he delivered two outstanding climbing performances to come away with two stage wins and the mountains jersey. In the final mountain stage, he even proved that he could ride with the best as he was third behind Vincenzo Nibali and Thibaut Pinot in a direct battle. He carried his excellent form into the Tour de Pologne which he won after having won the two hardest stages and defending himself well in the final time trial.

 

With Contador going for the ambitious Giro-Tour double, all the best riders were needed for the Spaniard’s campaign and so Majka was selected as the key support rider for the Tour de France while he was promised to get his own chance in the Vuelta. Furthermore, he would be the leader in several one-week races in the first part of the year, meaning that he only had to sacrifice his own opportunities in the Tour.

 

However, Majka has been unable to confirm what he showed last year in France. He was off the pace in Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco and that put a dampener on the expectations for the Ardennes classics which was his first big goal of the year. He failed to deliver as 33rd in Liege was his best result but he finally showed signs of life when he rode to a solid seventh in Romandie before he started his mid-season break.

 

He returned to competition in the Tour de Suisse where he was again eyeing the overall win but he could only manage 10th. His string of disappointments culminated in the Tour where he never reached the same level as he showed 12 months earlier. He still managed to win another big mountain stage and play a key role for Contador but he was unable to stay with the best as long as most had expected.

 

His disappointing season means that it is hard to expect too much in the Vuelta. All year he has been off the pace on the climbs and in a race that is stacked with grand tour talent it is a massive task to be in podium contention. Furthermore, Majka will have to share the leadership role with Peter Sagan who will get more support than he had in the Tour and the team looks pretty poor when it comes to climbing power. Majka could easily find himself isolated pretty early and that always costs a bit of extra energy even though he is not expected to make the race.

 

Another issue is the time trial. Majka has never been a specialist but he has actually done really well in the last two years. He was one of the riders to gain time in the Giro TT last year and he surprised many pundits when he managed to hang onto his overall lead on a completely flat course in last year’s Tour de Pologne. This year he was in the top 10 in both Romandie and Switzerland and even though those courses were both hilly, Majka could actually be one of the winners on the flat roads in Burgos.

 

With his poor season, it is hard to know what to expect from Majka but he has an interesting weapon that could suddenly turn his season around. Last year it was the Giro that set him up for the excellent summer. Now he goes into another grand tour with a three-week race already in his legs and there is a chance that it has again put his climbing legs back up to speed. After all, he is one of the select few to have proved that he can be up there with the best on the climbs and if he can finally rediscover his 2014 legs, he will be a danger man. In such a stacked field, it won’t be enough to win the race and a podium place will also be difficult but a career-best top 5 is definitely within reach for the best Polish grand tour rider.

 

Andrew Talansky (*)

Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters has never been the kind of leader that builds his team entirely around a single rider. Since 2003 when he founded the junior team that has since developed into the best teams in the world, he has always had a broadly-based approach to racing and has rarely gone into a race with a single focus and a clear leader. In the grand tours, he has usually had a focus both on the GC and stage wins and several riders have had their opportunities. The one exception is probably the 2013 Giro d’Italia where he lined up the defending champion Ryder Hesjedal who naturally deserved to have a team fully at his disposal.

 

Going into last year’s Tour de France, Vaugters deviated from his usual approach. For the first time ever, he lined up for La Grande Boucle with a team that was fully devoted to a single leader. This time the captain was not a proven grand tour contender or one of the world’s biggest stars. On the contrary, the rider that has convinced him to have a single-eyed approach to the race was a 25-year-old American who had only done the Tour de France once.

 

It speaks volumes about Andrew Talansky’s talent that he earned himself this position in the Garmin-Sharp team in just his fourth year as a professional. In his final year as a U23 rider, he made the world aware of his talents by finishing 10th in the Baby Giro, 3rd in the Ronde de l’Isard and 2nd in the Tour de l’Avenir and showed that he could mix it up with the professionals by taking 6th in the Tour of the Gila that was won by Levi Leipheimer ahead of Tom Danielson. The results earned him a contract with Garmin-Sharp but in his first year his results were mixed. While he failed to be up there with the best in the climbs, he first marked himself out as a great time triallist with several top 10 results in WorldTour TTs.

 

He took the step from talent to serious contender in the biggest races when he finished second in the 2012 Tour de Romandie. What made his performance even more impressive was the fact that he had finished less than a second behind Bradley Wiggins in the final uphill time trial at a time when the Brit seemed almost unbeatable. Later that year he won his first major stage race, the mountainous Tour de l’Ain, before taking 7th in the Vuelta, the first grand tour he did as a team leader.

 

In 2013 he stepped up his game another level when he finished 2nd in Paris-Nice behind a very strong Richie Porte and went on to make his Tour de France debut later that year. His first outing of the world’s biggest race was not too impressive as he finished a pretty anonymous 10th and rode an anonymous race.

 

When Talansky deserves the role as one of the youngsters that could challenge the established grand tour stars, it is not related to his Tour de France debut. Our admiration for this youngster is based on the flashes of climbing prowess he has shown on two occasions that prove that he has the level to seriously contend for a top result in the Tour.

 

Based on his performance in Paris-Nice, he went into the 2013 Criterium du Dauphiné with big expectations on his shoulders. However, Suffering from illness, he fell out of GC contention and devoted himself fully to teammate Rohan Dennis who did surprisingly well in that race. However, in the final mountain stage, Talansky was allowed to play his own cards at a time when Dennis’ white jersey was no longer in danger. At that point, Chris Froome and Richie Porte had left everyone else behind them and the Brit was trying to drag his teammate up to lone escapee Alessandro De Marchi in a quest to give the Australian a teammate. However, Talansky flew past several established grand tour stars and reached the Sky duo just before the line, forcing Froome to forget about Porte and sprint ahead of Talansky to take second behind De Marchi.

 

That performance was the first sign that Talansky is an extraordinary talent and last year he confirmed it in that same race. Having had a disappointing spring season where he failed to make too much of an impact in both Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya and had had bad luck in the Tour de Romandie which was his big goal for the first part of the season, Talansky came into the Dauphiné with all guns blazing. In the opening time trial, he finished fourth and then climbed solidly in the first mountain stage to take fifth.

 

However, it was his performances in the final weekend that really marked him out. In the queen stage, Alberto Contador had dropped Chris Froome who was suffering from injuries sustained in a crash but the Brit made a final desperate acceleration in a quest to rejoin his main rival. Initially, he dropped everyone but slowly Talansky and teammate Hesjedal clawed their way back to the world’s best climber. One day later he and Hesjedal blew the race apart on one of the earlier climbs and after the Canadian had sacrificed himself for his young teammate, Talansky – with just a bit of help from Jurgen Van Den Broeck – almost single-handedly held off no less of a figure than Contador to take the overall victory in one of the most prestigious races after having been on the attack all day.

 

More than anything else, those two Dauphiné performances elevated Talansky from top 10 candidate to podium contender in last year’s Tour. With a team fully built around the American, his confidence was at an all-time high and things were looking promising until he was involved in a crash when he somewhat strangely mixed it up in a sprint where he had no role to play. He hurt his back and a few days later his suffering made for some of the most unforgettable and dramatic scenes of the entire race. He made it to the finish within the time limit but decided to abandon the race after his heroic ride.

 

Talansky’s withdrawal put Garmin-Sharp on the back foot for the remainder of the race and it was only a remarkable solo effort by Ramunas Navardauskas in the penultimate road stage that saved the race for the team. Hence, it was no surprise that Vaughters has slightly changed his approach for 2015. Talansky was no longer the sole leader for the Tour and he went into the race in a shared captaincy role with Ryder Hesjedal and Daniel Martin.

 

The race ended as a disaster for Talansky who was nowhere near his best. Already in the Pyrenees, he dropped out of podium contention and he set his sights on stage wins. As usual, he got better in the third week where he was close on a number of occasions and he gradually moved into 11th that would be the final outcome for the American.

 

His performance in the Alps was solid, albeit far from spectacular. Unfortunately, his poor Tour comes on the back of a bad spring season. He had aimed at strong rides in Paris-Nice, Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco but those races all ended as huge disappointments. He hoped to bounce back in the Tour of California but had another setback when he had to abandon on the first stage due to illness. However, he showed progress when he won the American time trial championships and rode a solid road race a few days later.

 

Talansky had hoped to defend his Dauphiné title but he had to settle for a disappointing 10th place. He was far from the level he had shown one year earlier and was never really a contender in the race. Still it was a clear progress compared to his spring season but he didn’t come out with all guns blazing like he did 12 months earlier.

 

With one year of constant disappointments, it seems that Talansky’s progress has stalled and it is usually very hard to change things completely around in the Vuelta. However, Talansky will give it a try as he goes into the race as part of a three-pronged attack with Daniel Martin and Joe Dombrowski. The American has not revealed his personal ambitions for the race and it may be that he will only use the race to chase stage wins and prepare for next year like he did in 2014. However, back then he had crashed out of the Tour and just needed a grand tour in his legs as preparation for the 2015 season. This year it is different and there is a bigger chance that he will go for GC while Martin is more likely to aim for stage wins and Dombrowski will have no pressure in his first grand tour.

 

What makes Talansky exciting is his versatility. While his Dauphiné victory was based on his climbing skills, he first made himself known as a time triallist. Unfortunately, he seems to have lost a bit of his TT prowess as he has improved his climbing but he should still be able to gain time on the climbers in the flat ride around Burgos and then it will all be a matter of whether he can find the climbing legs he has had in the past.

 

At the moment, nothing suggests that Talansky will reach his former heights but he has always been a bit of a diesel engine that gets better and better when fatigue starts to set in. This could set him up for a great Vuelta on a course that suits him well, especially after he seemed to get better in the final part of the Tour. The long time trial is a clear advantage for him and even though the more gradual climbs in the Tour suit him better, his 2012 performance proved that he can do well on the steep climbs in Spain too. It still requires a massive turnaround for him to be in podium contention but he has proved that he has what it takes. The pressure to confirm his status as a team leader will be evident and if he can handle that, it may finally be time to end the series of disappointments that started when he crashed out of last year’s Tour.

 

Pierre Rolland (*)

In 2011, Pierre Rolland was the centre of attention in France. Riding in the shadow teammate Thomas Voeckler who nearly upset the favourites by finishing on the podium, the lanky Frenchman enjoyed a breakthrough performance in his home race. He did not only bring home the white jersey as best young rider, he even won the queen stage to Alpe d’Huez to crown an aggressive ride through France two days before the end of the race.

 

While Voeckler did better than his Europcar teammate, Rolland got most of the hype in the months after the race. At just 24 years of age, he gave the home country a slight glimmer of hope that they had finally found a rider that could potentially win their big race again. Even though he hadn’t really been close to following the best on the climbs, the hungry French public put huge pressure on Rolland’s shoulders.

 

Rolland confirmed his potential in 2012 when he again won a stage in the Alps and finished 8th overall. That performance was made even more remarkable by the fact that the course for that year’s race was far from suited to his skills. With very few mountain stages and two long time trials, it was a race for complete riders and not for climbers like the Europcar captain. Nonetheless, he put on a brave attitude, rode strongly on the climbs and improved on his 2011 performance.

 

Expectations were even bigger in 2013 when an unusually strong spring season made the Frenchmen believe in a possible top 5 for Rolland. While he has often been very strong in the summer, he has always been a slow starter and has rarely shown much in other races than La Grande Boucle. However, that year he had won the Circuit de la Sarthe and done well in the Giro del Trentino and so there was hope for another improvement. In the end, it all came to nothing as Rolland failed to hit his best form and was stuck between his GC ambitions and dreams about a win in the mountains competition. He quickly skipped the former plans but his many attacks in the mountains were all fruitless.

 

With the emergence of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, the French public have turned their attention away from Rolland. He no longer carries the weight of expectation from the home fans and this has served him well. In fact, there is no reason not to believe in more great performances from the lanky climber as he still sees to become stronger and stronger.

 

Last year Rolland delivered the performance of his life in the Giro d’Italia where he finished fourth overall behind the outstanding trio of Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Uran and Fabio Aru and losing a significant amount of time in the long time trial. Furthermore, he did so without dampening his usual aggressive spirit and he made long-distance attacks in most of the mountain stages. Nonetheless, he still had the strength to fight with the best in the end and he would definitely have deserved the stage win that narrowly eluded him on a number of occasions.

 

Rolland tried to do the Tour de France on the back of his Giro ride but that turned out to be an impossible mission. Like so many others before him, he learned that it is hard to go for glory in both grand tours and he probably did his worst Tour of his career. Already before the end of the race, he made it clear that La Grande Boucle would be his main goal for 2015.

 

Already at the Dauphiné, it was evident that Rolland was riding strongly and he confirmed his great condition with very strong rides in the Pyrenees. Unfortunately, he had already lost a considerable amount of time at that point. It was always going to be a complicated task for him to survive a first week of cobbles, wind and team time trialling and when he got to the first mountain stage he had already lost nearly 12 minutes to overall leader Chris Froome. His strong rides in the mountains saw him gradually move back into contention and he would end the race in 10th overall. In fact, only Froome, Quintana and Valverde managed to gain time on Rolland in the final two weeks of the race – which is of course partly due to the fact that his poor GC position allowed him to go on the attack.

 

Rolland was unable to maintain his excellent level in the Alps but the race definitely confirmed that his climbing skills allow him to mix it up with the very best when he is at 100% of his capabilities. Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet may be the brightest stars on the French grand tour scene but Rolland definitely offers them an extra weapon.

 

For the first time since his breakthrough as a grand tour contender in 2011, Rolland will line up in the Vuelta a Espana. His participation is a bit of a surprise after last year’s failed double. However, the Tour-Vuelta combination is completely different from the Giro-Tour. With the Giro in the legs, Rolland was on the back foot compared to most of his rivals when he lined up for the Tour start in Yorkshire last year. In the Vuelta, almost all the key contenders have already done a grand tour earlier in the year and so they are on a much more equal footing.

 

Rolland hasn’t raced since the Tour and has not said anything about his intentions for the race. However, some of his teammates have confirmed that they are there to support the captain and it will be a surprise if he is not going for the overall standings.

 

In many ways, the Spanish grand tour suits him a lot better than the Tour. In Spain, the tough stages come right from the beginning, meaning that the GC will be sorted out much earlier. This means that there is less stress and fighting for position which has always been Rolland’s weak point. Furthermore, the course is a lot more mountainous which obviously suits a pure climber like Rolland.

 

However, dangers are still looming throughout most of the race as the crosswind usually plays a role at some point in the race. Rolland has barely made the selection in the wind just once in his career so if the wind comes into play, he is almost guaranteed to lose time. Furthermore, Rolland is among the worst time triallists in the field of GC contenders and there is no doubt that he will suffer a significant time loss in Burgos. Finally, the short, irregular climbs are less suited to Rolland who prefers the long, gradual ascents of the Alps.

 

Nonetheless, Rolland did his best grand tour in the Giro where the climbs are more similar to the Spanish ascents and no one can deny that such a mountainous course favours the Europcar captain. Furthermore, he has the aggressive spirit to attack whenever he has the slightest chance and this could pay off in a race where Astana are guaranteed to have similar plans. Time losses in the time trial and the wind mean that the podium is unlikely but if Rolland has recovered from the Tour and can rediscover the legs he had in last year’s Giro or in the Pyrenees at the Tour, a top 5 is definitely within reach for the strong Frenchman.

 

Samuel Sanchez (*)

When Euskaltel folded, it looked like one of Spain’s most accomplished riders would have an unworthy end to his career. For some reason, no one wanted to sign the undisputed leader of the team and for most of the winter it looked like Samuel Sanchez’ glorious career was over. Only in early 2014, BMC decided to throw him a lifeline as they signed him as a key domestique for Philippe Gilbert in the classics and Cadel Evans in the Giro.

 

The contract allowed him to continue his career but it also marked a complete change of role. At Euskaltel, he had been the centre of attention for a decade and with podiums in the Tour and Vuelta, excellent classics results, an overall win in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and most importantly an Olympic gold medal, he had fully deserved his captaincy role. At BMC, however, he was more of a road captain who played an instrumental role in Gilbert’s Amstel Gold Race win.

 

In the Giro, Sanchez never really reached his best condition and as he also failed to reach his best level when he had a rare personal chance in Pais Vasco, it looked like the time when Sanchez could achieve personal results was over. However, the Spaniard has always been a bit of a diesel engine and it is no coincidence that his best results have come at the tail end of the season. That has made him somewhat of a Vuelta specialist and since 2006 he has made it into the top 10 whenever he has been at the start of his home grand tour.

 

That looked set to change in 2014 when he was given the chance to lead BMC but he managed to turn his poor season around. Ultimately he ended the race in sixth place which is of course far from his former results but it proved that he still has what it takes to mix it up with the best in the grand tours. He went on to finish fifth in Il Lombardia and play a key role for Philippe Gilbert in the Tour of Beijing where he would probably have been on the podium if he had not been riding for his teammate.

 

Despite the excellent results, Sanchez was again without a contract for most of the winter and it wasn’t until late January that BMC announced that they had renewed the deal. The role was again clear as he was expected to support Gilbert in the classics and Tejay van Garderen in the Tour while he would be given his own chance in the Vuelta. He did his job for his captain in the Ardennes and used his condition to take a fine second in the inaugural Tour de Yorkshire before he turned his attention to the Tour. Here he proved to be riding a lot better than he did in last year’s Giro and when van Garderen suddenly left the race, he took over the leadership role. He was never able to keep up with the best and so rode pretty anonymously but still managed to end the race in 12th.

 

With van Garderen’s late decision to do the Tour, his role as undisputed BMC leader in the Vuelta has been challenged. Now the team goes into the race with a two-pronged attack and Sanchez is probably a bit below the American in the internal hierarchy. However, the team is not expected to carry the weight of the race so both riders should be allowed to go for GC.

 

Sanchez hasn’t been fighting for the podium in a grand tour since the 2010 Tour and the time when he can realistically hope for a top 3 is over. However, last year’s race proved that he still has what it takes to do a consistent ride over three weeks and this year he even seems to be riding better. Of course his participation in the Tour will leave him more fatigued and in fact he has never done the Tour-Vuelta double in his long career. However, Sanchez is famously known for his ability to recover and always gets better at the end of the grand tours. If anyone can maintain his level after a long, hard season, it has to be Sanchez who should be up for the challenge of keeping his top 10 streak alive.

 

The Vuelta climbs have already suited Sanchez well. In the past, he was pretty explosive and delivered good performances in the puncheur finishes. He doesn’t seem to have the same kick and now he is more suited to the longer climbs where he is able to gauge his effort perfectly. While he has rarely been time trialling well outside his home country, he has always been doing excellent TTs in the Vuelta, most recently in 2014 when he was fifth in the long TT. This year’s course is a lot flatter and less suited to him but compared to the climbers he should be able to gain time.

 

In the past, Sanchez was a very spectacular rider who often went on the attack and was a prolific winner. Nowadays, he is a lot more anonymous and he was barely in the spotlight when he finished sixth last year. In 2015, there is a big chance that we won’t see much from Sanchez but with a strong ride in the Tour he is set to again put in a consistent performance that should see him make it into the top 10 and continue his impressive run of success in his home race.

 

Daniel Martin (*)

Daniel Martin has got the perennial role as being a great dark horse in the grand tours. Over the last year, the Cannondale rider has stepped up his level massively and his performance in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Fleche Wallonne and Il Lombardia have proved that he is now one the world's leading contenders for the hilly classics.

 

However, as a grand tour contender, he is much less tested. He has already done nine three-week races but so far he has rarely had a focus on the overall standings. Instead, he has always underlined his approach of treating the races as 21 consecutive one-day classics and with stage wins in both the Vuelta and the Tour, he has proved that this way of handling the races has suited him well.

 

He has been in GC contention in a grand tour thrice: in the 2011 Vuelta where he finished 13th overall despite his day-to-day approach, and at the 2013 Tour de France where illness in the final week probably denied him a spot in the top 10. Finally, he put together a consistent ride in last year’s Vuelta to finish the race in 7th after he had finally managed to get through a grand tour without suffering a massive amount of bad luck.

 

Martin has done nothing to hide that the classics are what he loves. He doesn’t regard himself as a stage race rider but he still aims at doing well in three-week races. In 2013, he aimed at a strong Vuelta ride but crashed out in the first week of the race. However, it was the 2014 Giro that was his first big goal as a grand tour rider. Unfortunately, his race again came to abrupt end as he crashed in the opening team time trial and we were again robbed the opportunity to see how he would perform in a three-week race. The Irish start had made the Giro his big goal for the season but he managed to refocus on the Vuelta where he took that fine seventh place.

 

This year the Tour de France was his big grand tour goal and he was hungry for redemption after having gone through an extremely unfortunate spring season. He was on track for another great classics season after a solid Volta a Catalunya where he would have finished in the top 5 if he hadn’t been caught out in the crosswinds in a rather innocuous stage. However, bad luck stroke when he crashed out of Fleche Wallonne and again hit the deck in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, seeing his meticulous preparation come to nothing like it had happened in 2014 when he famously crashed in the finale turn of La Doyenne.

 

Unaware of the extent of his injuries, he lined up at the Tour de Romandie but was unable to understand why he was far off the face. It was later revealed that he had fractured a rib in Liege and so it was time for him to recover to get ready for the Tour. He returned to racing in the Dauphiné but didn’t have great expectations as his injuries had prevented him from training optimally for the race. Hence, he was pleasantly surprised by his performance that saw him finish seventh overall and if it hadn’t been for a late puncture in one of the key mountain stages he would probably have done even better.

 

That made him ambitious for the Tour de France, and things were looking good in the early part of the race. He was up there in the targeted stage to the Mur de Huy where he was a fine fourth and he had to settle for second on the Mur de Bretagne after he had been blocked and unable to respond to Alexis Vuillermoz’ attack. At that point, his GC campaign had already been dealt a blow as a crash in the cobbled stage had cost him a lot of time. However, it was the first Pyrenean stage that took him out of GC contention for good when he lost a significant amount of time.

 

Martin proved his fighting spirit one day later when he made a big solo ride to rejoin the decisive break that he had initially missed. The effort cost him the energy to go for the win and he had to settle for another second place behind Rafal Majka. Unfortunately, he fell ill in the second half of the race and so was unable to live up to expectations in the Alps.

 

However, Martin showed his great classics skills less than one week later when he made it into the elite chase group behind Adam Yates in the Clasica San Sebastian. A bigger group came back in the finale and he had to settle for seventh but the performance proved that he has come out of the Tour in good condition.

 

Now he will return to the Vuelta and he has not said anything about his personal ambitions. Will he be going for stage wins or will the GC again be a goal? He is part of a strong three-pronged Cannondale-Garmin attack that also includes Andrew Talansky and grand tour debutant Joe Dombrowski and this means that he won’t carry the full responsibility.

 

Martin is likely to have his usual day-to-day approach and there is little doubt that his biggest goal is to win a stage. Like last year a good GC result could follow on the back of that and he is unlikely to lose any time deliberately. In fact, it will be much easier for him to avoid any stupid setbacks as the Vuelta is a lot less stressful than the Tour and he should have a much better chance to get through the first week unscathed.

 

It is definitely no coincidence that Martin has had his best grand tours in the Vuelta. Being a classics specialist, he loves the short, steep climbs that characterize the Spanish race. The first week is loaded with puncheur finals and should offer Martin plenty of opportunities to go for a stage win. If he can achieve that first goal early in the race, he will be able to focus more on the GC in the important second week where the race will be decided.

 

Last year Martin proved that he can ride consistently for three weeks and he was not too far off the pace of the best riders in the mountains. This year he goes into the race on the back of another grand tour so it remains to be seen how he has recovered. However, the mountainous course suits him really well and if he can climb at the same level as he did 12 months ago, he will be up there. With his fast sprint, he has the potential to pick up a solid amount of bonus seconds.

 

However, for a rider like Martin, the Vuelta offers a number of dangers. First of all there is the long flat time trial. Martin is a horrible time triallist and so he is destined to lose a huge amount of time on the windy plains in Burgos. Furthermore, he is famously known for his lazy positioning and with crosswinds set to play a role at some point, this could cost him some time. Last year he has to single-handedly bridge a gap after he had initially missed the selection and this year the wind cost him a top 5 in Catalonia. One would expect Martin to have learned the lesson but unfortunately this year’s Tour showed that this is unlikely to be the case.

 

The importance of the time trial means that Martin is unlikely to be in podium contention. In fact he is not your typical grand tour rider and it will require quite a bit of luck for him to ever finish in the top 3 in a three-week race. However, if it’s ever going to happen, the Vuelta is probably his best chance. Much will depend on his recovery from the Tour and his classics credentials prove that he has what it takes to do well in a race that is loaded with classics climbs.

 

In addition to the riders mentioned in our previous, it will be a good idea to keep an eye on Esteban Chaves, Joe Dombrowski, Frank Schleck, Bart De Clercq, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Daniel Moreno and Rodolfo Torres who all have the potential to do really well.

 

Other top 10 contenders include Daniel Navarro, Mikel Nieve, Geraint Thomas, Haimar Zubeldia, Maxime Monfort, Fabio Duarte, David Arroyo Nicolas Roche, Andrey Amador, Gianluca Brambilla, Maxime Bouet, Pieter Serry Darwin Atapuma, Diego Rosa, Kenny Elissonde, Przemyslaw Niemiec, Alex Cano, Riccardo Zoidl, Romain Sicard, Kristijan Durasek, Louis Meintjes, Natnael Berhane, Ricardo Vilela, Jerome Coppel, Stephane Rossetto, Pawel Poljanski and Lawson Craddock.

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