Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Preview: Vuelta a España


The climbers can celebrate. A return to the gruelling Angliru, a very tough day in the Pyrenees, an uphill time trial, a total of five summit finishes and just 40 kilometres of flat time trial for the specialists against the clock; this is, in truth, a Vuelta tailor-made for those who shine when it comes to battling with gravity.

Reigning Vuelta champion Denis Menchov will not defend his title, and double Tour de France bridesmaid Cadel Evans has bowed out due to injury. This gives 2008 Giro d'Italia winner Alberto Contador a clear shot at winning his third Grand Tour, after taking the 2007 Tour and 2008 Giro d'Italia.

Starting in Granada on August 30th and concluding in Madrid 23 days and 3,169 kilometres later, the Grand Tour will be fought on uphill terrain and should see some epic tussles by the mountain riders in the battle for the final maillot oro.

"I think the race will be for the climbers," said race director Victor Cordero to Cyclingnews.com. "We have four summit finishes plus the uphill time trial. We will have surprises, we have things to offer the climbers and the time trial kilometres have been really limited.

"The first time trial is just 40 kilometres," he added. "It is not the longest time trial to have been in the Vuelta and the specialists will be limited as regards what they can gain. Because of that, I believe that this is a race that is more for climbers than time trialists."

The 2008 edition of the race gets underway in Granada with a 7km team time trial, almost exactly replicating the 7.2 kilometre test which kicked off the 2006 Vuelta in nearby Málaga. After three mainly flat stages, the riders cross swords in a 40km race against the clock based around Ciudad Real, then have one more leg before the first rest day. A transfer to Barbastro in the north east of the country gets three tough climbing legs underway, with the first of these – a summit finish to Andorra (Naturlandia – La Rabassa) the longest, and quite probably the hardest, of the race.

Two more mountain legs follow (including a summit finish at Pla de Beret, where defending Vuelta champion Denis Menchov won the 11th stage of the 2006 Tour de France), then three flatter stages precede another transfer and the second rest day. The climbing mayhem begins again immediately afterwards with the 199 kilometre race to the summit of the backbreaking l'Angliru and another mountain-top finish at the ski station Fuentes de Invierno.

A respite from climbing gives the sprinters and roulers four flattish stages to target – five if they get over the two early first category climbs on stage 19 – before a climatic 16 kilometre uphill time trial to the Puerto de Navacerrada. That stage will surely reveal the 2008 victor with just the final processional stage to Madrid standing in between him and the Grand Tour title.

Team CSC-Saxo Bank's Carlos Sastre, the recent winner of the Tour, was one of the main animators of last year's race and the 2007 runner-up liked what he saw.

"I think that this is better for the climbers," he stated at the launch at the IFEMA centre in Madrid. "There is only a small amount of time trials and in that way it is good for me…I am not a heavy rider, I have to suffer a lot not to lose time in long, flat time trials.

"This type of route is not easy but it is better for me to get something. If I do the Vuelta a España, for sure this type of course is hard and is good for a climber like myself."

2008 Vuelta details

21 stages, total distance of 3,169 kilometres
10 flat stages, 8 medium and high mountain stages
1 team time trial
1 individual time trial
1 mountain time trial
Other facts:

5 summit finishes (Andorra Naturlandia-La Rabassa, Pla de Beret, Alto de l'Angliru, E.E. Fuentes de Invierno, Puerto de Navacerrada)
3 Categoría Especial (hors categorie) climbs
13 first category climbs
9 second category climbs
15 third category climbs
First time start locations: San Vicente de la Barquera Cudillero La Granja de San Ildefonso San Sebastián de los Reyes
First time finish locations: Naturlandia - La Rabassa (Andorra) Suances Ski station of Fuentes de Invierno

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