Vuelta a Espana 2009: Who will win?
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The Vuelta a Espana starts in Assen in the Netherlands on Saturday and spends a few days in the Ardennes before heading home to Spain.
Controversy won't be far away, with Alexandre Vinokourov returning to top-level action for Astana after serving a two year suspension for blood doping. It's not often a rider returns to the same team after completing his ban.
It's easy to see why the fans loved (and still love) Vino. He was exciting to watch, aggressive, unpredictable and rode with a never-say-die spirit. But all that was fuelled by doping.
Will the Vuelta feel a warm glow of embarrassment if Vinokourov wins a stage? After all, he has been unrepentant.
It seems like only yesterday the Astana team descended into farce in the car park of the Hotel La Palmeraie in Pau after Vinokourov's positive test, but at least he has served the suspension handed to him.
What about Alejandro Valverde, who continues to ride despite being banned by the Italian Olympic Committee, which decided he had doped? He is able to ride the Vuelta only because of the glacial pace at which due process is served. The Spaniard has appealed the two-year ban from racing in Italy, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport has not heard the case yet.
The UCI told Cycling Weekly this week that a decision should be made before the Tour of Lombardy, the next Italian race Valverde is likely to want to ride. In the meantime the UCI and WADA have appealed to CAS against the Spanish Cycling Federation, which has refused to open disciplinary proceedings against Valverde. The UCI expects a decision before the end of the season, and appears reluctant to impose a worldwide ban over the Spanish federation's heads, which means he's free to ride.
One rider who won't be on the start line is last year's Vuelta winner, Alberto Contador. The Spanish Astana rider is taking a break after winning the Tour de France. Also missing are last year's second and third placed riders Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and Carlos Sastre (Cervelo).
But who will win the final grand tour of the season? Here we attempt to predict how the top 10 will look when the race reaches Madrid in three weeks' time.
What do you think? Predict the Vuelta top 10 in the comments section below.
CW'S VUELTA TOP 10 PREDICTION
1 Samuel Sanchez
Skipped the Tour de France in order to focus his entire season on the Vuelta a Espana. Finished third two years ago after a very strong final week where he won three stages.
2 Alejandro Valverde
This might well be his last chance to win a grand tour. The Italians claim to have proved a link between Valverde and the Operacion Puerto blood-doping ring and banned him. Valverde must have some kind of non-stick coating because it's impossible not to come to the conclusion that were he not Spanish, he'd have been suspended from all competition by now.
3 Ivan Basso
Fifth place in the Giro d'Italia was a good result, but he can go better here. Has shown good form in the Italian races lately and will go into the Vuelta feeling strong.
4 Robert Gesink
Was seventh last year and tipped for a strong Tour de France, before he crashed and had to withdraw in the first week. Will want to make up for that disappointment. Will be very strong in the mountains but can he limit his losses in the time trials?
5 Ezequiel Mosquera
Will be strongly fancied to make the top five again after last year's fourth place finish.
6 Cadel Evans
On paper it looked a pretty disastrous Tour, but there were good days. He was the quickest rider on the climb in the Annecy time trial – even faster than Alberto Contador. There's no pressure at the Vuelta so he could do even better than sixth.
7 Roman Kreuziger
Kreuziger wasn't as impressive at the Tour de France as many had predicted and was over-shadowed by his team-mates Vincenzo Nibali and Franco Pellizotti. Will form a powerful double act with Basso.
8 Joaquin Rodriguez
Sixth last year was an excellent result. He'll have to ride for Valverde at times, but will be consistent throughout the three weeks and get his own reward.
9 Daniel Martin
The Irish climber makes his grand tour debut and can genuinely hope to make the top 10 overall. The time trials will be his weakness, but he can climb with the best riders consistently.
10 Xavier Tondo
The smaller Spanish teams always pack a punch. Last year it was Mosquera. This year look out for Tondo. He's our tip to create a surprise.
WHAT NO SCHLECKS?
Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck and his brother Frank will ride the Vuelta for Saxo Bank, but we won't be surprised if neither feature in the top ten come Madrid. In fact, we won't be surprised if they don't make it all the way to the finish. They will of surely make some kind of impact on the race, but it's more likely they will use the Vuelta as preparation for the World Championships, which will be held on a course that will favour them strongly.
Other riders who will be outsiders for the top ten overall include Damiano Cunego of Lampre, who will also be riding in order to prepare for the Worlds. Columbia-HTC's Kim Kirchen needs to ride strongly after a disappointing Tour de France. Carlos Barredo and Stijn Devolder of Quick Step could be the surprise packages.
Alexandre Vinokourov, who will ride for Astana after his two-year ban for blood doping has expired, is aiming for stage wins but it wouldn't be a shock if he rode into a high overall finish.
Then there are the likes of David Moncoutié and Amael Moinard of Cofidis, Juan Jose Cobo (Fuji-Servetto) and Olivier Zaugg (Liquigas) to consider.
WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Predict the Vuelta top 10 in the comments section below.