Check the stacked list of contenders for this year’s Vuelta a Espana — the Helta Skelta Vuelta — and it makes the recent Tour de France look tres dull.
We’ve got Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Joaquin Rodriguez, defending champ Juan Jose Cobo and a host of possible dark horses and legitimate threats.
But instead of parsing form, let’s delve deep into the soul. The Vuelta is about passion and top athletes ride with emotion. This is the touchy-feely Vuelta preview, a quick psychological assessment of who might win the final grand tour of 2012.
Emotion: Bitterness, howling rage, contemplating acts of torture. If you measure emotion and the deep need to win the Vuelta, then Contador is by far the number one contender. After his two year really 6 month steak con clenbuterol ban, the Pistolero has steam coming out of both ears. He’s like a pit bull pouncing on a litter of new born kittens. His rivals go into the race genuinely fearful and with good reason. Emotional rank on 1 to 10 scale — 30.
Emotion: Anger, frustration, railing at life’s unfairness, thank God Bradley isn’t here. Second in last years’ Vuelta, a grand tour he could possibly have won if not protecting Wiggins until his own chances were gone. Second in Le Grand Shindig, pulling Wiggins through the Alps and Pyrenees though it was obvious he was the stronger climber. He’s not as mad as Contador but he’s bent on showing the cycling world he deserves to be a tour captain. Still, some question whether he can handle the incremental pressure of being a team leader. Which only makes him angrier. Emotional rank: 9.5
Emotion: Sick of second place, feeling cheated, angry sense of entitlement. The Spanish pocket rocket had this year’s Giro d’Italia within reach but he simply couldn’t get rid of the tall, skinny Canadian Ryder Hesjedal. Damn freak stole his Giro on the last day in a time trial! J-Rod is a simmering pot of desire — no, make that a spicy pitcher of gazpacho. He wants this Vuelta but sadly for him, his anger doesn’t even come close to that of Contador. Emotional rank: 8
Juan Jose Cobo
Emotion: “Goddamn it, I’m not invisible,” feeling ignored and disrespected, a gnawing self-doubt. Until he won the Vuelta last year, Cobo went through long periods of depression. If he doesn’t deliver a good result, he may be gobbling Prozac next month. When a grand tour winner drops off the map like Cobo, the doping whispers begin — how else to explain the wild swing in performance? It might be a blessing or a curse depending on Cobo’s mental state, but teammate Alejandro Valverde is ready to take over leadership the second Cobo falters. Emotional rank: 6.5
Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao
Emotion: Thrilled, quietly confident, feeling no pressure. The two Sky climbers from Colombia come into the Vuelta in the absolute perfect frame of mind. There’s no real team or media pressure or expectation — just a skys-the-limit sense of possibility. This is as ideal as it gets — it’s the way Garmin handles Le Tour and one of their riders usually delivers a big surprise. Look for one of these guys to make the top five. Emotional rank: 10
Emotion: “Who am I, what am I?” mental confusion, shaky hopes, fragile confidence. Two years ago, the Man from Orange looked like he was gonna win the Vuelta — until he crashed out. Twisted Spoke mistakenly thought Anton was the next big grand tour sensation. Since then, nada much. Moments of excitment, months of silence, his name buried way down the standings. Injury, unexplained disappearances, an on-going mystery. Anton is headed into a debilitating Hamlet state of self-questioning. Is he any good or just a pretender? Emotional rank: 6
Emotion: Desperation, creeping self doubt, guard optimism. Gesink has earned a permanent spot on the Twisted Spoke shit list for so consistently letting us down. The final straw was when we picked him for a podium spot in Le Grand Shindig based on his commanding performance on Mount Baldy and his big overall win in the Tour of California. He embarrassed us in front of the entire cycling blogosphere. Inexcusable. He has plenty of reasons to make up for his crappy Tour but we refuse to get sucked in every again. Emotional rank: 7.5
Emotion: “I am not Robert Gesink,” fired up, This Is My Time. Well, let’s just hope so. Fourth last year in the Helta Skelta Vuelta, big bad Bauke is ready to take a step off level ground and up onto the podium. Still, hard to find a place for him with Contador, Rodriguez and Froome — but that’s what crashes are for — eliminating rivals. Emotional rank: 8.5
Emotion: “Why is everybody hyping the crap out of me?” A good question. The Talansky media storm hasn’t really stopped since he came in second to Wiggins in Romandie. Everybody at Garmin keeps insisting he’s just that good. We’ll buy that but the reasonable assessment would be another year of grand tour education — moving from 70 something to top 20. Emotional rank: 10.5 — no pressure and the boundless enthusiasm of youth.
Jurgen Van den Broeck
Emotion: “Goddamn it, one of the grand tours is gonna go my way!” Irritation, controlled fury, growing confidence. In truth we have to say we were impressed with VDB in Le Tour — he lost time early but kept fighting as much as a man could against the all-powerful Sky Juggernaut. He made his digs, took some shots and generally fought the good fight. This will serve him well in the Helta Skelta Vuelta. He is doing the Tour-Vuelta double but as Podium Cafe made clear, it’s more than possible. Emotional rank: 9.5
Thomas de Gendt
Emotion: “Hey, isn’t anybody taking me serious? I’m a stud.” Incredulous and impatient. De Gendt singlehandedly blew apart the Giro GC and almost won the entire grand tour with a bold, Landis-like attack from far out. Eyes popped, people freaked, shock set in. The guys is only 25 and willing to take risks, roll dice and attack on instinct. The crazy Helta Skelta Vuelta is a hard tour to control and that plays into De Gendt’s hand. Maybe he and Sergio Henao shake things up early and catch Contador and Rodriguez off guard. The Vuelta will be his confirmation — a one-off or the real deal. Emotional rank: 8
1 Alberto Contador
2 Joaquin Rodriguez
3 Jurgen Van den Broeck
Final note: We’re going out on a limb once again — we paid dearly for that on our Tour predictions. Froome has a bad day or crashes out. That’s just the way the Cycling Gods roll.