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Every day we bring you more pro-cycling news takes a thorough look at this year's favourites and outsiders and finds out all about their strengths and weaknesses

Photo: A.S.O.












20.08.2015 @ 10:00 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. 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. 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 2-star riders that should all be solid podium candidates.


Joaquim Rodriguez (**)

Time is running out for Joaquim Rodriguez who has desperately been chasing that elusive first grand tour victory since he emerged as a three-week contender while riding as a domestique for Alejandro Valverde in the 2008 Vuelta. Since then he has been in the top 10 no less than 10 times and been on podium once in each of the grand tours. However, the win is still missing in his palmares and at 36 years of age, it is evident that he is running out of opportunities.


It is testament to Rodriguez’ bad luck in the grand tours that he has taken a frustrating fourth place no less than four times. He must still be ruing what happened in the 2012 Vuelta when Alberto Contador surprised him on a seemingly innocuous stage to Fuente De and denied him what looked like a guaranteed maiden victory in his home race. Just a few months earlier, he was left frustrated in the final stage when he lost the maglia rosa to Ryder Hesjedal and ended the 2012 Giro in second just 16 seconds behind the surprise winner.


There is no doubt that the 2012 and 2013 seasons were the highlight of Rodriguez’ career as a stage racer. However, recent years have indicated that age is taking its toll on the Spaniard who has not been on the podium in a grand tour since he stepped down from the third step in Paris in 2013. His downward trend kicked off when he suffered a bad crash in the 2014 Vuelta a Espana at a point when he seemed to be riding extremely well. With an overall victory in the Volta a Catalunya, he had firmly marked himself out as a serious rival for Nairo Quintana but the Dutch crash left with broken ribs and when he went down again in stage 6 of the Italian grand tour, more broken ribs forced him to leave the race.


Rodriguez turned his attention to the Vuelta and did the Tour to build his condition for the Spanish race. For the first time since he joined Katusha, he lined up in a grand tour without any GC ambitions and instead he rode an aggressive race with a focus on stage wins and the mountains jersey. In the Vuelta, he rode to a solid fourth place but was clearly not at the level he had shown in the Tour just 13 months earlier.


This year has given further indications that time has passed for Rodriguez. He failed to reach his best condition in March and after he had finally showed signs of life in Tirreno-Adriatico, he fell ill. That forced him to change his schedule and he made a late decision to line up in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. The expectations were modest but surprisingly Rodriguez won the race for the first time of his career after having done one of his best time trials on the final day.


That performance gave hope that Rodriguez would be back at his best level in the Ardennes classics. A fourth place in Fleche Wallonne and third place in Liege-Bastogne-Liege would have been an excellent outcome for almost any other rider but for the Katusha leader it was a disappointment. The biggest surprise was the fact that he missed his usual kick on the Mur de Huy.


Nonetheless, he was still optimistic for the Tour de France after a solid Dauphiné and things were lokking good when he won the stage to the Mur de Huy. However, as soon as the race hit the mountains, he was off the pace and for the first time since the 2011 Vuelta, he failed to finish in the top 10 in a grand tour that he had targeted for GC. He managed to win a big mountain stage but it was still evident that he was not climbing at his usual level. His campaign in the Alps was a complete failure as he was unable to finish off his breakaways or win the mountains jersey. He showed signs of life in the final mountain stage to Alpe d’Huez where he tried to climb with the favourites but he was not able to follow the likes of Froome, Quintana and Valverde who will be among his main rivals in the Vuelta.


It has always been the plan for Rodriguez to do the Vuelta which has been on his schedule every year since 2008. The Spanish grand tour is always a difficult affair as it comes late in the season and so is much more about recovery, fatigue and motivation than about pure legs and talent. Having finished in the top 7 every year since 2008 with just one exception, Rodriguez has proved that he is a master in handling that aspect and like his compatriot Alejandro Valverde, he has developed into some kind of a Vuelta expert and guarantee.


However, he doesn’t have an awful lot of experience in doing the Tour-Vuelta double. Mostly he has been riding the Giro and his home race while he made the French-Spanish combination in 2010, 2013 and 2014. Interestingly, he ended the Vuelta in fourth on all those occasions. It proves that he can handle the strains of two successive grand tours but unlike Valverde he has had his best races in years when he has been doing the Giro.


As always, Rodriguez has only done the Clasica San Sebastian since he left France. In that race, he was part of the elite chase group behind Adam Yates but he was not at the same level that had seen him drop the rest on the final climb 12 months earlier. This is another indication that Rodriguez lacks the spark that has turned him into one of the best grand tour riders in the world.


However, you can never write Rodriguez off. The Spanish grand tour is the one that suits him the best as it is usually loaded with short, explosive climbs that have allowed him to take no less than eight stage wins in the race. This year the first week offers lots of opportunities for a puncheur like hime and especially stage 9 should suit him well. However, this year there are no excessively steep walls and the final climbs are a lot more moderate which is a disadvantage for Rodriguez who excels on the steepest slopes. Only the finishing climb in stage 16 has the kind of excessive gradients that gives Rodriguez a chance to really shine.


However, the main challenge for Rodriguez is the flat time trial in Burgos. He has evidently improved a lot in the race against the clock and even laid the foundations for his Pais Vasco win in the TT. However, there’s a big difference between the windy plains in Burgos and the many short, steep climbs in the Basque Country and in this kind of test he will lose lots of time. He famously lost more than six minutes in a similar TT in the region in 2010 and even though he has improved too much to suffer a similar loss, it will be a tough day for Rodriguez.


He has to take back that time in the mountains and by scoring bonus seconds in the puncheur finales and that won’t be an easy task. Already last year he was unable to follow Froome and Valverde in the mountains and it is hard to imagine that it will be different this time around. His main advantage is the fact that he didn’t do the Tour full gas every day and so could be fresher than most of his rivals. However, that was also the case in 2014 but that didn’t give him much of an upper hand.


As usual, Rodriguez can rely on an extremely strong team even though the loss of Giampaolo Caruso is a huge setback. Daniel Moreno will be his trusted lieutenant and the pair have the potential to do some damage. The question is whether Rodriguez will ride conservatively in an attempt to finish on the podium or whether he will take the risks that are needed to win the race. Astana plan to blow the race to pieces with their three captains and this could open the door for Rodriguez to be part of the action and make a gamble from afar. In 2012, he lost the race when Contador made a similar move and in 2015 it seems to be his best chance to finally take that elusive win that has so far escaped him.


Domenico Pozzovivo (**)

Everything was set for a great Giro for Domenico Pozzovivo when the entire cycling world was hit by a massive shock. Having come down on a descent in stage 3, the tiny Italian was suddenly lying lifeless on the ground and thoughts quickly turned back to similar images of the late Wouter Weylandt in the same region just four years earlier. Luckily it turned out that the injuries were only minor and Pozzovivo would already be bac in competition at the Tour de Suisse but his highly promising Giro campaign had come to an end.


When he finished 9th in the 2008 Giro d'Italia at just 25 years of age, lofty expectations were made for the tiny climber. Pundits started to announce him as a potential podium finisher in the grand tours but for several years it seemed that it would all come to nothing. While he continued to shine in most of the Italian races, he was a perennial disappointment in the Giro and it seemed that he couldn't handle the stress of three weeks of successive racing.


Things turned around in 2012 when he arrived at the Giro on the back of a dominant victory at the Giro del Trentino. It was now or never for the tiny climber if he wanted to keep his status as the grand tour leader of the Bardiani team. Finally, things came together for Pozzovivo who not only finished 8th overall but also took a magnificent win in the stage to Lago Laceno.


Instead of moving down the internal Bardiani hierarchy, Pozzovivo suddenly found himself with a chance to join the WorldTour. With Ag2r desperately looking for points - which Pozzovivo possessed in abundance - he was picked up by the French team to lead the line in the Giro and the Vuelta. Immediately, he proved himself fully ready for the highest level but his Giro campaign was derailed by broken ribs sustained in a crash at the Giro del Trentino, with the injury severely hampering his preparations. He even crashed in the three-week race itself but battled through the pain to take 10th overall.


Later in the year he proved how far he had come as a grand tour rider when he rode a very consistent Vuelta to finish 6th overall. In fact he would have made it into the top 5 if it hadn't been for a stupid lack of attention in a windy stage where he lost more than a minute to Nicolas Roche who would eventually finish 5th.


In 2014 he stepped up his level a further notch. In a complete turnaround, the rider who was formerly known for his inconsistency, is now one of the most consistent riders on the WorldTour. Before the start of the Giro d’Italia, he lined up at 7 races and he finished in the top 10 in all of them. He didn’t choose an easy path to make that feat as the list included 3 WorldTour races and two one-day races that are not perfectly suited to his characteristics as a pure climber.


In the Giro, Pozzovivo confirmed his steady progress by riding to a career-best fifth and was even on track for another top 10 before he fell ill in the Tour de Suisse. He bounced back with his 9th top 10 in his national championships where he was seventh and then turned his attention to the Vuelta.


Unfortunately, we never got the chance to gauge Pozzovivo against the likes of Contador and Froome as a cat crossed the road in front of him during a training ride. He was left with a broken leg and only managed to return late in the season, albeit in a form that was far from competitive.


Usually it takes some time to get back on track after that kind of major injury but Pozzovivo has had an amazing recovery. He was back in action already at the Tour Down Under where he finished sixth. Then he took a small break to undergo surgery related to his broken leg which cost him a week off the bike. Hence, he didn’t expect to be in contention at Tirreno-Adriatico which had one of the most impressive line-ups of the spring season. Despite finding himself up against classy competition and riding on a course that didn’t suit him, he surprised himself by finishing 8th. Since then he went on to finish third in the Volta a Catalunya and seventh in the Giro del Trentino and suddenly he has even turned himself into a winner, taking a stage victory in both events. Finally, he ended his preparations for the Giro by taking 8th in Liege-Bastogne-Liege, meaning that he again with into the Giro with an unbroken string of top 10 results in the early part of the year until it all came to an abrupt halt on the roads in Liguria.


With the horror images fresh on mind, it was hard to believe that Pozzovivo was already competitive in the Tour de Suisse where he rode to second behind Thiabut Pinot in the queen stage and ended the race in fifth overall. One week later he was sixth in the very hard Italian road race championships and then turned his attention to the Vuelta.


Pozzovivo is now a grand tour veteran who knows how to prepare himself for a three-week race. He has spent the summer at altitude and made his competitive return in the Tour de l’Ain where he rode to a solid 10th overall in a race that was a bit too easy for him. In fact, he was apparently riding extremely well as eventual winner Alexandre Geniez was impressed by the tiny Italian. With another spot among the 10 best riders, he kept his string of top 10s alive and if one omits the race that he did at the end of last season to get back into racing after his broken leg, he has now been in the top 10 in every race he has finished since he was 37th at the GP Beghelli on October 13 2013!


This speaks volumes about Pozzovivo’s consistency and barring accident, he is guaranteed to be in the mix in the Vuelta. On paper, the Spanish grand tour is probably the one that suits him best. Pozzovivo has always been at his best on very steep gradients but has suffered a bit on very long climbs. The Spanish mountains are shorter, more irregular and steeper than the climbs in France and Italy and this makes it a perfect fit for Pozzovivo. Furthermore, he excels in hot conditions and the Spanish race is known for its brutal heat.


This year the route suits Pozzovivo very well. Most of the finishing climbs are not too long and the Asturian ascents are very steep. He should find himself comfortable in the big climbing stage in Andorra and he us actually pretty explosive for the puncheur finishes too.


However, the course also offers a number of pitfalls. Pozzovivo memorably finished third behind Cancellara and Martin in the Vuelta TT two years ago but that course included a serious amount of climbing. Even though he is a much better time triallist than most think he will definitely suffer on the flat course in Burgos where he can lose a significant amount of time to the likes of Froome, Nibali and van Garderen.


Furthermore, there are the windy stages that always mar the Vuelta. In 2013, that cost him a fifth place in the race and it is no secret that he has always struggled when it comes to positioning on the windy days. The team has tried to bolster their chances by adding Johan Vansummeren, Gediminas Bagdonas and Sebastien Minard to the roster but Pozzovivo is one of the overall contenders that is most likely to get caught out if things split on the windy Spanish plains.


Another issue could be the descents. In the Tour de l’Ain, Alexandre Geniez deliberately attacked in a downhill section as he knew that Pozzovivo would be scared after his Giro crash. Unsurprisingly, the Italian was dropped and even though he made it back to the main group on the final climb, it revealed what could be a new chink in his armour.


Pozzovivo has to make the difference in the mountains and if he is climbing like he has done for the past two years, he should be up there with the very best. He may not be fully able to match the likes of Froome and Quintana but he won’t be far behind. He is the only top contender who has done less than two weeks of grand tour racing this year and he will be a lot fresher than the rest which is always extremely important in the Vuelta. He is constantly improving and is riding hugely consistent and there is no reason that he can’t be in podium contention.


However, Pozzovivo knows that he is unlikely to win the race and that is not what he is aiming for. He has never been on a grand tour podium before and even though the official goal is a top 5, there is no doubt that he hopes to make it into the top 3. At this point in the season, his Giro crash could be a blessing in disguise and it may finally be time for Pozzovivo to make it onto the elusive podium in Madrid.


Tejay van Garderen (**)

It was heart-breaking to see Tejay van Garderen step into his team car at a time when he was less than a week from holding onto a podium spot in the Tour de France. After a splendid first week by the BMC team and some solid climbing from the team captain, he found himself in the top 3 with just a few more days to go. With the amount of climbing in the final week, he is unlikely to have been able to hold onto third but it was hugely unjust that illness prevented him from seeing what he could do. Luckily the Vuelta a Espana has always offered the chance for riders to make amends for a frustrating Tour and that’s what the American plans to do.


There is no reason to envy van Garderen the position of having been announced as the rider to fill Lance Armstrong’s shoes as the leading American grand tour contender. However, he has apparently been unfazed by the pressure and with a very gradual and steady progress, he has arrived at a stage where he can realistically aim for a grand tour podium.


Already at a very young age, van Garderen showed that he had the versatile skills to become a great stage racer. Son of a Dutch immigrant, he followed the unusual path for an American bike rider of learning the trade at one of the finest cycling schools in the world when he rode for the Rabobank Development team. In 2009, he finished second in the big mountainous stage races Tour de l’Avenir and the Tour de Pays de Savoie but also showed his versatility by taking third in the Olympia’s Tour which is an almost completely flat race in the Netherlands.


The performances earned him a contract with the HTC-Columbia team where he impressed in his first year at the pro level. Most notably, he finished third in the Criterium du Dauphiné behind Janez Brajkovic and Alberto Contador. He got the chance to test himself as a GC rider in a grand tour at the Vuelta but after a solid start he faded in the final week.


One year later he made his Tour de France debut without any GC aspirations and worked hard on the front for Mark Cavendish while also taking his chances in a few breakaways. However, the final year at the HTC team was a disappointing one and his progress seemed to have stalled slightly.


With the demise of his team, it was no surprise that he was picked up by BMC who were looking for a long-term replacement for Tour de France champion Cadel Evans who was getting close to retirement. After strong rides in the spring, van Garderen was immediately given the important role of being lieutenant for the reigning champion at the 2012 Tour de France. As Evans suffered from illness, van Garderen ended up being the strongest BMC rider by claiming a surprise fifth place and winning the white jersey and even humiliated his captain when he passed him in the final time trial.


2013 seemed to be an excellent year for van Garderen who finished 4th in Paris-Nice, 3rd in the Criterium International, 7th in the Tour de Suisse and won his first major stage race at the Tour of California before he lined up for the Tour. This time he was on an equal footing with Evans but both of them delivered surprisingly poor performances. Van Garderen was at a loss to explain his mediocre showing but bounced back with a strong ride to win the USA Pro Challenge at the end of the year.


In 2014, BMC decided that it was time for a generational change. Evans was asked to lead the team in the Giro and for the first time ever, van Garderen was given the clear leadership role in the Tour. Things didn’t look good at the start of the race as he rode poorly in the Dauphiné after he had fractured his hip at the Tour de Romandie. That was a major setback at the end of a spring season during which he had clearly stepped up his level a further notch. In the Tour of Oman and the Volta a Catalunya he had been climbing better than ever before but his injury made him uncertain about what to expect.


However, van Garderen rode a splendid Tour to equal his career-best fifth place finish and if it hadn’t been for a hunger knock in the long stage to Bagneres-de-Luchon, the podium would have been a realistic target. However, the result was much more remarkable than the one he had achieved two years earlier. Back then he had hugely relied on his excellent time trialling skills on a course that was tailor-made for rouleurs and included very little serious climbing. In the mountains he had been far from the best but that had changed in 2014. Van Garderen was not quite at the level of Nibali, Peraud and Pinot in the mountains but he wasn’t far off the mark.


Remarkably, van Garderen has taken another step up in 2015. Again he rode strongly in Oman where he only missed out on the win because he underestimated a surprisingly strong Rafael Valls. His Paris-Nice was a disappointment and the Volta a Catalunya got off to a bad start as he crashed out of the GC contention. However, one day he later he put his improved climbing skills on show by launching an attack from the bottom of the final climb in the queen stage and holding off Richie Porte and Alberto Contador to win the stage.


Those results are all solid but it was the Dauphiné that really proved how far van Garderen has come. Unfazed by the hard competition, he went head to head with no less of a figure than Chris Froome and nearly upset the major favourite. He was favoured by an advantage gained in the team time trial but in the Pra Loup stage he delivered a remarkable feat when he clawed his way back to Froome at a point when everybody thought that he had ridden away from the rest. In the end, he even managed to distance the Sky captain. He was unable to follow Froome in the final two mountain stages but he was much closer to the Brit than anyone had expected.


In the Tour, he relied on a hugely impressive team to give him an advantage in the flat first week and then he set himself the goal of defending himself in the mountains. He did well in the Pyrenees and even though he was not up there with the very best, he had done well enough to defend his podium position by the time illness took him out of the race.


Van Garderen had planned to win the USA Pro Challenge for a third year in a row but quickly made the decision to do the Vuelta instead. With the signing of Richie Porte, it will be important for van Garderen to prove himself in a grand tour as he prepares himself for a battle for the leadership role for next year’s Tour. As he has done no racing since the Tour and hasn’t done reconnaissance he is a lot less prepared than he was for the French race but that is the case for most of the riders.


What is remarkable about van Garderen’s performances is his maturity. Honestly, we have never had too much belief in his climbing skills. Obviously, he has always been a talented climber but in the past he gauged his efforts very poorly and almost always blew up because he had tried to follow the best. That has clearly changed. The Dauphiné was a prime example of how to just riding up the climbs at your own speed and that approach has turned van Garderen into one of the best climbers in the world.


Unfortunately, the Vuelta climbs suit him pretty badly. Van Garderen was looking forward to the Alps whose long, regular ascents are tailor-made for his steady climbing. The Vuelta mountains are characterized by their very steep gradients and irregular natures and so are much more suited to more explosive riders.


On the other hand, the Vuelta offers the long time trial that van Garderen was missing In the Tour. However, the improved climbing seems to have come at a cost as he no longer seems to be time trialling as well as he did in the past. On the other hand, he was still able to beat all riders from the Fabulous Four in the short opening Tour TT and there is no doubt that he will be able to gain much time on the climbers on the flat plains around Burgos in stage 17.


Then it all comes down to defending himself in the mountains. Van Garderen won’t be the only BMC captain as Samuel Sanchez has always been promised the leadership role for his home race so the pressure won’t be fully on his shoulders. That will make it less stressful than it was in the Tour and should allow him to just go out there and do his best.


However, that is unlikely to be enough for a spot on the podium. Among the GC contenders, only Froome is able to match van Garderen’s TT skills but in a very mountainous Vuelta the buffer he can gain in Burgos will be hard to defend on the climbs. Van Garderen has never done two grand tours in a single season and even though he didn’t make it to the end in France he was just missing a few days and has had to deal with health issues too. He was unable to follow the best on the climbs in France and it will be a bit of a surprise if it be any different in the Spanish mountains that suit him a lot less. However, less could be enough for van Garderen who is hoping to use the race to confirm that he can ride consistently for three weeks. With the time trial being a big asset and his improved TT skills, a top 5 spot is definitely a realistic target for the leading American GC rider.


Sergio Henao (**)

If everything goes to plan, Sergio Henao won’t be in contention for the Vuelta win. The Spaniard’s main goal is to support Chris Froome in the mountains as he returns to grand tour racing for the first time since the 2013 Vuelta. If the Brit is in contention for the overall win, there will be little room for Henao to ride for himself and he could find himself spending lots of time on the front of the peloton in the second and third week.


However, Sky know from bitter experience that it is important to have a back-up plan. When Bradley Wiggins crashed out of the 2011 Tour, the team completely lost its purpose and since then the team has often had a couple of protected riders at grand tours. In the 2012 Giro, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran both rode for GC, in the 2012 Tour Froome was protected throughout the opening week, in the 2012 Vuelta Henao and Uran were back-up riders for Froome and the duo had a similar role for Wiggins in the 2013 Giro. That year Richie Porte was intended to play a similar role in the Tour but a bad day in the Pyrenees took him out of GC contention.


Last year Porte was set to play a similar role after illness had destroyed his original plans of going for the win in the Giro. When Froome crashed out of the race, Porte suddenly found himself in the position he has always dreamed about until illness derailed his plans. This year it was Leopold König who took over for Porte in the Giro while Geraint Thomas stayed in GC contention in the Tour until he faded in the Alps.


In the Vuelta, it will be even more important to have a solid plan B. Froome finds himself with a big challenge of doing the Tour-Vuelta double and the team have less guarantees about his form. If the leader fades in the mountains, it will be important to have a rider to take over and the impressive team have strong climbers in abundance.


Henao, Mikel Nieve, Nicolas Roche and Thomas could all play that role. It remains to be seen how Thomas has recovered after a very long season so it will be hard for him to ride in the way he did in the Tour. Roche has not been climbing at his usual level and Nieve’s poor time trialling means that he is unlikely to ever challenge for the podium on this course.


This means that Henao is likely to be given the lieutenant role and this means that we get a certain protection. Of course he will have to do his work to set up Froome’s attacks in the mountains and chase down dangerous attacks but as it was the case for Thomas in the Tour, he will only have to do the work when it is absolutely needed. In a race where Astana and Movistar both have multiple potential winners, it will be even more important for Sky to have an extra GC weapon.


At 27 years of age, Henao can no longer be regarded as a young talent and with a career-best grand tour performance being 9th in the 2012 Giro – his debut in a three-week race – it may seem strange to regard him as a potential contender for the top places in a race stacked with grand tour talent. However, Henao has had an extreme amount of bad luck that has prevented him from doing a single grand tour since the 2013 Vuelta and he has been robbed the opportunity to prove his full potential.


In 2014, he was set to be a key support rider for Froome in the Tour but his season was put on hold when internal Sky testing revealed abnormal blood values. The team put him on inactive status and sent him back to Colombia to find out whether the results were due to his status as a high-altitude native. The tests confirmed that Henao had done nothing wrong and he was reinstated in the team in time for the Tour de Suisse where he was set to find his Tour de France form.


Henao was riding strongly until disaster struck again. While warming up for the time trial, he hit the deck and was left with a broken kneecap that briefly threatened his career. It took a long time for him to recover but since he returned to racing in the Coppi e Bartali in March he has had a remarkable comeback. Already in his season debut, he was an instrumental domestique for Ben Swift in the hardest stages but it was his performance in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco that really turned heads. With just four days of racing in his legs, he finished the race in second overall after having gone into the final TT as the race leader.


The classics proved that he still missed some racing to be competitive in the long races but he still came away with 7th in Fleche and Liege. Later he had a disappointing string of races as he was unable to live up to his status as the overwhelming favourite in California and had to settle for a domestique role for Thomas in the Tour de Suisse. That prompted the team management to omit him from the Tour de France roster and since then he has been focused on the Vuelta.


Until Froome made his decision to do the race, Henao was expected to be the leader of the team. It speaks volumes about his talent that Sky already gave him the chance to lead the best grand tour team in the world in the 2013 Vuelta. For some reason, that campaign ended as a disaster as he was not even able to make it into the top 10 but as he has continuously proved that he can match the very best on the climbs, Sky have done nothing to hide that they regard him as one of their future stars.


Henao most recently showed his class in the Tour de Pologne where he completed an excellent Sky performance by dropping a certain Fabio Aru in the queen stage. Unsurprisingly, a poor time trial saw him drop to 8th but the race proved that he has hit peak condition in time for the Vuelta.


However, there are still a number of questions surrounding Henao’s ability as a grand tour rider. Until now, his best result is that 9th place in the 2012 Giro and it remains to be seen whether he can turn himself into the kind of climber that is needed for the three-week races. Until now, his best results have come in the Ardennes and Pais Vasco where he has benefited from his punchy climbing skills. He still hasn’t done really well on the longest climbs that characterize a grand tour.


Secondly, Henao is definitely not a TT specialist. He has done some remarkably good TTs in the past but he needs a hilly course to do well. The Poland TT was just as flat as the one he will face in Burgos and it indicated that he will suffer a significant time loss in stage 17 even to a rider like Aru. That means that his losses compared to riders like Froome, van Garderen, Nibali and Valverde will be even bigger.


Furthermore, the very strong Astana team could force him to do more work that he would have preferred. Astana are likely to try to blow the race to pieces from afar and Sky could easily find themselves on the defensive early in the stages. That could put an end to Henao’s personal ambitions and see him drop out of GC contention.


However, the result is not the most important thing for Henao. The key will be to prove that he can ride consistently for three weeks and be there at the end when Froome needs him. That could allow him to finish high in the overall standings as it almost happened to Thomas in the Tour and if Froome fades, he will be ready to take over the reins. It remains to be seen whether he can realistically challenge for the podium but based on his previous climbing performances, there is no reason that he can’t.



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