The third and final Grand Tour of the season is almost here. Jot down these three names to watch for so you look like a smart ass come September.
The Vuelta is the ultimate climber’s tour, and there’s a reason you’ll see nearly every great climber on a professional roster, save a few still recovering from the Tour. With Contador on a beach somewhere and Chris Froome toiling with bottles in Colorado, the stage is set for a dramatic showdown in the mountains on the road to Madrid.
After crashing out of the Tour yet again, Astana’s Janez Brajkovic is back for the Vuelta with a lot to prove. Once called the next great stage racer, he’s yet to repeat great Giro and Tour results, aside from a 2009 victory at the Criterium du Dauphine, where he outgunned Alberto Contador. His main ambition is and will continue to be the Tour, but he’ll need a contract to make a run for that someday, and he may well be riding for that this fall. With Vicenzo Nibali enthroned as team leader at Astana, Brajkovic will have to be perpetually at the fore in support of the Italian. Should Nibali falter, it may fall to Brajkovic to lead the way in a team that has more firepower than some give it credit. A great climber and time trialist, Brajkovic is capable of great things if he can stay vertical for an entire three weeks.
Team Sky’s has left announcing its squad for the Vuelta late, but news of Edvald Boasson-Hagan’s start was never in doubt, even after recovering from a broken scalpula at the Tour. Like Brajkovic, he’s been singled out in 2013 for lacking the results expected of him. Indeed, even his up and down campaign in 2012 was criticized, a far cry from sprinter’s initial hailing as the next big thing. Peter Sagan has supplanted that role, with EBH scrounging for results in Mark Cavendish’s shadow last season and being enlisted in the ranks, as it were, for Chris Froome and Richie Porte outside of the Classics. With Cancellara nearly untouchable, the spring was a disappointment for Sky as a whole. While he’ll be there to support Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran in the GC, the race should allow him some freedom on the few flat stages to serve his own interests. With no Sagan, no Cavendish, and with perhaps Mark Renshaw as the fastest pure sprinter, Edvald can use his superior climbing and smarts to possibly take a stage or two in the process. He needs the momentum for 2014.
Rafal Majka, now carries the expectations that seem to have troubled the two other riders on this list, and the Vuelta might be his chance to prove himself immune to the slump. After a spectacular spring at the Giro, he’s back to the Vuelta as first lieutenant to Saxo Bank’s leader in Spain, Roman Kreuziger. The Czech rider served Contador in France, and kept a top ten through the Alps. Now, with Kreuziger in charge, Majka has the chance to ride high overall and keep the Czech out of trouble. In doing so, he may win himself the full support of the squad at a Grand Tour in 2014. After a three week battle for the white jersey in Italy, he’s already proven he’s capable of handling the rigors of stage racing. It’s been said too often, but this rider has the stuff to influence the professional peloton for years to come. He needs to string together a great spring with a solid fall, but the Vuelta has the very best chance to do just that.