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62nd Vuelta a España - GT

Spain, September 1-23, 2007

Vuelta's one-two punch

The 2007 Vuelta a España will start without not only last year's winner, but without the entire 2006 podium. Despite this, the racing will be as close and exciting as ever. Cyclingnews' Gregor Brown picks out the favourites.

The arid, windy conditions of the Vuelta
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The riders of the 62nd Vuelta a España will start their 3291-kilometre journey this Saturday, September 1, from Vigo, heading out onto a parcours that, along with the composition of the peloton, should make for a gripping 2007 edition of the race. Organiser Unipublic has continued to do what it does best by offering an exciting three-week journey, this year delivered in the form of a one-two punch.

The fight for the Maillot Oro will take place as the roads guide the riders from north-western Spain in a clockwise direction. It takes in Galicia and Asturia on its way east before skirting down the coast for the southern stages. It is the northern stages of the first week and the southern stages in the third week that will pack the biggest punch. After the sprinters have had a chance in the first three days, the GC contenders will come out to play, and we should have an early glimpse of the final winner as early as Tuesday - just four days into the race - when the riders meet their first big obstacle: the 12.6-kilometre ascent of Lagos de Covadonga.

After stage four, the second big appointment will be the 52-kilometre time trial in Cariñena to Zaragoza. The slightly downhill parcours will be shaped by the wind, which is always a factor in the Spanish Tour.

There will be no respite for the overall contenders, and they will head immediately into the mountain-top finishes on stage nine (167.6 kilometres to Cerler) and stage 10 (a massive 214 kilometres to Andorra), both of which will blast out weaker riders and lock down the GC-battle to a select set of champions.

As the Vuelta travels to the south for its final punch after the second rest day, the sprinters and strong winds will have their day in the sun as the race hurtles toward a thrilling final week conclusion. Before the riders have their parade lap into Madrid, they'll have to deal with Stage 19, the third-to-last stage of the Vuelta, which will put the final icing on the cake. The 'short' 133-kilometre stage to Alto de Abantos is where Valverde lost the race in 2006, and is packed with five classified climbs before the final mountain top arrival.

Unlike the Tour de France with its brutally long and decisive time trials, the Vuelta's second time trial is just 20 kilometres in length, and will not likely make much of a difference in the pecking order of the final GC. However, if the overall classification is separated by mere seconds like this year's Tour, the flat dash around Villalba could make for an exciting stage before the sprinters have their romp into Madrid.

Samuel Sanchez is a top contender
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The last editions of the Grand Tour have been marred with difficulties. Roberto Heras' title was stripped in 2005 after he tested positive for EPO, and the podium of 2006, now, seems more like a display of painful memories. Astana's Alexander Vinokourov (2006 winner) and Andrey Kashechkin (third) have both tested positive for blood doping in the last months, while Spain's favourite, Alejandro Valverde has been forced to face the courts in Operación Puerto-related matters.

There are still a lot of quality riders that will contest the 21 stages of this year's event. The favourites have to be Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), José Angel Gomez Marchante (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Carlos Sastre (Team CSC). Favourites from outside of the Iberian Peninsula include second place Tour finisher Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto), de facto 2005 winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Discovery Channel's Tom Danielson and Janez Brajkovic.

Pereiro and Sánchez have been targeting the Vuelta all year. Sammy Sánchez is one of the most dynamic riders in Spain. Seeing him round out his palmarès, which includes the GP Zürich, with a Grand Tour would be spectacular. Gomez Marchante's fifth place overall in 2006 proved the man can ride a good three week race, and his Spain-based team will back him completely as he goes for the top of the GC.

Carlos Sastre (CSC) and Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne)
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Sastre, mister consistency, will for sure be in the top five by Madrid. He finished fourth in 2006 after riding the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France. For 2007 he will be 'fresher' after only tackling the French tour. The shorter lengths of the time trials should favour the CSC rider, who excels on the climbs but suffers devastating time losses in the test against the clock.

It will be interesting to see what Australian Evans can do on this course after spending so much energy in the Tour de France, where he finished a close second behind Alberto Contador. His strong team could help him ride to the race's top spot.

American Tom Danielson is back on form after battling an intestinal illness that, among other things, caused him to miss the Tour. He picked up a stage win on his way to sixth overall last year. With the help of pure climber Brajkovic, he could make the top of the podium.

The stage battles in the lower lands will be fought out by Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi (both Milram), Paolo Bettini and Tom Boonen (both Quick.Step - Innergetic), Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Davide Rebellin and Stefan Schumacher (both Gerolsteiner) and Oscar Freire (Rabobank).

'Ale-Jet' Petacchi is the biggest winner of the group with 17 wins. The Italian will point to come back kicking after a dark period following the Giro. Double Tour stage winner 'Benna' and Freire will be the ones to threaten Petacchi the most. Expect to seek World Champion Bettini, 'Tin-Tin' Rebellin and Schumacher take the cake on the rolling stages.