The men to watch in the 2012 Vuelta a Espana

Contador heads the list of contenders for the Spanish tour, but it's a long list, with a number of subplots

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

LEON, Spain (VN) — The 2012 Vuelta a España has more storylines and drama than a Brazilian soap opera. Who will be the hero? The villain? The underdog that will win over fans with panache? The outcome in three weeks’ time is anything but certain.

Will the Vuelta be a three-week coronation for the Alberto Contador, back from his clenbuterol ban? Or will an untethered Chris Froome spoil the party and become cycling’s first African-born grand tour winner?

Then there’s “Purito,” looking to bust through with a victory after a long string of close calls. Movistar brings a loaded squad of potential winners, but do any of them have the fortitude to deliver?

Can a foreigner ruin the Spanish fiesta? Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink could step up to win in a mountainous Vuelta with 10 climbing finales, but do they have the self-belief?

Or will the Vuelta turn into the proving ground for Andrew Talansky, who is already showing promise as a future grand tour contender for the United States?

All those questions will be answered over the next three weeks. Each stage will be like an unfolding chapter of the rolling soap opera. Let’s hope the suspense lasts until the penultimate stage up La Bola del Mundo.

The Vuelta could be the season’s most exciting grand tour. There is certainly no shortage of protagonists. Here’s how the favorites stack up going into Saturday’s start in Pamplona.

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank): Back from his controversial clenbuterol ban, Contador is expected to turn the Vuelta into a three-week revenge tour. Backed by a strong and dedicated team, just about everyone expects Contador to run away with the red leader’s jersey. A lack of racing miles (he returned with fourth place at the Eneco Tour last week) and a strong field could make it tougher than Contador would like. “El Pistolero” hasn’t raced a grand tour in more than a year, since finishing fifth and being disqualified from the 2011 Tour, so he will want to measure his efforts and get through the first half of the Vuelta without losing any valuable time or going too deep. Contador is the five-star favorite and he’s never one to shirk his duties to take control of a race that he wants to win. And Contador really wants to win the Vuelta. It’s his to lose.

Chris Froome (Team Sky): Second at the Tour de France, Sky will unleash Froome at the Vuelta to have the free ride that he didn’t have in July nor in last year’s Vuelta, when he rode for Bradley Wiggins. Arguably an equal to Contador in the time trials and the mountains, it will be exciting to see these two match up head-to-head for the first time. Contador will need to attack Froome early to test his mettle. If Froome can answer and carry his form into the second half of the Vuelta, anything is possible. The big question is whether Froome is capable of maintaining his form from July into mid-September. If not, Sky has Rigoberto Urán and Richie Porte waiting in the wings in what’s the strongest team in the Vuelta.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha): Rodríguez will be on his own personal revenge tour during the Vuelta, looking to make up for his bitter disappointment of losing the Giro d’Italia in the final-day time trial to Ryder Hesjedal. Rested and ready for the Vuelta, “Purito” will be a real threat for the podium if he can rebuild his form to the same level he had in May. For Rodríguez, however, the podium no longer is enough. He wants outright victory and 10 uphill finales, with time bonuses waiting at the finish line, are perfect for his punchy sprinting style. The Vuelta’s lone TT includes a climb, so he won’t be losing six minutes like he did in 2010. This could be the year of “Purito.” If he stumbles, two-time Vuelta champion Denis Menchov will be waiting on the sidelines.

Igor Antón (Euskaltel-Euskadi): If Antón can stay upright, this mountainous Vuelta plays to his talents perfectly. The Basque climber was in the driver’s seat when he crashed out of the leader’s jersey in 2010. The diminutive climber, however, has yet to fulfill his promising eighth in the 2008 Vuelta. Now is the time for a follow-up. No pressure there.

Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink (Rabobank): Both crashed out of the Tour de France and both have something to prove. Whether they’re using the Vuelta to prepare for the worlds on home roads in Valkenburg or racing for the GC remains to be seen. Both riders seem obsessed with the Tour, when the mountainous parcours of the Vuelta would better suit them. That’s partially the fault of Rabobank management, which puts the Tour above all else. Mollema rode wonderfully last year to finish fourth and win the points jersey. A Vuelta win would catapult them to superstar status in Holland, which hasn’t won a grand tour since Joop Zoetemelk won the Tour in 1980. Time to refocus, boys, the Vuelta is there for the taking. Forget the Tour.

Juanjo Cobo and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar): The pair of former Vuelta winners leads a super-strong Movistar squad. Both fell flat in the Tour, though Valverde managed to win a stage despite some bad luck in the first half of the Tour that torpedoed his GC chances. Valverde was a late confirmation to start the Vuelta, which is supposed to be Cobo’s top goal for 2012. It will be interesting to see if Valverde will be shooting for the overall or simply racing to fine-tune his form for Valkenburg. Cobo’s incredible inconsistency will be put to the test. Which Juanjo will show up in Pamplona? The man who beat back Froome last year or the rider who did not finish a stage race in 2010?

Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp): Talansky’s time has arrived. The second-year pro got through what was universally hailed as the hardest Vuelta ever in 2011 in 79th, a solid accomplishment for any rookie in his first grand tour. Talansky has upped his game in 2012, finishing second to Wiggins at the Tour de Romandie in May and then winning a stage and the overall at the Tour de l’Ain last week, two performances that confirm his pedigree. The motivated Californian earned leadership duties at a solid Garmin Vuelta squad. Nicknamed the “Pitbull,” Talansky is going to sink his teeth into the opportunity. A top-10 against a world-class field would be fantastic, but if he can measure his efforts and ride into the final week with legs, more could be possible.

Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol): It will be interesting to see how much Van den Broeck has left in the tank after an oh-so-close Tour, when he finished fourth for the second time in three years. The first Belgian in three decades to boast legitimate grand tour credentials, VDB could well challenge for his first three-week podium. Like Froome, it’s a question if he can carry his form from July into September. Ambitious and doggedly determined, it will be hard to drop him if he’s in with a shot.

Thomas De Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM): He almost single-handedly rode away with the Giro in May with his electrifying attack over the Mortirolo. At 25, De Gendt seems to be hitting his stride. After skipping the Tour to get married, De Gendt could be another wildcard for the Vuelta. Let’s hope so.

Nicolas Roche (Ag2r-La Mondiale): Being the son of a legend is never easy, but Nicholas Roche is very comfortable in his own skin. At 28, he still believes his destiny lies in grand tours, when many pundits insist he should shift gears and use his strength and attacking abilities toward winning stages and one-day classics. Roche’s seventh in the 2010 Vuelta remains his best grand tour results to date, which came off 14th in that year’s Tour. This year, he was 12th in the Tour, so moving up on GC could be in the cards. A move to Saxo Bank next year means this will be his last chance to face off against Contador.

Trending on Velo

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.