Punishing Vuelta terrain will be in Zakarin's favour
Dutchman Kruijswijk may also be underrated by bookmakers
Stage One | Nimes, 13.7km (Team time-trial)
Eurosport 1, from 4.30pm Saturday
The third leg of cycling’s three Grand Tours, the Vuelta a Espana may not have the majesty of the Giro d’Italia or the history of the Tour de France, but it certainly has brutality.
This year’s edition is arguably the most mountainous in recent memory with eight summit finishes, 50 mountains to traverse in total and little in the way of flat terrain.
That hasn’t put off the peloton, however, with a stellar field set to line up for an opening team time-trial across the border in the French city of Nimes.
The man they all have to beat is Chris Froome.
Great Britain’s Tour de Force is aiming to become only the third man to win both races in the same year after French legends Jacques Anquetil (1963) and Bernaud Hinault (1978).
Froome has said he has “unfinished business” with the Vuelta after finishing second on three occasions and he is odds-on across the board to cement his position as the greatest Grand Tour racer of his generation.
Last year his bid was perhaps curtailed by his participation at the Rio Olympics. A heavy season looked to be taking its toll in the first half of the race before he sparked into life, taking two stages as he finished runner-up to Colombian Nairo Quintana.
Fatigue shouldn’t be an issue this year as Froome deliberately trimmed down his pre-Tour schedule with the purpose of peaking in the third week in France and subsequently he should arrive at the Vuelta relatively fresh.
Even so, his latest Tour win was certainly his least comfortable and bookmakers are offering little room for manoeuvre at the prices.
Vincenzo Nibali is second-best at 5-1, but has hardly raced since finishing third at the Giro. Vibes from his training camp have been positive but with just his Giro performance this year to go on, it is hard to be bullish.
The sentimentalists may well be drawn to home hope Alberto Contador. El Pistolero, who will retire after the race, has won his home tour three times but has looked a force on the wane for some time and his exertions in France confirmed that belief.
It could be therefore prudent to focus on two riders at much bigger odds.
The greater share of summit finishes certainly brings the talents of Russian climber Ilnur Zakarin into the equation.
Zakarin achieved his best Grand Tour result of his career when finishing fifth at the Giro, despite seeming to be constantly on the attack.
His descending skills leave a little to be desired but with finishes at the top of mountains and only two prolonged downhill finales, Zakarin has a course that plays more to his strengths than his weaknesses. He is also a competent time-trial exponent so the 40km test against the clock on stage 16 is a boost to his chances. At 16-1, he represents fair each-way value.
Were it not for misfortune on the descent of the Colle dell’Agnello at the 2016 Giro, Steven Kruijswijk would probably already be a Grand Tour winner.
The Dutchman has had a steady season, abandoning the Giro on stage 20 before coming third at the Tour de Suisse and finishing fifth at this month’s Tour de l’Ain.
His performance at last year’s Giro showed he has the ability to mix it with the seasoned GC contenders when on form, and BoyleSports quotes of 40-1 underrate his chances of being in the mix.
1.5pts e-w 16-1 Betfair, Paddy Power
1pt e-w 40-1 BoyleSports