PAMPLONA, Spain (VN) — North Americans are scarcer at this Vuelta a España than rain on the barren Castilian plains in midsummer.
More events back home coupled with an Olympic year that put the spotlight on early August is adding up to the fewest North Americans in the Vuelta in a decade.
Only five will line up for Saturday’s team time trial, and most of the big-name riders, such as Levi Leipheimer, Tejay van Garderen, Taylor Phinney and Ryder Hesjedal, are staying closer to home.
The creation of the Tour of Utah and the USA Pro Challenge, coupled with a pair of World Cup-style races in Canada in early September, mean that most of the major North American stars are giving the Vuelta a miss.
With bike manufacturers such as Trek, Specialized and Cannondale all major backers of teams, there is pressure from sponsors to race on home roads in front of home crowds to make some headlines.
Other factors are also contributing to the rather thin North American field in this year’s Vuelta.
The Olympics was a major goal for several riders, including Chris Horner and Phinney, both of whom are both racing in North America after strong performances during the London Games.
U.S.-registered teams once assured a stronger presence of North Americans, but that’s not the case this year. HTC-Highroad folded at the end of 2011, meaning there’s one less American team in the peloton.
BMC Racing only has one American, with Brent Bookwalter, while Garmin-Sharp brings Andrew Talansky and Tom Peterson.
RadioShack-Nissan, though registered in Luxembourg, still retains strong North American roots, but brings a squad without any North Americans to the Vuelta.
And the Vuelta’s wildcards went to Spanish and French teams, meaning that such squads as UnitedHealthcare, Team Type 1-Sanofi and SpiderTech-C10 are all still waiting for their first grand tour.
Many riders traditionally use the Vuelta to prepare for the world championships, but this year’s classics-style route in Valkenberg doesn’t play into the natural strengths of a sprinter such as Tyler Farrar or stage-race specialists such as Christian Vande Velde or the budding grand-tour star van Garderen.
That all adds up to fewer North Americans in the Vuelta for 2012.
The ones who are here, however, promise to make up in action what the peloton might be lacking in numbers.
Here’s a look at who’s here and what they expect over the next three weeks:
• Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp): Hot off winning a stage and the overall at the Tour de l’Ain, Talansky is back for his second straight Vuelta with higher ambitions. Last year in his rookie season, Talansky did well to make it to Madrid in what many called the hardest Vuelta ever in 78th place. Talansky is hoping to capitalize on that experience and will have a free ride during the Vuelta. Garmin-Sharp doesn’t bring a major GC captain, meaning that Talansky can ride his own race. How far he can go remains to be seen. A top-10 finish against a world-class field over a demanding route would be an impressive sophomore effort.
• Tom Peterson (Garmin-Sharp): Peterson will be back for his second Vuelta start in three years. Strong as an ox, he also made it through the grueling 2011 Giro d’Italia. He will ride to support Talansky but have plenty of freedom to ride into breakaways and hunt stages. With 10 mountaintop finishes scaring away most of the sprinters, there should be plenty of opportunities for breakaway artists to sneak away in the transition stages. Peterson was 26th at the 2010 Vuelta, and could make a concerted push toward GC if he’s feeling good.
• Danny Pate (Team Sky): Pate was on the bubble to make the Tour de France selection for Team Sky, which went on to win with Bradley Wiggins. Pate will be one of the key riders for Sky at the Vuelta, where Chris Froome comes with open ambitions of winning the race. Sky is arguably the strongest team in the Vuelta, and will not have the distraction of trying to support Mark Cavendish. With riders such as Rigoberto Urán, Richie Porte and Sergio Henao all looking to have strong rides in the mountains, Pate will be one of the riders Froome will be leaning on during the transition between the major climbing stages.
• Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing): Another rider who was on the bubble for the Tour, Bookwalter will start his first Vuelta in what will be his fourth career grand tour. After two strong Tours in support of Cadel Evans, Bookwalter was not part of the 2012 Tour squad. That means that Bookwalter will enter this Vuelta with top form and have more opportunities to ride for himself on a BMC squad bereft of a major GC candidate. Bookwalter came within two seconds of the pink jersey in the 2010 Giro d’Italia, so perhaps the hard-working rider will take flight during this Vuelta.
• Dominique Rollin (FDJ-BigMat): The Canadian rouleur will look to try his luck in the sprints and breakaways. Rollin raced this year’s Giro d’Italia, but in stage 17 was struck by a Vacansoleil team car, knocked off his bike and left banged up. He succumbed in the closing mountains and did not make it to Milano. Rollin, who started the Vuelta in 2009 with Cervelo, but fell ill, will try to get into breakaways, where his strong finishing kick could come in handy for a shot at a stage victory. The last and only Canadian to win a stage at the Vuelta was Hesjedal in 2009; that would be good company for Rollin to be in.
Hood cut his journalistic teeth at Colorado dailies before the web boom opened the door to European cycling in the mid-1990s. Hood’s covered every Tour since 1996 and has been VeloNews’ European correspondent since 2002. He lives in Leon, Spain, when he’s not chasing bike races.