At the Vuelta a España, a guy who twice finished fifth overall at the Tour de France is being asked to ride for a guy five months short of his thirty-ninth birthday. On one of the three most moneyed teams in the sport.
The season's final Grand Tour always brings with it a hodgepodge of riders on almost every team, even on well-resourced ones like BMC Racing, Team Sky and Tinkoff. The Tour-Vuelta double has only been achieved twice (Jacques Anquetil, 1963, and Bernard Hinault, 1978), meaning the odds are stacked against Chris Froome (Team Sky) backing up after his successful three-week effort in July, which was followed by a trip to Rio for the road race and time trial, where he came away with a bronze medal in the latter. Post-2000, Carlos Sastre was the last person to finish on the podium of the Tour and Vuelta, when he won La Grande Boucle and ran third at La Vuelta back in 2008, and in 2002, Joseba Beloki was runner-up at the Tour and third at the Vuelta. So, chances that Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will blitz the field are equally slim - especially since team-mate Alejandro Valverde has been granted leadership status.
"Other than the 2015 Giro it was the Tasmanian's second shot as team leader at a Grand Tour; for van Garderen, July marked his sixth attempt at leadership and fifth at the Tour de France."
Only three men have done the Giro-Vuelta double, though Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) showed it can be done in this modern-day milieu, having accomplished as much in 2008. Out of all the contenders at this Vuelta it can be argued El Pistolero is the most motivated - mainly because at 33 years old, it might be his last chance to win a Grand Tour. (Though when the time comes to announcing his new team for 2017, I'm sure he'll say otherwise.)
That Fabio Aru (Astana) finished second to Contador at last year's Giro then went on to win the Vuelta a España - which he won't be defending - reaffirms the possibility of doing a good Giro-Vuelta. As does this year's Giro d'Italia champ Vincenzo Nibali, who in 2013 won the Giro and was runner-up to Chris Horner at the Vuelta, and in 2010 was third at the Giro then won the Vuelta. (His superlative consistency probably goes some way into explaining why he gets miffed at being perennially underrated.) If they've got the form, it therefore means Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) and Steven Kruijswijk (Team LottoNl-Jumbo) can be considered bona-fide contenders.
What about Valverde? Well, only two riders have finished in the top-10 at all three Grand Tours in the same year: Raphaël Géminiani in 1955, and Gastone Nencini in 1957. I don't think the evergreen 36-year-old will win, though given his history at the Vuelta you'd have to say he's a shoe-in to be the third and the first in the modern era to do so: DNF (2002), 3rd (2003), 4th (2004), 2nd (2006), 5th (2008), 1st (2009), 2nd (2012), 3rd (2014), 7th (2015). Whatever you think of him, a remarkable record.
But Samuel Sánchez?
While not as accomplished as Valverde he's got a great Vuelta track record: five times in the top-10 and twice on the podium. However, the last time he made the latter was 2009 and this season there's been nothing to suggest things will change; 87th at the Clasica San Sebastian and an unremarkable 16th overall at the Vuelta a Burgos, considered pre-Vuelta tune-ups, his most recent results. Should BMC Racing not be placing their faith in Darwin Atapuma, ninth at this year's Giro, if they're thinking of a succession plan? Or maybe they're not thinking.
Speaking of succession planning, it seems Tejay van Garderen, who bombed out of the Tour for a second year running, is being given a subtle tap on the shoulder. At the Vuelta the 28-year-old's been told he's a protected rider but their sport director Valerio Piva said in a team press release last week "Sánchez is our leader for the general classification". "I'm excited for the team time trial as it gives us a good chance to take the jersey," was the only quote from van Garderen, BMC Racing ultimately finishing fourth in the opening TTT. Apparently, the plan is to target a stage win, help Sánchez, and get another Grand Tour in his legs in the same year. "It'll be a different kind of stage race for me, so it'll be an interesting race for me," he told reporters prior to the race start.
Maybe one that, sooner rather than later, he'll need to get used to.
While Richie Porte this year matched the American's best overall result at the Tour it was a far more convincing fifth place. Other than the 2015 Giro it was the Tasmanian's second shot as team leader at a Grand Tour; for van Garderen, July marked his sixth attempt at leadership and fifth at the Tour de France. Richie rode like a leader; Tejay, on the other hand, got his pair of fifths by following wheels, mostly.
When you consider the cases of Cadel Evans, van Garderen and Sánchez, it becomes apparent BMC Racing has some difficulty when it comes to succession planning, or more specifically, implementation. If they haven't already planned to do so, sporting manager Allan Peiper and general manager Jim Ochowicz should rip the band-aid off and give Porte outright leadership at next year's Tour.