Spain’s Juan Jose Cobo (C) of Geox TMC celebrates on the podium after winning the Vuelta cycling tour of Spain next the second British Christopher Froome (R) of Skyprocycling and third British Bradley Wiggins of Skyprocycling in Madrid on September 11, 2011. The stage was a 95,6 kms ride from Circuito del Jamara-RACE to Madrid. (JAIME REINA/AFP/Getty Images)

By Todd Gogulski, Universal Sports | @BiciGoGo

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The upcoming 67th edition of the Vuelta a España, the world’s third most important stage-race, is widely anticipated. I see the race as a likely showdown between the return of four-time Grand Tour winner, Spaniard Alberto Contador (the most decorated cyclist of the current generation) and Chris Froome, the Kenyan born and raised British citizen whose meteoric rise to prominence began at la Vuelta last year. In last year’s event, Froome (Team Sky) started in a supporting role for Bradley Wiggins, who had crashed out of the Tour de France, and ended with Froome battling eventual winner Juan José Cobo in some of the most exciting mountain top finishes I have seen in years. Cobo won the war, with Froome finishing second, only 13 seconds behind, but since then Froome has gone on to finish second in the Tour de France, again supporting teammate Bradley Wiggins who took the win, and he followed that up with a bronze medal in the Olympic Time Trial. Pretty incredible for a guy who last year at this time didn’t even have a contract for the next season.

Even with Froome’s incredible last 12 months, Contador is still my favorite for overall victory. He’s returning from a ban which has kept him from competition since February, but for that entire time he’s been training (and being tested in surprise out-of-competition doping controls) for the final Grand Tour of the season. For Contador and his Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank team, nothing but an overall victory will do. Beginning in 2007, Contador has finished victorious in all but one of the seven Grand Tours he has started, though he was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia victories for his positive test for Clenbuterol in the 2010 Tour.

The trifecta of most likely winners is rounded out by Spaniard Joaquim Rodriguez of the Katusha team. Rodriguez was second overall in la Vuelta the last time he raced it in 2010, and he was second overall earlier this year in the Giro d’Italia, losing by a scant 16 seconds. With the help of his team director Valerio Piva, Rodriguez continues to improve his Achilles heel in cycling, the individual time trial. He was very close to netting his first Grand Tour overall victory in May in the Giro, and in this year’s Vuelta, he just might silence his critics, including myself. A year ago I never thought he’d stand a chance of winning a Grand Tour due to his deplorable time trial skills, but he has made big inroads there.

Defending champion Cobo of Movistar has built his entire season around his Vuelta defense, but I don’t expect him to be as good as he was last year, where everything just fell perfectly into place for the Spaniard. He is supported by former Vuelta winner Alejandro Valverde, but the climbs in la Vuelta are not only numerous but also brutal this year, and no matter how good Cobo’s support is, he will still need the legs to make it happen.

Universal Sports Network analyst Todd Gogulski spent more than a decade racing professionally, including on the U.S. National team, and had more than 100 victories during his career. Follow him on Twitter @BiciGoGo