The Vuelta a España, the third and final Grand Tour of the season, gets underway this weekend, and looks set to be one of the most hotly contested editions of the race in years.
Despite being perceived as the less prestigious cousin of both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, this year’s Vuelta boasts a startlist arguably stronger than both. All of the top four from the Tour de France are due to line-up, as will all the top four from the Giro (apart from winner Alberto Contador, for whom a third consecutive Grand Tour will be a bridge too far).
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Following his Tour de France victory, all eyes will be on Chris Froome. The 30-year old looked unbeatable for much of that race, and will again be supported by a strong Sky team including on-form Colombian Sergio Henao, Giro stage winner Vasil Kiryienka, emerging talent Ian Boswell, and his star domestique from the Tour, Geraint Thomas.
However, it’s a big ask to expect Froome to reach the same high levels so soon after such a draining victory, and he’ll come under severe pressure from rivals hungry for revenge. That Sky team might be strong, but pales in comparison to an Astana team that features three riders all capable of overall victory – 2014 Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali and Giro podium finishers Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa.
Similarly, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde will again be present to attempt to get the better of the Briton, and will this time have more mountains to do so, as well a potential super-domestique in the form of Giro fourth place finisher Andrey Amador.
The strength of each team will come under immediate scrutiny in the very first stage, a 7.4km Team Time Trial in Puerto Banus. From there, the riders will tackle three difficult stages in Andalusia, with searingly hot weather and two short uphill finishes likely to cause much stress in the peloton.
The rest of the first week is no easier, with just one day for the sprinters on stage five before two consecutive uphill finishes – the category two Alto de Cazorla, and, harder still, the category one Alto de Capilleira. Another tricky uphill finish awaits on stage nine, but the sprinters will have chances to force a bunch finish prior to the first rest day on the flatter stages eight and ten.
The queen stage of race arrives as early as the day after the first rest day, during which the peloton will transfer north to the Pyrenees. Despite lasting only 138km, stage eleven features six summits, and looks guaranteed to cause huge time gaps.
All that climbing sets the tone for the rest of the second week, which, following a couple of gentler stages, includes three successive Pyrenean mountain top finishes, each more difficult than the last and culminating in the out-of-category Alto Ermita de Alba on stage sixteen.
Time-trial specialists finally get a chance to make up some time on the climbers on stage seventeen’s 39km effort in Burgos, before another couple of hilly stage as the race heads southwards. Stage twenty provides one last chance for any reshuffles in the GC, with four category one climbs, but with a long downhill run to the finish may turn out manageable for whoever is in the leader’s jersey at this point.
If they can make it to the finish with their lead unscathed, a relaxed, processional stage around the streets of Madrid awaits.