There's as much climbing as ever, but a long flat time trial will likely prove decisive coming after the second rest day of the 2017 Vuelta a España
When it comes to putting together a thrilling contest, few event organisers have done better than Vuelta a España boss Javier Guillén.
While his race is still running third in the Grand Tour hierarchy, Guillén has closed the gap on the Giro d’Italia substantially since moving into his post in 2008.
Over that period, he’s boosted the quality of the Vuelta field, delivered a rise in its roadside and television audience, and overseen some of the most exciting racing of recent seasons.
Consequently, there was never much chance of Guillén and his organising team messing with what has been a winning formula for their 2017 edition.
Serving up nine summit finishes, a handful of new and apparently hellish ascents, and some very renowned battlegrounds, the 72nd edition of the Vuelta sticks very much to Guillén’s type.
As usual, specialist climbers who are on a Giro-Vuelta or Tour-Vuelta programme will be rubbing their hands eagerly, although perhaps with not quite the same gleeful gusto as previous seasons.
Chris Froome, however, will have had very good reason to be cheerful as he sat down to his Friday morning breakfast before another day of pre-season training.
Three times the Vuelta runner-up and still awaiting his first red jersey victory, Froome will be one of the very few climbers who will also relish the 42-kilometre time trial that comes after the second rest day and opens the final week of racing.
Assuming good form and strong team support in the high mountains, the Sky leader could establish a significant advantage over his rivals on a very flat course.
While defending champion Nairo Quintana is likely to be absent, those rivals should include four past winners: Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru.
Valverde and Aru were upbeat in their initial assessment of the route, but three-time champion Contador, who was one of those to deny Froome a Vuelta success, expressed his disappointment, telling El País, “The time trial’s too long and too flat.
“It’s going to cause a lot of damage. After that the only opportunity to regain time is on the Angliru.”
This legendary Asturian peak will be tackled on the day before the race finishes in Madrid and comes at the end of a brutal stage that could provide a late shake-up of the GC.
However, if Contador proves correct, the climbers will have to strike far earlier than that.
The lofty summits of Calar Alto and La Pandera offer obvious opportunities, but the standout stage is to Sierra Nevada, where the 2,490-metre finish will reveal which riders have reached this late point in the season with the most gas in the tank.
Contador picked it out as ‘perhaps the most beautiful of the race’, although he’ll be one of the very few to see it that way.
As mean as ever in the opportunities available to sprinters, the Vuelta should attract many of the punchy riders favoured for the world title in Bergen at the end of September, defending champion Peter Sagan among them.
They will add to a spicy mix that should further enhance Guillén’s reputation as the master of the unpredictable.