The Vuelta a España, the last three-week tour of the season, starts in Vigo on Spain's north west tip on 1 September. Over the next three weeks, the peloton will race in a clockwise loop around Spain, finishing in Madrid on 23 September.
The race has its usual mix of short, punchy stages and tough climbs, with a couple of time trials thrown in for good measure. The against the clock stages are no more than token gestures: the first is 52km and descends 350m from the start to the finish, while the second is just 20km long and dead flat. This edition of the Vuelta is definitely geared towards the mountain men.
After a 145km road stage to open the tour in Vigo, the first serious test for the riders will be the fourth stage between Langreo and Lagos de Covadonga. The finish is on a 12.6km climb averaging 7.3 percent and will already start to shape the final general classification. The next day there's another 15km category 1 climb on the run between Cangas de Onís and Reinosa, its summit coming with 20km to go.
Two sprinters’ stages lead into the first time trial from Denominación de Origen Cariñena to Zaragoza, which marks the eighth stage of the tour. That's followed by another mountain finish to the Cerler ski station, a 12.6km climb averaging 5.5 percent, and then a seriously difficult 214km 10th stage between Benasque and Andorra (Vallnord / sector Arcalís). On this leg, the riders will have to surmount the category 1 Puerto del Canto (19.5km at 5.1 percent) and the 15km drag to the finish, which averages 5.6 percent.
The second Tuesday is a rest day and the riders will transfer south to the east coast of Spain, where on Wednesday they will race 191km between Oropesa del Mar and Algemesí. Three more flat to rolling stages follow, then a 201km journey between Villacarrillo and Granada on Sunday, September 16th. This stage has a sting in its tail in the form of the Alto de Monachil (8.4km at 8.1 percent) that comes with 20km to go.
There's another rest day on Monday before the Vuelta turns north for its final assault towards the finish in Madrid. It will be a quiet few days for the GC riders until Friday's 19th stage between Ávila and Alto de Abantos. This climb has some steep ramps - up to 19 percent - and could shake up things on the classification before Saturday's final time trial. That test, as mentioned previously, is a mere 20km and won't produce big time gaps.
The final stage is a short 104km between Rivas Vaciamadrid and Madrid, which will serve to parade the winner home to the Spanish capital and give the sprinters one more chance at glory.
There will be no Astana team in the Vuelta this year, after their Kazakh connection, Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin, who finished first and third last year, have now tested positive for homologous blood doping. Incidentally, both riders missed a pre-stage doping test at last year's Vuelta but were not penalised for it.
Tour de France winner Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde will also be absent from the start list this year, leaving the race wide open for Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) to have a crack at winning his first grand tour. Evans' inclusion comes at the expense of team sprinter Robbie McEwen, who is not too happy about missing out on a chance to win stages in all three major tours in the same year.
There are several riders with the capability to challenge Evans in the mountains, topped by CSC's Carlos Sastre who has a handful of third and fourth places in the Tour de France and Vuelta to his credit. Of the rest, Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Samuel Sánchez and Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel) and one of the Discovery riders, Janez Brajkovic or Tom Danielson look to be the best.
In the sprinting stakes, the big Belgian Tom Boonen will be out for more wins following his successful Tour de France campaign. Boonen won the green jersey there but will face his main rival Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) in the Vuelta's sprints. Petacchi has been under a cloud this year after testing positive for a high level of salbutamol during the Giro d'Italia. The Italian Olympic Committee wants to get him banned, but the Italian cycling federation has said no so far. But Milram has its other sprinting star Erik Zabel, who has shown time and again that he can still win.
Oscar Freire is down to start for Rabobank, and if he keeps his ongoing injuries under control, then he is almost a cert for a stage win. Outsiders for sprint stages include Jean-Patrick Nazon (AG2R), Francisco José Ventoso (Saunier Duval), Allan Davis and Tomas Vaitkus (both Discovery Channel).
Finally, there are the riders who will look for opportunistic wins in some of the in-between stages. Damiano Cunego (Lampre) might be riding for GC, but he possesses a killer sprint which he can use to good effect in a small group. And let's not forget Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step), who will be gearing up to defend his world championship, and Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner), who has had a quiet season so far.