The 2016 Vuelta a Espana rolls off on Saturday with three giants of cycling waiting to battle it out for the final Grand Tour of the year.
Tour de France winner Chris Froome, fresh from competing at the 2016 Olympics, will contend with Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana for the Vuelta, both of whom missed Rio to concentrate on the red jersey.
On paper, Contador and Quintana look like the favourites, but who else can challenge this illustrious trio?
Froome may be the 2016 Tour champion but his exploits in Rio will have taken plenty from his tank. Finishing 12th in the road race, he then won bronze in the time trial when admitting he had nothing left in his legs.
His powers of recovery will be severely tested on another brutal Vuelta parcours that includes ten new summit finishes.
On past precedents, riders such as Froome with a busy schedule in the lead-up to La Vuelta often do not fare well, and this plays into the hands of three-time winner Contador and Quintana who are both fresh.
Contador’s crash and illness at the Tour forced an early abandonment and he has since had the time to rest and prepare himself for a tilt at a fourth Vuelta title.
Quintana, meanwhile, suffered with a mystery virus during the Tour but recovered to finish on the podium in third.
The Colombian has been unlucky in this race before, having crashed in a time trial when well-placed to win in 2014, and crashing again in the next stage.
Movistar have named Alejandro Valverde as their leader but it is unlikely he will be able to challenge Contador and Quintana is waiting in the wings should he falter early on.
Esteban Chaves is another Colombian looking for Vuelta glory and, after a second-place finish to Vincenzo Nibali in the 2016 Giro, he has geared his season around a Giro/Vuelta run.
Chaves claimed fifth in the 2015 Vuelta in his breakthrough season and it is clearly a race that suits the smiling Orica BikeExhange rider.
Outside challengers include Steven Kruijswijk, who crashed late in the Giro when in the maglia rosa, and Andrew Talansky, who has solely focused on the Vuelta this year.
The other jerseys
The green points jersey is likely to be taken by a pure climber, such is way the Vuelta weights the points on each stage.
This structure has been labelled unfair by several of the world’s top sprinters in recent seasons and consequently there are no notable fast men other than Movistar rider Jose Joaquin Rojas at the Vuelta this season.
Instead, with the mountainous terrain on offer the Vuelta has attracted several of the world’s top puncheurs who may fight it out for the white combined jersey and the blue polka dot king of the mountains jersey in addition to the green.
Puncheurs, or one-day classic specialists, favour short sharp bursts up hills and with the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Simon Gerrans and Zdenek Stybar on show, cycling fans will have plenty to enjoy over the three weeks.
La Vuelta organisers Unipublic have been sensible this year, with the race mainly based in the mountains of northern Spain and few lengthy transfers between stages.
There are some stonking summit finishes on show, including stage three’s arrival at the Mirador de Izaro, which features an incline of a whopping 29%, a gradient which saw riders climb off and walk in the 2013 Vuelta.
Stage eight sees the riders take on La Camponera, which elevates to 24% in places, while the run in to the stage 17 summit finish takes place on the Mas de la Costa, which averages 15% for 4km and tops out at 22%.
The toughest stage looks set to be the fourteenth, with three category one climbs and the summit finish atop the ‘especial’ category Col d’Aubisque.
There are five official flat stages, while the race kicks off with a team time trial and features a pivotal individual time trial on stage 19.
There are a good selection of Brits in the 2016 Vuelta. Chris Froome is the headline act and he is joined on the Team Sky roster by Peter Kennaugh, who surrendered his Rio road race spot to the in-form Steve Cummings.
Simon Yates also enters his first Grand Tour since a ban for a failed drug test – something his team take responsibility for regarding their failure to notify the UCI of his asthma medication.
Yates will have his work cut out to emulate brother Adam, who finished an astonishing fourth in the Tour de France in July.
Young Brits Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural) and Scott Thwaites (Bora Argon-18) both make their Grand Tour debuts to bring the total number of British riders present at the Vuelta to five.
So, that leaves nothing else to do other than kick back with a large glass of Rioja and watch the riders slog it out in 40C heat, go head-to-head in the high mountains and fight for the final Grand Tour of the season.
There is also the chance for an unheralded sprinter to make a name for themselves and watch out for those pesky Brits – Froome, Carthy and Yates could all feature in the top ten on the General Classification if it goes to plan.
But, with Contador, Quintana and Froome all lighting up the front of the race it’s going to be a treat, and my money is on Quintana to emerge victorious.
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