There’s less than two weeks to go until the 2010 Vuelta gets under way, and excitement is building, not just because of our Fantasy Vuelta game in which you can win yourself a bike – head over here to sign up – but also because it promises to be a cracking tour, featuring a host of star names including many expected to challenge for the world champion’s rainbow jersey at Melbourne in October.
Those big names include Fränk and Andy Schleck, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre and Roman Kreuziger among the general classification contenders, while sprinters hoping to give Cavendish something to think about ahead of Australia comprise, among others, former world champion Oscar Freire, Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar and Alessandro Petacchi.
The first Grand Tour to begin within its own borders since the 2009 centenary edition of the Giro d'Italia got under way in Venice - the last three Grand Tours including last year's Vuelta each started in The Netherlands - this year's race should start with a bang with a spectacular nocturnal team time trial in Seville.
There'll be little let-up in the subsequent three weeks including what promise to be six hard-fought summit finishes, and because the race, in common with the Giro d'Italia, but unlike the Tour de France these days, offers time bonuses at the end of stages, there is every incentive to scrap for places.
The Vuelta itself has a new race leader’s jersey as it celebrates its 75th birthday, a stylish red number designed by renowned Spanish fashion house Custo Barcelona, but last year’s winner, Alejandro Valverde, won’t be there to defend his title as a result of his ban – well overdue, some might say – for links to the Operacion Puerto EPO scandal.
The Caisse d’Epargne rider also won the combination jersey last year – awarded to the rider with the best aggregate position across the overall, points and mountains classifications. The holder of the points jersey will be absent, too – HTC-Columbia’s André Griepel, who heads to Omega Pharma-Lotto next season and who misses out to soon to team mate-cum-rival Mark Cavendish as the Manxman looks to build his form heading to the worlds.
David Moncoutié of Cofidis is back, however, to defend the mountains classification he won last year, but given the quality of the field, the Frenchman has his work cut out.
Besides Valverde, last year’s other two podium finishers, Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi and BMC Racing’s Cadel Evans have both opted to give the Vuelta a miss, and the highest placed finisher from last year who returns is Xacobeo-Galicia’s Ezequiel Mosquera, fifth last time around.
Despite those high-profile absences, however, there is some absolute quality in what is a strong field, including both Schleck brothers, riding their final Grand Tour for Team Saxo Bank ahead of their move to Bryan Nygaard’s new Luxembourg-based ProTour team, with Tour de France runner-up Andy playing a secondary role this time to older brother Fränk.
Besides Mosquera, the home challenge features the likes of Carlos Sastre from Cervélo TestTeam, who will be looking to put his disappointing performances at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France behind him, and Caisse’d’Epargne’s David Arroyo – second in the Giro d’Italia – and Luis Leon Sanchez, as well as Jouaquin Rodriguez of Team Katusha.
But they face stiff competition from outside Spain, including the likes of the Liquigas-Doimo pairing Roman Kreuziger and Vicenzo Nibali, a late call-up to the Italian outfit’s Giro d’Italia line-up this year, where he finished third behind team mate Ivan Basso and Arroyo.
Rabobank’s Denis Menchov, belatedly awarded the Vuelta win in 2005 after the disqualification of Roberto Heras for doping and winner again in 2007 will fancy his chances, while Team Sky’s challenge is headed by Thomas Lövkvist who, free of the supporting role he played in the Tour de France to Bradley Wiggins, could challenge for a top ten place.
Mark Cavendish, so close to winning the points jersey in the Tour de France despite his disastrous start to the race, will be looking to win his first Grand Tour points classification, but there’s a host of sprint talent on show who will look to make life tough for him, including Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Transitions, Rabobank’s Oscar Freire, Thor Hushovd of Cervélo TestTeam and Tour de France green jersey winner Alessandro Petacchi.
Besides Cavendish, British interest is limited to David Millar of Garmin-Transitions, winner of the 2009 Vuelta’s final individual time trial in Toledo last year and looking to repeat that feat on this year’s Stage 17, Roger Hammond of Cervélo TestTeam, plus the Team Sky trio of Peter Kennaugh and Ben Swift – both riding their first Grand Tours – and Ian Stannard.
The Irish pair of Philip Deignan and Nicolas Roche could do something special, however – Deignan, riding for Cervélo TestTeam, took his maiden Grand Tour win last year in Avila and finished ninth overall, while AG2R-La Mondiale’s Roche, 15th in the general classification in last month’s Tour de France will be looking to build on his strong performance there.
Stage 1: Seville Team Time Trial (14.4km)
Saturday 28th August
The 2010 Vuelta should get off to a cracking start in Seville in what promises to be a spectacular night team time trial going past some of the Andalucian city’s most famous landmarks. Those include the 13th century Torre del Oro, built by the Moors who shaped much of this part of Spain, and the Maestranza bullring. The first team will go off the ramp outside the latter at 9pm UK time to negotiate the 14.4km course, the first third of which is pretty technical, with the final one departing an hour or so later.
Stage 2: Alcalá de Guadaíra to Marbella (173.7 km)
Sunday 29th August
Due to the late finish the previous evening, today’s stage doesn’t get under way until 12.30 UK time, and the route runs through the provinces of Seville, Cadiz and Malaga to finish in the millionaire’s playground of Marbella. The stage includes the first mountains points in the shape of two Category 3 climbs, followed by what promises to be a fast descent in the final 50km into Marbella, with a vertical drop of 740m. It’s a day when a breakaway is likely to get off the front and stay there.
There’s no shortage of expat Brits down in this part of the world, although one with a holiday home here will be disappointed he won’t get the chance to cheer on his favourite cyclist – Lord Sugar of Amstrad and The Apprentice fame, whose stable of high-end bike’s include a custom Pinarello Prince of Spain, a limited edition run produced in honour of Alejandro Valverde.
Stage 3: Marbella to Malaga (157.3 km)
Monday 30th August
Today, legs will be tested right from the start with a Category 3 ascent to be negotiated the moment the flag drops, and that’s likely to see a series of attacks as riders try and get into an early escape. The GC contenders will already be thinking of the day’s final two climbs – or climb, with the Category 1 Castillo de Gibralfaro needing to be crested twice, and a sharp kick inside the closing two kilometres promising plenty of fireworks.
Stage 4: Málaga to Valdepeñas de Jaén (183.8 km)
Tuesday 31st August
Nestled on the side of the Sierra de la Pandera mountains and known for its natural springs, the small town of Valdepeñas de Jaén will be hosting the Vuelta for the first time, and the stage holds a sting in its tail, with gradients of 15% inside the final kilometre again raising the prospect of vital seconds being won and lost. There’s little respite for the less strong climbers, either, with three categorised ascents, the last of which, the Valdepeñas de Jaén, promises to be the toughest and its summit lies just 8km from the finish.
Stage 5: Guadix Lorca (198.8 km)
Wednesday 1st September
Technically, today is categorised as a “flat” stage, despite the profile being bumpier than anything you’ll find back home in the UK. Nevertheless, the stage represents the first chance for the sprinters to open their account, assuming that Stage 2 ended up being won by a breakaway rather than contested as a bunch sprint. With a steady descent over the closing 60km, the last hour or so is likely to be raced at a frenetic pace.
Stage 6: Caravaca de la Cruz to Murcia (151.0km)
Thursday 2nd September
Today’s stage starts in Caravaca de la Cruz, where Spain began their preparations for their successful campaign in this summer’s FIFA World Cup. Perhaps it’s best not to mention the local sporting hero in Murcia, the city where the stage finishes, however. When the Tour de France visited Brussels this year, the legendary Eddy Merckx was accorded VIP treatment in his home city. It’s unlikely that local lad Alejandro Valverde will receive similar treatment here from the organisers. However, with the stage featuring the Category 3 Cresta del Gallo, one of Valverde’s regular training climbs, just 10km from the finish, Caisse d’Epargne will be keen to win today to show their leader he hasn’t been forgotten.
Stage 7: Murcia to Orihuela (187.1km)
Friday 3rd September
With the first big mountain tests looming over the weekend, today should favour the sprinters, but again the stage profile is anything but flat, with another Category 3 climb, the Hondón de Los Frailes, lying in wait around 50km from the finish. In a year when the Vuelta celebrates its 75th anniversary, today’s stage also commemorates the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández, who was born 100 years ago in Orihuela.
Stage 8: Villena to Xorret de Catí (190.0km)
Saturday 4th September
Today’s itinerary in the mountains above the Costa Blanca sees five categorised ascents that get progressively harder, culminating in the Category 1 Xorret del Catí, where Valverde snatched the race leader’s jersey from Cadel Evans last year in a stage won by Gustavo César Veloso of Xacobeo Galicia. With the gradient hitting one in five on the way up towards the finish, today’s stage could be equally decisive come the end of the race.
Stage 9: Calpe to Alcoy (187.7km)
Sunday 5th September
There are no fewer than seven categorised descents on today’s climb, and although none of them gets beyond a Category 2, it nevertheless promises to be an unrelenting day in the saddle as the riders head back inland from the Costa Blanca. It’s likely to be a day when the overall contenders mark each other closely, with every opportunity of a breakaway succeeding ahead of Monday's rest day. Currently suspended Danilo di Luca was the last Vuelta stage winner in Alcoy in 2002.
Stage 10: Tarragona to Vilanova i la Geltrú (175.7km)
Tuesday 7th September
With the race having transferred up the Mediterranean coast to Catalonia, today’s profile at first glance looks kinder than those of the weekend’s stages, but that would be to underestimate the Category 1 Rat Penat that rises like a shark’s tooth some 30km from the stage finish. The ascent may be a little under 500 metres, but it’s the gradient that will do the damage – averaging over 12%, it hits over 23% in places and is likely to see some spectacular attacks. Anyone left behind here will have to fight extremely hard to get back before the finish.
Stage 11: Vilanova i la Geltrú to Andorra (Pal) (208.4 km)
Wednesday 8th September
The race enters its second half with one of its biggest climbs, the Beyond Category ascent up into the Pyrenean state of Andorra. The gradient is steady rather than sharp, and as the maxim goes, although this isn’t a day when the race can be one, it’s definitely one when it can be lost, so expect the GC contenders to stick tightly together on their way up. The last time a Vuelta stage finished in Andorra, the winner, Alessandro Ballan, went on to win the World Championships. We reckon you could probably get decent odds on Mark Cavendish completing the first half of that double this year.
Stage 12: Andorra la Vella to Lleida (172.5 km)
Thursday 9th September
Today, the race heads back into Spain and affords a rare chance for the sprinters to prove their mettle, but only after negotiating the Category 2 climb of the Coll de Boixols, which comes less than a third of the way into the stage. It’s a stage that Mark Cavendish will have circled in red ever since the route was announced, and one British cyclist watching particularly attentively will be Malcolm Elliott, still competing at the age of 49, who was the last man to win a Vuelta stage here way back in 1989.
Stage 13: Rincón de Soto to Burgos (196.0 km)
Friday 10th September
With an undulating profile ahead of two Category 3 climbs in the closing third of today’s route, this stage is likely to see an early breakaway try to keep ahead of the bunch as the sprinters’ teams try to rein them in ahead of the finale. With three successive mountain stages lying ahead, the chase could be frantic, but escapees’ efforts may be hampered by the winds that often sweep across this part of the country.
Stage 14: Burgos Peña Cabarga (178.0km)
Saturday 11th September
Today marks the first of three stages in the Cantabrian mountains along the Iberian peninsula's northern coast as the race heads into its final and decisive week. Three Categorised climbs await the peloton ahead of around 50km of descent before the days final climb, which may be short at 6km, but definitely packs a punch, with an average gradient of 10% that ramps up to 18% within the final two kilometres.
Stage 15: Solares to Lagos de Covadonga (187.3km)
Sunday 12th September
The stage finish today on the Covadonga promises to be one of the great set pieces of the 2010 Vuelta, with a rolling profile in the first 150km giving little hint of the sting in the tail. The climb is just 12km and the average gradient 7%, but tht doesn’t tell the full story – there is a 1km stretch, La Huesera, where it hits 13%, and this is where today’s stage may explode into life.
Stage 16: Gijón to Cotobello (181.4 km)
Monday 13th September
Starting in the Asturian port city of Gijon, organisers anticipate that this will be one of the toughest stages of this year’s race, partly because of the two that have preceded it, but also due to the three Category 1 climbs that lie in wait during the second half of the route. Those include a stage finish on the Cotobello, also now known as the Cima Rubiera after Team RadioShack’s Jose Luis Rubiera, who comes from Asturias – but with the US-based team not invited to this year’s race, there’s no opportunity for him to celebrate with a win.
Stage 17: Peñafiel Individual Time Trial (46.0km)
Wednesday 15th September
Today’s race against the clock follows the 2010 Vuelta’s second and final rest day, which many riders will have spent undertaking a recce of today’s course. It’s the one and only chance for specialists in the discipline to grab an individual time trial win in this year’s race, with a flat, straight course through the region’s vineyards, although the wind could prove to be a factor.
Stage 18: Valladolid to Salamanca (148.9km)
Thursday 16th September
Any sprinters who haven’t departed the race already to finalise their preparations for Melbourne will relish today’s stage, although they’ll need to be on their guard against the threat from winds that tend to blow across the plain in this part of the country. The start and finish cities are, besides Madrid, the two most regular ports of call for the Vuelta, with Valladolid being the first ever town to host a stage finish 75 years ago.
Stage 19: Piedrahita to Toledo (231.2km)
Friday 17th September
Today’s stage is the longest of this year’s Vuelta and with a huge test awaiting the main GC contenders tomorrow, an early Category 2 climb points towards a break looking to get away early on. As long as the overall classification isn’t threatened, the teams whose riders are fighting it out at the top of the standings will be happy to let an escape go – and Carlos Satsre will want to have time to stop and greet friends and family in his home town, which the stage passes through – but the sprinters' teams are likely to have to chase hard, particularly if things are tight at the top of the points classification.
Stage 20: San Martín de Valdeiglesias to Bola del Mundo (172.1 km)
Saturday 18th September
Barring the race leader suffering a disaster tomorrow, by the end of today’s stage we will know the identity of the winner of the 2010 Vuelta. The organisers will be hoping that the GC remains close enough that this stage proves to be the decisive one, with the action focused around the last climb of this year’s race, the Bola del Mundo, featured for the first time. The height gain on that climb is more than a kilometre, and includes a stretch of 3km on cement instead of asphalt roads, with the gradient hitting 12%.
Stage 21: San Sebastián de los Reyes to Madrid (85.0km)
Sunday 19th September
It may not have the cachet of the Champs-Elysées, but like the Tour de France, the Vuelta ends with a day made for the sprinters, although there may not be too many of those left after a punishing last three weeks. The race ends with eight laps of a 6km circuit on the Paseo de la Castellana in the Spanish capital, followed by the usual podium celebrations, after which thoughts will inevitably turn to Melbourne and the world championship.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.