Racing of bikes replaces running of bulls, but race may be decided on Bola del Mundo, back after 2010 debut

Last year’s Vuelta provided a late summer treat for British cycling fans, with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome getting on the podium and the latter challenging Juan Jose Cobo for the red jersey all the way to Madrid. The route of this year’s race, announced yesterday in Madrid, promises similar drama, although it’s likely to be after the Olympics until we find out who the big contenders are.

Opening in Pamplona on 18 August, when the running of bulls will be replaced by the racing of bikes in the Team Time Trial which ends in the city’s bullring, the 67th Vuelta is a race that will be almost exclusively played out in the northern third of the country, only heading into the centre and towards Madrid in the closing three days.

That will provide welcome relief for the likes of Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish, whose world championship preparations were disrupted last year when he abandoned the Vuelta through heat exhaustion on the fourth day of the race as Andalucia experienced soaring temperatures.

Besides Pamplona, several others among northern Spain’s major cities get a chance to welcome the race as it sweeps across the breadth of the country, heading first towards the Mediterranean via Andorra in the Pyrenees towards Barcelona, before a transfer by plane across to the Atlantic coast and back into the mountains via the Galician Santiago de Compostela.

In all, the Vuelta features six summit finishes among a total of 37 categorised climbs in its 3,300 kilometre itinerary. Three of those come in quick succession at the end of the second week, at Puerto de Ancares, Lagos de Cavadonga and on the Cuitu Negro, included in the race for the first time and singled out as a potentially decisive stage by Samuel Sanchez.

The Euskaltel-Euskadi rider has geared his early season towards the Tour de France followed by the defence of his Olympic road race title, but the Vuelta is also likely to figure, while the fact there is just one individual time trial stage, early in the second week, has been welcomed by riders including defending champion Cobo, now witg Movistar, as well as Katusha’s Joaquin Rodriguez.

On the Spanish equivalent of April Fool’s Day just after Christmas, one local website managed to fool much of the cycling world into thinking that Vuelta organisers planned to shorten the race to two weeks from next year onwards.

A quick glance at the list of stages makes you wonder whether organisers were in on the joke, with four flat and one mountain stages during the final week.

But often, what passes for flat in this part of the world is a medium mountain stage elsewhere – Stage 17 features nearly 40km of climbing in its tail end up to a summit finish.

As for that mountain stage on the final Saturday, well, it finishes on the Bola del Mundo outside Madrid, which stands comparison with the Angliru or the Zoncolan. First included in the Vuelta in 2010.

That’s where Ezekiel Mosquera put in a storming – and, it later transpired, illegally enhanced – ride to clinch the stage that year, although he couldn’t prevent Vincenzo Nibali from sealing his overall win.

Organisers will be hoping for a similarly dramatic final mountain stage this time around, although not the controversy that followed ahead of the annual sprint finish in Madrid on 9 September.

Vuelta a España 2012 route

Stage Type     Date      Start/finish Distance

 1    TTT      Sat 18/08 Pamplona-Pamplona                              16.2 km
 2    Flat     Sun 19/08 Pamplona-Viana                                180.0 km
 3    Mountain Mon 20/08 Faustino V-Eibar (Arrate)                     153.0 km
 4    Mountain Tue 21/08 Barakaldo-Estación de Valdezcaray             155.4 km
 5    Flat     Wed 22/08 Logroño-Logroño                               172.0 km
 6    Flat     Thu 23/08 Tarazona-Jaca                                 174.8 km
 7    Flat     Fri 24/08 Huesca-Alcañiz Motorland Aragón               160.0 km
 8    Mountain Sat 25/08 Lleida-Andorra Collada de la Gallina          175.0 km
 9    Flat     Sun 26/08 Andorra-Barcelona                             194.0 km
      Rest day Mon 27/08 
10    Flat     Tue 28/08 Ponteareas-Sanxenxo                           166.4 km
11    ITT      Wed 29/08 Cambados-Pontevedra                            40.0 km
12    Flat     Thu 30/08 Vilagarcía de Arousa-Dumbría Mirador de Ézaro 184.6 km
13    Flat     Fri 31/08 Santiago de Compostela-Ferrol                 172.7 km
14    Mountain Sat 01/09 Palas de Rei-Puerto de Ancares                152.0 km
15    Mountain Sun 02/09 La Robla-Lagos de Covadonga                   186.7 km
16    Mountain Mon 03/09 Gijón-Valgrande-Pajares. Cuitu Negru          185.0 km
      Rest day Tue 04/09 
17    Flat     Wed 05/09 Santander-Fuente Dé                           177.0 km
18    Flat     Thu 06/09 Aguilar de Campoo-Valladolid                  186.4 km
19    Flat     Fri 07/09 Peñafiel-La Lastrilla                         169.0 km
20    Mountain Sat 08/09 La Faisanera Golf. Segovia 21-Bola del Mundo  169.5 km
21    Flat     Sun 09/09 Cercedilla-Madrid                             111.9 km

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.