The 2013 Vuelta a EspaÃ±a features one of its toughest routes ever, with 11 summit finishes and a final mountain showdown on the dauntingly steep Angliru. And the battle for the UCI WorldTour classifications is set to be no less intense...
The 2012 WorldTour individual classification winner, Joaquim RodrÃguez (Katusha) is just one key overall contender taking part. Second in the 2012 Giro dâ€™Italia and third in the 2012 Vuelta a EspaÃ±a, as well as third in this summerâ€™s Tour de France, RodrÃguez will be seeking to win his first ever Grand Tour on home soil, and an overall victory would simultaneously enable the veteran Spaniard to challenge Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Sky ProCycling) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) at the head of the individual UCI WorldTour rankings.
Neither Froome, with 587 points in the UCI WorldTour individual classification or Sagan, with 409, are taking part, giving RodrÃguez, in third place with 390 points, an excellent chance at least to close the gap on the two riders ahead.
Other top ten riders in the UCI WorldTour likely to be fighting for the overall classification include Movistarâ€™s Alejandro Valverde, currently lying sixth in the UCI individual ranking, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), in eighth. Whilst Valverdeâ€™s victory in the Vuelta in 2009 and brace of second places in 2006 and 2012 indicates the Spanish race holds no secrets for the Movistar rider, the same can be said for Nibali, a winner of the Vuelta a EspaÃ±a in 2010 whose victory in the 2013 Giro dâ€™Italia this May arguably makes the Italian the top favourite. Other top UCI WorldTour riders are Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan), Roman Kreuziger (Saxo-Tinkoff) and Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), in fifth, ninth and tenth places overall respectively.
The UCI WorldTourâ€™s nations classification, currently led by Spain with 1,282 points ahead of Colombia with 1,001 points could also see some important changes. Colombians Carlos Alberto Betancur (AG2R La Mondiale) and Sergio Henao (Sky ProCycling) both gunning for an overall challenge in La Vuelta a EspaÃ±a. Colombia, therefore, may be able to increase their margin on third-placed Great Britain, with 975 points, even if Spain look likely to remain unreachable in first.
Sky ProCycling look equally invulnerable in the top spot of the UCIWorldTour teams classification, with 1,411 points ahead of Spanish squad Movistar with 1,115. But could points gained in Spain enable a late challenge against Sky gain traction? Donâ€™t rule it out.
The Vueltaâ€™s favourites will certainly have to be prepared to hit the ground running, with a 27.4 kilometre team time trial on the opening Saturday and a first category climb summit finish, the Monte de Groba, as early as stage two on Sunday. Neither stage will decide the winner - but any of the favourites in poor form will quickly be in trouble.
Thereafter the challenges come thick and fast - with three uphill finishes in Andalusia on stages eight, nine and ten, a full-strength high mountain stage through the Pyrenees on stage 15 and, of course, the Angliru on stage 20 prior to a final sprint into Madrid on September 15th.
Stage 11 is the raceâ€™s only individual time trial, a 38.8 kilometre stage in Tarazona. But even that has a thrid category climb mid-way through, which means the mountain men should be able to limit any damage inflicted by the time triallists. The big climbs, then, will almost certainly once again decide the outcome of cyclingâ€™s last Grand Tour of 2013 - and hopefully make for as dramatic a Vuelta a EspaÃ±a as in 2012.