• Contador fails to see the funny side (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
La Vuelta a Espana organisers have clearly decided the last few editions were too easy. They've thrown in 10 summit finishes this year plus a team time trial (TTT) and an individual time trial (ITT) to play a critical role in the grueling three week test.
Jamie Finch-Penninger

Cycling Central
20 Aug 2016 - 5:16 AM  UPDATED 20 Aug 2016 - 11:28 AM

Seemingly, La Vuelta organisers Unipublic, have made it their mission to find enough steep climbs to staple onto the back end of stages even when the rest of the day’s racing is relatively flat.

The climbs won’t come as a big surprise. The steep gradients of the Vuelta are well known, the route always appearing to suit riders with a punchy kick and are at home on the steep slopes, mostly Spanish. 

The race of truth

A TTT begins the race as it often does at the Spanish grand tour but at 27.8 kilometres it will create bigger gaps than normal.

In 2014, Chris Froome asked race director Javier Guillen why there were no flat ITTs in the Vuelta. Guillen happily announced there would be a flat TT around Burgos in 2015. Despite Froome not renewing his request, there is another flat time trial on offer this year in Stage 19 which again favours the specialists. 37 kilometres of relatively flat terrain will see the exponents of the ‘race of truth’ with the chance to put time into their rivals.

Those challenges against the clock aside, it will very much be a battle of the climbers during this edition of the Vuelta.

The sprint field is missing the favourites

There are only a handful of stages on offer for the sprinters, perhaps why the big names of the sport have spurned the third Tour instead favouring races like the Hamburg Cycle Classic instead.

Perhaps in the back of the minds of the big sprinters are the World Championships where it looks almost certain a fast man will claim the win.

In their stead, a handful of decent sprinters will line up with the lure of a Grand Tour stage win and a potential points jersey on the line.

Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo), Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin), Gianni Meersman (Etixx-QuickStep), Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC), Tosh van der Sande (Lotto-Soudal), Magnus Cort (Orica-BikeExchange) and Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data) are all in with a shot of taking out the six stages that look likely to be bunch sprints.

Calling all mountain goats 

It is really a race for the climbers and the mountain goats of the peloton will all be keen to let rip. 

Fabio Aru is not at the Vuelta to defend his title from last year, but that is little loss given the quality of riders who've turned up. Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Team Sky) is joined by Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Esteban Chaves (Orica-Bikes Exchange), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo). Also on the startlist are plenty of superb young talents with Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Louis Meintjes (Lampre-Merida) and Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural-Seguros) all capable of electrifying the race.

Chris Froome

Froome automatically enters the Vuelta as the big name for everyone to knock off but it is worth noting the British rider has yet to conquer the Spanish race despite several concerted efforts and hot form going in.

His style of racing doesn’t necessarily suit the Vuelta's steep and sharp ascents. But the long flat time trial late in the race will be the Sword of Damocles hanging over the rest of the contenders as they attempt to take enough time to prevent Froome from simply getting it all back against the clock.

Alberto Contador

Contador looks supremely motivated to win this Vuelta. It is scarcely believable a rider of the calibre and palmares of ‘El Pistolero’ would consider his career incomplete without another Vuelta win. But Contador appears as gung-ho as he ever has.

Freshness is often a key ingredient in winning the Vuelta. To find the last winner who also contended strongly in the same season's Tour de France, you have to go all the way back to a different era in cycling to 2000,when Roberto Heras placed fifth in the Tour and backed it up with a Vuelta win.

Contador should be fresher than most here even with his injury and illness. It parallels his lead up of 2014, where he recovered from a broken leg in the Tour to win the Vuelta, beating Chris Froome into second. All things considered that task should be easier here given relative form and he certainly seems supremely confident.

Movistar's dynamic duo: Quintana and Valverde 

The Movistar duo of Quintana and Valverde will be an interesting one. Valverde performed strongly at the Giro and Tour and now lines up for his third Grand Tour of the season. Quintana will feel plenty of pressure after the expected fireworks at the Tour didn’t eventuate and he ground his way to third on the Champs Elysees.

It seems unlikely even the evergreen Valverde can contend for three grand tours in a season but will Movistar renew its faith in Quintana with Valverde’s established good record in the race?

The other contenders

Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) and Steven Kruijswijk (Lotto NL-Jumbo) demonstrated they are top quality contenders for grand tour victories at this year’s Giro d’Italia. Both come in to the Vuelta with an added level of rest compared to the Tour riders and both will consider this a good opportunity to claim their maiden Grand Tour win.

Chaves in particular is well suited. He showed last season the steep climbs at the start of the Vuelta matched his riding style perfectly. It would be no surprise to see him in the red leader’s jersey early on.

Louis Meintjes (Lampre Merida), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and Simon Yates (OBE) look like real potential top five place-getters. Meintjes has proven himself to be very consistent in the big races, rarely attacking to try for an attempt glory but a consistent rider who rides pragmatically to his ability.

Simon Yates isn’t merely on this list because his twin brother Adam took fourth in the Tour de France this year. He was actually considered the superior of the twins when he joined OBE before a series of badly timed injuries and an inadvertent suspension for not applying for a therapeutic use exemption for an inhaler. Yates is strong and consistent over the longer climbs and whilst perhaps not as punchy as his brother he shouldn’t be too disadvantaged. OBE has named Chaves as the team leader but the team isn't likely to sacrificed Yates early in the race for Chaves’ cause if he is performing well. 

Miguel Angel Lopez no doubt earned his Tour squad spot after his overall victory in the Tour de Suisse. He’s been on the radar ever since his Tour l’Avenir win in 2014 but well and truly broke it with his Swiss victory. Lopez is likely to share team leadership with Michele Scarponi, as unlikely as that sounds with the two riders at the opposite ends of their careers. For anyone who saw the Giro, they will remember just how strong Scarponi was on the climbs and if he can bring similar form to Spain he won’t be far off the best.

Another name that deserves to be mentioned is another ageing star of the sport in the 38-year-old Sammy Sanchez (BMC) who has reinvigorated his performances this season and is perhaps the best suited to this course. Tejay van Garderen remains the titular leader of the team, but on this parcours, it looks likely that the veteran Spaniard will be much more at home than the American. At the height of Sanchez's powers he was superb on the steep ascents, regularly battling it out with Joaquim Rodriguez and with his fourth and sixth this year at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne respectively he could cause a surprise in the Vuelta.

La Vuelta a Espana often throws up a surprise, Juan Jose Cobo and Chris Horner have won here in the last five years, so who is to say it won’t be another seemingly implausible candidate that triumphs again in this edition.

The Vuelta a Espana starts tomorrow. Daily highlights will be available online at Cycling Central each morning and mostly from 5pm AEST on SBS each night with the final eight stages broadcast live. But please check here for the exact times and details.  

7 things we learned from the 2016 Vuelta a Espana team presentation
It's that time of year again - the 2016 Vuelta a Espana starts this Saturday. But first must come everyone's favourite, the grand tour team presentation.