A stellar list of Vuelta a Espana 2017 contenders stands between Chris Froome and an historic Tour-Vuelta double, with the race starting with a team time trial in Nimes, France, on Saturday (August 19).
Froome sealed his fourth Tour de France title in July and, having been runner-up at the Vuelta a Espana three times, including last year, will now bid to join Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil as the only riders to win both races in the same calendar year.
No rider has done the double since the Vuelta was moved to its current position in the racing calendar, but some of this generation’s finest Grand Tour riders will be out to stop Froome making history.
Seven-time Grand Tour champion Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) races for the final time in his career, while Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), winner of four Grand Tours, will also on the start line.
Fabio Aru (Astana), the 2015 Vuelta a Espana champion, is another star name on the start list, while last year’s third-place finisher Johan Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and Tour de France third-place Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) will again be riders to look out for.
Will Chris Froome seal his first Vuelta a Espana triumph next summer? Or can any of his rivals stop him? We’ve taken a closer look at the course and contenders.
The race actually starts in Nimes, France, for only the third foreign start in the Vuelta’s history, with a 13.7km team time trial.
Team Sky will be wanting to avoid the mechanical problems that struck in the discipline at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this year, having won the opening stage of last year’s Vuelta.
The climbing starts as the race heads out of France and into Andorra on stage three, with a mountain stage to Andorra la Vella, while stage five hosts the first uphill finish on the Ermita de Santa Lucia.
Stage eight concludes on the Xorret de Cati (3.8km at 11 per cent), while stage nine climbs the Cumbre del Sol (3.6km at ten per cent) – the latter having been used for the 2015 edition, when Froome lost out to Tom Dumoulin on the climb (pictured above).
The nine stages before the first rest day are relatively tame compared to what comes next, however, with Calar Alto (stage 11, 15.5 at 5.9 per cent), La Pandera (stage 14, 12km at 7.3 per cent) and Sierra Nevada all packed into the second week.
Sierra Nevada features on stage 15 as part of the climb to Pico Veleta - the highest paved road in Europe – but the Vuelta will stop at 2,490m up after 30km of climbing, with an average gradient of 5.8 per cent. A couple of shorts descents masks the difficulty of the climb, however, with pitches far steeper.
The stage is just 129km long, in keeping with the recent trend for short, mountainous Grand Tour stages, though it’s not the shortest mountain stage in this year’s race.
That honour goes to the stage 20 and the Alto de l’Angliru, but before that the riders face a 40km time trial to Logrono, summit finishes at Los Machucos and Santo Toribio, and a hilly stage to Gijon.
Alto de l’Angliru features on the penultimate stage as the finale to a 117.5km route from Corvera de Asturias, with the brutal climb featuring at the Vuelta for the first time since 2013.
Arguably one of pro cycling’s toughest climbs, the Angliru boasts an average gradient of 10.2 per cent over 12.2km, with some pitches approaching the one-in-four mark on the way up.
Finally, as ever, the race concludes with a flat, circuitous, ceremonial stage to Madrid.
Chris Froome (Team Sky)
Chris Froome has been named as favourite for the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, but no fewer than nine other riders on the start list have earned at least one Grand Tour podium finish.
Nevertheless, Froome’s decision to try and peak later in the year, targeting a Tour-Vuelta double, has already paid off with his fourth Tour de France win.
And Team Sky boast a seriously strong squad too, with key domestique Wout Poels fit again, and Mikel Nieve, Diego Rosa and David Lopez also set to support Froome in the mountains.
He may have finished the Tour without a stage win, but only once – on the summit finish to Peyragudes – did he show any signs of cracking.
Froome would have won last year’s Vuelta too, but for one lapse in concentration on the key, shorter stage 15 which saw him miss the vital move and cede more than two-and-a-half minutes to Quintana.
The only thing that could count against him is the unbalanced nature of the course – even with a 40km time trial, this race favours the out-and-out climbers.
But with a strong team around him, Froome will be confident of matching his rivals pedal stroke by pedal stroke in the mountains, as he mostly did at the Tour - as long as he has recovered from his exploits in France.
And if Froome can do that, as well as continue his knack of picking up time on all terrain, he will be very hard to beat.
Vuelta a Espana record: starts – five; best result – second (2011, 2014, 2016); stage wins – four
2017 Grand Tour record: Tour de France – winner overall, third on four stages
Pros: Showed winning form at the Tour de France, despite not claiming a stage
Cons: Vulnerability showed on Peyragudes at the Tour – his rivals could exploit that on similarly steep finishes
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Vincenzo Nibali has endured a love-hate relationship with the Vuelta a Espana, with this only his fifth start in the Spanish Grand Tour.
Nibali won on his first appearance in 2010, while he was second behind Chris Horner after a brilliant battle in 2013, which culminated in the Shark of Messina ultimately losing time on the Angliru.
Most recently, however, his 2015 Vuelta a Espana did not last beyond the second stage when, after a crash, he comically tried to chase back on by getting a tow from his team car and was consequently booted out of the race.
Since then, however, he has won the 2016 Giro d’Italia, was third at this year’s event and has returned to racing with a solid top-ten place at the Tour de Pologne.
With his long-serving domestiques Valerio Agnoli and Franco Pellizotti by his side, Nibali will look to build on his Giro performance, which brought a stage win but ultimately saw him finish third –-never quite able to impose himself on a race won by Tom Dumoulin.
A climb-heavy route plays into his hands, however, and he will be keen to erase the memories of his 2013 defeat on the Angliru in this year’s race.
Vuelta a Espana record: starts – four; best result – winner (2010); stage wins – two
2017 Grand Tour record: Giro d’Italia – third overall, one stage win
Pros: Route plays to his strengths
Cons: Was beaten on the Angliru in 2013, and will be desperate to avoid repeat this year
Fabio Aru (Astana)
Fabio Aru, the 2015 Vuelta champion and one of three former winners on the start line for this year's race, recovered from injury to briefly lead this year’s Tour de France before fading in the final week.
Shorn of team-mates, with super-domestique Jakob Fuglsang succumbing to injury, Italian champion Aru ultimately lacked the support he needed in the mountains in the final week.
But the race highlighted what he could do and with Miguel Angel Lopez among his domestiques this time out, he will hope for better luck when it comes to team-mates and injuries.
The 27-year-old is rumoured to be off to UAE Team Emirates next year, but Astana will be desperate to prove they can still support a Grand Tour winner, having failed to do so in France.
If Aru can replicate the form he showed in the first two weeks at the Tour, then he will be very much in contention – but much will depend on how he recovered from a difficult final week.
Vuelta a Espana record: starts – two; best result – winner (2015); stage wins – two
2017 Grand Tour record: Tour de France – fifth overall, one stage win, led race for two stages
Pros: Has already got the better of Froome and co in the Pyrenees once this year
Cons: Has already lost a Grand Tour in the mountains in the final week this year
Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo)
With three Vuelta a Espana wins and five stage victories to his name, Alberto Contador will hope to add a couple more lines to his palmares in his final professional race.
Contador has previously won the race in 2008, 2012 and 2014. His first victory included a solo win on the Angliru, while a race-changing solo attack in 2012 swung the Vuelta in his favour.
In 2014, Contador and Froome engaged in an epic battle through Spain, despite both crashing out of the Tour weeks earlier, and it was the Spaniard who triumphed.
Since then, however, Contador, has never looked quite the same rider, his 2015 Giro d’Italia win aside.
Nevertheless, Contador was on the attack again as the 2017 Tour de France reached the Alps, giving enough indication that, though he has decided to make this race his last ever, El Pistolero is capable of going out with a bang.
Vuelta a Espana record: starts – four; best result – winner (2008, 2012, 2014); stage wins – five
2017 Grand Tour record: Tour de France – ninth overall, third on one stage
Pros: Hugely experienced, racing in his home country for the final time, and keen to go out with a bang
Cons: His decision to retire his no coincidence – younger rivals have caught and passed him
Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
A podium finisher at the last two Tours de France, a stage winner at the last three, and in the top-ten overall at the last four, Romain Bardet will now make his Vuelta a Espana debut this year.
The Frenchman pushed Chris Froome all the way at the Tour, with his stage win on Peyragudes and bonus seconds earned on the Col d’Izoard putting him 23 seconds behind Froome before the final time trial.
And then it all fell apart for Bardet, who admitted he could not have given anything else in the mountains as he failed to rid himself of Froome’s attention.
Though not known as a time triallist, few predicted how much Bardet would struggle on the Marseille course – losing so much time he nearly dropped off the overall podium and ended up 2’20" behind Froome.
But his future as a Grand Tour contender has been set and if he has recovered, the climb-laden route of the Vuelta a Espana definitely plays to his strengths.
Ag2r-La Mondiale supported Bardet brilliantly at the Tour, trying to put the hurt on in the mountains but to no avail.
With Domenico Pozzovivo the second part of the team’s two-pronged attack, however, you can expect to see plenty more of the French team in this year’s Vuelta.
Vuelta a Espana record: debut
2017 Grand Tour record: Tour de France – third overall, one stage win
Pros: Took time off Chris Froome in the mountains at the Tour de France, and has plenty of chances to do so at the Vuelta
Cons: Looked a beaten man come the stage 20 time trial at the Tour de France, and has had just a few weeks to recover since then.
Johan Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott)
Orica-Scott will go into the Vuelta a Espana with a triple-pronged attack of rising Grand Tour stars, and that will make for an intriguing dynamic on the big mountain stages.
First among those riders is Johan Esteban Chaves, who finished on the podium of both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana last year, with British twins Adam and Simon Yates also looking to make a difference in the mountains.
Adam Yates was ninth at the Giro d’Italia this year and would have finished higher but for his crash on Blockhaus, while Simon won the white jersey as he finished seventh at the Tour de France.
At last year’s Vuelta, Chaves was third overall and Simon Yates was sixth (and a stage winner) and Orica-Scott are looking for a similarly strong GC challenge this time out.
Chaves’ season has been disrupted by injury, and we saw little of him as he completed his first Tour de France, but having got the racing miles in the legs it is all about peaking for the Vuelta now.
Any one of the three, most pertinently Chaves and Adam Yates, could challenge this year - though with such a stellar start list, the team has already admitted just a podium place would be a huge achievement.
Vuelta a Espana record: starts – three, best result – third (2016), stage wins – two
2017 Grand Tour record: Tour de France – 62nd overall as he recovered from injury (Simon Yates was seventh, and white jersey winner, and Adam Yates was ninth overall at the Giro d’Italia).
Pros: Has already proved he can compete with the best at the Grand Tours
Cons: Injury-hit season means we have not seen the best of Chaves this season, and one or both of the Yates twins could take his place as team leader for the Vuelta.
Best of the rest
The list of star names set for the Vuelta a Espana does not stop with those six, with plenty of riders heading to Spain with something to prove.
Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) was fifth overall at the Giro d’Italia this year, having been well-placed overall when he crashed out of last year’s Giro, too. This is his Vuelta a Espana debut.
Another rider to crash in that 2016 Giro d’Italia was Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo), who was set to win overall until he came a cropper in a snow bank.
He abandoned this year’s race while placed tenth overall ahead of the penultimate stage, but bounced back to finish third at the Tour de Suisse and fifth at the Tour de l’Ain.
Team-mate George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), meanwhile, is the second part of the team’s two-pronged attack, having been a regular feature at the sharp end of the Tour de France this year before succumbing to illness and abandoning on stage 16.
As ever, Bennett is not alone in racing the Vuelta after dropping out of the Tour – Rafal Majka (Bora-hangrohe), third in Spain in 2015, proved he was back on form after his Tour-ending crash with second place at the Tour de Pologne.
Finally, Warren Barguil (Team Sunweb), King of the Mountains at the Tour de France and a double stage winner, will also be one to watch if he maintains that attacking form.