The final 3-week grand tour of the year is upon us - La Vuelta a Espana (or just 'The Vuelta' for those of us who are a little too fanatical). The Vuelta is arguably the least prestigious grand tour after the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. But that said, its still a grand tour, and as such is still a highly sought after prize.
This year's Vuelta is very much a climber's race. Mountains and hills galore, with two-thirds of the stages having uphill finishes! Not much here for the sprinters, which is probably why most of the top fastmen (eg. Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel, Sagan) aren't racing this year.
One of the unique features of the Vuelta compared to the Tour de France, is that the Vuelta has time bonuses for every stage. The winner gets 10 seconds, 2nd place gets 6 seconds, and 3rd snatches 4 bonus seconds. This definitely adds a new complexion to each stage, providing the overall GC riders a huge incentive to not just finish with the leading group, but to win the stage.
So who is going to win?
The favourite - Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
Nibali is the deserved outright favourite. He already has a grand tour win this year - the Giro d'Italia - and has been in terrific form. His legs should be well-rested after having a long break while many of the others were digging deep in the Tour de France, and has shown some decent form in the lead-up races. Not an unbeatable favourite, but it will be a surprise if he doesn't win.
The young gun - Carlos Betancur (AG2R)
Betancur is relatively inexperienced, but is developing rapidly. His breakout performance was at this year's Giro d'Italia, where he came a strong 4th. Very much a pure climber, this year's Vuelta route suits him perfectly. A bit of a question mark over whether he can peak twice in the one year, given his age - but I believe he will do well.
The homeland hero - Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha)
'Purito' Rodriguez has plenty of grand tour podiums, but is yet to crack an overall win. He'll be super-motivated to do so at his 'home' grand tour this year. He is a great stage finisher, so one of his great advantages is the time bonuses - expect him to hoover up a few full 10-second bonuses. The question mark for him is whether he can back up from a tough Tour de France. I think he will podium - but the fresher legs of Nibali and Betancur will be too much for him to win...
One last chance - Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) & Ivan Basso (Cannondale)
With both at the tail-end of their careers, they will be keen to notch up a win to go out in style. Both riders will do well, but won't quite match their efforts of previous years. Definitely top 10 riders, but both will miss the podium.
The Colombian Armada - Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran (both Team Sky)
A strong Sky team for the Vuelta, led by the Colombian duo of Henao and Uran. Both skipped the Tour de France, so should have fresh legs. While both had excellent Giro's, Uran had the better result with a terrific 2nd place. Henao has been given leadership status here though, most likely because Uran is leaving for another team next year. However, expect both in the Top 10.
After 20 years in the pro peloton the 'carrots' are finishing up due to sponsorship difficulties. It won't be the same without those bright orange jerseys racing! Euskaltel have fielded a great team, stacked with their best climbers - including Sammy Sanchez, Igor Anton, and Mike Nieve.
Sanchez has a chance at the overall, and you can expect the others to go all out for stage wins as well. Hopefully the carrots can animate this year's Vuelta and go out on a high!
Another team departing, it will be the final grand tour for Vacansoleil. Again, expect them to animate with attacks - mainly as attempts by the riders to secure contracts for new teams next year. The irrepressible Johnny Hoogerland will be the most visible, he is a breakaway specialist...
How to watch
In Australia, free-to-air broadcaster SBS will have a half-hour highlights show every night at 5:30pm. They are also showing eight stages live - click here for details. Not sure how many of these I'll catch after the Tour de France wiped me out - but I'll pick a couple of the big mountain stages for sure...
Well, c'mon, who is actually going to win?!
As always, I'll finish up with my predicted finishing order. With some luck, I'll get close this year...!!
1. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)
2. Carlos Betancur (AG2R)
3. Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha)
4. Rigoberto Uran (Sky)
5. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
6. Sergio Henao (Sky)
7. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel)
8. Michel Scarponi (Lampre-Merida)
9. Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R)
10. Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp)