Time is a tickin', and the seconds are counting down until the 64th Vuelta a España gets going this Saturday in Assen, the Netherlands. It's the first time the race has started outside the Iberian peninsula and the organisers hope that this will add a bit of 'orange zest' to an event that occasionally lacks a bit of the 'X Factor'.
This year, anticipation is higher thanks to an impressive lineup. With names such as Evans, Valverde, Basso, Vande Velde, Kreuziger, Gesink, Kirchen, Fuglsang plus the two Schlecks all on the start list, there are expectations of a real ding-dong in the weeks ahead. Factor in the participation of cycling's bad boy Alexandre Vinokourov, a born attacker, and there's grounds to believe that this year's edition should be one of the best in recent years.
The race gets underway a matter of days from now when the riders hurtle around a 4.5km course on the renowned motorcycle racing circuit in Assen. Fast and furious, the flat parcours will suit Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) perfectly, and should hand the Olympic champion the first maillot oro of the race.
Stages two and three travel 203.7km and 189.7km to Emmen and Venlo, respectively. The first of these is completely flat, with less than a 10 metre variation between the start elevation and the highest point, which should produce a big bunch sprint. It's more of the same the following day, the stage dipping into Germany before veering back into the Netherlands, the parcours including two uncategorised climbs.
So who will challenge? Last year's champion Alberto Contador (Astana) is not taking part, and neither are the other two podium finishers, Levi Leiphimer (Astana) and Carlos Sastre (Saxo Bank). That leaves fourth-placed Ezequiel Mosquera as the best 2008 rider, and he'll front the Xacobeo Galicia squad dreaming big.
Read the rest of the feature'Venga, Venga Vuelta!'