The Vuelta a Espana kicks off this Saturday with a star-studded line-up of such strength, that on paper it could make the Spanish race the all-out 2016 Grand Tour battle that this July's Tour de France notably failed to become.
However, the key question for the Vuelta, and it's not new, is the precise level of form those top favourites will show when the race gets underway on Saturday in Ourense. Most, but not all, have had the Tour de France as their goal, the Olympics have come and (almost) gone, and the end of their season is nigh: as a last objective for 2016, the Vuelta is a hugely attractive proposition, but how many top names would say, prior to proving it one way or another, that they are confident they are in the same condition as in July?
Froome the favourite?
Amongst those top contenders, the standout figure is of course, three times Tour de France winner Chris Froome (Team Sky). Froome himself has said he has "unfinished business" with the race. And apart from a natural ambition to try to become Britain's first winner of Spain's Grand Tour and the first rider to win both the Tour and the Vuelta since Bernard Hinault in 1978, the events of last year's Vuelta when he broke a bone in his foot early on the ultra-mountainous stage in Andorra are surely still uppermost in Froome's mind.
Factor in two second places overall, in 2011 and 2014, as well as a fourth overall in 2012, and Froome's ongoing interest in the Vuelta and motivation to win it is evident. However, exactly how Froome will tackle the race, whether for GC or for stages, is yet to become 100 per cent clear - and in the team press release announcing the Vuelta line-up, there was no real indication of his goals. Let's not forget, he has been winning races since January in Australia, meaning the chances of Chris Froome flattening the opposition of the Vuelta the way he did in the Tour will be slimmer.
- Vuelta a Espana 2016 race page
- Vuelta a Espana 2016 stages and maps
- 10 summit finishes for Vuelta a Espana in 2016
That, though, is where part of the interest in the Vuelta lies. Froome's form may be wobblier than he likes, but to date he has never - as he most notably showed in 2012 where he only slowly fell off the GC ladder - done anything less than go down fighting in the Vuelta.
Should Froome take the lead, a big factor in his favour, as it was in the Tour, is an exceptionally strong Team Sky lineup that includes Pete Kennaugh, Mikel Kwiatkowski, Leo Konig and Mikel Landa. That's even without the immensely experienced Nicolas Roche, missing from Sky's Vuelta line-up after falling ill in Rio.
For Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), two thirds of what applies to Froome is also true, given the Spanish champion was winning races in the early spring and the Tour was his big objective of 2016. However, Contador's early abandon of the Tour through injury was a very different outcome to Froome's July and means the Spaniard may feel much higher pressure to perform well in the Vuelta, if only to maintain an unbroken (and unequalled series) of three overall wins from three starts.
History is definitely in Contador's favour in other ways, given in 2014 he crashed out of the Tour but then bounced back with a vengeance in the Vuelta. The big difference is that his ability to fly under the radar for the first ten days, as he did in 2014, will be non-existent, particularly as he has already said his goal is to win the Vuelta, so the pressure will be on from the word go.
A fourth victory in the Vuelta a Espana would also enable Contador to equal Roberto Heras' record total of wins in the Spanish Grand Tour, and for Contador to leave his Tinkoff team on a high note as well. Fresh from an outright win in the Vuelta a Burgos, Contador is clearly in excellent shape - but whether it is enough to out-power Froome and company remains to be seen.
Quintana's Tour de France redemption?
For Nairo Quintana, the Vuelta a Espana offers the chance to capture a top three finish in the only Grand Tour which is missing in his palmares and to end the season on a high note after his remarkably unremarkable performance in the Tour de France. The very mountainous course is also suited to Quintana, although given he crashed out in the 2014 Vuelta, when he was en route to his best performance there, one big incognito about Quintana is how suited he is to two Grand Tours in one year.
The same goes for Movistar team-mate Alejandro Valverde, but rather than how he handles two Grand Tours, make that three. Having taken third overall in his debut at the Giro d'Italia, and then raced the Tour de France and the Olympics, riding a third Grand Tour in one year represents an intriguing voyage into the unknown.
Could Valverde, in the process, become the third rider in history to take a top ten finish in all three Grand Tours in one year? Don't put it past him, particularly in a race like the Vuelta, which - given his first participation was in 2003 - holds absolutely no secrets for Valverde.
Vuelta a Espana: Top 10 riders to watch
Other riders with question marks on how they may perform include Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange). The ever-upbeat Colombian shone brightly both in last year's Vuelta a Espana, finishing fifth overall, and again in this May's Giro d'Italia, but whether he can handle two Grand Tours in one year has yet to be seen. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) also has unfinished business with the Vuelta following his crash and abandonment last year and Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin), Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) could all be important factors.
In the absence of last year's winner Fabio Aru, Astana's Miguel Angel López, winner of the Tour de Suisse, may yet become the surprise rider in this year's race. But as last year's race showed with Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), there are plenty of chances that other new names could suddenly bubble up - which again, is part of the Vuelta's appeal.
The route: Bring on the mountains
What is also certain is that this year's very mountainous route is anything but a course where riders can ease their way in and fly under the radar for a week. As the Vuelta's website itself puts it - but amusingly seemingly without noting the contradiction - even two of the seven stages classified as 'flat' on the official website actually have mountain-top finishes.
In total there are ten summit finishes, one more than last year, with the first on stage three, a short but agonisingly steep ascent to Ezaro. After a week of constantly rolling, technical terrain in Galicia, the 'flat' stage eight finish on la Camperona actually concludes with an 8.5-kilometre climb, with some sections at 22 per cent. Stage 10 to Covadonga, eleven to Peña Cabarga, 13 to Urdax and 14 to the mountain top finish of the Aubisque could well all but resolve the overall classification a week before the race reaches Madrid.