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Froome, Contador, Quintana set the stage for another memorable Vuelta a Espana

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Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome ride next to each other during stage 12 of the Tour de France

Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome ride next to each other during stage 12 of the Tour de France
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Alberto Contador finishes stage 5 at the Tour de France

Alberto Contador finishes stage 5 at the Tour de France (Image credit: Tim de Waele/
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The full 2016 Vuelta a Espana race route

The full 2016 Vuelta a Espana race route (Image credit: ASO)
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2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru (Astana)

2015 Vuelta a Espana winner Fabio Aru (Astana) (Image credit: Tim de Waele/
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Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the podium in third place

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) on the podium in third place (Image credit: Tim de Waele/

Often derided as the lesser of the three Grand Tours, the Vuelta a España could be set for another memorable edition with a mouthwatering line-up in prospect.

While the Tour is, as they say, the Tour, and the Giro has become the three-week race of preference for the discerning, the Vuelta has acquired a reputation as the least significant Grand Tour.

But it seems to have bucked that trend in recent years, with some of the highest-quality fields and most dramatic racing seen all season. Indeed, last year the battle for the red jersey went right down to the penultimate day, while the Chris Froome-Alberto Contador duel was arguably the closest and most entertaining tussle of the 2014 Grand Tours.

With Froome, Contador, and Nairo Quintana all set to line-up in Orense in three weeks' time, we could be in for another memorable edition.

2014 highlighted a trump card the Vuelta holds over the Giro; while most of those serious about targeting the Tour de France won't consider harming their plans by riding the Giro, the Vuelta represents an ideal second opportunity for those who didn't get all they might have wanted out of July.

The 2014 Tour should have been the best line-up of the year, with three of the four best stage racers in the world in Froome, Contador, and Vincenzo Nibali. When Froome and Contador both crashed out early on it was very much the Tour's loss – as Nibali cantered unchallenged to victory – and the Vuelta's gain.

That's the situation we have again. After crashing twice on the opening two days and then succumbing to illness, Contador exited the Tour after a week and soon had his name down for the Vuelta. It seems strange that less than a year ago Contador was saying this Tour would be his last – now he seems hungry to carry on for a year or two more.

Quintana reached Paris but was under the weather, suffering with allergies, and was never able to threaten Froome. He took the decision to skip the Olympic Games, giving him the time to rest and recuperate that should mean he's somewhere near his best at the Vuelta.

Froome doesn't need bad fortune to head to the Vuelta; he went there last year after winning the Tour and his fifth participation in six years was confirmed shortly after wrapping up his third yellow jersey last week. The question mark will be how he copes with the accumulated fatigue as he faces little let-up with the Olympic road race and time trial on the horizon.

Froome's lack of freshness could open the door for Mikel Landa to lead Sky's GC charge, and that's where another bunch of contenders come in – those who did the Giro.

With Grand Tour doubling-up tough to manage in the modern era, the Giro-Vuelta is the natural fit, and Esteban Chaves will surely be a force to be reckoned with after coming of age, and coming so close to victory, in May. Likewise Steven Kruijswijk, who looked the strongest man in the Giro and led the race until his disastrous crash on the descent of the Agnello pass.  

The fresh 'lesser lights' against the potentially fatigued bigger names - though does Contador have the best of both worlds? - should make for an entertaining three weeks, with the notion that the stakes are lower than at the Tour and the racing less inhibited. 

This year's Giro will be hard to beat but with the Vuelta continuing its recent trend of gluttonous servings of uphill finishes - 10 this year - the most exciting Grand Tour racing of the season may well be ahead of us.