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Pamplona locks into final countdown for Vuelta start

As Pamplona swelters in what locals say is one of its worst heatwaves in many a year, the northern city is also counting down to its first ever Vuelta a España start this Saturday: a 16.5 kilometre team time trial that will establish the initial differences between the 198 riders taking part in 22 different squads in this year's race.

Those teams were presented on Friday evening, with Alberto Contador getting the biggest cheers from the Spanish fans.

There may be small time gaps on such a short race against the clock, but with Chris Froome's losing the 2011 Vuelta by a mere 13 seconds still fresh in the peloton's collective memory, it's unlikely anyone will be easing back on the Vuelta's opening stage.

Racing starts in the early evening, when local Pro Conti team Caja Rural roll down the start ramp in the historic Plaza del Castillo square in central Pamplona at 19:03 local time.

With teams off at four minute intervals, the last squad to get into action will be Movistar, containing defending champion Juan Jose Cobo at 20:27. Hopefully the mid-afternoon temperatures that touched 39 degrees on Friday - and which are expected to do so again on Saturday - have at least begun to ease slightly by that time of day.

As for the course itself, "It's flat but it's also a very technical circuit," Sky's locally born rider, Xabier Zandio said on Thursday, "there are a lot of roundabouts. It's tricky, so the objective will be to lose as little time as possible - or to win!"

Sky will certainly be keen to put memories of last year's opening team time trial in Benidorm behind them, when they placed third last after two riders clipped wheels mid-way through, and to cap it all their team captain Kurt Asle Arvesen crashed and fell.

Appropriately enough for a city internationally famous for its bull-runs - when every July tens of thousands of people sprint alongside wild bulls let loose in its cobbled, narrow city centre alleys - the stage will include sections of the same streets used in the bull-runs and finish in Pamplona's bull ring.

Around 15,000 people are expected to pack into the ring to watch the spectacle, with a free hour-long concert by rock band La Oreja de Van Gogh following the end of the race as an added attraction.

The riders themselves will ride across a red carpet laid over the ring's sandy surface to the centre. Rather than taking the time gaps at the entrance to the ring for safety reasons, as had been rumoured, the times will be calculated, as per usual, on the finish line itself when the fifth rider from each team crosses it  - meaning those final metres will be anything but ceremonial. There is so little space in the central area that a second main door in the building will be open so that riders, as they slow after their race, can still freewheel at speed out of the opposite side of the bull ring and back into the streets rather than having to brake hard and risk crashes.

As if all of this were not enough nods by the Vuelta's organisers towards Pamplona's most famous activity, local team Caja Rural have managed to convince the UCI to let them have specially designed 'bull-runner' kit - a white body length skinsuit with red bands, with the helmet also relfecting traditional 'bull runner' gear - just for the team time trial stage, as a way of paying homage to their home town of Pamplona. Rumours, though, that live bulls would be let loose in the streets of Pamplona to encourage the riders to pedal slightly harder on the Vuelta's opening leg are completely unfounded. We hope.

But if some of the biggest cheers today are for the Caja Rural squad, curiously the rider guaranteed to raise the roofs off Pamplona's elegant central buildings every time he puts in an a appearance in this year's Vuelta isn't even racing. Miguel Indurain, born and bred in nearby Villava, is unquestionably the main star of the Pamplona start.

The five times Tour winner Indurain never won the Vuelta, although he finished second in 1991 and was (and remains) its youngest ever leader way back in 1986. The Vuelta was his last ever Grand Tour, abandoning en route to the Lakes of Covadonga climb in 1996 before retiring early in 1997.

"The organisation have worked very well in improving the design of the Vuelta route in recent years," Indurain said recently. "The stages are shorter and have the necessary ingredients to keep the riders happy." He also admitted this January, when the route was published, that as a specialist time triallist with so many mountain top finishes featuring in this year's Vuelta, he personally would have been ‘stuffed'. This year,

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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.