All eyes will be on Chris Froome and his Ineos Grenadiers team when the 75th Vuelta Ciclista a España (Tour of Spain) gets underway in the Basque Country on Tuesday (20 October).
The double Olympic road cycling bronze medallist and two-time Vuelta champion is taking part in his final race for the team after 11 seasons, and is also making his return to Grand Tour racing after a serious crash in June 2019 left him with multiple fractures.
Froome will have to contend against defending Vuelta champion (and this year's Tour de France runner-up) Primoz Roglic of Jumbo-Visma, Roglic's teammate Tom Dumoulin, hotly-tipped young debutant Aleksandr Vlasov of Astana, and Movistar's three-pronged attack of Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde, and Marc Soler, among others. Froome's own teammate Richard Carapaz also figures to be in the mix, should the former not be back to his best yet.
The 18-stage race, reduced from 21 after the cancellation of its planned three-stage "salida", or start, in the Netherlands, is being conducted in a bio-secure "bubble" environment due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It is scheduled to finish in the Spanish capital Madrid on 8 November, with the champion in the race's red leader's jersey.
With the start of the Vuelta overlapping with the finish of the Giro d'Italia, some regular Grand Tour favourites are in Italy instead of taking to the start line in Irun.
Defending champion Roglic will no doubt want to make up for the pain he suffered at the Tour de France, when he led the race through to the 20th and penultimate stage before faltering at the last time trial and letting Tadej Pogacar in to win the yellow jersey. Pogacar, who finished third in Madrid last year and also won the young riders' classification, is not taking part in the Vuelta this year.
Jumbo-Visma will also count on Dumoulin as they seek to save their season, after their entire team withdrew from the Giro in the wake of a positive Covid test for leader Steven Kruijswijk. Just as in the tour, Dumoulin and Roglic can count on the efforts of super-domestique Sepp Kuss in the mountains.
Spanish team Movistar have won the team classification at 10 of the last 16 Grand Tours, and will once again hope to put a rider on the podium in their home race. The 2018 world champion Valverde finished second to Roglic last year, while Mas was second on the race two years ago (for Quick-Step Floors). Both also competed in the Tour de France, finishing 12th and fifth respectively.
Froome is perhaps the big unknown. He took part in the Dauphiné stage race in August and Tirreno-Adriatico in September, finishing 71st and 91st overall respectively. After 10 years with Ineos (including under their former guise of Team Sky), during which he won four Tours de France, one Giro, and two Vueltas, this is the Briton's swan-song before he moves to the Israel Start-Up Nation team. If he fails to fire, don't be surprised to see Ineos switch their attention to Carapaz, a Grand Tour winner himself.
Other big names to look out for in the General Classification shake-up include Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott), and Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling).
A number of team leaders are actually making their first appearances at the Vuelta.
Astana are expected to ride for Aleksandr Vlasov, the Russian who is taking part in only his second career Grand Tour. Incredibly, his first was this year's Giro, which ended in a second-stage withdrawal two weeks ago due to a stomach illness. He will be ably supported by a team formed of five Spanish riders who will be familiar with the routes and climbs.
Frenchman Guillaume Martin has two top-12 Tour de France overall finishes under his belt in two years at the World Tour level, and will take part in his first Grand Tour outside his home country when he leads the Cofidis team to the start line.
Martin has worked his way through the lower Continental and Pro Continental levels, and at 27 he may feel the time has come to make his mark. A third place finish at the Dauphiné in August, followed by 11th in the Tour de France, 13th in the World Championship, and 14th at Liège-Bastogne-Liège sees the Parisian come into the Vuelta on good form.
More than a third of the race's registered riders are taking part in La Vuelta for the first time, with 64 riders on the startlist making their debuts.
The peloton of 178 riders will depart from Irun on a 2,897-kilometre (1800-mile) trek mainly through northern Spain. A planned short detour into France was cancelled after the race began due to the worsening public health situation in that country. With the cancellation of the Dutch salida, France was meant to the only country outside Spain the race visited this year. However, it will now not leave Spain.
Of the 18 stages, only four are flat, with eight classified as medium mountain or hilly and five finishing atop mountain passes. There is one individual time trial, from Muros to the Mirador de Ézaro in Dumbría, which is mostly flat but ends with a short, sharp climb of 1.8 km at 14.8%. That may bring back bad memories for Roglic, who lost the Tour de France on a mountain-top time trial at La Planche des Belles Filles.
Originally, the race was to have visited the 2,115-metre-high Col du Tourmalet (19 km at 7.4%) in France as the finish point of stage 6. However, following the end of the third stage of the race, organisers confirmed a new route for the sixth stage taking place entirely within Spain, finishing at the ski resort in Aramón Formigal on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.
Due to public health concerns, nine mountain passes will not allow any fans in attendance. Race organisers Unipublic and ASO have also asked fans to stay away.
Aside from the Formigal, other key finishing climbs on this year's parcours include the Alto de Moncalvillo (8.3 km at 9.2% on stage 8), Alto de La Farrapona (16.5 km at 6.5% on stage 11), Alto de l'Angliru (12.4 km at 9.9% on stage 12), and the Alto de La Covatilla (11.4 km at 7.1% on stage 17).
The Covatilla, coming on the penultimate day of the race which is the traditional last racing stage before a ceremonial procession into Madrid, could decide the winner of this year's red jersey.
Aside from the lack of fans and the reduction in the number of stages from 21 to 18, there have been some other changes made to safely hold the Vuelta during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
While the race is normally held in Spain's blistering summer heat in August and September, this year's race will take place in far colder temperatures in October and November. With almost all of this year's race taking in the northern half of the Spanish mainland where the weather is cooler, it may not be out of place to see snow on some climbs.
All 176 riders, as well as 490 team personnel, are being held in a bio-secure bubble. As with the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia before it, all riders and staff have been tested for Covid-19 prior to entering the bubble, and will again be tested during the race. Of the initial 498 tests, only two positives – both among team staff members — were reported. While there were no major issues with the bubble system at the Tour, the Giro has been beset by breaches in the bubble, with riders testing positive and two teams withdrawing from the race.
To prevent this, the Vuelta has announced that a mobile lab to test for Covid will travel with the entire race over the three weeks. The lab, which will be staffed by 18 medical professionals, is said to be able to test up to 750 people daily, enough for everyone in the race bubble. It will also be able to carry out rapid blood testing.
Riders have also been exempted from conducting their regular daily sign-ons. Instead, the cyclists will register for each start through face-recognition technology.