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Sports Mole's Vuelta a Espana preview

Sports Mole looks ahead to the 70th Vuelta a Espana which sees Britain's Chris Froome bidding for a historic Grand Tour double.

Spain hosts the final Grand Tour of the season with all but one of cycling's big players in attendance. Here, Sports Mole weighs up the field and picks out the riders likely to contend for the 70th edition of the Vuelta a Espana.

The route

Stages: 21 total, nine mountain finishes, 36.7km individual time trial, 7.4km team time trial
Distance: 3,274km
Jerseys: Red (race leader), Blue-and-white polka dot (King of the Mountains), Green (points leader), White (combination)

The pack sprint close to the finish line of the 2nd stage of the 69th edition of 'La Vuelta' Tour of Spain, a 174,4 kilometres ride from Algeciras to San Fernando, on August 24, 201© Getty Images

Info: With Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali – the top four at the Tour de France – all confirming their place on Saturday's starting line for the Vuelta, cycling's often overlooked third Grand Tour could once again prove to be the year's most exciting.

The Vuelta organisers have shaken things up this year, too. While boasting nine summit finishes, none of those summit finishes has ever featured before, and the final one comes on stage 16, leaving almost an entire week of racing still to unfold.

After the opening day's team time trial, the race wastes no time in throwing down an early challenge or two, with tricky finishes at Caminito del Rey and Vejer coming inside the opening week.

The voyage into neighbouring Andorra for stage 11 is easily the toughest day on paper, with the peloton facing 5,200m of climbing in 138km of racing. An attack from any of the red jersey contenders on the ascent to the line at Cortals d'Encamp could prove decisive in deciding the outcome.

If that does not split the field though, the trio of mountain finishes on stages 14, 15 and 16 should separate the leaders from the pack and give a good indication of who the winner will be.

There may not be much in the way of mountain racing in the final week, but the series of punchy stages that dominates the back end of the tour promises plenty of attacking cycling, as long as none of the heavyweights have the race sewn up by that point.

At 36.7km the time trial is a long one, something which suits Froome, and will also no doubt end the challenge of several of his rivals.

However, it is a star-studded field, arguably the strongest in the Vuelta's history, despite the absence of last year's winner, so Froome will need to be at his very best if he is going to complete a historic Tour de France-Vuelta a Espana double.

The peloton

The build-up to the Vuelta has been dominated by reigning champion Alberto Contador's decision not to race after riding both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France this year.

The Spaniard is hugely popular in his home country, and his absence would have cost the Vuelta some headlines this year were it not for the fact that the rest of cycling's leading men have all turned up.

In Contador's absence, Tinkoff-Saxo will be led by Rafal Majka, who showed his potential with a daring win on stage 11 of this year's Tour de France.

Meanwhile, Astana have also brought a particularly strong lineup, with Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa – who showed their form over the mountains with second and third-place finishes respectively at this year's Giro d'Italia – both in general classification contention, albeit as outsiders.

The sprinters aren't as well represented, chiefly because the route offers up just six dedicated sprint finish stages. However, Giant-Alpecin's John Degenkolb – last year's green jersey winner – and Cofidis's Nacer Bouhanni should gun it out for the bulk of these victories.

Peter Sagan of Tinkoff-Saxo, Lotto Soudal's Kris Boeckmans, Degenkolb's teammate Tom Dumoulin, and IAM Cycling's Matteo Pelucchi will all be in the mix for stage wins.

Of the old guard, Trek's Fabian Cancellara and Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha could find themselves in contention for a podium place, while Andrew Talansky will be hoping to give Cannondale-Garmin something to cheer in what has otherwise been a very difficult year for the American team.


The main contenders


1. Chris Froome (Team Sky)

Great Britain's Chris Froome rides in the hill as supporters cheer during the 167 km tenth stage of the 102nd edition of the Tour de France cycling race on July 14, 2015© Getty Images

He may not be the bookmakers' favourite, but Froome's blistering form over the opening two weeks of the Tour de France shows exactly what he is capable of. Since claiming his second Grand Tour title in Paris, Froome has featured in plenty of criterium racing, which could come back to hurt him. As long as he is fully rested for the race, though, he has every chance of becoming only the third rider in history – after Jacques Anquetil in 1963 and Bernard Hinault in 1978 – to win both the Tour de France and the Vuelta in a single season.


2. Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

Colombian Nairo Quintana competes during the uphill time trial in the 19th stage of the 97th Giro d'Italia, Tour of Italy, cycling race from Bassano del Grappa to Cima Grappa on May 30, 2014© Getty Images

While Froome dominated the opening two weeks of the Tour de France, Quintana was arguably the stronger rider over the final week, repeatedly taking the fight to the Team Sky leader. A superb climber, the plucky Colombian will be a huge threat in the mountains, and has a strong team around him in Movistar. However, Quintana has had a busy season with 57 race days already under his belt – compared to Froome's 48 – which could limit his power as the race wears on.


3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

Alejandro Valverde of Spain and Team Movistar sprays cava during the podium ceremony after winning the Clasica San Sebastian on August 2, 2014 © Getty Images

While Valverde's chief role will no doubt be to ride in support of Quintana, should the Colombian crack early on or one of the other big guns carve out a sizeable early lead, Valverde could be unleashed and allowed to ride for the title himself. Valverde's record in the Vuelta – his home race – is also impressive, with eight stage wins, the 2012 and 2013 points classification and the 2009 outright win all to his name.


4. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)

Italy's Vincenzo Nibali celebrates as he crosses the finish line at the end of the 201 km second stage of the 101th edition of the Tour de France cycling race on July 6, 2014 between York and Sheffield© AFP

A former winner of all three of cycling's Grand Tours, Nibali will be eager to bounce back from a sometimes times shaky showing at the Tour de France. There is little doubt that Astana have the strongest team at the Vuelta, but that will only work in Nibali's favour if they all pull together, something which has eluded the team occasionally in the past. The Italian's pedigree is undeniable, though, and his vast experience will give him an edge over many of his rivals out on the road.


5. Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing)

Tejay van Garderen of the United States riding for the BMC Racing Team arrives at the start in the overall race leader's yellow jersey on August 24, 2014© Getty Images

The American hasn't ridden a Vuelta since 2010, but after a superb showing over the opening week of the Tour de France before his race was cut short by illness, Van Garderen has to be among the Vuelta contenders. He hasn't raced since France, which makes assessing his level a little tricky, but if he can recapture the form he showed in July, the general classification is firmly within his reach.


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Joaquin Rodriguez Oliver of Spain and Team Katusha celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win stage twelve of the 2015 Tour de France, a 195 km stage between Lannemezan and Plateau de Beille, on July 16, 2015
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Olympic medal table header
CountryGold medalSilver MedalBronze MedalT
ChinaChina3014
ItalyItaly1102
JapanJapan1102
Republic of KoreaRepublic of Korea1023
Ecuador flagEcuador1001
29  Great BritainGreat Britain0000
Today's Olympic highlights header

Sunday's key events


SURFING
· Wave conditions permitting, surfing will make its Olympic debut (11pm-8.20am)

SKATEBOARDING
· Another debutant sport at this Olympics, most eyes will be on American Nyjah Huston in the men's street contest as he looks to add Olympic gold to his four world titles and 12 X-Games golds. (12.30am-5am)

TAEKWONDO
· History beckons for Jade Jones as she looks to become a three-time Olympic champion - something never done before in the sport prior to these Games (2am-1.45pm)
· Team GB's Bradly Sinden - world champion two years ago - is also going for gold in the men's -68kg category (2am-1.45pm)

GYMNASTICS
· Already-legendary gymnast Simone Biles makes her first appearance of the Games in the women's qualifying event (2am-2pm)

SWIMMING
· The first swimming medals of the Games will be dished out, with home favourite Daiya Seto going for gold in the men's 400m individual medley (2.30am-4.20am)

CYCLING
· Lizzie Deignan is among the Team GB team looking for success in the women's road race (5am-9.30am)

TENNIS
· Reigning two-time Olympic champion Andy Murray starts his title defence against Canadian hotshot Felix Auger-Aliassime (7am approx.)

> Today's schedule in full
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