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