Amid a backdrop of soaring numbers of COVID-19 cases in Spain, the third and final Grand Tour of the season starts in the Basque Country on a Tuesday afternoon in October on the same day the final week of the Giro gets under way. There's a first for everything...

The shortened 18-day format of the 2020 edition of La Vuelta is a climbers' paradise with six summit finishes, hardly a flat stage in sight, and a single time trial which culminates with a trademark ramped climb overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

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Snubbed by Ineos Grenadiers for the Tour de France alongside fellow former yellow jersey Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome has been given the nod to – at least, officially – co-lead the British team alongside last year's Giro d'Italia champion, Richard Carapaz of Ecuador.

It will be Froome's first appearance in a three-week stage race in over 26 months after his life-threatening crash in last year's Dauphiné put the brakes on the career of a rider who was once deemed the most complete Grand Tour rider of his generation.

A lot has changed since Froome last embarked on a major stage race – not least the Kenyan-born Briton's position in his team. Surplus to requirements at Ineos, Froome now approaches the next chapter of his career at Israel Start-Up Nation in 2021; will he go out with a bang, or a whimper, in Spain?

Wiggins - Roglic has won himself a lot of fans since the Tour heartbreak

Froome's farewell: red jersey or red-faced?

Although he has not ridden a Grand Tour since July 2018, Froome last won one in 2019 when he was awarded the 2011 Vuelta crown following Juan José Cobo's retrospective ban. The joke back then was that even when in a hospital bed, Froome had enough power in his legs to add to his legacy.

But now the treatment table's a thing of the past, can Froome get back to winning ways in Spain? In a couple of words, probably not.

Certainly not according to the Belgian Philippe Gilbert, who told Eurosport last week: "I don't think Froome is ready for the GC. I think people easily forget the crash he had 18 months or so ago now. I still believe it's a miracle he's already racing and doing what he's doing now. But honestly, it's going to be hard for him to challenge the best at a two- or three-week race."

Froome's former teammate Bradley Wiggins concurs. Speaking on his Eurosport podcast, Wiggo said he was backing Carapaz or the defending champion Primož Roglič for the red jersey, with Dutchman Tom Dumoulin as backup should his Slovenian teammate feel the pinch from a long season.

I'd like to see Chris Froome [win the Vuelta] but I just don't think he has got the form, by the looks of it," Wiggins said.

It's hard to argue with either Gilbert or Wiggins. If Froome did not do enough prior to the Tour to convince Ineos manager David Brailsford to select him for France, then he hasn't done much since to show he's in any better nick ahead of the Vuelta: a lowly 91st in Tirreno-Adriatico followed by a DNF in a box-ticking run-out in Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Over an exceptionally hard course, it's hard seeing anything more than Froome being a bit-part player at most in his curtain call for Ineos, for whom Carapaz looks the only viable Plan A after finishing the Tour strongly following his fast-track return from injury.

Chris FROOME (Gbr) Red Leader Jersey/ Montilla - Alhaurin de la Torre (169,8km)/ Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista Del Sol

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"I haven't set a number on it," Froome said when asked by the BBC this week how many more Grand Tours he could win.

It would be absolutely incredible if I could win a fifth Tour de France in the coming years. I don't feel like I'm anywhere close to finished at the moment. I'd like to keep racing at least for another few years. Coming back from this injury has given me a new lease for life – it feels like I'm being given a second chance.

It was telling that Froome made no mention of the up-coming Vuelta; he knows, surely, that expectations are low. Speaking on the Monday press conference ahead of the Vuelta, he said, "I feel as if I've been closing the gap recently, but we'll soon see how far off I actually am."

Given the route – which includes first-category climbs in the first two stages, plus a summit-finish on day three – we'll find out very soon, in fact. While Froome may have a lot to offer Ineos in his final race, the red jersey – at least on his shoulders – isn't included.

Richard Carapaz and Clement Venturini at the Tour de France

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The route: 18 stages in a tour of northern Spain

The Giro may have had a summit finish on day three but the Vuelta has gone two better with a Cat.1 climb on the opening day, repeating that on day two. Both stages finish on the flat after descents of differing length, before stage three features the first of six summit finishes.

Those summit finishes include the mighty Col du Tourmalet in the opening week and the fearsome Alto de L'Angliru on the eve of the second rest day. Even the race's only time trial – a 33.7km ride on the coast of Galicia – concludes with the steep ramp of the Mirador de Ézaro.

The final week is prime ambush territory before the battle for red comes to a head on the penultimate day on the savage Alto de la Covatilla. With just five days that may finish in a bunch sprint, the overall route is far better suited to climbers and breakaway specialists, with there being slimmer pickings for the fast men than Movistar at the cobbled classics.

The five stand-out stages

The global pandemic brought about the removal of three stages in the Netherlands and the replanning of two days in Portugal. As a result, the only cross-border incursion comes on day six when the riders enter France to tackle the Col d'Aubisque ahead of a finish on the Col du Tourmalet which should provide the first GC shake-out.

The first of three key stages straddling the second rest day sees the riders tackle three first-category climbs ahead of a Stage 11 summit showdown on the beautiful Alto de Farrapona, where Alberto Contador sealed his overall win in the 2014 Vuelta.

Another piece of Contador nostalgia sees the race return to the jewel in the Asturian crown, the barbarically steep Alto de L'Angliru on a short but sharp 109.4km Stage 12 that, for many, will be the Queen Stage of the race.

While the Tour's only time trial came on the final day and left no room for further manoeuvre, the Vuelta's counterpart comes at the start of the final week, with the infamous Mirador de Ézaro taking on the role of La Planche des Belles Filles. The climb is only 1.8km long but an average gradient just shy of 15% should ensure that the time gaps are huge.

After a few scraps for the sprinters and breakaway artists, the penultimate stage of the race features the Vuelta's sixth ever finish on the Alto de la Covatilla at the end of a day of unrelenting undulations. The fifth of six categorised climbs is the never-used-before ascent of La Garganta on what could prove to be a gargantuan day for the GC favourites.

The favourites for the red jersey

A day away from riding into Paris in yellow, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) is the bookmaker's favourite to defend his red jersey. The Slovenian has the requisite skillset to double up in Spain and make up for his Tour heartbreak and his team's disappointment from pulling out of the Giro following Steven Kruijswijk's positive COVID-19 test.

But Roglič has been riding pretty much non-stop since the end of the first lockdown. If he looked worn out in the Worlds, his Liège win only came after Julian Alaphilippe's almighty gaffe and the Frenchman's taking out of the two riders who would probably have kept Roglič off the podium.

Perhaps a safer bet is the Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, who took a solid seventh in support of Roglič in the Tour and is on the next phase of his comeback trail. The same could be said for Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) who improved over the course of the Tour and now has his chance to lead the team with that man Froome in support.

Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic

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Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) will look to bounce back from his poor Tour, as will Russian tyro Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana) from his baffling early Giro implosion. Canada's Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) and Spain's Enric Mas (Movistar) are Steady Eddies who could thrive over some of the bigger names.

It's always difficult to overlook Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in his home tour, although the Spanish veteran has looked like a remnant of the past in this most bizarre of seasons. Given how the script has gone this year, there'd be more chance of a comparatively younger buck coming through – such as Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), Hugh Carthy (EF), Dani Martinez (EF) or Davide Formolo (UAE-Team Emirates) – rather than one of the older, more careworn pieces of furniture like Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) or indeed Froome.

After an early crash impeded his Tour form, Wout Poels (Bahrain-McLaren) managed to get things back on track in France and he could be a factor. The rangy Dutchman has an excellent record on the Angliru, after all.

Who will win the few sprints?

Sam Bennett | Cycling | ESP Player Feature

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The stand-out sprinters of the race are Ireland's Sam Bennett (Deceuninck Quick-Step) and Germany's Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe). It will be a rivalry between two former teammates which pits the reigning points jersey classification winners of the Tour and Giro against each other.

Other fast men to watch include the Italian pocket-rocket Jakub Mareczko (CCC Team), his compatriot Matteo Moschetti (Trek-Segafredo) and the Belgian Jasper Philipsen (UAE-Team Emirates). Given the nature of the terrain and paucity of wholly flat finishes, it's worth keeping an eye out for the Dane Magnus Cort (EF Pro Cycling), too.

If not Froome, who'll keep the British end up?

Hugh Carthy of United Kingdom and Team EF Education First / during the 102nd Giro d'Italia 2019, Stage 14 a 131km stage from Saint Vincent to Courmayeur (Skyway Monte Bianco) 1293m / Tour of Italy / #Giro / @giroditalia / on May 25, 2019 in Courmayeur, It

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No fewer than seven Brits will be taking to the start in Irun on Tuesday – although you may not have heard of them all. With the exception of Froome and Carthy and Scott Davies (Bahrain-McLaren), the British contingent are all newcomers at this level, with Ag2R-La Mondiale giving a Grand Tour debut to 25-year-old Harry Tanfield and Team Sunweb doing the same for 21-year-old sprinter Mark Donovan.

Donovan is part of an extremely young and inexperienced Sunweb team whose average age is 23 years and three months – in stark contract with Movistar's average of 31 years and eight months.

The Rod Ellingworth connection at Bahrain-McLaren also sees Grand Tour debuts to 21-year-old Alfred Wright and 24-year-old Stephen Williams, alongside 24-year-old Davies.

Will the race even make it to Madrid?

Roglic - stage 21 Vuelta 2019 - Getty Images

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That's the $64m question. Given how much the ongoing continuation of the Giro continues to be in the spotlight, it's a surprise to many that the Vuelta is even going ahead – especially as it takes place in a country which, alongside Liverpool and Manchester, finds itself at the forefront of Europe's second wave of coronavirus.

With several of the start or finish cities already in lockdown, the race organisers have decided to ban all spectators from all summit finishes, which will give those stages something of a sombre UAE Tour feel about them.

Like his Giro counterpart, race director Javier Guillén is bullish about the Vuelta's prospects of reaching Madrid – but unlike Mauro Vegni, he seems to have put his money where his mouth is, promising the Vuelta's anti-COVID measures to be the most rigorous of any race post-lockdown. Time will tell, but we all keep our fingers crossed…

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