Traditionally seen as the Last Chance Saloon for riders whose earlier season’s aspirations have hit a roadblock, the Vuelta has morphed into a nuanced beast which throws climb after climb at its protagonists but without the bad weather or gimmickry of the Giro or the stress and strains of the Tour.
It’s more laid back, more provincial and yet, at the same time, the Vuelta is attracting a far more cosmopolitan crowd – as reflected by the eight different nationalities who have won the maillot rojo in the past 15 years. It’s grown in stature, too, as evidenced by a stellar start list boasting two of the biggest names in cycling and five former Grand Tour winners.
Without any more ado, let’s run through some of the key questions ahead of what should be a fascinating final Grand Tour of the season.
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Will Ineos Grenadiers’ multi-leader strategy work?

We won’t know until it does or it doesn’t. But what we do know is that it backfired big time at the Tour, where Ineos entered with what seemed to be the strongest team on paper, yet left with absolutely nothing except a distant third spot on the podium.
For the Vuelta, the British team have that rider who came third, a former Giro champion fresh from winning Olympic road race gold; they have the rider who won the Volta a Catalunya, the twin brother of a former Vuelta winner who is now finally riding his first Grand Tour of the season; and they have the 2019 Tour winner who added the Giro to his palmares this May, and who could now become the youngest rider in history to win all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.
Having options is no bad thing – as Richard Carapaz, Adam Yates and Egan Bernal were all keen to stress on Thursday’s press conference. Each of them enter the race with personal ambitions and we have seen such tactics flounder in the past. But there’s no reason to think that an Ineos trident should go the same way as Movistar tridents past and present and to come.
Sure, there’s also Russia’s Pavel Sivakov and Grand Tour debutant Tom Pidcock to keep happy – but get the balance right and Ineos could return to winning ways after a troubled July. With the Vuelta starting with a time trial and featuring the first mountaintop finishes on Monday, a natural hierarchy may be established sooner rather than later. “The road will decide. It always does,” Carapaz said on Thursday.

Who’s best placed to stop Roglic or Bernal completing their hat-tricks?

If the Colombian has his record-breaking grand slam hat-trick to think about, then defending champion Primoz Roglic has a hat-trick of his own on his mind. Complete his bounce-back from a disappointing Tour withdrawal and Roglic will become the third rider in history to win three consecutive Vueltas after Tony Rominger and Roberto Heras.
Bernal and Roglic – who will be backed up by a climbing-minded Jumbo-Visma team – look to be the favourites but competition will come from Spain’s Mikel Landa (Bahrain Victorious), Russia’s Aleksandr Vlasov (Astana-PremierTech), Britain’s Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Nippo), Frenchman Romain Bardet (Team DSM), Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez and his Spanish Movistar teammate Enric Mas.

'The first few stages will be nervous' - Hugh Carthy speaks ahead of Vuelta a España

Of all those second-tier favourites Landa looks the most appealing. The Basque climber seemed to be in the form of his life in the Giro prior to his shock exit following a crash in Stage 5. And he arrives in Spain with a strong team behind him, including Giro runner-up Damiano Caruso, Australia’s Jack Haig (himself victim of a Tour-ending crash earlier this summer), Ukraine’s Mark Padun (winner of successive mountain stages in the Dauphiné), Swiss climber Gino Mader (winner of the Giro stage following Landa’s withdrawal), and the Dutch veteran Wout Poels.
Third last year, Briton Carthy is one of the best climbers in the business but comes with a weak EF Education-Nippo team, while it remains to be seen how Vlasov, fourth in the Giro, performs in his last major race before joining Bora-Hansgrohe. As for Movistar’s two-pronged attack, Mas looks like he misses the killer instinct, while Lopez was underwhelming in the Tour after a troubled opening week.

Is Demare the best prospect for green jersey glory?

The points classification regulations have been tweaked this year to give more weight to flatter stages rather than spread the points evenly regardless of terrain. That will inevitably favour the fast men over the all-rounders – so perhaps we will see that rare thing in recent Vueltas: a sprinter winning the green jersey.
After an early crash scuppered his Tour chances, Arnaud Demare leads a Groupama-FDJ team that lacks any GC focus and appears to be build around getting the Frenchman across the line quicker than anyone else. This should ensure Demare picks up wins – although he will still need to sweat it through the mountains and beat the time cut each day, which is not a given.
The terrain could favour a more rounded fastman in the mould of Australia’s Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange), Italy’s Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) or Spain’s Alex Aranburu (Astana-PremierTech). It will be interesting to see how Dutchman Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) fares on his return to Grand Tours following his horror crash last year, while Spain’s Jon Aberasturi (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) is probably the man to watch from the wildcard teams.

Top 5 rides of La Vuelta - including Carthy's Angliru masterpiece

What have the Vuelta organisers come up with this year?

Bookended by time trials, the 3,417km route takes place entirely within Spain and finishes outside Madrid for the first time in seven years. With the first summit finish coming as early as day three, there are a total of 10 uphill finishes and a whopping 45 categorised climbs in total – enhancing the Vuelta’s growing reputation as the hardest of all three Grand Tours.
There’s no return to the giddy gradients of the Angliru or Los Machucos but Stage 17 to Lagos de Covadonga will set things up for a thrilling final tranche of climbing ahead of the decisive 33.8km TT to Santiago de Compostela. The Vuelta’s recent quest to innovate can be seen on what is arguably the queen stage, Stage 18, which finishes with the race’s first ever ascent of the Alto de Gamoniteiru.
The isolated, rocky and remote peak in the Asturias mountains is breathtakingly beautiful, barren in the extreme and rather brutal, its narrow access road sweeping up towards the weather station on a gradient that consistently fails to drop below the 10 per cent mark for most of its 14km ascent – with the goat track ramping up to a leg-stinging 17 per cent on the final twist to the finish. It's undeniably similar to the nearby Angliru, but perhaps even harder because there's no easing up in the gradient and the coarse road surface is even more weather beaten.
All this ahead of a medium-mountains day and then a penultimate stage which features five categorised climbs, 4,307m of altitude gain, and hardly a kilometre of flat road over the course of its ambush-friendly 202.6km route. With the TT following the next day, you’d be hard pressed finding a tougher finale to any Grand Tour in recent years.

How will cycling remember Fabio Aru?

For his back-to-back wins at Cervinia and Sestriere to push Alberto Contador all the way in the 2015 Giro? For winning the Vuelta that same year after destroying Tom Dumoulin on the penultimate day? For his in-fighting at Astana and ultimate departure? For his three DNFs from his five last Grand Tours? For his unfortunate record of a winless 1,500 days and counting entering his final Vuelta?
Or can the Italian write a famous last chapter in the story of his career before he hangs up his cycling shoes after his 14th Grand Tour. Despite returning to form with runner-up spots in the Sibiu Cycling Tour and Vuelta a Burgos in recent weeks, the 31-year-old announced this week that he will call it a day after this Vuelta.
Troubled in recent years with an iliac artery problem, poor form and low confidence, Aru has been a shadow of the rider who finished on the podium of three of his first five Grand Tours. His stupendous array of facial expressions means no rider in recent years has been able to visually express pain and suffering in the same way as Aru – and while he will forever go down as a Vuelta winner and Giro runner-up, it will be, perhaps harshly, his human basking shark impression that stands the ultimate test of time.

Is this the worst limited-edition kit ever?

Presumably because their usual strip contains too much red, Bahrain Victorious have released a (quite frankly hideous) replacement kit on the eve of the race – one which feels like it should be viewed through X-ray specs. Stare at it for too long and it feels like your eyes need retuning.

And are these the worst limited-edition bikes?

The crimes against elegance continue with Richard Carapaz’s new Pinerello, which celebrates his status as Olympic champion. Fans may now be spared the sight of Rio's Greg van Avermaet mincing off the pack of the peloton in his myriad gold accoutrements, but instead we’ll have to be blinded by the Ecuadorian’s bike.
Given Carapaz took gold in Toyko – and not bronze – it’s odd that the designers at Pinerello seemed to have come up with something that would have been better suited to the orange army at Euskaltel-Euskadi...
Colour vision deficiency seems to be contagious in the peloton: Primoz Roglic’s limited-edition TT bike – which the Slovenian will use for the first and last stages of the race – is also a nod to his gold medal ride in Japan. Although in Roglic’s case, his Cervelo certainly looks more yellow than gold…

Quick fire round: What are the other main talking points?

  • Will Tom Pidcock suffer in the same way as Remco Evenepoel did at the Giro when he makes his long-awaited Grand Tour debut for Ineos Grenadiers?
  • Can James Knox – one of seven British riders on the startlist – put together a solid bid for the top 10 now that he’s able to pursue his own ambitions instead of ride in the service of others?
  • In the absence of Tadej Pogacar, will any of the UAE Team Emirates contingent stake a claim for continued relevance on the squad in the light of the petro-dollar-funded recent transfer spree?
  • Can Australian climbers Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious) and Lucas Hamilton (Team BikeExchange) bounce back from respective setbacks in the Giro and Tour?
  • Will any of the Spanish wildcard teams muscle in on the action as the famous orange jerseys of Euskaltel-Euskadi return to the Vuelta for the first time in eight years?
  • How will French duo Romain Bardet (Team DSM) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) play things – go for stage wins in the mountains or a tilt at the GC?
  • How much grief will the American Quinn Simmons cop on social media as the controversial Trek-Segafredo rider makes his Grand Tour debut?
  • Which of the interesting array of Grand Tour debutants will make the biggest splash – Australia’s Jay Vine (Alpecin-Fenix), Denmark’s Andreas Kron (Lotto Soudal) or that man Pidcock?
  • Will the home crowds be treated to a stage win for 41-year-old Alejandro Valverde – the fifth former Grand Tour winner on the startlist alongside Bernal, Roglic, Carapaz and Aru – in what could also prove to be the final major three-week race of his career?
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