It's less than a month since Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France in Paris, but it's that time of year again: the third and final Grand Tour of the season, the revenge race and last chance saloon that is the Vuelta a Espana.
In between Paris and Pamplona we have even had the small matter of the Olympics. While many riders have had a hectic schedule, for one of them - the overwhelming race favourite - the Vuelta marks the first major stage race of the season. Yes, Alberto Contador is back — and in most people's minds, anything less than the overall win for Bertie in Madrid would be a major upset.
Tour of Northern Spain? The race route
Not once venturing south of Madrid, the 67th edition of the Vuelta looks to boast one of the most demanding routes of any Grand Tour in recent years.
You know the feeling when you come out of a relationship that had gone stale and you're in search of something totally different? Well, that's how this Vuelta route seems compared to the recent Tour parcours. Where the Tour seemed drawn out and predictable, the Vuelta is fresh, challenging and spontaneous.
Unlike the Tour, the Vuelta will be won in the mountains and not on a time trial bike. The riders don't really have much choice: there are 10 uphill finishes including five gruelling high-mountain treks. Stage three boasts the first hill-top finish while stage four has the race's first serious summit finish with a Cat.1 slog to the ski resort of Valdezcaray.
As such, there will be no opening week in which the riders can ease themselves leisurely into form: a selection for the GC will be made pretty much from the outset.
All in all, there's a total of 36 categorised climbs and the organisers have gone for short, punchy stages and some spectacular ascents. This should encourage attacks and make every part of the race potentially critical. We have a range of steep Rodriguez-style ramps concluding stages as well as some brutal long climbs such as the interminable slog to Lagos de Covadongo in stage 15 or the new climb a day later of Cuitu Negro, where a goat track has been covered with concrete slabs for a final 2.5km leg-sapping test in a remote landscape that peaks out at 25 per cent.
Unlike the Tour, with its 100km of time trials, the Vuelta has just two races against the clock: the opening 16.5km evening team time trial through the streets of Pamplona (which will conjure up images of the annual running-with-the-bulls festival) and a 39.5km ITT in stage 11 (even this boasts a tricky Cat.3 climb and technical descent).
Two flattish stages are then followed by four successive mountain-top slogs, a couple more 'plain' stages that should suit a break or a bunch sprint and then the concluding showdown on the precipitous slopes of the Bolo del Mundo. Phew.
Contador vs Froome? The main contenders for red
Last year witnessed an overall victory for perhaps the weakest and most unlikely Grand Tour contender in the past 20 years. No one had Juan Jose Cobo of Geox down as likely to figure prior to the race — and in the end, the Spaniard won a thrilling tussle between himself and Team Sky duo Chris Froome and Wiggins.
This year, it would not be surprising if Cobo — now at Movistar — finishes outside the top 10. He may not even complete the race, if his form in the Tour is anything to go by.
That, of course, opens the door to Froome. Runner-up in his last two Grand Tours, Froome has finally been given the number one billing by his team. No longer required to put his ambitions on hold for Wiggins, the Kenyan-born Brit will be able to ride his own race — and Froome certainly has the climbing ability to emerge victorious.
The big question mark over Froome is his ability to maintain his form throughout the demanding three-week race. The 27-year-old has been riding full gas for a few months now. There was no downtime after the Tour because of the Olympics and now, three weeks, a bronze medal and multiple training rides in Monaco later, Froome must be feeling slightly fatigued.
Alberto Contador, of course, is the bookmakers' favourite to take the win. The Spaniard has never lost the Vuelta — winning his home Tour on the only previous occasion he entered it back in 2008. Clearly the best stage racer of his generation, Contador will have fire in his belly after seeing his titles stripped back to 2010 and having to sit out the first six months of this season owing to suspension.
The big question mark over Contador is how he will make the transition back to professional racing. Evidence suggests the Spaniard will be fine: he won the Giro in 2011 after just a few weeks of preparation, and he has clearly been training a lot. His Saxo Bank-Tinkoff team may not be as strong as the Team Sky machine, but in Benjamin Noval, Daniel Navarro and Jesus Hernandez, Contador has three faithful (and hungry) lieutenants who have themselves effectively been sidelined while their ostensible raison d'etre sat out his ban.
The climbing-heavy course will suit two other Spanish riders too: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) narrowly missed out on winning the Giro and has always made the Vuelta the main target of his season; like Cobo, Igor Anton (Euskaltel) has been on patchy form this year, but he has unfinished business on the race after crashing out so cruelly in 2010 when wearing the leader's red jersey.
Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto Belisol) is a strong contender but he too may have peaked during last month's Tour. Outsiders include the Belgian revelation Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil), who made the podium in the Giro after a stunning climb up the Stelvio, but was forced to miss the Tour because it clashed with his wedding. A honeymoon of heavy training could see De Gendt target a top-five finish.
Dutchmen Robert Gesink and Bauke Mollema both saw their Tour hopes derailed by serious crashes and the Rabobank pair will be keen to turn things round in Spain. With no long and nervous flat stages opening things up, the Vuelta should be free from bit peloton pile-ups so Gesink and Mollema should get an incident-free run for a change.
Should Cobo pop, then team-mate Alejandro Valverde will be there to pick up the pieces. The Spaniard rode into a bit of form latterly during the Tour and makes his first appearance in the Vuelta since winning the race — pre-doping ban — in 2009.
Moncoutie's No.5? Climbing for polka dots
Frenchman David Moncoutie will aim to make history with a fifth consecutive king of the mountains title — although the veteran Cofidis climber will find it hard to make headway in such a demandingly mountainous route.
A more likely winner of the blue polka dot jersey will be one of the men battling it out for the GC — with the likes of Contador, Rodriguez, Froome, Gesink and Van den Broeck standing out. Watch out for Sky's Colombian duo of Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran too, as well as Astana's Fredrik Kessiakoff. It's always worth keeping tabs on one of the lesser known locals too: Andalucia's Gustavo Cesar, for instance.
Points to prove? The green jersey
It's no surprise that none of the peloton's best sprinters have turned up for this one, given the mountainous terrain and distinct lack of flat finishes. The absence of a steady supply of flat stages means that, like last year (when the points jersey went to Mollema), the green jersey could well be won by more of a rounded rider and consistent finisher.
In the event of a bunch sprint, then the riders to watch out for are Spanish duo Jose Joaquin Rojas (Movistar), Angel Vicioso (Katusha) and Leonardo Duque (Cofidis), the Italian Daniele Bennati (RadioShack), GreenEdge pair Allan David and Julian Dean, Rabobank's Matti Breschel and youngsters John Degenkolb (Argos) and Ben Swift (Sky).
Will white be red? The combined classification
There is no youth classification on the Vuelta and where the Tour awards a white jersey for the best young rider, in Spain this accolade goes to the rider with the best average position in all three classifications. This year, given the route, then you'd have to put your money on the overall winner also picking up the combined classification.
With this in mind, many pundits will expect Contador to pick up a full house of red, white, green and blue polka dots by Madrid.