From Puerto Banús to the finish in Madrid, the Vuelta a Espana will contain 44 climbs, 9 summit finishes, an ITT, a TTT and gradients higher than you'll find in any other GT. Let's look at it in more detail.
There's the route map. It seems to spend rather a lot of time in the south of Spain, and one thing I notice are the number of transfers. I can't imagine anyone being happy. And notice stage 11 going into Andorra for more mountains.
Stage 1: Puerto Banús - Marbella
Stage 1 is a rather ridiculous 7.4 kilometre team Time-Trial - prologue from Puerto Banús to Marbella, in the Costa del Sol, with not a hint of elevation. Can I just say that I'm really not a fan. A 7 kilometre TTT won't split up the field as much as a conventional prologue, and TTTs in general don't seem to be anyone's cup of tea. Of course there's a gimmick - sandy sections. At least it'll provide a soft landing. Honestly it seems to just be an advertisement for holiday locations, with some men in lycra riding past. The usual suspects will be around. Sky, BMC, Orica and Quickstep should challenge.
Stage 2: Alhaurín de la Torre - Caminito del Rey
Ah yes, this is the Vuelta we know. Hilltop finish on the second day, where one of the lesser GC contenders will lose ten seconds. Mostly, the stage is flat, with a few uncategorised bumps, at least until the last 25 kilometres. There's then a steady third category climb, followed by a short, sharp shock at the end. From a squint at the final climb, it looks like it rises about 350 metres in 3 kilometres, an average gradient of over ten percent, and reportedly over twelve for part of the way, even reaching seventeen at the very top. An early chance for a puncheur, it seems. Not the last one, either. Dan Martin, Gilbert and the GC contenders are names that spring to mind.
Stage 3: Mijas - Malaga
A rather unpredicatable stage. Two early climbs, followed by a tiny bump with under 10 kilometres to go are the only obstacles, but while the last categorised climb is with 76 kilometres to go, it will make life difficult for the sprinters. If it should lead to a sprinter (or whatever they have in Spain) winning, the field of sprinters is thin, Sagan (who was nowhere last year), Degenkolb, Bouhanni and Pelucchi are all going to the race, with the latter my pick to challenge on flat days, after riding well in the Tour of Poland.
Stage 4: Estepona - Vejer de la Frontera
Stage 4 has no categorised climbs, but a sharp rise at the end, reminiscent of last year's stage 3, when Michael Mathews edged out Dan Martin in an uphill sprint. However, the climb is different, only 400 metres long, after a harder rise with 4 kilometres to go, which may thin out the field.
Stage 5: Rota - Alcala de Guardaira
Stage 5, from Rota to Ronda, has very few obstacles until the very end of the stage, with the last 700 metres rising at 4 or 5%, perhaps to the benefit of the punchier sort of sprinter.
Stage 6: Córdoba - Sierra de Cazorla
This has my money on being the first breakaway stage of the Vuelta. It has two rather long, yet not steep climbs, before a three kilometre, 7% kick to the finish.
Stage 7: Jódar - La Alpujara
Stage 7 hosts the first proper mountain-top finish of the Vuelta. La Alpujarra seems to be 19 kilometres long, though with a five kilometre flat section right in the middle, yet it is still a category one climb, not especial category. I love the Vuelta. This will be where we will see the first real GC action, and whoever is in red at the end may hold it all the way.
Stage 8: Puebla de don Fadrique - Murcia
A mostly downhill stage. The two category three hills won't provide much of a challenge, and a breakaway win seems the most likely outcome, especially if the peloton are tired.
Stage 9: Torrevieja - Cumbre del Sol Benitachell
I take back what I said about the Vuelta's categorisation of climbs. The last climb is a 9% climb for three kilometres, and somehow has been awarded cat. 1 status. While it's no doubt difficult, cat. 1? Really? Statistically, it's not much harder than the cat. 3 on stage 2. Anyway, Valverde, Rodríguez, Martin, the usual suspects should be around for the win.
Stage 10: Valencia - Castellón
A transitional stage, before the Pyrenees, this could go to a break, or a sprinter again, the last climb peaking with over 20 kilometres left, and therefore not a GC challenge.
Stage 11: Andorra La Vella - Cortals D'Encamp
The Queen Stage to crown all Queen stages, this 138 kilometre stage starts at the foot of the Collada de Beixalis, and the climbing does not let up from there, there's 5000 vertical metres of it! With 4 category 1 climbs, a category 2 and an Especial category, this stage is unmissable, plain and simple. The race goes into Andorra for this stage, and is one of the more brutal GT stages I've ever seen, with all that climbing in such a short distance it's the perfect place for an attack.
Stage 12: Escaldes-Engordany, Andorra - Lleida
Transitional stages are here again. Only one categorised climb, and a sprint is the most likely outcome.
Stage 13: Calatayud - Tarazona
Another transitional stage, with a flat last kilometre, but a 1.5 kilometre rise beforehand. Coupled with the three climbs beforehand, it again looks ripe for a breakaway, though I would be talking about Michael Matthews were he riding.
Stage 14: Vitoria - Alto Campoo, Fuente del Chivo
Back to the mountains for stage 14, with a category 1 climb to test the legs, before the first Especial climb of the Vuelta. The ascent of Puerto del Escudo is particularly nasty, with no descent to recover, and straight onto a flat road, leading straight to the main challenge - Alto Campoo. The 18 kilometre mountain is a more ordinary GT climb.
Stage 15: Comilas - Sotres, Cabrales
The second consecutive mountain stage, this one may not be as hard. A category two climb precedes the rise to Sotres.
Stage 16: Luarca - Ermita de Alba, Quiros
If stage 11 is the queen stage, then this is the princess. With seven categorised climbs, including the steep rise to Ermita de Alba, this will provide time gaps. It is also the third consecutive summit finish, and another to be especial category. It's under 7 kilometres long, but still very steep, reaching 21%. The rest day will be pushed back, which I thoroughly approve of.
Stage 17: Burgos - Burgos,
In the Vuelta, we have become almost accustomed to a twist in the tail of individual time trials. They usually contain at least one categorised climb, but not this year. It is also quite long, at 39 kilometres. I feel almost cheated, though Chris Froome may not.
Stage 18: Roa - Riaza
Downhill finish, but it doesn't look too steep. Probably a break, would you be bothered to chase?
Stage 19: Medina del Campo - Avila
Bumpy transitional stage with a category 2 near the end. With a tired peloton, and a tough stage to come, I can't imagine much happening.
Stage 20: San Lorenzo de el Escorial - Cercedilla, 181 km
Penultimate stage downhill finish! And you know what that means? Risks. On the last climb, there will be last gasp attacks from GC contenders, trying to move up, to take the red jersey. This stage could be thrilling, the lack of a summit finish makes it unpredictable. Watch out for it. My only concern is the flat section on the top of the final climb. Will it stop attacks near the top of the climb?
Stage 21: Alcalá de Henares - Madrid
The Vuelta, somewhat boringly, tends to finish with this sort of stage, with a number of laps around Madrid. Whichever sprinter is left will take the prize, and the red jersey will be handed out for the last time.