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2012 Vuelta a España serves up a mountainous, unpredictable course

Vuelta organizers hope the 2012 edition serves up action, unpredictability and a potentially explosive fight to the finish.

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If the 2012 Tour de France was all about time trials and control, the Vuelta a España this year delivers a route unlike any seen in the modern era.

No less than 10 summit finishes litter the Vuelta route with just two relatively short time trials. The 2012 Vuelta is made to serve up action, unpredictability and a potentially explosive race right to the very end.

It’s a course made for climbers — and for fans.

Vuelta organizers are hoping that breaking the mold of what a grand tour should look like will spark interest among fans lining the road and watching on TV.

“We are looking to provide a surprise every day,” said Abraham Olano, the ex-pro who works to design the Vuelta route. “We want the racers to be attentive and the fans to be on the edge of their seats.”

• Startlist for the 2012 Vuelta a España

With the route that Olano and his team have laid out, there will certainly be no time for a siesta during the three-week march from Pamplona to Madrid.

The race stays entirely in the north of Spain, only dipping south toward Madrid for the final weekend. Four summit finishes come in the first week, with three in the second and three more in the final week.

On paper, the route seems tailor-made for Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), but organizers had no idea what would happen in Contador’s clenbuterol case when they designed the route last year.

The fact that Contador’s racing ban ended just in time for his return to the Vuelta couldn’t make race organizers happier. “El pistolero” remains the most popular rider in Spain despite his controversial ban.

Though Contador starts as the five-star favorite, a deep field and a challenging course should make for a legitimate battle all the way to the Bola del Mundo climb on the final weekend.

Here’s how the Vuelta stacks up statistically: 3,360km, 36 rated climbs, 21 stages, 11 flat stages, 10 uphill finales, six major mountaintop finishes, two rest days, one TTT at 16.5km and one ITT at 39.4km.

Here’s how it rates in one word: pain.

Last year was universally hailed as the hardest Vuelta ever. This year looks to top that. The suffering will depend on the speed, the weather and the tactics, but it will hurt no matter what happens.

Week one is no cakewalk

Vuelta organizers have skipped Spain’s emblematic south in its entirety this year. After a successful return to the Basque Country last year in more than three decades, the Vuelta wanted to go back.

They also wanted to return to the major climbs of Asturias, take in Galicia and return to the Pyrénées, which were left out last year in favor of a push from Benidorm south into Andalucia.

It proved all but impossible to include all those elements, limit the number of transfers and still try to ply south.

So they came up with a novel race format that stays entirely within Spain’s northern half. It will be interesting to see how the plan plays out over the coming weeks.

Day 1 opens with a 16.5km team time trial through the narrow streets of Pamplona, including the finishing stretch where the “Running of the Bulls” occurs each June, during the San Fermines fiesta, and ends inside the bull ring made famous by Ernest Hemingway.

Riders will be hoping there will be no stray bulls, because the technical course delivers challenge enough.

The first leader’s jersey will likely see a showdown between the three strongest teams in the field: Team Sky, Movistar and Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, with Garmin-Sharp in with a shot for the win.

The route pushes west into La Rioja for what should be a sprint finish quickly followed by two medium mountain summits in stages 3 and 4.

Though neither are major climbs, the Arrate climb in stage 3 and the punch to the Valdezcaray ski area in stage 4 will require GC contenders to be at their best right out of the starting gate.

Stage 6 into Jaca features one of the many tricky hilltop finales that could prove decisive.

With time bonuses of 12, 8 and 4 seconds waiting at the line, riders such as Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) will be looking to take any advantage. The finish up the Fuerte de Rapitán is not long at 3.8km, but features ramps as steep as 14 percent, enough to fracture the peloton.

Stage 8 sees the Vuelta return to Andorra, with the first major summit finale up the Collado de Gallina, a 7km climb where the last 4km after 9 percent grades. It’s Purito’s favorite training ground, so the Katusha rider will be racing to win.

Stage 9 rolls to Barcelona before a long transfer across the trunk of the Iberian peninsula on the first of two rest days. The riders fly; mechanics and drivers will make the 1200km haul via the team buses.

Week two: Crunch time

After a rest day and a transition stage, the Vuelta’s lone individual time trial will prove decisive in stage 11. How much it will favor the specialists such as Chris Froome (Sky) remains to be seen.

Following the lead for the rest of the Vuelta, even the 39.4km race against the clock serves up a hilly, technical course with a steep climb smack dab in the middle of the route from Cambados to Pontevedra.

The fun continues in stage 12 with another hilltop finale overlooking the “rias” along the rugged Galician coast, with the Mirador de Ezaro looming with ramps as steep as 13 percent.

Stage 14 brings the race into the decisive second week where Contador says the race will be won or lost.

With five rated climbs over rough roads in rural Galicia and Castilla y Leon, the stage finishes atop the Puerto de Ancares in a desolate corner of Spain where some of Europe’s last brown bears find refuge.

There will be no rest for the weary, with the Lagos de Covadonga on tap the following day. The final climb is not long — about 12km — but it’s incredibly steep, with the “goat bones’ graveyard” sector featuring ramps as steep as 18 percent.

The Vuelta continues to pile it on, with the queen stage set for the 183km from Gijón to the ski area at Pajares on the menu the next day. The route features climbs over Cat. 1 killers San Lorenzo and la Cobertoria before hitting the long, grinding 20km climb up the Puerto de Pajares.

Rather than end the stage there, organizers have decided to turn the screws just a little more.

The stage finishes atop the 2.8km climb up the Cuitu Negro climb, which is a ski run during the winter. Crews only recently paved over the gravel road to finish off what should be a spectacular finale, with 24 percent ramps in the final charge to the line.

Week three: settling the podium

The race could well be decided by then if a strong rider emerges from the three-stage purgatory with a solid lead, but there will probably be some settling of the final podium.

Following the second rest day, the Vuelta rolls into the heart of the spectacular Picos de Europa with a stage to Fuente De, which should be a big-ring climb for the top GC favorites.

Two transition stages are there for any surviving sprinters before the cherry on top of the Vuelta suffer-cake: the return of the Bola del Mundo summit.

Unveiled in 2010, the route tacks up another rough service road atop a ski area just north of Madrid.

A climb so steep that riders were using compacts in 2010, the real danger is blowing up or falling off the bike. It would be very difficult to get back on if anyone slips or falls off on the dizzying steeps, which averages 13 percent and reach 28 percent at its steepest section.

Survivors will roll into Madrid on September 9 for the short — and flat — final stage finishing with passages on the Paseo del Prado in the heart of Madrid.

Vuelta organizers are hoping that will be enough to keep the attention of the fans and the media. It certainly looks promising enough, unless Contador repeats what he did in the 2011 Giro d’Italia and blows everyone out of the water on the first uphill finish.