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Analysis: It’s gonna be a hot Vuelta!

Stronger teams, hotter weather and a much larger audience will be the likely result of the changes in store for the Vuelta a España, whose 2005 route was presented in Madrid on Wednesday. At 3239km, the course itself is 200km longer than this year’s race, with three stages over 200km (compared with one in 2004), six mountaintop stage finishes (the same), and three individual time trials (as opposed to two). The most significant change is the inclusion of the Vuelta in the UCI’s infamous ProTour. Even though the organizers of the Vuelta and the other grand tours have yet to sign off on the

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By John Wilcockson

Stronger teams, hotter weather and a much larger audience will be the likely result of the changes in store for the Vuelta a España, whose 2005 route was presented in Madrid on Wednesday. At 3239km, the course itself is 200km longer than this year’s race, with three stages over 200km (compared with one in 2004), six mountaintop stage finishes (the same), and three individual time trials (as opposed to two).

The most significant change is the inclusion of the Vuelta in the UCI’s infamous ProTour. Even though the organizers of the Vuelta and the other grand tours have yet to sign off on the ProTour format (they disagree in particular with the four-year team licenses and the lack of a promotion-relegation system), they have agreed they will accept the inclusion of all 19 ProTour teams at their events. There will also be two wild-card teams, probably Phonak of Switzerland and Comunidad Valenciana-Elche (the former Kelme) of Spain.

This means that instead of a Vuelta dominated by the Spanish (all of the top 10 finishers this year were from the home country) the race should be more open, with true contenders coming not only from the four leading Spanish teams, but also from the other 15 ProTour squads (four each from Italy and France, two each from Belgium and Germany, and one apiece from Denmark, the Netherlands and the U.S.)

Also of significance is the fact that the 60th Vuelta immediately precedes the world road championships in Madrid. Most of the world’s contenders are likely to race the Vuelta, not only for the competition but also to acclimate to the summertime temperatures of central Spain.

For the first time, the Vuelta will start in the month of August, a week earlier than usual. This is because the world’s is also earlier, taking place from September 20-25.

The Vuelta’s earlier dates (August 27-September 18) will likely make this the hottest-ever edition, particularly compared with the race’s former traditional springtime slot. The thermometer is likely to be hitting 100 degrees, particularly during the long, flat stages of the opening week.

Sandwiched between the 9km stage 1 time trial in Granada (which has an uphill finish to the Andalusian city’s historic Alhambra palace) and the 35km stage 9 TT in Barcelona (which finishes in the middle of the local soccer club’s famed Nou Camp stadium) are seven stages of between 150km and 220km.

Six of these early stages should suit the sprinters, with men like Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo), Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Robbie McEwen (Davitamon-Lotto), Tom Boonen (Quick Step), Baden Cooke (fdjeux.com) and Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) probably all honing their form in view of the relatively flat course at the Madrid world’s.

The other stage in the opening week, stage 6 from Cuenca to Valdelinares, sees the first summit finish of the Vuelta at the Aramôn ski station, a Cat. 1 climb that has an elevation of 6233 feet.

Following the Barcelona TT — which includes a Cat. 3 climb and would suit both Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) and Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile), should they decide to ride the Vuelta as preparation for the world’s — comes the critical portion of the race. No less than five of the six stages in this second week have summit finishes!

The five stages have very different characteristics, and defending champion Roberto Heras (Liberty Seguros) says he will focus on winning the ones at Arcalis in the Pyrénées (stage 10) and Lagos de Covadonga (stage 14) in the Picos de Europa of Asturias in a bid to take a record fourth Vuelta title.

Arcalis is where Ullrich won an important stage of the 1997 Tour de France and went on to score the overall victory (as he did at the 1999 Vuelta). As for Covadonga, this is where Heras in 2000 came from behind to take the Vuelta’s golden leader’s jersey from Angel Casero. But in that same race, Heras later needed a big time gain on the feared Angliru climb to hold off Casero in the final TT. In 2005, the defending champion will likely have to make his time gains on the less steep stage 15 Valgrande ski station finish at Pajares.

There are more climbs to tackle in the final week, mostly in the mountains north of Madrid; but the decider in this Vuelta is most likely going to be the 40km stage 20 TT between Guadalajara and Alcalá de Henares — the birthplace of “Don Quixote” author Cervantes, whose death 400 years ago is being commemorated on this stage.

Heras will be the pre-race favorite, but he may find himself in a battle with his old boss Armstrong, perhaps Ullrich, or even Santi Perez (Phonak) — should the young Spaniard’s suspension for an alleged blood transfusion at the 2004 Vuelta be overturned. It should be a hot Vuelta!