Cycling’s third-biggest stage race, the Vuelta a Espana, starts on Saturday with brothers Andy and Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank) and double former winner Denis Menchov (Rabobank) as the top favourites.

Neither of host country Spain’s two most recent winners, Alberto Contador (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde are taking part, for very different reasons.

Contador opted to skip his home race, which he took in 2008, after his third victory in the Tour de France this July, whilst Valverde, the defending champion, is currently suspended from racing.

Contador was strongly tempted to take part on a route, though which seemed made to measure for him. There are four summit finishes, in Andorra (stage 11), Lagos de Covadonga (stage 15), Cotobello (stage 16) and last but not least in the Bola del Mundo (stage 20), 24 hours before the final short stage into Madrid.

The Bola del Mundo stage runs through mountains frequently used by Contador when training, and will feature a spectacular summit finish at the top of three kilometres of cement track. Never used before – although it includes the better-known Navacerrada climb – the Bola del Mundo is a mere 22 kilometres long, and has gradients of up to 22 percent.

British interest this year is very high. David Millar, who has five Vuelta stages in his palmares, including one last September will be taking part again for Garmin-Transitions, whilst Team Sky are sending a team including three young British riders – Peter Kennaugh, Ben Swift and Ian Stannard.

However, it goes without saying that Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia) will be the main attraction. The Manxman has never taken part in the Vuelta before, and apart from gunning for stage wins, with hefty time bonuses on offer Cav could also take the leader’s jersey in the first week.

The opening stage is a 13 kilometre team time trial, which finishes at 11.45 pm on Saturday, although the very late schedule at least means the peloton will not race in the hottest part of the day. Temperatures are currently reaching over 43 degrees in mid-afternoon in Seville, but by night time tomorrow they are expected to drop to a – relatively – cool 36 degrees.

After the team time trial, the race’s first mass start stage on Sunday winds over the sierras of Ronda before a long drop down to the coast at Marbella. It could end in a bunch sprint, although the narrow, winding roads through the mountains may end up splitting the pack apart.

The 2010 Vuelta a Espana concludes in Madrid on Sunday, September 19.

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Vuelta a Espana 2010: Cycling Weekly’s coverage index