Stage 1 will be a short team time trial around Valencia, the first TTT in the Vuelta since 1982. This reintroduction of the team time trial should create an interesting tactical situation immediately for the major GC contenders: it will be necessary to make a strong showing, but it may be unwise to take the Gold Jersey this early in the race. The 24.6 km course is flat as a pan, and should be a drag race from start to finish. This will certainly be popular with the fans, as they will be treated to an amazing spectacle. A crash or mechanical on such a fast and short TTT could prove devastating to any GC contenders.
Look for Once-Eroski to win this stage. They are specialists at this sort of race, and as Team Manager Manolo Saiz demonstrated in the Tour de France, he is not afraid to take the Gold Jersey early even if it means jeopardizing his team's chances in the final GC. There will, of course, be many challengers, such as the mighty U.S. Postal squad and the highly motivated iBanesto boys. The Posties took the opening TTT in the Volta a Catalunya in June ahead of Once, and though the team compositions will be slightly different this time around, the Posties might still pull the upset...though Johan Bruyneel will likely want to avoid taking the Gold Jersey this soon. For their part, the iBanesto squad took the opening TTT at the recent Volta a Portugal, and with the addition of their big team leaders to the Vuelta squad they could whip them all. The Cofidis squad, led by time trial demon David Millar, might also pull a surprise here. And never count out the Kelme boys in Spain, especially when they have a man like Santiago Botero in the train.
Stage 2 is a 144.7 km ride from Valencia to Alcoi. The route takes in three intermediate sprints at 20 km, 28 km, and 69 km, before hitting the Cat 1 climb of the Alto El Portillol at 77 km. There is also the Cat 3 climb of the Alto El Revolcat at 127 km, only 17.7 km from the finish. Add to that the fact that the road tilts upward in the last few kilometers of the finishing circuit, and it looks like the teams of the sprinters will be hard-pressed to bring their fast men to the line first. Look for powerful opportunists with climbing legs like David Etxebarria (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Danilo DiLuca (Saeco) to make a charge at victory here. Also, this is ideal terrain for a group of no-names to have their day in the sun. If the sprinting teams can keep it together, look for a sprinter with climbing legs like Erik Zabel (Team Telekom), Oscar Freire (Mapei), or Angel Edo (Milaneza-MSS) to pound the pure flat-landers like Mario Cipollini (Acqua e Sapone) and Ivan Quaranta (Index-Alexia) in the charge for the line.
Stage 3 will see the pure sprinters chomping at the bit to have a go at the line. The stage is a 134.2 km drag race from San Vicente to Murcia over dead flat roads with only a minor bump in the middle of the profile. There are intermediate sprints at 48 km, 115 km, and 125 km to liven up the stage. Look for Acqua e Sapone, Telekom, and Mapei to crush any breakaways without mercy. With such flat roads and such powerful sprinting teams, it is highly unlikely that this stage will end with anything other than a bunch sprint. Look for the Acqua e Sapone train to give Cipollini a perfect leadout; Cipollini will be challenged by Zabel, Freire, and Quaranta, but when he is on form the man in the zebra pajamas is almost unbeatable on a stage like this.
Stage 4 will be another sprint-fest, as the 149.5 km course from Aguilas to Roquetas de Mar is as flat as a week-old soda. Three intermediate sprints will again keep the pace high, coming at 7 km, 60 km, and 126 km. The sprinters without a victory at this point will be rabid for success, as the next two stages finish at the top of mountains and will be dominated by the skinny guys. Look for another big battle between the Telekom and Acqua e Sapone trains, with the winner coming from the usual suspects: Cipollini, Zabel, Freire, Quaranta, Petacchi, Svorada, and Edo. And then look for them to quickly change over to gears that look like frying pans for the next two stages in the mountains.