Stage 1 starts in Valencia, and during the first eight stages the race slowly progresses westward along the southern border of Spain. Cordoba, in the central part of southern Spain, hosts both Stage 9 and Stage 10. Stage 9 is a largely flat, 130.2 km figure eight around the city. The only serious difficulty on the stage is the Cat 2 Alto de San Jeronimo, which crests 17.2 km from the finish. Though the climb will throw a wrench into the train of the sprinters' teams, the 17.2 km descent to the finish should provide a good opportunity for a regrouping and a bunch sprint. At the same time, the climb will give the opportunists a good chance to break away and steal a stage. Whichever way it goes, this stage will be a filled with speed and attacks by those men out for a day of glory. The GC contenders will spend the day trying to stay out of trouble and conserve their energies for the following day's time trial.
Stage 10 will see the first individual time-trial stage of the Vuelta. The course is a relatively flat 36.5 km loop that runs counter-clockwise around the city of Cordoba. On the first half of the course there are a number of technical corners, but the back half of the course is a straight shot that will favor the power riders. There are a few tight corners heading into the finish, but this course should favor the specialists who push big gears like David Millar (Cofidis), Santiago Botero (Kelme-Costa Blanca), Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano (Once-Eroski), and Jan Hruska (Once-Eroski). Others to look out for include the dangerous Dane Claus Moller (Milaneza-MSS), who recently won the final time trial and overall at the Volta a Portugal. Most of the climbers like Heras, Simoni, Sevilla, and "Scarecrow" Casagrande will just be looking to limit their losses and gain a few seconds on one another.
Following the rest day on Tuesday, Stage 11 will see a return to the mountains as the riders cover the 166.1 km from Alcobendas to Collado Villalba, just north of Madrid. The stage will take in two Cat 1 climbs: The Cat 1 Alto de los Leones begins after 76 km, and is an 8 km climb with some parts as steep as 13.8%. Will such a name inspire a special ride from Mario Cipollini? Probably not. At 130.5 km the riders must climb the Cat 1 Puerto de Navacerrada, an 11 km climb where the grade only gets as difficult as 8.1%. From the top of the Puerto de Navacerrada there is a steep 25 km descent into the finish at Collado Villalba. The difficulty of the climbs will shred the sprinters off the peloton, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Erik Zabel (Telekom) and Angel Edo (Milaneza) might be there to contest a sprint finish. More likely, the stage will go to an opportunist who attacks while the leaders mark each other on the climbs. This is the perfect stage for super-descender Paolo Savoldelli (Index-Alexia) to attack as he did in a similar stage of this year's Giro, where he picked up a handfull of seconds that proved crucial to his overall victory.
Stage 12 is another flat, fast sprint-fest from Segovia to Burgos. With the mountains likely to eliminate a few sprinters by this point, the chances for the success of a group of low-placed riders to pull off a long breakaway will be good here. Still, the terrain is pretty wide-open and straight-on as the riders make their way north, and this always favors the teams of the sprinters. This is the first of three straight stages that will favor the flatlanders, so the battle between the sprinters and the opportunists will have to liven up the race while the GC contenders try to stay out of trouble and prepare themselves for the dreaded Alto de l'Angliru on Stage 15.