Held a week earlier than in previous years the biggest race in Spain will kick off on the beach in Benidorm with a team time trial before going on to test the peloton to their limits as it criss-crosses the country.
The date shift makes the race even better preparation for the World Championships in Copenhagen and with a host of general classification specialists looking to stamp their authority on the final Grand Tour of the season, the Vuelta looks set to attract one of its best fields ever.
The three-week race takes in some of the most demanding and scenic roads in Spain, venturing back into the Basque Country for the first time since 1978 as well as taking on a number of new and exciting climbs for the very first time.
Saturday 20 August - Stage one: Benidorm (team time trial) - 13.5km
A spectacular start should be ensured as the evening team time trial rolls off from the seafront on the Playa de Poniente .With their back to the coast the nine-man teams head down the start ramp situated on the beach and move straight onto a gradual climb as the course heads north. A long straight road will allow the riders to get the power down but there will be no respite as the route heads over the Autopista and skirts around the Real de Faula golf club. The riders take in a dead turn before heading back towards the coast in the opposite direction, eventually turning left onto the Avenida de Vila Joiosa for a run along the beach towards the centre of Benidorm. A few tight turns on the city streets are about as technical as the course gets with a flat finale looping back around for what will be a decisive drag along the Avenida del Mediterraneo to crown the first race leader.
Sunday 21 August - Stage two: La Nucia to Playas de Orihuela - 175.5km
The race heads north a few kilometres for the start in La Nucia ahead of a stage that should give the sprinters their first chance to shine. A dash south-west down the Mediterranean coast is the order of the day - but not before the riders have cut inland to tackle the first climb of the race. The third category Alto de Relleu (28.6km) will be notable for deciding the first mountain classification leader of the race and will likely be hotly contested. After the descent into El Campello the rest of the stage should be relatively straightforward as the riders pass through Alicante (73km). Two sprint points at Santa Pola (91.8km) and Dolores (129.8km) are all that remains before a straight drag into Playas de Orihuela. The route loops around for the final dash to the finish with a slight uphill ramp at 500m likely to make things interesting.
Monday 22 August - Stage three: Petrer to Totana - 163km
The action moves inland for stage three with another day likely to end in a bunch kick. The field will roll out of Petrer for what is an altogether more undulating test than the previous stage. An early climb flattens out quickly but should give a breakaway enough time to scamper clear before the race drops down into Murcia. Two uncategorised climbs follow with a sprint point thrown in for good measure at Pliego (97.8km). The first of the day's two third category climbs is next up with the Alto del Berro (116.6km) likely to be a leg tester ahead of the finale. The sprinters will need to place themselves in a good position as the race heads through Alhama de Murcia and the finish at Totana. The main focal point of the day should be the Alto de la Santa which, at 13km from home, could see the less versatile fast men tailed off. An attacker or plucky group could also chance their arm on the fast run back to the line in Totana.
Tuesday 23 August - Stage four: Baza to Sierra Nevada - 170.2km
In what will be a rude awakening for a large amount of the peloton, the first real mountain stage arrives uncharacteristically early in the race complete with a gruelling mountain-top finish. The day begins in the Granada region with riders immediately out of the saddle on the first category Alto de Filabres (31km). There will likely be a number of riders chasing back on during the descent down into Hinana, with an undulating middle section likely allowing things to come back together. Attention inevitably turns to the finale with the third category Puerto de los Blancares (125km) acting as a precursor to the final test. The 790m Sierra Nevada climb will shape the race with top climbers inevitably rising to the top. Will the leading contenders attack or hope to take over the red jersey later on in the race?
Wednesday 24 August - Stage five: Sierra Nevada to Valdepenas de Jaen - 187km
Another undulating day in the saddle but one unlikely to force any real selections, stage five sees the riders depart from the scene of the previous day's brutal finale. The route heads north-west via Puerto Lope (24km) towards the day's finish. The peloton will get a relatively early look at the finish in Valdepenas de Jaen, but not before the start of a demanding loop that takes in two ascents of the second category Alto de Valdepenas. First time over the riders will be able to test their legs on the 645m climb, with a sprint point through the finish (142.7km) next up ahead of a tough anti-clockwise circuit. Taking in Jaen and Martos the riders circle back around towards the entry to the circuit and the second pass over the climb. With the summit just 8km from the line there will no doubt be takers when it comes to an attack, with a final uphill drag to the finish with 23% ramps adding a further level of intrigue.
Thursday 25 August - Stage six: Ubeda to Cordoba - 196.8km
Another stage that follows the recent trend of making life difficult for sprinters, the run west from Ubeda to Cordoba does not pose too many challenges until the finale. A brisk decent from the flag provides a kinder start to the day but an early ramp up to Linares (20.7km) should allow a break to forge ahead. The stage snakes across sweltering central southern Spain, taking in Arjonilla (85.6km) ahead of a feed zone and the run-in to Cordoba. The riders pass through two quick-fire sprint points, the second taking place at the finish line with a single lap of a tough final circuit remaining. It is here the stage will be decided as the Alto del Catorce por Cieno comes into play. The 580m second category test will push the sprinters to their limits, with three short secondary ramps coming after the initial summit before the peloton can plummet back down into Cordoba. Expect attacks aplenty as puncheurs smell a stage victory.
Friday 26 August - Stage seven: Almaden to Talavera de la Reina - 187.6km
Any members of the sprint fraternity who missed their chance the previous day are appeased with a more straightforward day as the race begins its journey north. Despite likely finishing in a bunch kick the stage is anything but flat. The profile is made up of constant gentle undulations on heavy roads as the route crosses four regions during the day. The stage features no categorised climbs but a fairly sharp ramp up to Puerto Rey (109km) could see a few riders look to test their legs. The common theme of dual sprint points in close proximity continues at La Nava de Ricomalillo (135km) and Alcaudete de la Jara (160km). The run to the finish will be a quick one with some gradual downhill sections only intensifying what should be a full-blown bunch sprint into Talavera de la Reina.
Saturday 27 August - Stage eight: Talavera de le Reina to San Lorenzo de El Escorial - 177.3km
A tough day of climbing is in store as the Vuelta enters its second week. Not for the first time in the race riders will need to be out of the saddle for the off as they climb out of Talavera de la Reina. After a brief descent into Buenaventura (24km) the field are faced with the imposing sight of the first category Puerto de Mijares (57km). The 1575m monster should see the bunch split in half while the favourites mark each other at the sharp end. A steep descent down into Avila is followed by another gradual rise up to the feed zone and El Barraco (92km). Next up is the second category ascent of the Alto de San Bartolome de Pinares (111.7km). Unfortunately for the riders that is not the end of the suffering as the stage heads east for a saw-tooth profile final leg. Three uncategorised climbs remain, with ascents of the Robledondo (155.5km) and San Lorenzo de El Escorial (164.3km) yielding sprint points. The stage culminates with a second pass over the latter climb, with wall-like ramps topping out at 28% and certain to provide fireworks.
Sunday 28 August - Stage nine: Villacastin to Sierra de Bejar, La Covatilla - 183km
The second part of a tough weekend of climbing should ensure yet another shake-up to the overall picture with another brutal mountain-top finish in store. The day begins in Villacastin with a brisk third category climb over the Puerto de la Cruz de Hierro (8.6km). After that rude awakening the route heads out on a long, straight south-west drag through Avila and Villatoro. An uncategorised ascent of the neighbouring Puerto de Villatoro (79.8km) is followed by a feed zone and what could accurately be described as the calm before the storm. The route then skirts around to the north through Guijuelo ahead of an arrival into Bejar and the decisive final climb. The 1970m monster of the Sierra de Bejar is a 10km brute of a climb up to the ski resort at La Covatilla. The third time it has been included in the Vuelta, its tough ramps should confirm which climbers are on top of their game and could likely result in a new red jersey-holder.
Monday 29 August - Stage ten: Salamanca to Salamanca (individual time trial) - 47km
The one and only individual time trial during the 2011 Vuelta will be a vitally important stage for riders looking to close the gap to their rivals or hoping to extend their advantage. An out-and-back course around Salamanca is a shade shorter than the time trial from the previous edition, yet pushed to the middle of the race the stage continues the theme of re-shaping the standings throughout the race. Wind could play a factor as the course heads south out of the centre of Salamanca on largely straight roads, passing through El Ventorro and Mozarbez en route to its most southerly point. From there a tight turn directs the riders back north via Morille. A long, straight run-in should suit the power men down to the ground, but a deceptive false-flat drag during the first half of the stage will certainly put the hurt of the field. That gradient is reversed on the way back into Salamanca ensuring a fast finish with only a couple of turns and a bridge over the river to slow the specialists.
Wednesday 31 August - Stage 11: Verin to Estacion de Montana Manzaneda - 167km
After the double-edged sword of a rest day and a long transfer to the north-west corner of Spain the action resumes once again in Galicia. There is no easing the riders back into action with another punishing mountain-top finish on the cards in the Orense region. The peloton will have to be vigilant in the early going in a bid to not get dropped on the opening third category climb of the Alto de Fumaces (8.1km). That is just the start of undulations as the route winds north, taking in a further second category climb at 61km in the shape of the Alto de Gonza. The 1130m test is not to be trifled with and could force a large number of the bunch out of the back door before half-distance. A further sharp crest comes before the drop into Barco de Valdeorras (107km) and a sprint point. The route turns back on itself to head towards the day's finale. The third category Alto de Ermida (130.4km) acts as the introduction to the daunting climb up to the Estacion de Montana Manzaneda. The 1750m winding ascent is being used for the first time in the race and at 20km in length will have a sizable impact.
Thursday 1 September - Stage 12: Ponteareas to Pontevedra - 167.3km
The sprinters' teams will be all too happy to return to the fold for stage 12 with a dash from Pontareas up to Pontevedra on the Spanish coast. The day begins with an anti-clockwise loop out of the start town and an early sprint point at O Porrino (7.2km) before heading back through the start and off into the meat of the stage. Two third category climbs arrive in the middle of what should be a fairly straightforward test. The Alto de Moscoso (55km) arrives first and is followed shortly after by the similar Alto Ponte Caldeas (88.2km). From there the race cuts north-west towards the coast and arrives for the first time in Pontevedra (105km). A second loop of the day is in store, taking in the most westerly point of the race as the peloton passes through Sanxenxo. Sections of coastal road could pose a danger of cross-winds so teams will have to be alert if the likely sprint finish is to pass off without a hitch.
Friday 2 September - Stage 13: Sarria to Ponferrada - 158.2km
Another tough day in the mountains is in store with all eyes on the race's first ever pass over the Puerto de Ancares. The monster climb sits in the middle of a tough undulating stage with climbs from the outset in the shape of third category duo the Alto O'Pico Da Pena (15.3km) and the Alto de O Lago (34.6km). The route continues north-east before hitting the first category Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas (70.1km). That climb almost pales in comparison to what comes next with the debut pass over the 1670m Ancares. Tough early sections give way to a more gradual prolonged gradient to the summit, yet interestingly the organisers have placed the climb some 60km from home. A breakaway will hope to have built up a sufficient advantage by the time they hit the climb in hope of staying away over the final lumps on the run to Ponferrada. Despite its positioning the climb could still be tough enough to tempt a big name to launch a long-range bid for glory.
Saturday 3 September - Stage 14: Astorga to La Farrapona/Lagos de Somiedo - 172.8km
The middle part of a tough mountain trilogy, the Asturias is the battleground for yet another day of climbing with an untested summit finish to throw into the mix. The peloton roll out of Astorgia and head north for what should be a more serene start to the stage with a gradual rise up to the sprint point in Pobladura de Luna (87km). Business is set to pick up as the race hits the second category Puerto de la Ventana (111.1km). A very rapid descent follows down to the foot of the next test, the 1350m Puerto de San Lorenzo. The first cat climb will again see the field whittled down as the route loops back around to begin a debut assault on La Farrapona. The 16km test features a tricky variable gradient before evening out briefly, only to ramp up sharply for the final drag. With the toughest section coming right at the end, the stage and the climb could be the most decisive yet.
Sunday 4 September - Stage 15: Aviles to Alto de L'Angliru - 142.2km
The most feared day in the race, stage 15 features comfortably one of the toughest climbs in Europe - the Angliru. The difficulty of the climb is demonstrated by the relatively short distance of the stage that precedes it, marking it out as the second shortest road stage of the race. The race rolls out of Aviles on the northern coast before heading west on a relatively flat start to the stage. A ramp up to the sprint point at Cabrunana (45.6km) and the second category Alto de Tenebredo (79.1km) are the only obstacles of note ahead of the fearsome finale. The climbing begins with the first category Alto del Cordal (120.9km), just what the field didn't want before tackling such a fearful climb. After a quick descent the race hits the foot of the 1557m giant. Only the fifth time it has been included in the route, the climb should split what is left of the field to pieces. The climb never eases up and with a final section averaging 13% it will be every man for himself with significant time gaps expected.
Tuesday 6 September - Stage 16: Villa Romana La Olmeda - Haro - 188.1km
After a well-earned rest day the racing resumes in wine country. Those sprinters who made it through the Asturias will be rewarded with a relatively unchallenging day ahead of a near-certain bunch kick into Haro. Wind could play a role as the riders spend the day travelling east via Villasandino and then into the Burgos region. Only a gradual rise greets the riders on the drag up to the sprint point at Arlanzon (120.2km). Most welcome to the riders will be a downhill run to the line as the route turns to the north at Pradoluengo. A pan-flat run into Haro will see sprint trains form on what is a rare opportunity for the fast men to bag a stage victory.
Wednesday 7 September - Stage 17: Faustino V to Pena Cabarga - 211km
A stage that could see the final hammer blow landed on the GC, the run to Pena Cabarga features the final mountain-top finish of the race. The day starts out at Faustino V and circles around through Fuenmayor before a gradual false-flat drag to the north-west. The first action of the day comes in the form of the third category Portillo de Bustos (81.6km). The route winds its way towards the sea through Medina de Pomar ahead of an ascent of the second category Portillo de Lunada (162.2km). A long 38km descent down to the sprint point at Solares before attention turns to a short, sharp final climb and the winding ascent of the Pena Cabarga. At 565m the climb is not a long drag but 5.9 steep kilometres will still see the field split and encourage attacks with time running out to put time into rivals.
Thursday 8 September - Stage 18: Solares to Noja - 174.6km
An undulating day with plenty of climbs but little of any real difficulty, stage 18 could well play straight into the hands of a breakaway. The route begins just off the bay of Santander in Solares and heads south-west before looping back around. The route takes in as many climbs as it can find, heading down to Vega de Pas before tackling the Puerto de Braguia (56.3km). The Alto del Caracol is next up 19km later as the route winds its way back towards the start in Solares. After a long loop it is back out of the start town and south to take on the main climb of the day. Despite being branded a first category summit the Puerto de Alisas stands at just 675m and is unlikely to cause much of a selection. Two further climbs punctuate the run back towards the coast with the final third category Puerto de Fuente las Varas arriving 20km from the line in Noja.
Friday 9 September - Stage 19: Noja to Bilbao - 158.5km
The Vuelta makes its long-awaited return to the Basque Country for the first of a double-header in the cycling hotbed as the race enters its final stretch. The Vuelta-starved fans will no doubt be out in force for the first action on Basque soil since 1978. Before the peloton gets there there is still the matter of 60km of racing in Cantabria, departing from Thursday's finish in Noja before heading to the third category Puerto de la Granja (42km). That test is swiftly followed by the similar Puerto de las Munecas (59.5km) as the route snakes along the coast. The climb marks entry to the Basque Country and a flat run into Bilbao before an intriguing final circuit. There will likely be a battle between determined attackers and resourceful sprinters as the loop takes in two passes over the second category Alto El Vivero. With the final summit 14km from the line an intriguing fight should be in store.
Saturday 10 September - Stage 20: Bilbao to Vitoria - 185km
Part two of the Basque adventure comes complete with one final chance to attack, albeit a long shot. Climbs are packed into the stage and will give hope to a last desperate breakaway bid. The stage heads east before tackling a tough loop through Eibar taking in a host of local climbs. The Alto de Karabieta (47.8km) gets things started before the slightly tougher first category Alto de Elosua (64.3km). The race heads back out of the Guipuzcoa region via the third category Alto de Kanpazar (112km). The riders drop down through a sprint point at Elorrio (119km) before taking on the final categorised climb of the race. The fans will be out in force on the first category Puerto de Urkiola (138.6km). The steep ramps could encourage attacks but with a flat 50km drag to the line through Alava will likely discourage all but the desperate. With a parcours deemed likely too tough for the sprinters the stage could still be a case of 'who dares wins'.
Sunday 11 September - Stage 21: Circuito del Jarama to Madrid - 94.2km
A final celebratory blast into Madrid brings the race to an end following a lengthy train transfer south to the capital. The day begins in unique surroundings on the Jarama motor racing circuit and will be a relaxed affair on what is the shortest road stage of the race. With the GC already decided there will be plenty of time for handshakes and photographs on a flat run south onto the Madrid streets. The race is brought to a close with 10 laps of the now traditional San Isidro finishing circuit. Taking in the local landmarks the pace will be high as sprinters deploy their teams on the front to chase down a plucky break. The battle for the points jersey will likely be decided in a bunch sprint in the Plaza Cibeles where the winner of the 2011 Vuelta can raise his arms as victor.