The third and final Grand Tour on the pro cycling calendar, the Vuelta a Espana, is the last real test for the three-week stage racers to test their mettle. Typically a climb-heavy route, this year’s Vuelta is no different; each week is stacked with tough, characteristically steep Spanish climbs.
‘That’s so Vuelta’ is a phrase you may hear quite regularly over the coming three weeks of racing with early summit finishes and a serious lack of flat stages – familiar features of the Spanish race. Here we’ve highlighted five stages where we expect to see some fireworks, and which may be crucial for the overall classification.
Stage 4 – Velez Malaga to Sierra de la Alfaguara, 162km
The race may be just four days old, but by this point the riders will have already negotiated a summit finish and their first category one climb – that’s so Vuelta.
The first climb is a real monster and should force an elite selection, but with 80km of racing before the finish, many will bide their time for the final climb. La Alfaguara rises for 12.4km at an average gradient of 5.6%, which may sound easy to some, but this is a deceptive climb. Ramps of up to 20% are peppered throughout the climb, giving the mountain goats something to chew on early in this Vuelta a Espana.
‘That’s so Vuelta’ rating: 8/10, a true mountain stage early doors.
GC stakes: 7/10, this stage should sort the contenders from the pretenders.
One to watch: Sepp Kuss – carrying some serious mountain form.
Stage 9 – Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla, 195km
There’s no respite in the first week. With sprinters considering a flight back home, the GC stars may well lick their lips with devilish anticipation. Stage 9’s epic mountain challenge falls just before the first rest day, which should encourage some to play their first real hand of this year’s race.
A category one and two climb come early in the day before a long, lumpy valley road takes the peloton to the summit finish of the Alto de la Covatilla – one of two hors catégorie climbs on this year’s route. There are only two because hors catégorie climbs at the Vuelta are a whole lot harder than their Tour de France equivalents. The climb is 19.7km long at an average of 5.6%, but gradients rarely drop below double digits thanks to a cruel ramping up towards the summit.
‘That’s so Vuelta’ rating: 6/10, a super tough day, but there’s still that lumpy valley to cushion the blow.
GC stakes: 9/10, the Vuelta won’t be won here, but it can certainly be lost.
One to watch: Dan Martin will remember the climb fondly after winning on it in 2011.
Stage 14 – Cistierna to Les Praeres de Nava, 167km
The 14th day may not feature the dizzying mountain peaks classic of La Vuelta, but it still manages to cram three category one and two category three climbs into its, surely attritional, 167 kilometres.
If there is one climb that will shape this stage then it’s bound to be the finishing climb to Les Praeres. It’s only short, but at an average of 13.5% with ramps touching 20% near the top, this is one climb that will leave a lasting memory in every rider in the peloton.
‘That’s so Vuelta’ rating: 9/10, climb after climb after climb and a sting in the tail – that’s more like it.
GC stakes: 8/10, this is one stage which could see a few favourites ganging up to isolate another rider, but with stage 15’s hellish route just 24 hours later, it could just prove a damp squib.
One to watch: the final slopes are made for Miguel Angel Lopez.
Stage 15 – Ribera del Arriba to Lagos de Covadonga, 185.5km
Just like the first week, the second concludes with a gruelling hors catégorie climb. The first three climbs of stage 15 will be merely processional (probably) as the peloton holds its breath for the final climb – the giant of the Lagos de Covadonga.
Featuring 20 times at La Vuelta since its debut in 1983, this is a truly iconic climb that has seen some memorable champions crest its summit – notably Robert Millar in 1986. In terms of raw statistics, the Covadonga climbs for 12.2km at an average 7.2%, but in true Vuelta fashion, these stats are a little misleading. Several ramps boast double-digit gradients and the final 200m to the finish shoot up to a fatiguing 17.5%.
‘That’s so Vuelta’ rating: 10/10, the Vuelta and Lagos de Covadonga are intertwined in one truly mountainous love affair.
GC stakes: 9.5/10, be prepared for some massive time gaps.
One to watch: Nairo Quintana laid the foundations for his overall victory on this climb in 2016.
Stage 20 – Andorra Escaldes-Engordany to Coll de la Gallina, 105.8km
The penultimate day of racing is a short but extremely snappy affair. The riders will have to tackle six categorised climbs within the space of 100km, looking to snaffle as much time as possible before it’s too late. Expect the peloton to crack bit by bit until it completely shatters beyond the half way marker.
The real test comes on the last climb of the Coll de la Gallina; a climb that Joaquim Rodriguez describes as ‘the single toughest ascent in Andorra’. Inconsistent all the way to the top, his reasoning is clear – no rider will be able to settle into a rhythm here. Its final ramp of 18% will hammer the last nail in many riders’ coffins, drawing the curtain on a GC war that is bound to be electric from start to finish.
‘That’s so Vuelta’ rating: 10/10, six climbs within 100km – what more could you ask for?
GC stakes: 10/10, all or nothing on the final mountain stage.
One to watch: Richie Porte, he’s got to win big at some point – right?
So, there we have it – five stages out of a possible 21 that we’ll be keeping a particularly sharp eye on. Keep in mind though, that, characteristically unpredictable as the Vuelta is, we might well be way off the mark. At the end of the day, the only way to catch all the action is to follow the race as it unfolds. Bring on the finest, least predictable and most electric grand tour of them all.