Is the 2012 Vuelta a Espana route the hardest ever?

Many of the riders who rode the 2011 Vuelta a Espana said it was the hardest Grand Tour they had ever tackled. Our initial view of this year’s route, which was unveiled in Pamplona today, suggests that 2012 will be even tougher.

The highlights

The key features of the 2012 Vuelta route are:

  • This will be the 67th edition of the Vuelta.
  • Starts Saturday August 18th in Pamplona, ends Sunday September 9th in Madrid.
  • 21 stages covering 3,300km, with rest days after stages 9 & 16.
  • Ten uphill finishes, of which six are in the ‘alta montana’ high mountains (equivalent to ‘hors categorie’ at the Tour de France).
  • Two time trials: one team, one individual.

The details

This year’s race will start with a 16.2km team time trial in Pamplona before it embarks on a circuitous route around the north of Spain, with the riders heading first west to Barakaldo and then back towards the north-eastern corner of the country, taking in a brief visit to Andorra before ending its first (nine-day) week in Barcelona. Overall, the route is concentrated in the north of the country, with the final stage in Madrid being as far south as the race ventures.

The first ‘week’ (actually, nine days) is relatively benign, but still features two beyond-category climbs: the ascent to the Valdezcaray ski station on stage four, and then four days later the Collada de la Gallina in Andorra, one of three high-mountain summit finishes making their Vuelta debut this year.

The first big climb of this year's Vuelta is as early as stage four (image courtesy of lavuelta.com)

There are also two other uphill finishes: stage six to Jaca features two third-category climbs in its last 13km, while stage nine to Barcelona has a tricky hill at the end. In between, stages two, five and seven offer three of the eight clear opportunities for the sprinters to have their day in the sun in this year’s race.

The middle week of six stages is where the Vuelta will most likely be won or lost. After a hefty transfer across the entire width of Spain from Barcelona to the Galicia region in the north-west, the race resumes with a gently rolling stage to Sanxenxo which should end in either a sprint or a victorious breakaway. Stage 11 is the race’s sole individual time trial, a tricky 40km course with a third-category climb smack in the middle, which will see the first significant gaps start to open up between the top general classification riders.

The following day finishes on another, apparently innocuous third-category climb. However the Mirador de Ezaro overlooking La Coruña features ramps of up to 28% and will undoubtedly yield both an eye-watering spectacle and some small but potentially significant time gaps between some of the contenders. It is the sort of finish which favours the punchiest climbers, such as Joaquim Rodriguez, who has made this kind of finish his trademark.

After a flat finish into Ferrol on stage 13, the spotlight then turns firmly onto the general classification riders with three successive tough summit finishes on stages 14 to 16: Puerto de Ancanes, Lagos de Covadonga and Valgrande-Pajares. Covadonga will be making its 18th appearance at the Vuelta, but the others are new to the race.

The final kilometres to the summit of Valgrande-Pajares will take place on a new section of road which will feature gradients of up to 25%. By the end of this trio of stages we may already know the identity of the 2012 champion, or at the very least have narrowed the field down to a select few.

Stage 16 is the last of three consecutive summit finishes which will shape the GC (image courtesy of lavuelta.com)

Week three is (relatively speaking) a sprint to the finish in Madrid. It opens with a second-category summit finish at Fuente De, before two flat transition stages will see the sprinters emerge from their hibernation – assuming the peloton’s tired legs can reel in the inevitable determined breakaways.

But the Vuelta does have one last sting in its tail: the Bola del Mundo, first used as the climax to the penultimate stage in 2010. If the outcome of the general classification is still in doubt, it will provide one last battleground to decide the race. It is a spectacular climb which will push the exhausted riders to their very limits, with a final 3.4km section averaging close 12% and kicking up beyond 20% in parts. It is a brutal final test.

Bola del Mundo may not be decisive, but it will certainly be spectacular (image courtesy of lavuelta.com)

Only then will the top men be able to sit back and enjoy the short final stage into and around Madrid city centre, culminating in a sprint finish by the Retiro park. The GC riders will have a front-row seat as the sprinters battle it out for one final time to conclude both the points competition and the race as a whole.

The contenders

With a bare minimum of time trial kilometres, the 2012 Vuelta will undoubtedly be won by a strong climber, almost certainly one who is capable of both making and defending against attacks on the steepest slopes.

It remains to be seen which leading men will start the race. As the last of the three Grand Tours in the annual calendar, it has generally suffered in terms of attracting the very biggest names. That is doubly the case this year, with an earlier than usual start in mid-August less than four weeks after the end of the Tour de France, and with the added distraction of the Olympic Games in between the two.

However, that’s not to say the field will not be a strong one – it certainly will be. The Vuelta has never had an unworthy champion, with its list of most recent winners reading like a who’s who of cycling: Alexandre Vinokourov (in 2006), Denis Menchov, Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Vincenzo Nibali and most recently Juan Jose Cobo.

Cobo (now with Movistar after Geox folded) should be back to defend his title, and he is sure to face to face strong competition from a never-ending line of climbing compatriots, not least Joaquim Rodriguez and Igor Anton, who crashed out while leading in 2010. Sky’s Chris Froome, who broke into the elite ranks with his second place last year, is also a likely starter as the Vuelta continues to attract top talent from all over the world.

We are unlikely to see many of the top sprinters from the Tour de France at the Vuelta, but there are more than enough flat finishes to guarantee a competitive field. Last year the sprints were dominated by Liquigas’ Peter Sagan, who won three stages. Sprinters’ teams likely to be excluded from both the Giro and the Tour will look to the Vuelta, such as 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano), who can boast two burgeoning young German talents in Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb.

In a year in which both the Giro and the Tour have taken a step back from some of the excesses of recent years, the Vuelta continues to fly the flag for fans of the most punishing climbing routes. It will be an attritional race – especially if it is hot – but it will also be spectacular. Don’t miss it.

2012 Vuelta a Espana stages

Aug 18th: Stage 1 – Pamplona, 16.2km team time trial

Aug 19th: Stage 2 – Pamplona to Viana, 180km

Aug 20th: Stage 3 – Faustino V to Eibar (Arrate), 153km

Aug 21st: Stage 4 – Barakaldo to Estacion de Valdezcaray, 155.4km

Aug 22nd: Stage 5 – Logrono to Logrono, 172km

Aug 23rd: Stage 6 – Tarragona to Jaca, 174.8km

Aug 24th: Stage 7 – Huesca to Alcaniz. Motorland Aragon, 160km

Aug 25th: Stage 8 – Lleida to Andorra. Collada de la Gallina, 175km

Aug 26th: Stage 9 – Andorra to Barcelona, 194km

Aug 27th: Rest day

Aug 28th: Stage 10 – Ponteareas to Sanxenxo, 166.4km

Aug 29th: Stage 11 – Cambados to Pontevedra, 40km individual time trial

Aug 30th: Stage 12 – Vilagarcia de Arousa to Dumbria. Mirador de Ezaro, 184.6km

Aug 31st: Stage 13 – Santiago de Compostela to Ferrol, 172.7km

Sep 1st: Stage 14 – Palas de Rei to Puerto de Ancares, 152km

Sep 2nd: Stage 15 – La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga, 186.7km

Sep 3rd: Stage 16 – Gijon to Valgrande-Pajares. Cuitu Negru, 185km

Sep 4th: Rest day

Sep 5th: Stage 17 – Santander to Fuente De, 177km

Sep 6th: Stage 18 – Aguilar de Campoo to Valladolid, 186.4km

Sep 7th: Stage 19 – Penafiel to La Lastrilla, 169km

Sep 8th: Stage 20 – La Faisanera Golf. Segovia 21 to Bola del Mundo, 169.5km

Sep 9th: Stage 21 – Cercedilla to Madrid, 111.9km

Link: Vuelta a Espana official website

One thought on “Is the 2012 Vuelta a Espana route the hardest ever?

  1. Wow, what a mouthwatering prospect! I winced looking at some of those profiles. This will certainly give those who generally won’t be in contention at either the Tour or Olympics something to look forward to.

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