ñThis year’s Vuelta a España covers 3,360km. Make no mistake, this is a climber’s race, with 36 mountain passes and hills and ten summit finishes. It kicks off with a 16.5km team time trial and also has a 39.4km individual time trial midway through the race, but this will not determine the race the way the time trials did in the Tour de France. The winner this year will be someone who can climb, climb again, climb some more and climb one more time. We look at the four key stages.
Stage 14: Palas de Rei to Puerto de Ancares, 149.2km
The parcours for this year’s Vuelta goes from flat to rolling to mountains and back again, and while there’s every chance that a rider can have a bad day and lose any hope of a high GC standing, it’s not until stage 14 that the real fireworks go off. Last year was the first that featured the Puerto de Ancares and it’s back again – this time as a summit finish. A difficult climb on its own, the boys have to get over four gruelling climbs before they even reach the 9.1km Ancares and its average 8% gradient – its steepest sections come in the last couple of kilometres – making it just that much more difficult. No one can risk any contender getting away as the next two stages are pretty gruelling as well, so attacks will need to be answered.
Stage 15: La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga, 186.7km
Lagos de Covadonga has featured in the Vuelta 17 times already and is one of the race’s truly classic climbs. The stage starts high before descending down to a fairly innocuous middle section until the peloton hits the Cat 1 Puerto del Fito 50km from the finish – 6.8km at 8.3%, with the final third of the climb being the steepest at well over 10%. The Covadonga (13.5km, 7.0%) ramps up at the 9km mark and sawtooths up to ‘the boneyard’ with gradients between 7% and 11% until the summit finish of 10%. This stage is going to hurt – and there’s more to come tomorrow.
Stage 16: Gijon to Valgrande Pajares.Cuitu Negru, 185km
Sometimes you have to feel sorry for these riders, especially the ones who aren’t climbers. This stage, the third in a triplet of eye-wateringly difficult mountain stages, is the toughest of them all. The peloton negotiates three climbs (two of them testing Cat 1s averaging 8.5% and 8.6%) before taking on the gradients of up to 24% – yes, you read that right, 24% – in the final 2.8km of the Cuitu Negru. If the GC contenders weren’t thinned out in the previous two stages, they most certainly will be in this one. Whoever wins this stage is assured legendary status. For my money, everyone who finishes this stage is pretty legendary. With a much deserved rest day the next day and possibly some time to make up, the boys will be leaving everything on the mountain today.
Stage 20: La Faisanera Golf to Bola del Mundo, 169.5km
You’ve survived all the previous stages, even the soul-destroying stages mentioned above. You’re probably scraped up, no doubt hot and tired, and all you want is to be able to take that red jersey on your shoulders into Madrid and over the finish line. Oh, but first, my friend, you will have to make sure you don’t crack on stage 20. As we said in the start of this post, this is a climber’s race and with three Cat 1 climbs, a Cat 2 and an HC finish to determine once and for all the winner of this year’s Vuelta, podium places could come and go on this stage. As one by one, the riders climb the Bola del Mundo with its average of 8.6%, they will have to negotiate ramps towards the summit of as much as 23%. Jens Voigt might not be riding, but I suspect you’ll hear a lot of “Shut up, legs!” being shouted on the way to the finish.
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