Readers of a certain age may remember a Chris Rea song entitled The Road to Hell. It was written about London’s M25, but could easily have been about the route for the 2013 Vuelta a España, which was unveiled in Vigo today. Featuring 11 summit finishes – a record for a Grand Tour – this year’s 68th edition offers little succour to either time trial specialists or to the top sprinters, many of whom will opt for the road to the armchair rather than endure the inevitable suffer-fest.
Tim and Sheree have been busy delving into the detail of this year’s course. Here are their immediate reactions.
The parcours is built around three sets of back-to-back-to-back summit finishes – in the Andalucia, Pyrenees and Cantabria/Asturias regions – which bring each of the race’s three sections to a dramatic climax and will stretch riders’ endurance to their limits.
The opening ten-day ‘week’ gives riders little opportunity to ease their way in. After an initial 27km team time trial, three days of increasing severity in the Galician hills will quickly see the general classification take on a recognisable shape.
The highlight of the initial stint is the closing three Andalucian stages, as the race returns to the south of the country after bypassing it altogether in 2012. Stages eight and ten feature concluding climbs new to the Vuelta. The 16km Peñas Blancas consists of a series of sharp ramps and short descents on narrow, twisty roads – perfect for any would-be attackers – before a long uphill drag. And the 16.5km Haza Grande averages 9.2% and reaches 22% in places. In between, we have the return of the short, sharp shock of Valdapeñas de Jaén – a vicious hill known as Spain’s Mur de Huy, on which the gradient touches 27%.
After the first rest day and the sole individual time trial – a flattish 38km on which the climbers’ losses should be manageable – the middle section ends with a second triptych of consecutive mountain-top finishes, this time in the Pyrenees. Stage 14’s finish on Collado del la Gallina proved to be Chris Froome’s undoing last year. This is followed by a rare sortie into France to the summit of Peyragudes, where Alejandro Valverde triumphed in the 2012 Tour. Finally, the peloton’s last challenge before the rest day is the ascent of Formigal, site of the Vuelta’s first ever high summit finish in 1972.
By the start of the final five stages, the GC is likely to be well strung out, but there remains significant potential to scupper the leading contenders’ hopes before the processional finale into Madrid. A flat stage to Burgos heralds the third and final treble of summit finishes, starting and finishing with two monsters: Peña Cabarga (which averages in excess of 9%) and the sixth appearance of the Angliru, 10%-plus and with several ramps in excess of 20%.
Sheree: Unipublic is sticking with the formula which served it so well last year. It has retained some old favourites and introduced new climbs. This will hopefully build to a crescendo on the penultimate day. The 11 summit finishes favour the mountain goats and will dash the hopes of anyone weighing more than 62kg. Reigning champion Alberto Contador summarised it best: “It’ll be a gruelling effort right from the early stages.”
Tim: I’m in 100% agreement. This is emphatically a parcours arranged with the climbers in mind. And it is such a gruelling route that it will be easy to overcook things in the first two weeks and then blow completely in the final week, so I’m hoping for some real drama in the last couple of mountain stages. Plus, of course, despite the ten summit finishes last year, the race was ultimately decided on a seemingly innocent flat stage …
Where will the race be won and lost?
Sheree: The summit finishes will prove decisive in terms of the general classification. But after Alberto’s audacious attack on an apparently benign stage last year, I’ve started scanning the profiles for potentially innocuous traps – and there are plenty. Even stage one, a strenuous 27km team time trial launched from a floating wooden platform, will see precious time being lost. With all the attention on the obvious dangers, will someone spring another big surprise somewhere?
Tim: I don’t think we’ll see the first wave of big attacks until the Pyrenees at the end of week two. I love the two new Andalucian climbs early on, particularly Peñas Blancas, which saw-tooths up and down on snaking roads before a long final drag. But I expect the big guns to keep their powder dry until later battles, as no one will want the burden of defending the lead too early. The tactics in the Pyrenees will be interesting. Some will attack there, while others will wait for the final sequence of climbs. My gut feeling is that Angliru won’t be decisive, as I think the major moves will have played out before then. I’d say we will know the champion’s identity by the top of Peña Canarga on stage 18.
Sheree: It’s hard to look beyond last year’s podium of Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. With both Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome on duty at the other two Grand Tours, Sky will likely support their Colombians, Sergio Henao and Olympic silver medallist Riogberto Uran. The Carrots will once more be supporting the ambitions of Igor Anton, who may well have Giro-bound Samuel Sanchez riding in a supporting role.
Tim: I really hope someone like Blanco’s Bauke Mollema breaks through, but I agree with your assessment. The only thing I would add is that the race may depend as much on tactics as physical form – on that basis, if he does compete it’s hard to look beyond the combination of Contador and Riis at Saxo-Tinkoff. Also, this is not the sort of parcours one team can control from start to finish. Pushing too hard too early could easily result in a spectacular demise within sight of Madrid. Consequently I think we will see more fluctuations at the top of the GC than we have become accustomed to.
Other burning questions
Three sets of back-to-back-to-back summit finishes – is this year’s parcours taking things too far?
Sheree: When put like that it does sound a hill too far but we should bear in mind that there’s only one stage over 200km and plenty around 175km. They’ve sacrificed kilometres to leave the riders fresher and more able to attack on those final climbs – light the blue touch-paper and stand well back.
Tim: At 3,319km, it’s the shortest of the 2013 Grand Tours – the Giro is nearly 90km longer. But equally it’s not particularly short for the Vuelta, which typically averages 3,300-3,350km. Not having too many 200km-plus stages will be a major relief to the riders – that’s probably the single biggest benefit for them in terms of both physical and time stress.
When asked if the course was too demanding Samuel Sanchez said that television audiences demand entertainment. Does he have a point?
Sheree: I think he does. In previous years the Vuelta has been characterised by the sight of the peloton snaking its way across an arid landscape devoid of spectators. Last year’s race was well attended, well supported and viewing figures were up.
Tim: I largely agree, although my concern with this year’s route is that it is so challenging that it will inevitably raise questions about doping, particularly if the race is dominated by ‘home’ riders as it was last year. Also, I’m not entirely sure any race needs 11 summit finishes – variety is the spice of life and all that.
The World Championships road race is two weeks after the Vuelta. How many rainbow jersey contenders will make it to Madrid?
Sheree: All of them, unless they come a cropper en route. The World Championships road race will be won by someone who raced – and performed well – in the Vuelta, as has been the case historically. The benefits of battle-hardened racing outweigh the effects of potential fatigue.
Tim: Finishing the Vuelta last year (and winning two stages) certainly gave Philippe Gilbert a crucial lift ahead of Valkenburg. But I do reckon that, such is the difficulty of this parcours, we will see a number of rainbow warriors hedging their bets and climbing off after the second rest day. It will certainly be a concern in some riders’ minds, and I wouldn’t blame anyone for doing so.
2013 Vuelta a España stages
August 24th: Stage 1 – Vilanova de Arousa to Sanxenxo, 27km team time trial
August 25th: Stage 2 – Pontevedra to Alto da Groba, 176.8km
August 26th: Stage 3 – Vigo to Mirador de Lobeira, 172.5km
August 27th: Stage 4 – Lain to Fisterra, 186.4km
August 28th: Stage 5 –Sober to Lago de Sanabria,168.4km
August 29th: Stage 6 – Guijuelo to Caceres, 177.3km
August 30th: Stage 7 – Almendralejo to Mairena de Aljafare, 195.5km
August 31st: Stage 8 – Jerez de la Frontera to Alto de Penas Blancas, 170km
September 1st: Stage 9 -Antequera to Valdepeñas de Jaén, 174.3km
September 2nd: Stage 10 – Torredelcampo to Alto de Hazallanas, 175.5km
September 3rd: Rest day
September 4th: Stage 11 – Tarazone, 38km individual time trial
September 5th: Stage 12 – Maella to Tarragona, 157km
September 6th: Stage 13 – Valls to Castelldefels, 165km
September 7th: Stage 14 – Baga to Coll de la Gallina, 164km
September 8th: Stage 15 – Andorra to Peyragudes, 232.5km
September 9th: Stage 16 – Graus to Formigal, 147.7km
September 10th: Rest day
September 11th: Stage 17 – Calahorra to Burgos, 184.5km
September 12th: Stage 18 – Burgos to Peña Cabarga, 186km
September 13th: Stage 19 – San Vicente de la Barquera to Aldo del Naranco, 177.5km
September 14th: Stage 20 – Aviles to Alto de l’Angliru, 144.1km
September 15th: Stage 21 – Leganés to Madrid, 99.1km
Link: Official website