This year’s Vuelta is even more difficult than last year’s – and that was full of chills and spills and cunning and guile. So how much more exciting will it be over the next three weeks, especially as two of the main contenders from last year’s race are back for more – Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. Add to the mix Vincenzo Nibali, some young guns like Carlos Betancur and Sergio Henao and you’ve got one spicy race. So what might be the pivotal stages this year? Let’s have a look.
Stage 10 : Torredelcampo to Guejar Sierra
This is the third day of a weekend of climbing and although there has already been plenty of uphill work, this is the first time we see an HC climb this year – and it’s the summit finish, Alto de Hazallanas. The last 7kms of this stage sees gradients ranging from 6% (near the top much to the riders’ relief) to 18% (before the top much to the riders’ chagrin) for an average of 11%. And this is almost right after they’ve tackled the Alto de Monachil, which has some double-digit ramps of its own.
Why is this going to be a key stage? It is the stage that comes just before the first rest day, so the riders will be leaving everything on the road. It is the stage that comes after two difficult days in the mountains, including the day before on Valdepenas de Jaen. That particular little summit finish is like a wall – with 20% gradients all the way up to a crushing 30% ramp at the very end. It is the day that will separate the wheat from the chaff in the GC. We’ll see exactly who can bring it after today.
Stage 14, 15 and 16 – the Pyrenees
I’m grouping these three together because I think these will make up the pivotal weekend. Each stage has a summit finish and whereas in and of themselves (especially Stage 16), they might be difficult but do-able, group them together and you have a final winnowing of the GC group. Stage 14 has four massive climbs, including the highest climb in this year’s Vuelta, Port d’Envalira, with 25 unrelenting kilometres to the top with ramps of up to 15%. The final ascent of the day is the very steep Collada de la Gallina, which will be a battleground not for the fainthearted.
Stage 15 has the peloton riding into France on the Queen stage. The pressure on the GC contenders is ratcheted up with four Cat 1 climbs, including the Peyresourde and the short final climb to Peyragudes. Anyone who wants to be on the podium in Madrid has to do well in this stage.
Stage 16 – in relation to the last two stages – is the easiest but it still ends in a summit finish after a long, loooong climb up to Formigal. It might not be one of the GC boys who wins this stage but anyone in contention has to stay alert and make sure he’s in with the others. In this race, you can’t afford to lose any significant time on any of these climbing weekends. By the end of this stage, we should know who is going to be on the podium, although perhaps not the final order yet.
Stage 20: Aviles to Alto de l’Angliru
For me, this stage isn’t about who is going to win the Vuelta, it’s about who might lose it. The final summit finish is one of cycling’s iconic climbs – the Angliru. It is 12kms of sheer torture for anyone who can’t scramble up a steep climb – and even those who can will be suffering.
Although the average gradient is 10% (and see how nonchalantly I say that, as if it were nothing), the last 6kms to the finish is kicking up into the mid-teens and even at one point hits 23.5%. This is no country for old men – or tired men. If you can’t do steep, then you’re in trouble. That’s why I believe it’s not so much someone winning on this climb, it’s someone blowing and losing the red jersey for good. Racing at its most dramatic.