One Grand Round to go... and it's the ever-intriguing Vuelta a Espana. Guys go to the Vuelta for various reasons. There's training, particularly for the next season's spring classics. Young guys ride the Vuelta to start hardening their legs for grand tour success. Guys who bombed out of the Tour early enough are riding for redemption. Wave after wave of Spaniards have built their season around doing something on home soil. Year after year the Vuelta feels like the leftover grand tour.
But leftovers can be yummy enough. After a few down races the last two Vueltas have been thoroughly riveting. Last year's 13 second margin of victory by surprise winner JJ Cobo over surprise challenger Chris Froome was tied for the third-closest edition in race history. The previous year was even more exciting, with a penultimate-stage see-saw battle where the virtual race lead changed hands between Zeke Mosquera and eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali.
This year's Vuelta offers more than enough intrigue to keep us watching. Ursula will be covering the "who" section, but for now, let's check out the canvas on which this masterpiece will be painted, the roads of northern Spain where the race will take place. Yes, northern Spain. Fun fact: Madrid is the southernmost extension of the 2012 Vuelta. Weird?
Sort of. Early Vuelta editions stayed almost entirely up north, connecting the dots of Bilbao, San Sebastian, Valencia, Barcelona, Pamplona and Madrid. It wasn't until 1959 that the modern Vuelta dipped deep into the southern regions. Until 1978, when the Vuelta turned its back on the Basque Country, the race hung out most of the time in the north, in and around the biggest mountains. After '78, with one large and cycling-rich region crossed off the list, the race started delving further and further south. The last decade's Vueltas tended to balance the route between north and south.
I'm not aware of any political or cultural point to all of this, so my guess is that they're just kicking it old school, and also starting a tad early by historical standards, so take it as a gift to the peloton that the race avoids the hellish heat of the open southern roads. So the race will be a nice comfy 90 degrees or so. Riiight.
One other general trend is the inclusion of short, violent climbs at the end of stages. Because Joaquim Rodriguez hasn't won enough this year. OK, here we go.
Stage 1: Pamplona TTT, 16.5km
Fun Factor: Team time trials are always big on the fun factor. This one is sprint distance, which means guys riding especially fast, in especially close quarters, wearing especially cool kits. Precision is everything; disaster is the only alternative. Hooked yet? Oh, and Pamplona has deep Vuelta roots, despite a 33-year absence thanks to the no-Vasco policy. Does the name Indurain ring a bell?
GC Factor: The gaps should be minimal. Smart contenders will play it a bit safe, but not too safe. Sky should be interesting to watch here.
So Do I Care? Heck yeah, why not? These events are always interesting, and over pretty quickly. A fine way to whet your appetite. Would be even cooler if one of the teams dressed in all white with red neck scarves, while the support vehicles made angry bull noises. How am I not a race director yet?
Hasta la Flipa...
Here's your course map. Click twice to embiggen. It's pretty big.
Stage 2: Pamplona - Viana, 181km
Fun Factor: First sprint stage of a grand tour always brings out some fireworks. Not that this is an elite stage-sprinting field, not by a long shot. But that's the story for another day. Anyway, someone has to be the fastest.
GC Factor: Zip. Apart from staying upright. This is a grand tour, week one, after all.
So Do I Care? Not really. The route will be lovely, passing vineyards of Navarra and Rioja. But a couple glasses of Rioja during a flat stage could make for an early nap.
Stage 3: Faustino V - Eibar, 155km
Fun Factor: Did I mention how there aren't many sprinters here? Today's a good reason why. Day three and it's time for an uphill finish. This one, ending at a very cool-looking Basque hill town, will be packed with fans screaming for action. Not sure the peloton will have much choice but to start the hostilities. The final climb has 3km at over 10% before a brief slackening at the line, which means the action will be punchy and fun.
GC Factor: A few glancing blows should be exchanged. So early, and with such a short final climb, means the gaps won't amount to too much. But anyone looking to send a message, such as "I'm back after my extended vacation and better than ever," should find this to their liking.
So Do I Care? Yep. Did you miss Pistolero or not?
Stage 4: Barakaldo - Estacion de Valdezcaray, 160km
Fun Factor: This is more like a serious MTF. The route ends up at the Estacion, apparently a ski resort, and entails a 13km ascent to 1500 meters, starting out in the 9% range and slowly easing up, with an average gradient of 5.2%.
GC Factor: Nobody's ripping off anyone else's legs here, or at least the final km should allow a slight regrouping if anyone's gone all out from the start of the climb. But we will see a few fauxpefuls melt away.
So Do I Care? Definitely. Things chill out for the next few days, so why not?
Stage 5: Logrono Circuit Race, 168km
Fun Factor: "Fun" and "circuit race" are two concepts not often co-located in the cycling world above Cat-3 or so. That said, there are a bunch of classics guys hanging around the peloton, according to current startlists, and you might see some interesting racing on this mellow course.
GC Factor: Zilch.
So Do I Care? I wouldn't rule it out entirely. It's tempting to hate on this stage, and that's where I am leaning. But the right breakaway might make it interesting, given that the sprinters' teams responsible for chasing might not be up to the task.
Stage 6: Tarazona - Jaca, 175km
Fun Factor: Theoretical uphill finish stage. With an awesome Plaza de Toros near the finish line. A different set of sprinters will be battling on the line for this one, if a late break doesn't get it.
GC Factor: None. The uphill finish is just for show -- 3.8km at 5% won't draw out the favorites in anything more than a defensive posture.
So Do I Care? I'd watch the last half hour. The stage battle should be good fun, as it pits the climby sprinters like Philippe GIlbert and JJ Rojas Gil against the sprinty climbers like Purito Rodriguez or Damiano Cunego.
Stage 7: Huesca - Alcaniz/Motorland Aragon, 164km
Fun Factor: Um... here's your finish line:
Is this a joke? I dunno, maybe it will work out, but while most of the Vuelta host cities seem like places I'd love to visit, let alone want to ride into as part of my day job, this finish seems kind of embarrassing. An F1 course in the middle of nowhere?
GC Factor: What? Please.
So Do I Care? You mean do I care about the result, or do I care about the race looking silly? Maybe and yes. Let's move on.
Stage 8: Lleida - Collada de la Gallina, 174km
Fun Factor: Like the Giro, the Vuelta is pretty strict about putting up some great stages on weekends, raking in the big audiences when they can. This is one of those stages... on paper. The climb to Andorra, a regular Vuelta entree, is 7.2km at 8%, a tough if not overly long ascent at the end of a not overly long stage. Look for an explosive finish, featuring either GC guys or the less hopeful mountaineers among them.
GC Factor: This is probably a good place to ask if there are time bonuses again this year. The Vuelta website is as unhelpful about posting its rules as ASO's other race was. I am guessing yes. [IrishPeloton has a nice summation of the merits of time bonuses from last winter.] Anyway, if there are, this is a pretty significant GC stage. If there aren't, it should still cause some selections.
So Do I Care? Definitely.
Stage 9: Andorra - Barcelona, 196km
Fun Factor: Does "Barcelona" doesn't conjure up anything fun for you? Do you really need my help here? The only downer is that the finish isn't on Montjuic, a la the 2009 Tour. They go up, then they go back down, and up another slight incline to the finish. On second thought, tacking a descent onto a cool stage is never a bad thing. Never!
GC Factor: Nada, I think. It's possible that certain riders might respond to getting blown out the day before by going stage bonus hunting. Not likely though.
So Do I Care? Sure. It'll be a few days before you care again.
Stage 10: Ponteareas - Sanxenxo 190km
Fun Factor: Hm, any name with two x's in it has to signify fun. Galicia looks completely gorgeous from what I can tell, though I can't totally respect any region which stole its name from a bombed-out, economically isolated region around eastern Ukraine. Wait, cycling? Ah... a sprinters' stage.
GC Factor: Bubkis. Monday's day off is the pause that refreshes for the heads of state, but it's a long(ish) day in the saddle here.
So Do I Care? A little? The sprint is a slight uphill drag, which could make for a cool finale.
Stage 11: Cambados - Pontevedra ITT, 39km
Fun Factor: If you like suffering, this is the stage for you. The length is pretty beefy by Giro/Vuelta standards -- not a record, but when you add in the cat-3 Alto Monte Castrove, a 10km climb averaging over 4%... this is a tough crono.
GC Factor: Since I am learning about this Vuelta parcours once stage description at a time, I can say in all sincerity that this is the most important stage I know of. Who it favors will be the subject of much speculative blogging by a chorus of Cafepodians in the days leading up to it. Ursula will invent a dubious, math-like formula for comparing one rider's advantage against the watch to another's advantage in the climbs. Yep, the race for who's closest to Contador will be fully joined.
So Do I Care? Si señor, siiiii...
Stage 12: Velagarcia de Arousa - Mirador de Zaro, 190km
Fun Factor: I could say that there's nothing too beautiful about a hillside with penstocks running down it. I could bemoan a shamelessly gimmick that consists of 188 km of near-total boredom followed by 2km of action. But I can't stop giggling excitedly about this stage, about the prospect of hugging a gorgeous coastline before slamming into a two kilometer blast up a 13% gradient. This is one of those Giro tricks taken to the extreme. I have absolutely no idea what will happen here.
GC Factor: Your guess is as good as mine. Given the stage length, I suspect even in this short span of road we will see our share of legs blowed up. After the crono, this is the revenge of the little guys.
So Do I Care? Good god yes. Maybe even a little too much.
Stage 13: Santiago de Compostela - Ferrol, 172km
Fun Factor: High, if you like dreaming about vacations. Being an American lawyer vastly limits my chance of being sent to Spain for an extended time, particularly one of those assignments where I need to travel from region to region soaking in whatever element is there for the soaking, to the profit of whoever is paying my bills. Do they need US legal advice in Ferrol? Do they at least eat salmon? I guess I'll have to dream. Riding a grand tour, there's always a gap between the dreamy landscapes they project from the helicopter and the reality of riding the race, getting in a bus, and transferring at night to the next hotel. So maybe it's not all that. But I'm willing to investigate this up close, if anyone needs me to.
GC Factor: Geen. There are enough bumps in the road and miles in the legs to give the breakaway artists a chance here. Otherwise, a sprint.
So Do I Care? Probably best to tear myself away.
Stage 14: Palas de Ray - Puerto de Ancares, 149km
Fun Factor: If it's Saturday, something interesting is gonna happen. Today it's a pair of cat-1 climbs back to back, both just under 10km, the latter, harder ascent up the Puerto de Ancares averaging over 8% and hitting 12.5% for a full kilometer. The km checks in at nearly 11%.
GC Factor: Big. Arguably the above-category finishes on stages 15 and 20 should strike more fear in the heart of the peloton, but it's not a given that the Covadonga or Bola del Mundo stages will be significantly harder or more decisive. [Climbbybike rates it harder than Covadonga, but third-hardest of the race.] I guess it's up to the riders to decide, and with Covadonga the next day, they probably keep their powder dry. But that's not a given either.
So Do I Care? No question.
Stage 15: La Robia - Lagos de Covadonga, 186km
Fun Factor: Welcome to the Picos de Europa, home to some of the nastiest lower-altitude gradients in Europe. The Lagos de Covadonga climb tops out at 15%. Any questions?
GC Factor: Another massive day. This climb is typically featured as one of the two or three biggest days of any Vuelta in which it appears.
So Do I Care? Do you? Hells yea.
Stage 16: Gijon - Valgrande/Cultu Negru, 183km
Fun Factor: Can I just say how awesome it is that the Vuelta doesn't rest on Labor Day? I mean, you'd think an American holiday wouldn't register with the Vuelta peeps, but to US-based cycling fans, watching a race is exactly what we want to be doing on this morning. Oh, and the stage ends with a complete bastard of an Asturian ascent, up the fearsome Cultu Negru. Stats can lie, like when they say this climb -- coming on the heels of two hard Cat-1 summits -- is 20km at 6.9%. It is, but the real story are kms 16-17, both over 13%, and the last 3km going 11, 14 and 18%. This is one of those stages where soigneurs come rushing up to the line to catch riders who are about to keel over before they can get a foot down.
GC Factor: Dreams will be crushed and fulfilled in the last few km of this stage. It's a huge one.
So Do I Care? Remember in the last sentence when I say this was huge?
Stage 17: Santander - Fuente De, 187km
Fun Factor: Another uphill finish, but this time climbybike rates it as the 639th hardest climb in Spain. Like breakaways?
GC Factor: Hostilities will proceed under truce, in all likelihood.
So Do I Care? Nope. Need a breather.
Stage 18: Aguilar de Campoo - Valladolid, 204km
Fun Factor: The word fun will cease to exist during the running of this stage. It's the Vuelta's longest day, mileage-wise, and flat as an Iowa cornfield.
GC Factor: Happily absent.
So Do I Care? If there's a tailwind, maybe.
Stage 19: Penafiel - La Lastrilla, 178km
Fun Factor: Another breakaway stage, unless there's a really motivated sprint-chase.
GC Factor: No way.
So Do I Care? Ditto.
Stage 20: La Faisanera Golf - Bola del Mundo, 170km
Fun Factor: The Queen (king?) stage of the Vuelta, with five rated climbs and a MTF on the Bola del Mundo -- site of the epic Nibali-Mosquera duel two years ago. Last call for anyone with GC hopes, or even minor placement hopes.
GC Factor: There is a good chance all scores are settled by now. There is no chance of any scores remaining unsettled by day's end.
So Do I Care? Only if you like cycling.
Stage 21: Cercedilla - Madrid, 115km
Fun Factor: Do you love a parade? Through Madrid?
GC Factor: All over now.
So Do I Care? I could count the last-grand-tour-days I've watched intently on two hands, and they're almost all time trials.
Whew! What a climb-fest. How that shapes the race for red... Ursula's up next.
Top Photo by Getty Images Sport