The light in the evening gets lower. We no longer worry about the sun baking our dining room at dinner time. My tomato plants have to be moved around a bit to maximize their exposure to the sun. The kids don't have any trouble falling asleep at 9. Well, not because of the light anyway.
So it goes as the calendar turns on August. Back before I had kids, weather was what it all meant to me. Now, the end of summer portends a whole new set of routines, sleepy, slipshod ones replaced by strict adherence to a plan. There's excitement around it too, for the younger ones the excitement of a new year, with some new faces and challenges. New sports to play. New clothes. Later in life, new intrigue. Me, I get to watch them soak in the changes, remembering my own experiences with the fall. It has always been my favorite season. Before I had ever heard the word "Cyclocross," even.
Against this backdrop, cycling faces the daunting task of pulling us back into the sport of spring and summer with a third and final grand tour. This, really, is what makes the Vuelta a España #3. It doesn't get our attention the same way as the GIro and the Tour, for one reason: we don't have as much to give.
So the Vuelta responds. ASO, owners of the Tour de France, come in to help organize things. They import their own attitudes, which lately include borrowing some techniques from the wildly entertaining Giro d'Italia, a race that constantly overperforms with the crowd. In reality, the Giro is marked by tepid GC competitions, often heavy on Italians, including guys like Scarponi or Di Luca whom we'd rather forget. But it doesn't stop us from loving every minute of it, not the greatest race but maybe the greatest show on Earth.
The folks running the Vuelta have taken notice. They know you have other things to do, that you'll take practically any excuse to walk away from the TV and deal with whatever else is on your plate: squeezing the last ounce of fun out of summer, a trip with friends, Labor Day merriment, planning the kids' school or maybe starting classes yourself. Maybe just settling back into work along with everyone else. There are lots of reasons not to watch cycling. The Vuelta knows this... so they're going to make you an offer you can't refuse.
Thus, we turn to... the 2013 Vuelta a España Viewer's Guide!
Stage 1: Vilanova de Arousa -- Sanxenxo, 27.4km TTT
Saturday, August 24
Que Pasa? A TTT is a TTT. That's good stuff right there. Better still, it's over pretty quickly, causes a sorting on GC, and pits the American teams in bitter, bitter combat against each other. Oh, and it's a warmup for the Worlds TTT. And my favorite part about this one is, it starts on a metal platform hovering off the coast of Galicia. [Just a few meters off the coast, mind you.]
Lasting Impact Pretty minimal. Scroll down if you think this Vuelta will be decided by the handfuls of seconds available in a 27km TTT.
Don't Skip Unless... you're hosting an end-of-summer barbecue. Which you shouldn't be, because it's not the end of summer.
[This is our stage significance threshold. For each one, I'll try to come up with a minimally sufficient excuse for not watching the stage at issue. You're welcome.]
Stage 2: Pontevedra -- Baiona, 177km
Sunday, August 25
Que Pasa? Classic Giro-style stage, a positively lovely coastal run that stays flat, then turns inland for a climb, then flattens out as it returns to the seaside, and then busts ass up a 10km climb of some difficulty. Breaking down the experience for us, we will "ooh" and "ah" at Spain's little bit of rocky Atlantic coast, then we'll watch the peloton warm up, then some more tranquillo-ness, followed by a 30-minute battle to the line by the GC guys. That's the Giro experience in a nutshell.
Lasting Impact Statements will be made. It's hard to believe they will have much of an impact, but if the GC guys are going to control the points jersey too (not unusual at the Vuelta), then this stage will begin that sorting.
Don't Skip Unless... you're in a wedding. And since it's Sunday, unless you're Jewish, my guess is you're not in a wedding.
Stage 3: Vigo -- Mirador de Lobeira, 184km
Monday, August 26
Que Pasa? Another completely gorgeous romp around Galicia, which will see a spike in immigration from cloudy, miserable places like Sweden and Seattle following the race. In addition to many miles of strolling by the sea, the peloton will actually detour from the mainland briefly to circumnavigate the Illa de Arousa (where it's always hot!) via a low causeway that has undoubtedly lured in its share of vacationing Dutch engineers. Then it's off to a finish that can best be described as Ardennnian, a 3km ascent that rises almost 250 meters, flattening a bit toward the line. If any sprinters came to the Vuelta with the Green Jersey, well, these will be nervous days.
Lasting Impact This stage definitely won't draw out the GC guys, but the implications for green are not nothing. Sprinters will be hoping that whoever scores on stage 3 will be someone other than the guy who won stage 2. Given the swarms of climbers in attendance, it'll be hard for a single rider (or two) to load up on points here.
Don't Skip Unless... you hate coastal areas.
Stage 4: Lalín/a Estrada -- Finisterra/Etapa fin del Mundo, 189km
Tuesday, August 27
Que Pasa? Probably a cooler stage in theory than in reality, at least in comparison to the previous two days. Starting a ways inland for no apparent rea$on, the stage rolls along some minor climbs, including a cat-3 with 40km to go, before reaching the dramatically named Etapa fin del Mondo, or the stage at the end of the world. Considering that there are races in Idaho, I'm not sure this name applies, and anyway the Capo Finisterra is less geographically interesting than the previous day's venture to an island. Also, the finish line is in Finisterra, a seaside town, making it about as end-of-the-worldy a setting as the finish of Milano-Sanremo.
Lasting Impact For the first time the sprinters will show their hands. Thanks to its conflict with the Vattenfalls Cyclassic Classic, the startlist is practically devoid of name sprinters besides Tyler Farrar, Theo Bos, Bling Mathews, Greg Henderson and Edvald Boasson Hagen, which I guess is a form of intrigue.
Don't Skip Unless... there's a big clearance sale at Nordstrom's.
Stage 5: Sober -- Lago de Sanabria, 174km
Wednesday, August 28
Que Pasa? Departing from the awesomely named Sober (a cow town known for a particular wine, so there), the Vuelta starts to climb in earnest for the first time, heading to an A-route bisecting the Galician Massif before exiting to Lago de Sanabria. The final 30km, however, isn't very selective, and either a breakaway or a slimmed-down sprint seems likely.
Lasting Impact Green only. If the flatlanders aren't eliminated, we could see the battle beef up. However, today would be an ideal time for a guy like Boasson Hagen to separate himself from the sprinters who can't climb so much. The more we see sprint points going to a single true(ish) sprinter, the less likely it is that green will end up on a GC guy.
Don't Skip Unless... you aren't on vacation. So, you know, that's a pretty low bar.
Stage 6: Guijuelo -- Cáceres, 175km
Thursday, August 29
Que Pasa? The smooth, creamy filling found in any grand tour... a relatively flat, net-downhill stage winding south from Castilla y Leon to Extremadura. At this point, the big winners in this Vuelta are Portuguese cycling fans. I get that these countries aren't small or easy to drive across. This isn't New Jersey. But so far we're up to six stages along or not too distant from the Portuguese border. If a grand tour came this close to me, I'd be there. Anyway, this stage is all about linking up the starting region in the Northwest to some southern fun in the sun.
Lasting Impact Guaranteed sprint stage, assuming there are teams dedicated to making it so. In other words, not a guarantee. But green will be on the menu.
Don't Skip Unless... you're not related to one of the sprinters. If you are related to one of the sprinters, this stage is for you.
Stage 7: Almendralejo -- Mairena de Aljarafe, 206km
Friday, August 30
Que Pasa? Some habits are hard to break, like the Vuelta having a completely straight, nearly flat stage in the baking hot sun that ends in a sprint and mercifully releases anyone riding in it from further torture. Viewers will feel similarly.
Lasting Impact I'm not sure how these guys manage their energy, but whatever, it's not like there will be many pedals turned in anger. A break is virtually certain to succeed here, bringing the stage's long-term impact down to nothing.
Don't Skip Unless... You have a choice.
Stage 8: Jerez de la Frontera -- Estepona-Alto Peñas Blancas, 166km
Saturday, August 31
Que Pasa? A trip across Andalucia, a quick hello to the Mediterranean, and a moderately tough 14km climb to Peñas Blancas, which translates to "white penalties."
Lasting Impact GC jockeying will begin, with full marks for those who can sprint it out a bit at the end. But I wouldn't expect a major throwdown.
Don't Skip Unless... you're hosting an end-of-summer barbecue, which is possible, though it wouldn't kill you to start a little later.
Stage 9: Antequera -- Valdepeñas de Jaén, 163km
Sunday, September 1
Que Pasa? A terribly interesting stage, or at least I think so. The route caps out at 1340 meters, on the Alto de los Frailes, before a mix of descents and small inclines to the town of Valdepeñas de Jaén, where the narrative description says there's a climb topping out at 30% (not a typo) but I can't see it on the route. Anyway, this could and should get tricky and fun.
Lasting Impact More GC shuffling, and pretty soon these moves will start adding up.
Don't Skip Unless... there's a gas leak in your home.
Stage 10: Torredelcampo -- Güéjar Sierra. Alto Hazallanas, 186km
Monday, September 2
Que Pasa? Lavuelta.com informs me that this is the first mountain stage of the race. This comes as a surprise to people who watched the two weekend stages, but OK. There are two major Altos -- Monachil and Hazallanes, with the latter constituting the first above-category climb of the race. Maybe that's what they meant by "mountain stage." This is Spain, after all. Grafik:
The average gradient of 5% for this climb is quite possibly the worst statistic in cycling history. I'd estimate about 670 meters of climbing in the last 6km (before the slight leveling at the end), making that an 11% average brute of a climb. Adding 2km of descending in the middle just makes the final ascent that much longer (not to mention giving enterprising descenders something to contemplate).
Lasting Impact Should be the first really noticeable time gaps of the Vuelta. Pretty much every jersey is in play.
Don't Skip Unless... you were jailed for something that happened at your end-of-summer party. And even then, how long does bail take?
Stage 11: Tarazona ITT, 38.8km
Wednesday, September 4
Que Pasa? The only ITT of the race. Coming after the first merciful rest day and a long, long, looong transfer to this archetypal medieval Spanish town in northern Zaragoza (just below the Basque region), this is a massively important test for the contenders, as they dash out to the Alto del Moncayo and back. That's 38km plus about 600 meters of climbing, begging the age-old question, which bike and/or how often do you change? My guess is twice, with 9km of flat to a 15km climb/descent, followed by another flat 14k.
Lasting Impact The presence of the climb means that the Spanish contenders won't have an allergic reaction to this stage, so the gap to Nibali might not be as terrifying as it otherwise could have been.
Don't Skip Unless... it's your kid's first day of kindergarten. In which case, get the Vuelta App for your mobile phone.
Stage 12: Maelia -- Tarragona, 164km
Thursday, September 5
Que Pasa? About what you'd expect after three days of climbing and a time trial -- a generally flat stage, though again, this being Spain, there's a cat-3 involved. Shouldn't matter too much, unless for some bizarre reason someone makes it matter. Breakaways will be on the loose, though if any sprinters' teams got left out of the fun of the past five days, they might take up the chase in earnest.
Lasting Impact Next to none, unless any sprinters are left to chase green. Often times, at this point of the Vuelta you could see guys pulling out to save their Worlds form, but with the course in Florence built for climbers, guys like Farrar will have little else to do but keep soldiering on in Spain.
Don't Skip Unless... you have a life. Any kind will do.
Stage 13: Valls -- Castelldefels, 169km
Friday, September 6
Que Pasa? Remember the Alto del Rat Penat? It's another beastly little climb in a Vuelta which seems to celebrate horrible gradients even more than seaside promenades and the Portuguese border. Last included in 2010, it's an ideal place for a stage-winning attack, coming in the middle of an otherwise pedestrian stage and topping out at 16% in a 5-km knee-breaker. So yeah, breakaways.
Lasting Impact Bubkis. The break will take all the points and other sweeteners off the table.
Don't Skip Unless... Unless... [trails off wistfully]
Stage 14: Bagà -- Andorra, 155km
Saturday, September 7
Que Pasa? Quadruple-mountain day in the Pyrenees, with the Vuelta's highest point (a Colorado-laughter-inducing 2410 meters) and a final 7km climb to Collada de la Gallina, won just last year in a three-way sprint by Valverde over his two countrymen J-Rod and Contador. Expect something similar this time.
Lasting Impact MTFs are MTFs. But this one doesn't seem like the day the race will be decided.
Don't Skip Unless... It's your kid's first soccer game.
Stage 15: Andorra -- Peyragudes, 225km
Sunday, September 8
Que Pasa? Shit just keeps getting realer. This is the longest and statistically hardest day of the Vuelta, taking in four cat-1 climbs of some significance. All "average" in the 4-6% range, but as usual those averages are warped by some dips, and there are long ramps throughout the day in the 8-10% range.
Lasting Impact I'm not sure the top three will sort themselves out, but you can count on a lot of pretenders falling by the wayside.
Don't Skip Unless... It's your kid's first soccer game, and you're the coach.
Stage 16: Graus -- Sallent de Gállego, 146km
Monday, September 9
Que Pasa? As the stages get sharper, they also get shorter, and this MTF includes about 8km of pretty stiff climbing to a ski resort in the Aragon Pyrenees, on the eve of the final rest day. Mayhem, anyone?
Lasting Impact Not much. What came earlier and comes later will be on everyone's mind.
Don't Skip Unless... you have work to do.
Stage 17: Calahorra -- Burgos, 189km
Wednesday, September 11
Que Pasa? Any sprinters still hanging around? Here's your reward: a transitional stage while the race tees up the Cantabrian madness to come.
Lasting Impact Only in the minds of the peloton, who will soon be fondly recalling those easy Burgosian days.
Don't Skip Unless... you can think of any excuse whatsoever.
Stage 18: Burgos -- Peña Cabarga, 186km
Thursday, September 12
Que Pasa? Dear god...
That's your finishing climb.
Lasting Impact Plenty. Nightmares, shooting pain in the legs, mouth-drying flashbacks, and some major time gaps.
Don't Skip Unless... someone threatens you with divorce, death, or foreclosure on your house. And then, only if the threat is explicitly tied to your watching the stage.
Stage 19: San Vicente Barquera -- Oviedo.Alto Naranco, 181km
Friday, September 13
Que Pasa? Another ride around Asturias with an alleged MTF, but it seems kind of tacked on, out of habit, and anyway the purpose of this stage is to allow riders a moment of sanity. A last one.
Lasting Impact None. This is a layover stage. Wait for it...
Don't Skip Unless... you're not a rider on a team entered in the Vuelta.
Stage 20: Avilés -- Alto de l'Angliru, 142km
Saturday, September 14
Que Pasa? no.. No! NOOOOOO!!!!
Can a road be evil? I say yes.
Lasting Impact Let us never speak of it again. Oh, and it's practically guaranteed to decide the Vuelta (not a guarantee).
Don't Skip Unless... you're dead. And then, would it be too much to ask for your loved ones to prop up your corpse on the sofa for a couple hours?
Stage 21: Leganés -- Madrid, 109km
Sunday, September 15
Que Pasa? Final day parade/sprint.
Lasting Impact Maybe some green significance? Doubtful though.
Don't Skip Unless... you just can't take it anymore. Or you hate parades.