Over the weekend the Vuelta became the final grand tour to announce its route for 2014 (the Tour, Giro, Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge had gone public in November), and while it generated the usual non-commitment commitments -- "I look forward to riding the Vuelta, if possible" -- it failed to generate any of the ZOMG!!! headlines race directors usually shoot for. Which is crucial to the survival of the sport, at least if the worries of "too much climbing" are to be believed. Anyway, for once, it looks like the trend is in the direction of a nice, measured, balanced grand tour, so yay!
Is 2014 the year of Balance? There are always new trends in grand tour design, and it can't be denied that race directors are well aware of what's working elsewhere. Do I know this? Not exactly, but if I'm aware of such things in my spare time, surely they are at their paid jobs. And anyway, the commonalities are impossible to deny. So let's run through the various interesting elements of grand tours and see how the three European ones check out.
KM of Time Trials: 95km, including 21.7km TTT, 19km uphill, 54km of flat
MTFs: Nine, at least five of which are classic MTFs, one is a time trial, and three more are of the early-race, sort-em-out-a-bit variety.
Top 100 Climbs: This comes from just the Climb by Bike Italy ranking; the world-wide top 100 is tough to crack, and mostly aren't raceable. There are six from the Italy top 100, in order: Zoncolan, Monte Grappa, Stelvio, Gavia, Plan de Montecampione, and Rifugia Panarotta.
Number of Rated Climbs: 33, with 16 of those being significant climbs (an eyeball test).
Sneaky/Fun Finishes: Four, including one descent
Pure Sprint Stages: Six
Transferpalooza-edness: One mega-transfer from Dublin to Bari, which appears in a single arc, because there are so many non-stop flights from Dublin to Bari. I count another seven transfers in the 60-100km range, but assuming those are not too troublesome, this is a relatively calm Giro on the transfer front. Or, put another way, it's usually worse.
Tour de France
KM of Time Trials: 54km, one stage, should be pretty flat
MTFs: Six, five of which are classic MTFs, and one shorty in the Vosges.
100 200 Climbs: Via Climb by Bike's France ranking. Just four climbs make it into France's Top 200: The Col d'Izoard, Port de Bales, and the closing duo of the Col du Tourmalet and Hautacam.
Number of Rated Climbs: 23, with 16 of those being significant climbs (an eyeball test).
Sneaky/Fun Finishes: At least three, without seeing all the stage details. There's a downhill Pyrenean opener, a tricky stage up in Yorkshire, and of course the Cobbles From Hell.
Pure Sprint Stages: Somewhere between 7 and 11. The Green Jersey competition will be cracking.
Transferpalooza-edness: The usual suspects, apart from the cross-channel ride from London to Etaples, not terribly far from the continental end of the Chunnel. There's one in the east, about 100km from the Vosges to Besancon, a 225km beast from the Riviera to the Pyrenean vicinity, and of course the last dash from Bordeaux to Paris. But transfers at the Tour are posh, right?
Vuelta a España
KM of Time Trials: 57km, of which 12.6 is a TTT. There appears to be about 8km of gentle climbing in the first crono.
MTFs: Eight, all of which will be taken quite seriously.
100 200 Climbs: Usual drill. Five items rank high, including the Alto San Miguel de Aralar, the Lagos de Covadonga, the La Cobertoria - La Farrapona duo on stage 16, and the final up the Puerto de Ancares.
Number of Rated Climbs: 37, with 15 of those being significant climbs (an eyeball test).
Sneaky/Fun Finishes: Five by my count, including one descent (with a runout), an uphill sprint which I didn't count as a MTF, and three other stages with modest finishes after beastly climbs.
Pure Sprint Stages: Five. It's the Vuelta. You're welcome.
Transferpalooza-edness: Pretty ghastly. I saw something over the weekend saying how they tried to keep the transfers to a minimum, and I give the Vuelta a bit of a pass, because the various key places don't link up too well, compared to the Giro or the Tour. But I see at least seven pretty long moves, and some sort of noticeable transfer after nearly every stage. This is the death by 1000 cuts.
I'd say the Giro and Vuelta are pretty comparable in terms of general climbyness. Slightly more quantity to Spain, quality to Italy. The Tour looks to be VERY sprinty, though again we'll see how the details pan out. None of these grand tours make you want to cry just looking at the lineup of ascents, but the Giro might elicit an occasional whimper. I would say all of the races are going for some semblance of balance, but with the differences matching up well with their respective traditional patterns. The Vuelta, for starters, balances big climbs with smaller ones. The Giro balances hard days in the mountains with hard days in the valleys. The Tour balances very interesting stages with very boring ones. But hey, the riders make the race. Be prepared to be surprised.