Unlike the Tour, it's not wise to assume that the Vuelta will be won somewhere between the second and third weekends, probably in a penultimate time trial. So since I'm still in catch-up mode, and forgive me if I'm the only one, it's probably time to flag a few upcoming stages. In Versus parlance, that's Stages You Can't Miss, as opposed to the remaining stages they recommend not watching.
- After two more bumpy but downhill sprinters' runs, we'll see be treated to the Time Trial, a 52km slight downhill run to Zaragoza on Saturday. But don't judge it by its profile: the winds will determine if this is a fast stage or a real bear. Anyway, the Chronomen will only have another 20km later to make up time, so this stage looms very large for certain riders... namely the guys who are either really good or really bad against the watch.
- Straight away after the ITT it's two days of signature Vuelta climbing in the Pyrenees, with finishes at the ski stations of Cerler (Sunday) and Ordino Arcalís (Monday). Both stages feature multiple climbs and a hors categoire finish, but Monday's will be by far the harder and livelier, I expect. Tuesday is the first rest day, which should encourage reckless attacking (ahem), but in addition while the Cerler features hors d'oeuvres of two cat-2 climbs and a cat-3, the Ordino Arcalís is 50km longer and matches its two cat-2 climbs with the cat-1 Porto del Canto before the h.c. final ascent.
Then there are those final slopes. The Estación de Esquí Cerler won't be fun, but an average of 5.5% over 12km isn't going to eliminate any serious contenders. Whereas the Estación de Esquí de Ordino Arcalís, coming after 200 km and nearly 20km of the Porto del Canto, might suck.
- From there, the climbing is dispersed and relatively unremarkable until Stage 18's route to Ávila in the Castilla region. But it's the following day's trek in the Sierra de Guadarrama, up to the Alto de Abantos, that should have riders and fans talking. The stage actually makes two passes over the Alto, and while 12km at 5.7% isn't legend, that 19% ramp at the start should cause severe havoc... both times.
- Finally, the Villalba Time Trial will leave 20km of power riding to sort out any classifications too close to yet call. The short course means gaps may be in the dozens of seconds, not minutes, but if the race is still tight, this will be fun.