Being a sports fan in Spain is apparently not as simple as you'd think. I would have guessed, based on their plethora of fabulous athletes and beautiful races, that Spanish cycling is as awesome as it gets back in the home country. And I'd be wrong, I'm told. Many a tooth has been gnashed and hair rendered over the indifference of Spanish fans to the sport of cycling, both recently (related to that doping crap) and historically, whereby the Vuelta a España, the country's premier event, has been on the scheduler's chopping block since forever. "Let's make it a fall race!" they said, back when it was run in April. "Let's cut it down to two weeks," they said more recently. Or even, "let's pretend it doesn't exist," they had said a time or two, at least before ASO, owners of the great French races and a few extras, took over and stabilized matters. In short, the Vuelta has been taken for granted. Spain as a nation is a complicated, thing, apparently, and I suppose the national unity represented by the Vuelta has to overcome regional awesomeness (and regional Vueltas) before people get truly excited.
Or something like that. I'm not terribly schooled in the ways of Spanish fantastickitude. I've never been there. I've seen it represented from corner to corner, on TV and the Internetz, from
Gibraltar Calpe to Galicia to the verdant Basque Country to the dry plains of Andalucia. I've seen Barcelona in at least a dozen films, even gritty ones with Javier Bardem, and they're still beautiful. But you can only glean so much on screen. I haven't met too many Spaniards, and the one who stayed with us when I was in junior high was kind of a jackass [unrelated: in junior high I was also kind of a jackass, albeit substantially less drunken and entitled than our visitor. On the plus side, the Spanish cycling fans I've met seem universally friendly, knowledgeable, and interested in more company.] I have discovered a few points of importance regarding the culinary awesomeness of the place, but through the American filter, which probably means I don't know the half of it. I have watched enough soccer to know a bit about their players, but more importantly to know that's where you can find much of the audience for cycling, on any given weekend between August and May. Yep. Soccer is the real problem. Or at least, if cycling fandom is suffering in Spain the way people say it is, that's where I'd look first.
Anyway, this post goes out to my Spanish brethren, people who truly love cycling in their hearts, even if there are certain impediments to admitting or acting on that innate feeling. This, our regularly featured Viewers' Guide, is crafted to help you, Spanish fans, find your way back to the sport... on what might seem vaguely like your own terms. I'm not going to just yell at you to watch the Vuelta every day. I'm going to do my best to offer you real, constructive advice, taking into account the actual choice you have to make between enjoying all the other fruits of life that hang so low from the Tree of Spain.
OK, before I torture another metaphor, let's get started. Indifferent Spanish Cycling fans, here's your guide.
Stage 1: Jerez de la Frontera
ITT TTT, 12.6km
Saturday, August 23
What Is It? A short, flat team prologue. Kind of a humorous-looking route map (and thanks to the always-excellent Steephill.tv, a fantastic resource for Vuelta info, for turning these maps into .jpg's)
Are those dead ends? That could make for fantastic television! "Valverde has come to a stop! Oh, he's losing precious seconds here Paul!"
How Is It Interesting? It isn't. Well, it's day 1 and the sherry (Jerez!) will be flowing freely. So if you're there, I'm still not sure the race is terribly exciting, but at least there's sherry. Tony Martin & co will win by at least a minute.
I Should Watch Because: Um, well, you can flip channels between the Liga games, which mostly start a bit later anyway.
Stage 2: Algeciras -- San Fernando, 174km
Sunday, August 24
What Is It? A semi-coastal run to a sprint finish. Semi-coastal, in that it turns inland for quite a while where the peloton can bake in the Andalusian sun to a fine crisp, before circling around Cadiz, crossing a causeway, and sprinting it out. Should be a thoroughly beautiful last hour or two, and interesting viewing throughout.
How Is It Interesting? First sprint, first KOM points. And the sprint field contains some pretty big names, starting with a vengeful Mark Cavendish. Not that he should seek vengeance against anyone besides himself, but I'm sure he'll come up with someone.
I Should Watch Because: Well, Barcelona don't take the field until after the stage. Obviously you will need to watch the pre-game discussions so you don't miss the lineup announcements. But chances are you can flip channels and catch the sprint before that excitement begins.
Stage 3: Cádiz -- Arcos de la Frontera, 197km
Monday, August 25
What Is It? Well, for starters, there's Cádiz, the oldest city in Spain and possibly one of the most mesmerizing to look at, replete with Arabic styled monuments crammed into a narrow isthmus. And that's merely the start. Arcos de la Frontera is another historic setting, something about fighting with the Moors -- who, by the way, get the total short shrift from history. Name a western history text that talks about how awesome they were and how terrible it was when they got kicked out of Spain and Sicily. I'm not sure any of those things are true, but I bet you Moorish cuisine was excellent.
Anyway, this will likely be another sprint, but there are four cat-3 climbs, so you never know.
How Is It Interesting? Hm, we could see a Saganing, certainly as far as the intermediate sprints go. [A Saganing is a stage where they place either intermediate or final points somewhere past enough climbing to eliminate all of the points contenders except Peter Sagan.] Certainly the early KOM battle will take shape, though often these early contenders are just keeping the jersey warm before the top category climbs begin.
I Should Watch Because: Hm, Real play early. Maybe catch a replay of the sprint later. After the post-match shows.
Stage 4: Mairena del Alcor -- Córdoba, 164km
Tuesday, August 26
What Is It? Fitting the pattern, a largely flat stage that manages to run into some climbs along the way. Oh, and if you don't get it already, this Vuelta is essentially the biggest tourism ad in the country's history. The start is on the outskirts of Sevilla, the Andalucian capital, and by the finish we will have checked off every great southern hotspot. Well, except Málaga and Almeria, and probably several more I'm overlooking (including the not-at-all-unfortunately-named district of Morón). And by hotspots, I mean the places with the highest summer temperatures in western Europe... which is the region between Sevilla and Córdoba.
How Is It Interesting? It probably isn't. Well the KOM guys will like this one too, with the first cat-2 of the race. But that tops out 24km from the line, Look for a reduced sprint and, given the likely baking heat, an indifferent peloton chasing whoever goes out ahead.
I Should Watch Because: The Copa del Rey isn't for another week.
Stage 5: Priego de Córdoba -- Ronda, 180km
Wednesday, August 27
What Is It? A hellish bake-fest in the Spanish sun, albeit taking in a couple national parks along the way, but at pace, which means no opportunity for a quick dip in the Laguna de Fuente de Piedra. Is a stone fountain a good thing to dive into? No matter. If Hinault were here, he could allow a side trip, but they don't make Patrons like that anymore.
How Is It Interesting? It isn't. Up and down a bit all day, with a small cat-3 toward the end. But it'll end in a breakaway or a sprint.
I Should Watch Because: Hm... the Barcelona channel is showing some practice highlights, which could tip off whether Neymar is ready to start against Villareal. Tough call.
Stage 6: Benalmádena -- La Zubia, 167km
Thursday, August 28
What Is It? Oh wait, did I say the race skipped Málaga? Nope, just kidding. Also Granada checks in on this short-ish stage starting along the southern coast for the last time of the Vuelta, before heading to yet another national park... this one with a parking lot at the end of a climb. And you know what that means...
How Is It Interesting? It's our first MTF! Climbers will climb! Sprinters will splinter! Action will get as hot as the pavement! The trip up La Zubia (the Zubia) will be no picnic:
This will force the top contenders, of which there are about three dozen, to come out to play. Not to get ahead of myself, but this isn't your Giro-style Vuelta, where you can get excited about climbs in week 1 but by week 3 you'll be laughing at the fact that you did (and crying about the next stage). The sum total of selection in this race isn't terribly high. Every second counts, and on a nastly little jut like this one there will be a dozen or more seconds available to an enterprising GC type.
I Should Watch Because: It's an important stage of your country's national race. A bunch of famous Spaniards will be seen doing their thing. It's not the finale, but it's on par with a Barça-Real joint autograph session, at a minimum.
Stage 7: Alhendín -- Alcaudete, 169km
Friday, August 29
What Is It? A trip from Spain's most Swedish-sounding city to the fortress town of Alcaudete, border station of Jaen Province. Sadly, most of the actual Swedes in Spain are clubbing in Ibiza, robbing the world of a great cross-cultural experience. Anyway, this is another bumpy sprint-or-break-or-just-generally-melt stage.
How Is It Interesting? Stage hunters from the climberly-types-with-no-GC-hopes (coughGilbertcough) should be lining up for this one. The last few KM are slightly uphill, a true power grind, and with a cat-3 and -2 preceding, this should be a stage battle beyond the ordinary.
I Should Watch Because: It's Friday, you can knock off work early. Yes, Valencia have an evening game, but that'll just hold you over til happy hour at 11, which will get you ready for your 1am dinner reservation. So there's plenty of time to watch the stage.
Stage 8: Baeza -- Albacete, 207km
Saturday, August 30
What Is It? Officially dubbed the "Most Boring Stage" of the 2014 Vuelta, it's a long, transitional slog to a town known for its September fair, an "undeniable attraction" according to the race website. Go ahead, try and deny it.
How Is It Interesting? It's not. I wish it was, given that Saturday is prime real estate. Wait...
I Should Watch Because: You shouldn't. It's Saturday, and that's prime real estate, as in Atletico in the early evening. Plus you didn't go to sleep the previous night until the stage rolled out. Pace yourself.
Stage 9: Carboneras de Guadazaón -- Aramón Valdelinares, 185km
Sunday, August 31
What Is It? Second MTF stage, with an 8km riser to the ski area at Aramon Valdelinares, topping out at just under 2000 meters. With a rest day on the horizon, it's bound to see some stage play.
How Is It Interesting? Hm, I am a little curious myself. The average gradient is 6.6% and maxes out at 8.5, which isn't going to produce a major selection, assuming there aren't any Schlecks still in contention. I think this is more like a Gilbert stage than a GC event. Almost nothing should have been decided by the first rest day, which is great because I'll be out of internet range most of that time.
I Should Watch Because: The race takes place exactly halfway between Madrid and Barcelona, that fascinating no-man's-land of futbol allegiances. How will the ever-present tensions spill over onto the road? My guess is pre-race, in the battle for prime last-slope chalking turf. "Messi is messy"? Them's fighting words.
Stage 10: Real Monasterio de Santa María de Veruela -- Borja, 36.7km ITT
Tuesday, September 2
What Is It? A somewhat normal-length, downhill time trial. Not, like, descending, but just gradually losing altitude for the last 25km. Not terribly turny either, which means guys will be flat-out flying and aerodynamic positioning will mean everything (in the battle for second place after Tony Martin).
How Is It Interesting? In every possible way. This is the premier tune-up for the worlds crono, and you can bet a handful of guys will DNS the next day once they've checked this box. Martin will be looking to demoralize his rivals. Over on the GC side, Froome comes in as the dominant cronoman, but Quintana is no slouch. So how does a fast parcours set this up? Does it reduce or inflate Froome's advantage? No idea. Can't wait to see.
I Should Watch Because: It's a tremendously important stage, and the first round of the Copa del Rey is not. Do you really need to watch the Hercules v. Eldense match? I think my brother once called me El Dense. His Spanish is way better than mine.
Stage 11: Pamplona -- Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar, 153km
Wednesday, September 3
What Is It? Rough week for transfers... Now the race lands in Pamplona, Indurain Country, or Pais Vasco to the non-cycling types, of which there are exactly six in this region. Wait, make that five.
How Is It Interesting? Another MTF, and a meaty one:
Basque Country climbs don't tend to be legendary, off-the-charts affairs, but they are numerous and pack enough of a punch to make for some solid racing. Coming on the heels of the major ITT, this race will be rippling with importance, with some modest chance of being the day that decides the overall.
I Should Watch Because: Look, what more do I have to do to convince you that cycling is excellent? The roads will be packed with Basque fans cheering on Basques, Spaniards, foreigners... everyone, in the highest spirit of cycling fandom. In other words, no Borat mankinis. It's OK, you can support this. Also, La Liga is off for another ten days.
Stage 12: Logroño -- Logroño, 166km
Thursday, September 4
What Is It? An oddball, out-and-back stage that isn't a time trial. They did this two years ago too, for some reason. I guess the hotels must be pretty decent there?
How Is It Interesting? To a sprinter who bothered to deal with the wilting southern sun? Very. To the rest of us? Well, if you like sprinting, then great.
I Should Watch Because: I have virtually nothing else to do. What, that doesn't describe you? OK then.
Stage 13: Belorado -- Obregón/Parque de Cabárceno, 188km
Friday, September 5
What Is It? Yet another tour of the national parks, four in this stage alone. America prides itself on its national park system, or we did until we decided it was more important to give every citizen a 15 cent tax cut rather than maintain basic services at the parks. Also, when we thought that, we hadn't bothered to see what anyone else is up to in this department. Yet another reason to go to Spain.
How Is It Interesting? Tricky one, where riders will have plenty of chances to get caught napping. The race starts at 800 meters, slogs along for a while, then hits a short Cat-3, drops like a stone, then does two more rated climbs, then sinks to sea level and hits one last ramp en route to the line. [Confusingly, the Vuelta website lists the Alto del Rat Penat on this stage, but I think that's wrong. That one is near Barcelona.]
I Should Watch Because: It's an excuse to start the weekend early? Not a terribly compelling one though.
Stage 14: Santander -- La Camperona/Valle de Sabero, 200km
Saturday, September 6
What Is It? A very nasty climbing doubleheader with a MTF waiting at the end. This is Picos de Europa territory -- or maybe technically just beyond, but terrifying nonetheless. Be afraid.
How Is It Interesting? Oh, possibly because of this?
This is the final ascent to La Camperona. Go here for some photographic detail of this amazing ascent. My good friend GuillermoJ insists this is one of his top ten favorite climbs in Spain. That 19.5% is an average for that sector, and the actual maximum is 24%.
Sometimes these over-the-top climbs just make everyone miserable and nothing really happens, but in this case, the Camperona comes at the end of a not terribly awful stage. It's long, 200km, but the San Glorio climb isn't exactly the Mortirolo. Top GC contenders should be ready for this when it happens, and the race will positively explode.
I Should Watch Because: You like explosions, right? Also, remember the part about La Liga being on a well-earned break? Those two consecutive weeks of playing a match, man, they really take it out of you.
Photo by Xavi Gomez, Getty Images
Stage 15: Oviedo -- Lagos de Covadonga, 152km
Sunday, September 7
What Is It? The Queen Stage, insofar as that denotes the stage that everyone looks at and says that's where the race will be won. I don't want to agree, but everyone is probably right.
How Is It Interesting? As GuillermoJ would say, "pardon me, but I think this is a terribly hard climb, and I've had to rely on my Portuguese domestique to help me and Doña Dorinna conquer this one." He ain't kidding:
It's a weird climb, alternating between hard ramps and short intermissions. I'm not sure who that favors, but my guess would be the climbers who can't crono, if only because the ones who can presumably like settling into a tempo when they climb, something they won't get so much of here.
I Should Watch Because: I guarantee you that you have nothing better to do. Well, not that you have to do this very moment anyway.
Stage 16: San Martín del Rey Aurelio -- La Farrapona/Lagos de Somiedo, 160km
Monday, September 8
What Is It? The actual Queen Stage. None of the climbs have the cachet of the Covadonga among cyclists, but GuillermoJ will insist that each of the four major ascents on this stage are for reals. And beautiful, and linking one national park to another all day. I am starting to resent all of Spain.
How Is It Interesting? It's the penultimate chance to do anything on GC. After today only one serious MTF remains, along with a second, silly one. This is about as long a day in the saddle as racers will have with only 160km covered, at least outside the Dolomites. [And the Alps. And maybe Pyrenees. Shut up.]
No single ascent blows your mind on paper, but they'll add up to plenty in the end. Oh, and I like how they kicked the rest day to Tuesday so as to avoid riders feeling refreshed before this stage.
I Should Watch Because: It's the Queen Stage. Don't you love the queen? OK, a queen? The music of Queen? Just watch, OK?
Stage 17: Ortigueira -- A Coruña, 190km
Wednesday, September 10
What Is It? A ride out to the beach. Everyone will have earned a day at the beach, after another transfer to excruciatingly lovely Galicia, and with any justice the riders not contending for anything will at least get a dip in the Atlantic for their troubles after this long stage.
How Is It Interesting? Um, I don't suppose it is. Well, it should be lovely at least.
I Should Watch Because: Um, this?
Stage 18: A Estrada -- Monte Castrove/Meis, 157km
Thursday, September 11
What Is It? The silly MTF stage. Basically, anyone hoping to hop over a rival who's within a handful of seconds will be tempted to try something on the final ascent of Monte Castrove, outside Pontevedra. But it's fool's gold, a 4.6% climb. If you're high up on GC at this point, it's because you do 4.6% climbs in warmups.
How Is It Interesting? It's not. It thinks it is, but it's not.
I Should Watch Because: Because any sentient human will look at the pictures from this stage and say "I want to go to Galicia now. Now! RIGHT NOW!!" and start rending their hair and clothing.
Stage 19: Salvaterra do Miño -- Cangas do Morrazo, 180km
Friday, September 12
What Is It? The calm before the final storm. As the funky spelling suggests, we're now very close to Portugal, just a stone's throw across the Minho River away.
How Is It Interesting? Well, there's a cat-2 climb near the end that might tempt people into doing something foolish, but mostly it's one for the stage hunters. As for the scenery, seriously, don't ask.
I Should Watch Because: We're almost in Portugal. And you know who's from Portugal? Cristiano fucking Ronaldo, that's who.
Stage 20: Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil -- Puerto de Ancares, 185km
Saturday, September 13
What Is It? A last-gasp GC battle extraordinaire. Really, this is a remarkable Vuelta -- a smattering of GC stages, then a hard four days that seem to settle things, then a break, then two last gut-punches. Very unique and fun. Also, remember when I said the Pamplona stage could be decisive? Yeah, ignore that.
How Is It Interesting? How? How, you ask?
There's some decent chance that the top portion allows chasers to limit their losses, but only if they haven't blown a gasket. Great way to finish up the climbing phase of the Vuelta.
I Should Watch Because: Um... there's a two-hour break between the end of Barcelona-Bilbao and the Madrid Derby? Spanish life offers a lot of hard choices. Maybe you should just eat an amazing meal and go to a national park instead.
Stage 21: Santiago de Compostela -- El Final del Camino ITT, 9.7km
Sunday, September 14
What Is It? A race-ending time trial. Yup. Because you might not have thought the Vuelta was awesome enough this year. Also it ends in front of a UNESCO world heritage site, the Camino / Way of St. James, a holy Catholic site to which pilgrims flock from across Europe. Hopefully not in the middle of the stage, but then it is Sunday.
How Is It Interesting? How much time can a worn-out GC contender claw back in 10km? In the case of a Chris Froome, a good 30 seconds... depending on who else he's vying with for position. At this distance, the time gaps could put all of the podium places out of reach, but if not... holy (insert preferred term)!
I Should Watch Because: You've come this far. You can barely move after a day of Barcelona, the Vuelta, the Madrid Derby, and whatever you did last night/earlier this morning. Sit still, drink a sangria or coffee or sangria latte, and enjoy the sweet, sweet finish of a great race.