Yes, it's that time one more time -- and I do mean one more. One of these years I'll come up with a new format for previewing grand tours. But for now, as I always say, if it's horribly broke, don't fix it.
Which reminds me of the Vuelta a España. What? No, it's not broke, it's probably the healthiest of our grand tours, in fact. No, I don't really know anything about how they measure "health," like in economic terms, and I don't have any perspective on Spain as a country to process rumors that the people there don't really care much about the race. Instead, I have my own prism, and through that I see a race that's been delivering beauty and excitement for a few years running now. This in comparison to the Snore de France and the Giro d'Italia, which oscillates between wacky, understaffed (e.g. just a bunch of Italians), and occasionally strangled to death by the appearance of a real Grand Tour champion.
But the Vuelta. The Vuelta has been YOOOOGE!
Ugh... OK fine. I will give in to the current political climate to set up our test of whether a stage is one you want to watch. I could have tried an Olympics theme, but of course the ever-wise Vuelta knew better than to overlap with the meat of that event. Instead, this time we will ask the question -- if I were a political consultant for either the Clinton or Trump presidential campaign, would I skip a few hours of my daily grind to watch this Vuelta stage? The Vuelta spans that period of pre-Labor Day calm to post-holiday acceleration, so there's still a choice involved here for anyone unfortunate enough to have chosen politics as a career. If you want to preserve a few brain cells worth of your sanity, the Vuelta may hold the key.
OK, let's go. Here's your opening visual. As you can see, it's a clockwork course starting in my favorite region, Galicia, and circling slowly across northern Spain. So slowly that they almost run out the clock on southern Spain altogether, before dashing down to Valencia and Madrid. Check it out:
Stage 1: Ourense Termal -- Catrelo de Miño TTT, 27.8km
Saturday, August 20
Plan of Attack: There's a very lovely typo on the main Vuelta web page which calls this stage a 104.1km TTT. God, if ONLY that were true! Harkening back to days of yore, when men were men and didn't complain about long stages! Sure, they filled their pockets with pills for the occasion, but anyway it made for good copy.
Backing up, it's Day One of the Vuelta, the first rollout of the race, and in the ever-exciting (and generally digestible) TTT format, one that doesn't keep you waiting very long to see if things will get off to a good start. It's also a brief showcase for Ourense and the start of a few days in Galicia, a region of Spain that I've adopted as my personal refuge from everything that is dull about the Vuelta sometimes. Long, hot stages on a red-dusted highway are out, and spectacular coastal vistas are in. Well, except today, but by the end of the weekend you'll see what I mean.
Long Range Implications: Always a potential pitfall, the relatively flat and treachery-free course should allow teams that care about the overall picture to remain in contact with each other. The caveat is that Vuelta teams often come together on short notice, but on the other hand everyone has raced with their Vuelta-mates enough by now that it shouldn't matter much.
Pundits Say: Ah, the dog days of August, when on a hot weekend morning you can count on just relaxing and forgetting about the campaign trail and watching a brief, lovely bike race through an interesting part of the world. I wonder why they chose to start in Ourense?
In truth, there are both natural and thermal springs all throughout Galicia, where the rocks are very ancient (the majority of them formed over 250 million years ago). When Europe and Africa drew closer to each other to assume their current positions, the rocks, ancient and rigid, fractured forming very deep faults. These faults can be thousands of metres deep and the water runs through them, heating up near the Earth's crust, and then returns to the surface through other faults. This is how the water reaches us with temperatures over 60º C, and carrying with it everything that it has dissolved on its long journey. This water contains such dissolved elements as lithium, sodium, potassium, magnesium and sulphur, which give the water all of its mineral and medicinal properties.
Um... geothermal springs.... This entire stage is a monument to hot air?? RUN AWAY!!! [Skip it.]
Stage 2: Ourense Capital Termal -- Baiona, 160.8km
Sunday, August 21
Plan of Attack: Baiona gets its second stage finish in four years (2013 saw them do a hill climb finish in that earlier Galicia showcase start), but this time it's intended to be one for the fast men. Some coastal scenery will be on order in the last hour and there's even a bit of climbing to do with 10km remaining, but that won't amount to much. A more interesting question might be to ask who's going to actually do that sprinting, but that's for another day.
Long Range Implications: Assuming everyone lands on their feet at the end, very little. There are some KOM points, so we know of one jersey that should change hands. And points too, of course.
Pundits Say: Let's kick this over to our generic Clinton staffer.
Should I watch today's stage? Let's see, the candidate is on vacation, away from any microphones. Her husband is too, thank god. My position papers are all in central editing. Probably not a bad day to watch a little cycling. Hm, stage in Galicia... I wonder if I could prepare a 15-point discussion on how this Galicia differs from the one in Eastern Europe? Also, what Secretary Clinton's positions are on economic and trade issues that implicate one or the other Galicia. or both! Oh, and technological transfer too...
...zzz whuh..? Oh, right. The stage previews. Let's keep going. [Skip it.]
Stage 3: Marin -- Dumbria/Mrador de Ezaro, 176.4km
Monday, August 22
Plan of Attack: Today in Why You Wish You Could Move to Spain... it's a hilly coastal run through the various peninsulae of this lovely region, and ending in this dump:
Yeah, it's a massive waterfall that empties into the sea. Quit showing off, Galicia. Seriously. Cut it out.
Long Range Implications: This is our first intriguing stage, but it's definitely Week 1 material, with the "MTF" being a 250-vertical-meter climb to an overlook above that horrible scene, a cat-3 ascent, after two other climbs, one each of cat-2 and 3, spread out over the final 65 km. Nothing will be learned about the fitness of this favorite or that for the horrendous mega-climbs that await, except for maybe the odd pretender who doesn't have the legs, period. But there will be some entertaining jockeying. And Froome will probably try to make yet another statement.
Pundits Say: Let's check in with our Trump Campaign representative.
Hm, good day to maybe put out a headline-grabbing tweet for a few minutes, just to throw the Hillary campaign off balance while they're trying to do their weekly conference call with regional staff. Maybe something about the weather? Global warming policy? No, too hot in the South right now. Maybe just a word of encouragement for flooding victims and a promise to look after rural communities better.
Hm, can't login to the Twitter account. Someone on it? Oh no! The candidate is logged in now!! Too late!
Spain: many millions of people speak your language and you don't see a dime of that action. Sad!
Stage 4: Betanzos -- San Andreas de Teixido, 163.5km
Tuesday, August 23
Plan of Attack: Remember two minutes ago when I was complaining about the lack of sprinters? When this is what counts for a Week 1 stroll, you can't really blame them.
Just three little rated climbs, my sprinterly friend. I promise it won't hurt a bit! Anyway, the views will be spectacular. If I weren't inclined to ride the Vuelta, I'd give serious thought to driving a support vehicle.
Long Range Implications: None. The climbs themselves are under 5% average gradient, so this is an uphill sprint for your average Spaniard. The stage battle should be spicy, but expect the big names to stay out of the way.
Pundits Say: Tuesday is news day. Get up early, do a morning talk show, and be done in time for the last 20km, that's the fun part anyway. [Watch it.]
Stage 5: Vivero -- Lugo, 171.3km
Wendesday, August 24
Plan of Attack: More of a keep-things-moving stage than anything else. Not enough climbing to report on, more unbelievable beach scapes, and probably a breakaway heading into Lugo, the heavily fortified Galician provincial capital.
Long Range Implications: Not a typical sprint stage, with some slight uphill to the finishing stretch. We might get a sense of who's in it for the Points Comp, between this and the previous couple days.
Pundits Say: Let's stop by the Clinton Campaign.
Slow news day. Candidate giving yet another detailed economic policy speech in a part of Pennsylvania that no media member would bother coming to. Considering the state will be decided by millions, talking to 3,000 people here is the equivalent of shouting down a well. But I have to come up with something. Anything to get the media's attention. If they don't have anything else, they'll just start writing about emails again. Goddammit, I'd better get a cushy judgeship out of this...
Stage 6: Monforte de Lemos -- Luintra/Ribera Sacra, 163.2km
Thursday, August 25
Plan of Attack: Apart from a cat-2 climb, you might think this stage was unremarkable, but I have a few things to point out.
- If a stage finish has two names, you can bet there's some serious marketing at work. Some of these extra-name ploys are boring ski resorts, or like this one, a wine region trying to get its name out. Other times it's a really cool feature. See stage 3.
- This stage starts heading east, to generate the clockwise orientation of the Vuelta in general. For maybe an hour, then it doubles back and just starts winding around aimlessly. Which is another way to describe the general orientation of this Vuelta.
- But what it lacks in such predictable details, it atones for it with unspeakable website awesomeness. Every stage at Lavuelta.com features a "Geodiversity" section, and this stage is as good as any to call attention to it. A sampling:
Armorican quartzites. A formation of quartzites that were created around 450 million years ago, in the Ordovician period, that can be seen in many regions of Europe, America and Africa. The word "Armorican", which means "facing the sea" is the name of the region where they were first discovered, in North-western France.
Long Range Implications: More of the same from Stage 5, which is to say that if the rather unpredictable points battle is in full cry, we should see some heavy stage action here.
Pundits Say: Heavy stage action is a pretty good shorthand for "don't create a Google Calendar entry." [Skip it.]
Stage 7: Maceda -- Puebla de Sanabria, 158.5km
Friday, August 26
Plan of Attack: Another stage partly pilfered from 2013, when they finished just up the road at Lago de Sanabria. Michael Mathews won that day. The lake is a big deal, but this stage is not. Unlike pretty much all of the remaining stages. Keep the line moving.
Long Range Implications: The usual, points and KOMs. GC should go unnoticed, lying in wait for the next few days.
Pundits Say: Let's swing by the Trump campaign.
Friday is the busiest day of the week. If you want anything the candidate said or did to go unnoticed by the media, be sure and let them know on their way out the door at 5pm. For Team Trump, this is the staff's biggest job. A lot of people don't understand how much hard work goes into the Friday afternoon news dump. It starts basically on Monday morning and keeps going, in the planning stages all week long. On Friday morning, we gather up all the bad news, gaffes, weird stories about Melania's past, photos of Donald Jr. eating something gross, and so on, and select which items will be released at 5pm. It's a really bad day to get into work late.
Stage 8: Villalpando -- La Camperona, 181.5km
Saturday, August 27
Plan of Attack: Hockey stick graphs are super, super cool, and they always bring a thrill to cycling as well. This stage is a rarity: the field hockey stick graph.
So fucking cool. Want to know what makes a good Field Hockey Stick Graph? Road gradients that are beyond all goddam belief. The official stats say 8.5km at 7.4%, but it's a bald-faced lie. It's really 3km or so at a really gentle gradient. Then a ramp at 25 percent. One in four. Moving on, the road goes flat for more than a kilometer, then another KM of 20% backing off to 8%. Then it kicks up for good, 2.5km at between 17 and 22 percent. Am I swearing a lot? They will be too. Welcome to the Cantabrian Mountains.
Long Range Implications: It's been a while since the last big GC separation, and this one will mark the next phase of the race, where it all goes out on the line. The only question is whether the short route, flat run-in, and extreme gradients that sort of suck for everyone will mean not that much of a battle. But I'd assume otherwise.
Pundits Say: Penultimate Saturday of summer. Tons of people out of the office next week. Do whatever you damn well please. [Watch it.]
Stage 9: Cistierna -- Oviedo/Alto del Naranco, 164.5km
Sunday, August 28
Plan of Attack: This is still considered part of week one? Because FFS... Anyway, it's off to Oviedo, yet another ancient, beautiful citadel, this time a capital of Asturias. Oviedo is your typical small Spanish city, a combination of ancient roots and modern touches, rolled up into a giant burrito of cultural awesomeness. I am going to Spain five minutes after my kids go off to college. And I'm not sure if I'm coming back.
The stage itself is a little gimmicky, as the Alto del Naranco caps things off with 5.7km at 6%, after a barrage of smaller climbs as the peloton heads north. But it doesn't matter, this is a palate cleanser between yesterday's extended wall and tomorrow's epic adventure.
Long Range Implications: Should be a fun stage battle, but I suspect the Bigs will holster their firearms for the day.
Pundits Say: Should we stop by the Clinton campaign? I say let's do it.
Another slow day for the candidate, time to get ready for the Monday morning poll dump and a trip to a coal mining area in southern Ohio to connect with working people. Hm, Oviedo has some history that might be interesting about mining. Something inspirational about the workers and the mine owners working collaboratively to map out a 27-point plan for operations. Let's see...
... the Asturian miners' strike of 1934. 50,000 workers, mostly miners, armed themselves with dynamite and captured Oviedo after heavy fighting. They gained control of the arsenal with 30,000 rifles and machine guns. The Army Chief of Staff, General Francisco Franco sent in soldiers who overpowered the rebels after severe street fighting that left 3000 rebels dead and 7000 wounded.
Uh... it gets better? Maybe a good morning to not do anything hasty.
Xavi Gomez, Getty Images
Stage 10: Lugones -- Lagos de Covadonga, 188.7km
Monday, August 29
Plan of Attack: Touristic niceties can shove it, this is a day for the heroes of cycling. It's a long-ish day in the saddle with plenty of rolling hills leading to a single uncategorized mega-climb, a legend of Spanish racing and a Vuelta mainstay along the lines of Alpe d'Huez.
Love the mix of long, hard tempo, with two late sections of false hope only for a couple more body blows to come back at you. The best thing I can say about this climb from a recreationalist's point of view is that there's a lake to jump in afterward.
Long Range Implications: Definitely a place where the Red Jersey as well as the KOM competition could be won or lost for good. There are still many mountains to climb, but if we see Froome do his top-gear Froome thing, then he could end the Vuelta here.
Pundits Say: Let's put an ear in on the Trump campaign...
"I said if you make me come in early and miss this stage I will kill myself! ... What? He threatened to kill himself today? Why? ... OK, that makes sense. ... What? ... Who else is threaten... Really? ... Yeah, I can see that. ... What? No, I will not take a number. I'm going!"
Let's move on. [Watch it.]
Stage 11: Colunga -- Peña Cabarga, 168.6km
Wednesday, August 31
Plan of Attack: Post-rest day stage. Not sure how restful it is coming off the Covadonga and pondering this, another Vuelta regular that ends atop a nasty, brutish and short climb where the "average" says 9.8% over nearly 6km, but the reality is that if you remove a brief descent it's more like 11-18% all the way up. Competition-wise, this is a big one.
But off the bike, it might not get much bigger. There are karst formations galore, from the amazing sea caves near the start in Colunga to the finish of sinkholes and cliffs. Also, the race starts at a museum to Jurassic-era dinosaur remains and other cool stuff. You could be excused for forgetting the MTF aspect.
Long Range Implications: Another 5.6km of hell. Have we had enough hell for one week? Apparently not, and the attacking should make things worse.
Pundits Say: Make the Vuelta Hellish Again! Has a nice ring... [Watch it.]
Stage 12: Los Corrales de Buelna -- Bilbao, 194.8km
Thursday, September 1
Plan of Attack: This course just doesn't quit. Is it a sign of tourist desperation that we get one unbelievable locale after another? Or is every inch of northern Spain just that interesting? Today we get to Bilbao, Basque country's biggest city and home to Frank Gehry's least annoying structural design. [I like Gehry's stuff, actually. But not every time I look at them.] Oh, and remember when the Vuelta first came back to the Pais Vasco after several decades of pointed avoidance? Now I'm not sure it's political news anymore, just a fundamentally good idea, like having the Winter Olympics in the Alps, or the hot dog eating contest in Coney Island. Can't go wrong. Anyway, extra credit for an actual urban stage finish. This will probably draw the biggest crowds of the race to this point. Maybe more than the first 11 stages together.
Long Range Implications: Few. The points battle could resume, though there are some cat-2 climbs close to the finish, so if you have a rouleur/sprinter type hanging around, today's a good day to drop his ass.
Pundits Say: September. Summer's over. [Shut up astronomers.] November approaches. Panic level rising... [Skip it.]
Stage 13: Bilbao -- Urdax-Dantxarinea, 213.4km
Friday, September 2
Plan of Attack: Easily my biggest complaint about this course, if I were part of the caravan, would be the utter failure to have one of the rest days in Bilbao. On the plus side, the race passes through San Sebastian, skirts the meaningless French/Spanish border, and ends up on the French side in a very unpronounceably Basque town of Urdax-Dantxarinea. Oh, and there's a surfing haven next to a geologic park that's been declared a UNESCO site because it's so goddam cool. The stage itself is a long, rolling transitional one, where the peloton will be forgiven for going at a sightseeing pace.
Long Range Implications: Zero. This has breakaway written all over it.
Pundits Say: The Friday of Labor Day weekend is as dead as it gets. Time for the mother of all news dumps. Workers at Hillary HQ are required to get in early to discuss exactly what emails went where, and to fend off an endorsement by Henry Kissinger. [Skip it.]
Stage 14: Urdax-Dantxarinea -- Aubisque-Gourette, 196km
Saturday, September 3
Plan of Attack: An ENTIRE STAGE IN THE FRENCH PYRENEES! A FINISH ON TOP OF THE COL D'AUBISQUE!!
This is a big-time stage, with four rated climbs -- three Cat-1s and the uncategorizable MTF. The home of "Vous etes des assassins!" And a climb that has been left out of the Tour de France for a few years (last appeared in 2012). The gradient is all over the map. This climb comes after 180km, three other Cols (including Marie-Blanc) and dishes out many forms of misery.
Long Range Implications: This is your queen stage, unless Stage 20 says otherwise. Anyone with designs on the overall win will have long ago circled this stage. And in a sense it's really ideal, using the more familiar Pyrenees to level the playing field a bit and allow for just an all-out war. Or a capitulation to Team Sky. Either way will be, um, notable.
Pundits Say: This is bigger than some stupid presidential campaign, even on a day when people aren't completely tuned out from reality. [Watch it.]
Stage 15: Sabiñanigo -- Sallent de Gallego, 118.5km
Sunday, September 4
Plan of Attack: Out of France, still in the Basque Pyrenees. Passing by volcanic chimneys and more natural wonders, and leading to a ski resort climb (re: not very challenging road) which I believe represents the highest point of the race. Good news for Colombians. Bad news for tired legs.
Long Range Implications: Three cols, each one harder than the last, so if anyone kept their powder dry through the previous few stages, then the battle might rage on. But trailing hopefuls still have a big day at the end, so desperation levels probably won't exceed exhaustion levels in order to make this a good stage.
Pundits Say: Labor Day Weekend at Trump HQ... Should be a time of rest. Should be a chance to unwind a bit. And check on the installation of the SpineMelter Massage Chairs in each of the regional HQ offices... [Watch it.]
Stage 16: Alcañiz -- Peñiscola, 156.4km
Monday, September 5
Plan of Attack: Weird scheduling choice, with the second-longest transfer, coming out of the mountains to a wholly different phase of the race in Valencia, and yet the rest day is after the stage, not before. Is this about the US holiday? Are we that big a part of the viewing audience? Or are other countries on holiday too? In any event, it's only 3-plus hours by team bus, so it's not the end of the world, and Peñiscola or Castellon sound like nice places to chill out afterward for 24 hours.
Long Range Implications: None whatsoever.
Pundits Say: I'm not even going to ask our campaign people. If they haven't powered down their phones for the day and replaced them with sunblock, a beach towel, and a jug of margaritas, then they have nobody to blame but themselves. [Skip it.]
Stage 17: Castellon -- Llucena, 177.5km
Wednesday, September 7
Plan of Attack: Oh, sat around all day yesterday? Well, here's what we have for your lazy ass today:
The Vuelta is a cruel, cruel race.
Long Range Implications: I mean... who does what here? Who likes these sorts of gradients anyway? I don't know, but if someone does, and they're trailing by a small enough margin, then surely it will all be in play again. This might represent the highest potential of this year's race for a bike toss.
Pundits Say: Tough one. Can you own one of the most important news cycles of the campaign -- right after Labor Day -- while still taking time to watch a bike race? Answer: yes. Just stop sleeping. It's pretty much how the next eight weeks will be going regardless. [Watch it.]
Stage 18: Requena -- Gandia, 200.6km
Thrusday, September 8
Plan of Attack: More volcanoes... more stunning beach scapes... can't take much more...
Long Range Implications: This is a downhill run to the coast, so yeah, no.
Pundits Say: Let's stop by the Clinton Campaign HQ one last time...
"Trump is worse than Putin"... no wait, Stalin? Too much with the Russian connection, we still have to work with them starting in January. "Trump is worse than Mussolini"? Hm, I dunno, do people really know anything about Mussolini? Kids might confuse the reference with food. "Trump is worse than the Kardashians!" Ooh, that could resonate with millennials! Although, I dunno, young men might get lost in porn and forget the message. Damn, this is hard.
Stage 19: Xabia -- Galp ITT, 37km
Friday, September 9
Plan of Attack: Wow, a long, relatively flat, one-way ITT riding up against the Mediterranean coastline. Why am I always surprised that the Vuelta has real time trials? The last one of this magnitude was just a year ago. Without looking I'm pretty sure my assessment of it was "OMG the Vuelta is doing a real time trial!" It's not you, Vuelta. It's me.
Long Range Implications: Yuuuge. Last year actual cronoman Tom Dumoulin used the Burgos ITT to crush the dreams of guys like Frank Schleck, Joaquim Rodriguez, and Fabio Aru... or so it seemed. This year's top cronoman is also probably its best climber, or one of them, so the result may not come out in the wash like it did in 2015.
Pundits Say: The first Friday after Labor Day is a nice time to remember that it's actually still summer. Sure, there's work to do, but the Labor Day-is-over rush is also over. [Watch it.]
Stage 20: Benidorm -- Alto Aitana, 193.2km
Saturday, September 10
Plan of Attack: The "Other Queen Stage," or the "Last Chance Corral." Also known by half the peloton as "my winter training roads," starting in popular Benidorm and winding around the verdant coastal hills while waiting for the rest of Europe to thaw. Except today it will be a bit more on the "melting" side of things. Almost as hot as the action itself.
Long Range Implications: Is the race already decided? No? Well then, get decidin'.
Pundits Say: No job is worth keeping over this stage, but let's double back to the Trump campaign for one last word.
Another Saturday. September 11 coming. Gotta win the news cycle. Twitter time... Ah crap! blocked again... please tell me it's not the candidate... please tell me it's not the candidate...
Spain: your cured meats are nothing compared to a TrumpHam. Sad!
Stage 21: Las Rozas -- Madrid, 104.1km
Sunday, September 11
Plan of Attack: Oh IIIIIIII.... hate a paraaaaaade....
Long Range Implications: What do the riders drink while sauntering into Madrid? Please say sangria...
Pundits Say: September 11 is a day of remembrance. If the candidates can agree on anything, this is probably it. [Skip it.]