The 2017 season enters its final phase — happy Binckbank Tour, formerly I Can’t Believe It’s a Stage Race, week! But really, I mean the part where everyone starts jockeying for position for next year’s Tour de France. Yep, it’s the Vuelta a España, a race we continually underestimate and then declare it the grand tour of the year.
For the Viewers’ Guide, I am going to try something a bit different. Normally I test the value of each stage against a choice of sacrificing something in your life to watch it — work, the wellbeing of your family, trivial stuff. I’ve used that a lot, and will perhaps return to it next spring when it’s time to get ready for the Jerusalem Giro, but for now my focus is wandering a bit and OMIGOD A SQUIRREL!!! Where was I?
Oh yes, the Vuelta. You see, compared to the other grand tours, the Vuelta is a parade of natural wonder. On some level all grand tours have the same design, touring the host nation and putting on a bike race that’s varied enough to declare a winner, and then having a good time along the way. But when you drill down into the finer details of how stages are constructed, the differences in character emerge. The Giro d’Italia, for starters, runs each stage like it’s a dash to the next exquisite Italian village with a great restaurant, not necessarily in that order. The Tour de France, while lovely and not lacking in food, feels like it’s racing from one pile of money to another. [And that’s not a diss; everyone knows that the Tour pays the sport’s bills. It’s like that vacation house you think you should buy because if you can just rent it out for July and August, then it’s basically free.]
The Vuelta, on the other hand, is pretty much a run from one national park to another. This seems to be a recent thing; I’ve been watching the Vuelta for about as long as it was possible to do so in America, and have only recently woken up to the fact that Spain is an almost unbroken succession of stunning national parks. It’s like finding a lake in Minnesota, you don’t even need to take off your blindfold to manage it. But there you have it, and nowadays the Vuelta is defined by the beauty of these parks, and even some non-park awesomeness.
Given that, the question that I would like to pose for each stage is simple: is this a real stage, or is Spain just showing off again? I think this will work pretty well. Let’s dive in.
Stage 1: Nîmes TTT, 13.7km
Saturday, August 19
What’s It About? Pinning the maillot rojo on someone, and scooping up some of those hot, hot French francs.
[Updates understanding of the world]
OK, Euros. Anyway, they have to start somewhere, and roaming away from Spain seems like part of the plan going forward for the opening stages. Scoring an old French town with a bullring is as good a place as any. The stage itself is a team crono, which is sort of good entertainment over a short course.
Who Does It Favor? Sky. Can we just stipulate to that now? I sort of think the whole plan is a trap, because Sky can’t help but start the Vuelta winning the TTT, then taking control of the peloton... only to discover that the race is going to wander around Andalucia for most of two weeks, in August, where no kit color change will spare them from melting into the tarmac. Fools, I tell you. FOOLS!
Real or Just Showing Off? Sort of neither, unless you think going by a bullring in France is showing off Spain.
Stage 2: Nîmes - Gruissan
. Grande Narbonne, 203km
Sunday, August 20
What’s It About? Flat transitional stage dashing in the direction of Spain. Barely a bump in the road. But it’s also our first stage ending in a national park (albeit a French one) and the start of an almost unending run of stage finishes to which the Vuelta has given like five names. Officially the finish town is “Gruissan. Grande Narbonne. Aude”. Why are there periods in the middle of all these names? Usually a period is a hint that you can stop speaking, and I think that’s exactly what’s called for here. The stage is to Gruissan, and if you want to find out what else there is in Gruissan, you should look somewhere besides the Vuelta stage list.
Who Does It Favor? Sprinters. Which sprinters, you wonder? [Insert diabolical laugher] The sprint crew... of the damned!
Real or Just Showing Off? Showing off. Anything that ends in a national park (or linguistic variant thereof) gets a presumption of showoffiness. With a mere sprint in store by the beach, I think this is a safe call.
Stage 3: Prades Conflent Canigo - Andorra La Vella, 158km
Monday, August 21
What’s It About? A little early fun in the mountains of Andorra... but not too much fun, since it’s stage 3 and also Monday. The stage contains two cat-1 climbs and a cat-2 at the end, before a descent to the finish.
Who Does It Favor? Everyone. Nobody is starting this Vuelta without the ability to climb. This is why we call ENECO the fourth grand tour: because the Vuelta is really only accessible to the climbers, and everyone else needs a separate three-week event to stay loose for Worlds.
Real or Just Showing Off? Hm, real I think. Hardly a legendary stage, but if you’re in the Pyrenées, it’s serious.
Stage 4: Escaldes Engordany - Taragona, 198km
Tuesday, August 22
What’s It About? A downhill run to the sea. Definitely kicking the competitive can down the road today.
Who Does It Favor? Sprinters, again.
Real or Just Showing Off? Showing off. The sea is one hint, as is the UNESCO World Heritage designation of the Roman amphitheater in town. Another hint is that the stage has a total of five names, including mention of the Mediterranean Games, an Olympics for people who nap from noon to 3.
Stage 5: Benicassim - Alcossebre, 175km
Wednesday, August 23
What’s It About? Gorgeous Valencian beaches at the beginning and end... but with a rough inland section and a distinct (if manageable) uphill finish. The final 3.4km are on an incline of some 4%, which is more of a slow-moving sprint I guess? Honestly, I can’t remember the last time they bothered to put a finishing climb to the line... on a long ascent... that isn’t actually steep. When have we ever seen this?
Who Does It Favor? Well, Valverde could almost win this on one knee, but I don’t think he’ll be allowed to. So climby guys with a good finishing kick. And the race is thick with that sort of rider.
Real or Just Showing Off? I’ll say showing off. The race finishes somewhere close or in the Serra d’Irta National Park, featuring a small mountain range, and the incredible shoreline will get plenty of attention. The case for it being a real stage comes down to a 4% incline. In week one. So yeah, no.
Stage 6: Vila-real — Sagunt, 204km
Thursday, August 24
What’s It About? Messing around on small climbs, between starting and finishing by the beach. It’s really your typical vacation day: set out to do something, but not before and after a good swim.
Who Does It Favor? Just the stage hunters. The last climb is nothing too tough, and is 35km from the line.
Real or Just Showing Off? Debatable. There are more Roman ruins in Sagunt, which is the modern day version of the Saguntum settlement. What have the Romans really done for us? Something like half the stage is in a national park. I’ll go with showing off, but less exciting, transitional showing off.
Stage 7: Lliria - Cuenca, 207km
Friday, August 25
What’s It About? Fleeing the Romans. Lliria is yet another Roman settlement but Cuenca, an inland, elevated regional capital in La Mancha with a big castle, is not. So enjoy your break from Romanism.
Who Does It Favor? Whoever bothers to race it. Hilariously, the sprint point is on top of a small, steep climb, 14km from the line.
Real or Just Showing Off? Oh, this is real. No great frills (by Spanish standards anyway) and a long, 207km transitional roller, that as Vuelta as it gets.
Stage 8: Hellin — Xorret de Cati, 199km
Saturday, August 26
What’s It About? A mellow ride to a brutal finish that’s been inserted to liven up the overall competition. The final climb, which summits 2km from the finish, is ridiculous, if familiar.
It’s billed as 5km at 9%, but some 420 meters of the total 450 ascended happens in the last 3.5km, so the real number is more like 12% average, with ramps of up to 22%. So that should be fun.
Who Does It Favor? Us! And whoever is climbing well at the end of week one.
Real or Just Showing Off? Both. Xorret de Cati has some sort of castle, surrounded by a national park. But at the same time the stage has been run five times before (last one in 2010) and is clearly there to start sorting out the general classification.
Stage 9: Orihuela - Cumbre del Sol, 174km
Sunday, August 27
What’s It About? Coastal romp, endless coastline, and a kicker at the end. Wait, didn’t we just do this? It’s another 4km finish at over 10% with ramps over 20%. These gimmicky stages are fun, I guess, but I can’t recall two identical ones like this before.
Who Does It Favor? All the same people as the previous day. Double your pleasure, Stevie Chaves!
Real or Just Showing Off? Considering the previous day, doing it again is pure indulgent showoffiness. Add in the beaches, the endless succession of names, and the official race warning that “the Levante coast will be the star” means that we are approaching maximum audience exploitation.
Stage 10: Caravaca Año Jubilar 2017 - El Pozo Alimentacion, 164km
Tuesday, August 29
What’s It About? Transitional stage, dripping with Spanish culture. The start city of Caravaca is part of the holy city Top Five, and apparently is permitted by the Vatican to celebrate itself every seven years, which it did seven years ago with... tadaa! A Vuelta stage. Book your hotels for 2024 now. The finish... eh, that’s another story
Who Does It Favor? Hm, well there is the matter of a cat-1 climb that summits 20km from the end, but with the race populated almost entirely by climbers and the race with plenty of time left to bide, I wouldn’t expect any separation here apart from a breakaway of non-contenders.
Real or Just Showing Off? Showing off, if you show up early. With little expected in the way of big moves, it’s hard to put this down as a real stage. But the showing off part gets decidedly weird when the stage ends at a food factory, a nod to a big sponsor, on an N-route in the suburbs outside Murcia. I guess bills have to be paid?
Stage 11: Lorca - Observatorio Astronomico de Calar Alto, 187km
Wednesday, August 30
What’s It About? Possibly the first mega-stage of the race. The Vuelta has been here before, last time in 2006. Some 50 of the last 67km are uphill, including the one-two finishing punch of the Alto de Velefique and the Calar Alto ascent, both cat-1s. The former is a beast, 13km at a steady 8.6% with a brutal bottom half in mostly double digits. The observatory route is a bit less dramatic, but kicks up enough at the end to guarantee at least something interesting will happen.
Who Does It Favor? GC contenders, especially the ones with strong teams, unless they’ve wasted themselves defending the dumb jersey throughout week 1.
Real or Just Showing Off? Oh, so very real.
Stage 12: Motril - Antequera, 160km
Thursday, August 31
What’s It About? Transitional annoyance with a whiff of climbing. And stopping by Pablo’s house.
Who Does It Favor? Anyone who isn’t bothered by formal team roles and hot, hot sun. Also Pablo.
Real or Just Showing Off? Coastline, UNESCO World Heritage site (a 4000 year old something something) and a couple national parks? Showing off.
Stage 13: Coín - Tomares, 198km
Friday, September 1
What’s It About? Transitional stage heading inland from Coín, but not over anything too challenging. The finish in Tomares is not far from Sevilla. But far enough to prevent me from getting interested in the area.
Who Does It Favor? Sprinters, such as they are.
Real or Just Showing Off? Hm, I’ve gotten this far without discussion the geodiversity angle the Vuelta website offers for each stage. Well, they do that, and it’s incredibly impressive on top of all the other things to love about this route. Today’s note of interest is that the race passes by a diamond mine. But that alone doesn’t quite put it into “showing off” terrain.
Stage 14: Écija - Alto Sierra de la Pandera, 175km
Saturday, September 2
What’s It About? A lot of things. Hot weather... national parks... sinkholes (not on the course)... and an uncategorizable MTF.
Who Does It Favor? The mentally strong. The finish line atop the Sierra de la Pandera will welcome the zombie-eyed peloton after a long, probably hot day and a climb that constantly yo-yo’s between refreshingly mellow and leg-snappingly steep:
On the other hand, Damiano Cunego won a stage here once, so it might not be too terrifying.
Real or Just Showing Off? So real. Maybe showing off a bit too, as Écija sounds like a lovely city full of church towers, but it’s also known as the Frying Pan for its soaring temperatures, and that’s with 175km to go including a potentially dramatic, GC-altering finish.
Stage 15: Alcala La Real - Sierra Nevada, 129km
Sunday, September 3
What’s It About? No more Mr. Nice Vuelta. If the previous day was a test, this one could get downright ugly. Only 129km, sure, but something like 45km of that is spent going uphill. The final climb up to (catches breath) Sierra Nevada.(!) Alto Hoya de la Mora isn’t such a big deal, but the first climb of the day, the Alto Hazallanas, will be the worst thing that’s happened to anyone at this race. Purportedly 16.5km at a gentle 5.5%, this HC climb scoffs at statistics:
Oh. My. God. All told, the last 7km average 10%, with numerous places where it hits numbers like 16, 18 and 22%. That’s just gross. The last 35km is comprised of two climbs, but it’s basically uphill all the way.
Who Does It Favor? No mere mortal.
Real or Just Showing Off? Real stage... with a twist. The precious, endless name is a hint that this might be in a national park (it is), but otherwise this is serious business. But it could have been oh so much more. This is a Will J special, or almost. Basically, the climb to Alto Hoya de la Mora stops at 2550 meters, but if one were to keep going they could ascend the Pico de la Veleta, the highest road in all of Europe, at roughly 3300 meters. Sure, it ceases to be paved and apparently is not even slightly suitable to a giant bike race, with so many people and large vehicles. So I’m not saying they are missing out. But it definitely would have constituted showing off if they went up there, and you have to give them a bit of credit for even raising the subject with the climb they are planning to do.
Stage 16: Logroño ITT, 40.2km
Tuesday, September 5
What’s It About? Major scene change to La Rioja, up north, for a long-ish time trial where the GC will probably experience a significant reshuffling. Logroño has hosted plenty of stages, usually sprints, and apart from a few short ramps this is a long, straight, flat ITT. If you already thought time trials were boring, you really should avert your eyes from this one.
Who Does It Favor? Chris bloody Froome.
Real or Just Showing Off? Real, and definitely not showing off. The pure climbing wildebeests will have feasted on this course long enough, it’s time for the lion to move in and gorge on what’s left. [Actually, this is a tad anticlimactic for the lions, but we’ll get to that.]
Stage 17: Villadiego - Los Machucos/Monumento Vaca Pasiega, 180km
Wednesday, September 6
What’s It About? Stabbing north into Cantabria, home of the brutal Picas de Europa, with yet another MTF on an HC climb. The monument itself is a life-size carving of a cow on top of... no, just watch this.
I love this so much, including the whipping wind, signifying that this is no punter’s affair. The Alto de los Machucos is so steep, if I were a DS I’d keep this information from my team until after the stage. 25%!!!
Who Does It Favor? Take a wild guess.
Real or Just Showing Off? Both, oh yes both. For pure entertainment it can’t hardly get any better.
Stage 18: Suances - Santo Toribio de Liébana, 169km
Thursday, September 7
What’s It About? A few climbs to stay loose, but only after a run along the Cantabrian coast before zig-zagging inland.
Who Does It Favor? Anyone with time on their hands.
Real or Just Showing Off? Showing off. Suances looks dreamy, and in Santo Toribo you can come face to face with a hunk of wood from Jesus’ cross. Which, I might add, is not exactly the thing he wants people to remember him by, I am guessing, but still a nice get.
Stage 19: Caso Parque Natural de Redes - Gijon, 149km
Friday, September 8
What’s It About? Lumpy downhill transitional stage starting in a national park (yawn) and ending in the capital of Asturias, whose shoreline along the Cantabrian Sea is... you guessed it... a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Who Does It Favor? Climbers who can sprint. Probably a bit too much up and down over a cat-1 and three cat-3s for the true fastmen, who never set foot in Spain to begin with.
Real or Just Showing Off? [Sigh] We get it, Spain. Knock it off.
Stage 20: Corvera de Asturias - Alto de l’Angliru, 117km
Saturday, September 9
What’s It About? Knocking it off, and kicking everyone’s ass. It’s a short stage, to limit the time spent in pure dread, as the peloton eventually has to go up the Alto de l’Angliru, sometimes considered the hardest climb in proper professional cycling. If you even make it into that argument, you are a miserable bastard of a climb.
Oh, and there are a couple earlier climbs totaling 15km of occasionally miserable steepness. The Picos de Europa don’t know mercy.
Who Does It Favor? The last man standing.
Real or Just Showing Off? OMG so real. So painfully real.
Stage 21: Arroyomolinos - Madrid, 117km
Sunday, September 10
What’s It About? A parade, a coronation, and a chance to free the remaining riders from their terrible bondage.
Who Does It Favor? Sprinters... Yeah I know.
Real or Just Showing Off? Showing off. Nobody has anything in the tank here. And it’s a great way to cap off a quite grand tour of all the endless loveliness Spain has to offer.