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Vuelta Route: Is this Still the Vuelta?

Vuelta 19 Route Jose Jordan, AFP/Getty Images

You learn, when writing about cycling for a reasonable amount of time, that certain ideas which seemed great when you had them were not, in fact, the flashes of genius that they appeared. For example, doing a stage-by-stage preview of the Vuelta in December probably, in hindsight, was not the most riveting read on any of the numerous occasions on which I wrote it. However, in segue news, it probably was not as torturous as Vueltas in recent years. They’ve been pretty formulaic in their difficulty, with a few ingredients to going Full Vuelta:

Eight million uphill sprints
Even more proper mountain-top finishes, at least one of which has a finishing ramp which is practically vertical
The occasional extra-boring flat stage
An ITT with a sneaky cat. 2 climb
Inexplicable TTT

It’s become a cliché that the Vuelta has the hardest route, with TOUGH climbs, EVERY DAY and THE WORST BUNCH SPRINTS in pro cycling, but maybe that’s changing. Let’s have a look. At a glance, there are ten stages which will be decided by climbing in one form or another, whether that’s a sharp climb at the end or a proper mountain stage. These can be split into six standard mountain stages, two stages with a flatter leadup to a final main climb, one uphill sprint and one hilly affair with a downhill finish. This is...different. A few years ago I did a few consecutive stage previews early on in the Vuelta and came across stage after stage which had very few things distinguishing them from each other — they were all reasonably flat stages with an uphill kick to finish. As well as that, take the 2013 Vuelta, a harder race whose climbing stages were split into five real mountain stages, three stages leading up to a final climb, three uphill sprints and no stages finishing downhill. My description of this year’s climbing stages doesn’t evoke thoughts of the Vuelta so much as it does the other Grand Tours, and the Tour especially. Is it getting more mainstream?

ASO are, of course, in charge of the Vuelta, taking full control of the race in 2014 and without saying that it’s the same people designing the races, it’s not hard to believe that the inspiration to bring one race in one (metaphorical) direction could have an impact on the other. Whether this movement is a good or bad thing can be a matter of debate — I’m personally glad to see a dropoff in stages that focus on one final climb, which to me should be allowable under one circumstance: that the final climb is Mont Ventoux. Otherwise there is no excuse. The lack of uphill sprints in this Vuelta is something I do notice, before inspecting the announced route I could have been led to call them a hallmark of the Spanish race. That there will be only one this year is, I think, a shame, especially when they’ll be replaced with normal flat stages, of which there are between six and nine — three are a bit ambiguous in terms of difficulty, while still not able to be classified ‘hilly.’

Quintana and Froome Jose Jordan AFP

On a less macro level, the stages that appeal to me include stage nine, a short (at ninety-seven kilometres) but epically tough three hours in the saddle. Three Pyrenean climbs will be taken in on a stage that will sort out the race earlier than it is normally sorted out — to me, there are usually several hangers-on by this point, the Vuelta usually only gets down to business on the second weekend when (surprise!) it hits Lagos de Covadonga again. Thankfully it’s skipped this year.

Stage nine comes at the end of an opening week containing two more climbing tests, on the painfully steep Mas de la Costa where Mathias Frank was successful a couple of years ago. I think the Vuelta organisers went on a steep-path-search (a job which Will must have declined) about three years ago and is repeating the use of what they found. Mas de la Costa was new in 2016 and it’s back again. Los Machucos was new in 2017 and here it is for the second time. I have no issue with the use of these roads, Machucos especially should make for an exciting finale. Stage nine on Cortals d’Encamp, however, I prefer for the reason that it leaves more scope for attacking from far out, something which commentators including myself will laud right up until there are five kilometres to go in the stage, at which point it will see its first attack. Still, we can dream.

Stage fifteen (on that second weekend, remember) also looks like a good one to me. There’s a long, flat leadup to the final climb, so realistically this will be a last-climb shootout but it’s a decent climb for a shootout, at nine kilometres in length at over eight per cent. The stage is under one hundred and sixty kilometres in length, which is short in general but pretty average for this particular race, in which no stage breaks two hundred kilometres. Given that the following is an acceptable conversation:
“How long is a bike race?”
“About two hundred kilometres.”
This is definitely a diversion from the norm but one that has been coming. Stage distances have been going down, especially with the Vuelta, and the move to sub-one hundred kilometre mountain stages happened quite fast: only a few years ago, one hundred and twenty-five kilometres was shockingly short when stage seventeen of the 2014 Tour was arranged.

Other points of note: The final stage is something which will be referred to as “ambush country, finishing as it does on a third category climb and dealing with a mix of first-category climbs and lumpy roads. It could be a parade to the finish or it could be an intriguing battle — we shall see. The race starts once again with a team time-trial, having taken a break this year from the format of first stage that has been used since 2010. The race will end with the standard stroll through Madrid. The point of this stage, given that any decent sprinters will have long flown the coop, is something I’d like to pointlessly argue, but now is not the time. What else...oh, one of the deciding factors of the race will be the thirty-six kilometre individual time-trial, on flat ground at the opening of the second week. Personally I’d like a hill to change up the skill-set a little — TT specialists will get an awful lot of change out of this at the detriment of climbers — the people this race is about.

Or the people this race used to be about.