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Splashin’ Around Spain: My Five (OK Six) Best Stages

Plus a few other pretty meaningful (ahem) observations

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe
UIG via Getty Images

The Vuelta a España is (in my mind) locked in a perpetual struggle for Grand Tour supremacy, or at least it should be. And if you are going to win a battle, where do you go? To the press.

Yes, the Fourth Estate has settled many an argument in the cycling world, and the good folks at the Vuelta would no doubt like them on their side this late-summer. So how do you do that? By dropping them off in a dusty hill town under a blazing Spanish sun? No, you end at the beach, or if you can’t end there, at least start by one and set up a nice press center so everyone winds up swimming in the sea once their stories are filed.

And so we have it: the Maritime Vuelta.

2018 Vuelta Map

Look at that. No fewer than eleven stages that start or end by the coast, and a twelfth one that can’t be more than a half-hour’s drive. If you’re covering this race in person you need three things: a good start list, a food guide, and your swim trunks. Probably a few other things too, but that makes for a much less dramatic phrasing. Though since you asked, clothes, laptop, phone, charger, any medications... stuff like that.

But I digress! The point is that every year the Vuelta has done a good job of organizing stage characteristics around some common threads. For the last few years it’s been geology, or maybe the Spanish national parks system. This year, for sure, it’s water. [Next year my money is on animals. Or fire.]

I’ll get to my favorite stages in a moment, but another way to make general statements about the course is to talk about the regions of Spain that will meet the race. But I’m not doing that. I’m looking at the regions that got snubbed. Spain has 17 regions, and the race swings by 13 of them. So it’s a lot faster to talk about the ones they blow off.

Extremadura... I get it. It’s hot and there’s no sense spending all this money on a race if half the people attending are Portuguese. I’m sure it’s super awesome with amazing food and parks and all that, but it’s going to be 100 degrees over the weekend in the regional capital Merida. That’s too hot. Also cycling is difficult enough without going somewhere whose name sounds like something from the X Games.

Valencia... Probably the region of Spain that’s most defined by its coastal areas. Yep, no reason to include that in the race defined by water.

Iles Baleares... oh wait! Here’s a region that’s literally nothing but coastline! Let’s not go there.

Canary Islands ... Yeah, there too.

OK, my five stages you shouldn’t miss are:

Faro de Roquetas de Mar
Aquaria NR via Wikipedia (creative commons)

Stage 5: Granada — Roquetas de Mar, 188km

The Vuelta starts in Málaga, which if I knew anything I’d wager is one of the most pleasant cities on the planet. The stages around there will be very pleasant with loads of time riding the Spanish equivalent of the lungomare (“along the sea”). But Stage 5 is where it all starts happening. The flag drops in Granada, which is 90% UNESCO stuff, too cool for words, and ends at the resort town of Roquetas de Mar, a lovely spot in Almería (cue the Pogues).

Sporting Value: Major potential for mischief. The GC guys won’t have been up to very much prior to today, and while the cat-2 Alto El Marchal won’t break anyone’s spirit, the descent to the sea might see some nerves shaken. If only there were a clever, opportunistic rider with great descending skills on hand...

Vuelta stage 5

Swimming Potential: Mediterranean finish. One of several, and not the last (stage 6 is decidedly beachy) but this is quality stuff.

Stage 11: Mombuey — Ribeira Sacra-Luintra, 208km

Sporting Value: Definitely a breakaway stage, with big climbs looming on the horizon (literally). But by stage 11 the breakaway group could get pretty interesting, not just bedraggled domestiques, so this could be fun.

Swimming Potential: The Sacred River! Indeed it is, because it gets pretty dry in upper Galicia. Mountain streams are almost always colder than they look, which sounds like a perfect way to end a long day in the saddle.

Punta de Estaca de Bares
Cover/Getty Images

Stage 12: Mondoñedo — Estaca de Bares, 181km

At long last the Vuelta reaches the northern coast of Spain, which it will trace from Galicia to Euskadi as the race is decided. The destination is the Stake Point, the northern-most tip of the Iberian Peninsula, where the waters of the Atlantic meet the Bay of Biscay. Apart from a small tidal rip I’m not sure how much of a difference that makes. But it looks incredible.

Sporting Value: Last of the sprint stages for a while, probably, although I’m not sure I’d bet my life on it. Coastal headlands are always a bit tricky and there’s a bit of up and down, but things appear to settle down for the final km.

Swimming Potential: Someday I want to swim the entire length of Galicia. I probably won’t do that, actually, but the ugliest photo I’ve ever seen of the region is on par with the nicest beaches in Washington State. Well, Oregon anyway. Definitely better than Oregon.

Stage 14: Cistierna — Les Praeres, 171km

OMG... yes the shit will have gotten all too real on Stage 13, where the climb to La Camperona is too fearsome to even discuss. So let us never speak of it again. Instead, we turn to the next day, which begins in a water pot and ends on another horrible ascent.

Sporting Value: I mean, this is how you’re expected to recover from La Camperona?

Vuelta Stage 14

Les Praeres is a relaxing 4km averaging over 12% and only because the top levels off a bit. It’s mostly in the 15-17%. And the earlier climbs are no picnic either.

Swimming Potential: Projecting a bit here, but Cistierna means “cistern,” and the village dates back to Roman times. The Romans had their pros and cons, but they definitely knew how to find and get in some water. Naming the place after a water jug surely suggests some kind of important relationship there. Also we are high up in the hills, meaning groundwater, possibly very cold groundwater. Yay!

Lago Bianco Will J

Stage 15: Ribera de Arriba — Lagos de Covadonga, 208km

A Vuelta classic and a truly decisive stage... with a gorgeous pair of mountain lakes to top it off.

Sporting Value: Climbbybike likens the Lagos de Covadonga climb to Alpe d’Huez. If Will were here (and I’m baiting him by using his photo) he would probably say that it’s not nearly as overrated and miserable as the Alpe in terms of annoying human traffic. It’s Alpe d’Huez’ secretly much lovelier Spanish partner. Unless you have to ride up it, in which case it’s a monster from hell.

Lagos de Covadonga

Swimming Potential: Again, baiting Will here, who almost certainly has swum in these lakes. They probably aren’t terribly cold by late August, especially to a Canadian. While I may never crawl along the entire coast of Galicia, I expect to dunk myself in one or both of these before too long.

Balconia Bizkaia
UIG via Getty Images

Stage 17: Getxo — Balconia Bizkaia, 157km

Last glimpses of the sea before the inland finale. And what a glimpse it is. We start in coastal Getxo, a regional town in Bilbao, and finish on a steep climb (what else?), with a tour of the Bay of Biscay from as dramatic a headland as you’ll find. Not sure you can ride on that little pathway in the photo, let alone run the whole peloton there, but that’s what we’ll see along the way. This is probably my favorite stage of the entire Vuelta.

Sporting Value: CrAzY exciting, with five low-altitude rated climbs leading to this:

For the love of God...

Swimming Potential: Arches! Cliff diving! (You go first) Whatever, it just looks so amazing. The Vuelta never fails to stun us with its beauty and excitement and this stage will ram that point home for good.