Vuelta a España Route Preview
Updated: Aug 24, 2019
The race starts off with a short team time-trial in the Costa Calida, Murcia for those unfamiliar. It's a fairly short effort, brute power will be the most important thing between the teams here as the riders come in very fresh and the stints given will be small. The first gaps between the favourites will be seen here but likely unsignificant seconds will be gained/lost, most excitingly the fight for who gets the first lead of the race and what rider gets to use that red jersey as the real race begins.
This is what you don't see in the other Grand Tours, this is what makes the Vuelta unique. Despite being very late in the season, the route forces the riders to enter the race sharp already. Stage 2 is not short of traps, over 3200 meters of climbing in the classic roller-coaster Spanish roads, the rompe-piernas - you'll hear me say this a LOT throughout these weeks - which add up to such a dificult stage already. The begining sees quite a hard combination of climbs, with the Puerto de Confrides and the Alto de Benilloba set to be the ground where the riders will be looking to get themselves in front of the race in a stage that is quite favourable for a breakaway. With the gaps very short it's another reason why the motivation will be high in the peloton as getting to the race lead is a realistic outcome.
The highlight of the day comes with 25.5Km to the finish with the Puig Llorenca, a brutal climb, where in the last few years riders like Dumoulin and Froome have won. Although it won't be climbed until it's very summit, it features some nasty brutal ramps, it's a climb in steps all the way to it's summit and it can be attacked, but at the very least it will shed the peloton even if at pace, and will leave big marks and see what riders are ready from the start and who may be in a lesser level, despite being very early on.
From there on there's a some descending generally but with some stretches of uphill road back to Calpe which should be very familiar to the riders who know Calpe as the main pre-season training camp destination.
Stage 3 will deliver the first bunch sprint if it all goes well. It isn't as simple as that though, the breakaway must at all times be controlled as there is quite a general descent after the Alto de Tibi.
The climb itself isn't very hard, it isn't easy though and in case some team wants to really put the hammer down there can be some damage done there, but I think the sprinter teams will take it easy during the climb, make the effort before it so at the summit the gap is short to be able to reel them back in.
As from the summit there are 38 kilometers to go and the altitude will descend over 700 meters, which is a danger if there's a big gap to reel in, specially if there are powerful riders in front. Everything must be kept under control.
As the finish is also fairly pan-flat, in the Alicante sea shrore the fast men will come to the front.
Stage 4 should be another fast one, to the satisfaction of many. It will be raced around the roads of Valencia and it's one of the flattest stages of the whole race. Most of the stage is actually flat which isn't as normal in the usually rugged roads, there will be a bump in the road with a bit over 40 kilometers to go with the Puerto del Oronet which is around 5Km at 5%, it's a rollable climb and shouldn't have an influence on the outcome.
The finish will again be by the sea, not on the shore as yesterday though, but will be a pure sprint for the sprinters, again likely.
Stage 5 though sees the race turn around on it's head quite soon. Not only do the hard stages come early, the summit finishes do too and in this stage, finishing on the Javalambre observatory after a hard day in the hills of the Comunidad Valenciana. It's just a hard day, starts off by the sea and despite not having any real climb before the summit finish there's also very little actual flat terrain, there's just a constant up-and-down at around 1000 meters of altitude until the base of the final climb.
And that one, the Javalambre is not only a very hard for an opening week, it's hard in any context. 11Km at 8%, the final 5Km average almost 11%. This is the first crucial moment of the race, the gaps may have appeared beforehand but in such a climb there is nowhere to hide, it's a genuine hard climb where the GC contenders will unveil themselves and we will have a good view of who will be in the fight for the win, which teams will have the strongest depth and support and which riders won't be in the fight, and at what form everyone really is.
Stage 6 is one of the Vuelta's classic hilltop finishes. The finish exactly in Maestrat not as classic, but this type of stage is familiar and caracterizes the race quite well, where explosive finishes and bonus seconds are an important part of the race. It's one suited for the breakaway, not only as it comes after a vital day, but in this day the GC will be more established, there won't be as many nerves in the peloton and they face a finish that isn't set to create big gaps, so the GC riders will be looking to spare their teams for the more important stages in the future.
May be a crucial period of the day. The breakaway will likely set itself on this opening climb and it's not easy at all, the climbing outsiders and opportunists have a favourable opportunity to attack and to make sure it's a group of strong riders in front, not just anyone.
With 30Km to go they go through the Puerto de Culla, a rolling climb but one that will see damage in the peloton and likely some attacks in front, there's a lot of rolling parts so the heavier riders will be looking to take advantage of those and the following descent to build a buffer for the final climb.
And the summit finish in the ravine-side village of Ares del Maestrat, it's a rolling climb, doesn't particularly fit anyone as the gradients aren't high but it's still a somewhat long effort, and there will be a big effort into the final kilometer for a draining uphill sprint in case there aren't serious attacks lower in the lower slopes of the climb.
Stage 7 is the culmination of a trio of summit finishes in the brutal Mas de la Costa climb, and it's a very hard stage overall with plenty of climbs in the 183 kilometers that make up for the stage. There are a lot of rolling climbs and the outcome may be similar as in some years ago when Alexey Lutsenko won, where the decisive moves were made far from the finish.
The Puerto del Salto del Caballo may very well be a decisive place, the attacks may come here or on the sharp roads that come after it, but the pure climbers may be distanced in such roads in front, and in the peloton there may be a big pace setting in these climbs if someone is looking to set up their leader.
And the summit finish in Mas de la Costa, ridden in 2016 and 2017 it's a climb for over 15 minutes, a brutally steep concrete climb mostly with no restbite virtually. There are several sections at almost 20% including the final meters and it is definetely a climb where positioning means everything at the bottom of the ascent and then it's all about pacing yourself, not a climb where you'd wanna blow up early on.
Stage 8 is one set for a breakaway, ideal profile for it. In Catalunya this one, starting in a very known city to the Valls which is regularly a finish in the region's premier stage-race. The day is fairly rolling, bot too many dificulties present which should mean it should be a quite relaxed day in the peloton as long as nobody moves on the climb or no-one important finds himself in the breakaway.
The vital part of the stage is the Puerto de Montserrat, a hard climb summiting with 27.5Km to the finish, it's a very constant 7% for most of the climb and offers a big opportunity for the climbers to take hold of the stage, as for the others it's about keeping the gaps closeby and trying to close in on the run-in to the line.
As it's clear from there on there's a bit of a plateau before a somewhat technical descent into Igualada and a straightforwards section leading into the final kilometers.
Stage 9 is the race's first incursion into the outside of Spain, it's also the big finale of the first week. It's the shortest stage of the race ignoring the time-trials but curiously it may just be the hardest. Well, maybe not, but it's definetely the one that has the dificulty most compact throughout the day.
The day starts of with a slight uphill from Andorra La Vella into the foot of the Coll d'Ordino, it's a very hard start and everyone will be on the rollers before the start, it's set to be a very explosive and fatiguing start to an equally hard stage. The descent is quite steep and it completes a loop that sees the riders pass by the starting place again after 35Km.
After Santa Julià de Loria de vicious climb to the Collada de la Gallina via it's hardest side, it's one of the hardest climbs of the race and it's summit comes with 38Km to go, it's a great launch pad for attacks even from the GC as it antecipates an extremely technical descent back into the valley. If the weather happens to be horrible as it isn't unusual even at this time of year it will be a very tense and dangerous period of the race, and taking the risks can mean the biggest of gains or the biggest of losses.
And then follow the trio of final climbs, we could call them all a single climb with several restbites but they are all categorized, the first one is the Comella which is one of the most used climbs in the region, quite short but explosive in relation to the others, summits with 17.7Km to go.
The second one is the Engolasters, the climb is what's on the image excluding those 2 opening kilometers, it's another quite steep and explosive climb and the summit comes with 12.7Km to go, and after comes a gravel sector that leads all the way to the base of the final climb.
That one is the Cortals d'Encamp, as it won't be climbed via it's traditional side it may be a shock to the system but the final kilometers of it will be this stage's final kilometers aswell. It's another climb that's fairly short but steep, like the previous ones and the ramp get really brutal in the begining. At this point everyone will be very fatigued but it's all a question of getting to the line and making it over a brutal opening week of racing, culminating in the Andorran mountains.
The second week starts with a time-trial the race's sole individual effort and it takes place in Pai, the exact same city where the Tour time-trial took place and it's quite a similar effort. The profile doesn't show it but it has quite some climbing, with a 2Km climb at 7.3% and then another one at 5.9% during 1.7Km. It's a time-trial for the specialists of course, it's still a bit long with 36 kilometers but there are some section where the least specialists can have a bit of a comparison with the strong men and limit their losses.
Stage 11 takes the race through the Pyrineen back country and moves over Spain via the Basque Country. What will happen on this day is that there is again quite some hard terrain, another day desgined for a breakaway as the opening kilometers are full of short but complicated climbs and then that somewhat explains the rest of the day.
The two big climbs to look at are first the Col d'Ispeguy which will be the transition point from one country to another, not a very hard one but there should definetely be some attacks here if the men in the breakaway want to create some splits and distance the faster riders.
Because the final climb doesn't allow them to do so as well, the Otxondo climb is a rolling one and fits the powerful riders more than the pure climbers, so starting here it's more of the sense of opportunity and tactics over pure power.
Because then the roads are rolling but mostly flattish until the finish in Urdax, right by the border as the race will again move to France and back.
Stage 12 takes place still in the Basque country and will still have the familiar type of climbs the region is known for, full of crowd and STEEP! The stage starts in Navarra and it's actually quite flat for most of the stage, then it comes down to Bilbao and the outskirts where the riders will face the vital combination of climbs.
The Alto de Urrutzimendi is a brute, hairpins up a steep hill and it really shows averaging 13% with some ramps up to 20%, it's summit comes with just 36.5Km to go and only a short descent separates it from the next climb.
Which is the Alto el Vivero, quite an iconic climb in the region, it's a little over 4Km long and the average isn't as high but the final 3Km are at over 8%, and it isn't the final climb but it's quite a big climb to set gaps, and the more pure climbers may prefer this climb over the short steep bursts that are the previous and following climb. It's summit comes with 26Km to go.
And the final climb is, I'll admit, scary as hell. The Alto de Arraiz, right by the Bilbao city center it's a who 2.5Km at 11% but there's more to the story, incredibly narrow roads that pitch up almost to the 20's, specially in the multiple hairpins present in the climb. It's a draining one, pace but so hard, it's summit is just a mere 7Km from the finish so on top of the climb we should know who's in for the stage win, but for the GC this is also an important day to play out, in such gradients the gaps may appear bigtime.
4100 meters of climbing in stage 13, another Vuelta brute. There is a lot of climbing on this stage, a lot really in a transition stage from Basque Country to the Asturias the despite the day having several climbs I felt that the only real focus spot is the final climb, because presented with such a brutal climb the GC contenders won't be daring to make moves beforehand and in the breakaway it will likely be the same scenario.
The climbs that antecede aren't that hard, the Alto de Ubal and Puerto de Alisas are the hardest but it's the sheer repetition of the efforts that will make the final climb even harder than it already is.
Getting to the end the riders are faced with this, the climb to Los Machucos, 6.5Km at over 10% in what has proven to be one of the most hardest climbs in pro cycling for the last few years, but why? In this graphic you can't really see it, but when I switch to the Vuelta's graphic...
You really see how this bites, this is no ordinary climb, in fact it's the opposite of a normal climb. It's a wall, a combination of walls, some sections where it's an absolute ravine ride in the mountain going over 25% and then there are descending sections aswell, and it's just an insane change of gradients, not many riders fit these gradients but it's really who is able to go through them better before trying to get a breather. It totally favours the lightweight climbers, and it doesn't really matter if you're an explosive or a pacing type of climber.
Stage 14 is a return to some easier roads, however it's far from being a sprinter stage. When you look at the profile it doesn't really look hard, and despite that third category climb there is barely any dificulty to the day. But what you can see is the final climb, to the Oviedo Cathedral is not at all shown in the profile and what looks like a flat finish is actually a dificult steep finish.
The final climb has some nasty gradients and in those roads the sprinter can resist, but it's a very punchy finish and far from an ordinary sprint, that is if the puncheurs don't really ruin the party for the fast men, as there will be nothing considered high speed in this arrival.
And the closing day of the second week, as in the first one is a very hard day packed with climbs. It's a multi-climbing day in the Asturias and features a lot of dificult ascents, and the climbers that can handle this type of day will again be favoured, not having to face mega-steep climbs and ramps on a daily basis.
The first climb of the day is exactly on the Acebo, but via a different side, it's a very hard climb but early in the day it shouldn't have much of a decision to be made.
With 81Km to go summits the Puerto del Connio, a climb similar to the Pyreneen ones in terms of gradient and lenght, a more familiar type of climb for the peloton, further damage to be dealt in the peloton here.
With 41Km to go comes this climb, already a very hard challenge coming after the previous, the gradients really kick up the final kilometers and it is set to be a big preparation for the final climb.
Which is again up to Acebo but to the sanctuary this time, it's a mightily hard climb, very familiar to the race and to the Vuelta as Asturias aswell, it's a 9.6Km ascent at over 8% but not a very constant climb as the other ones, the final 5.2Km are at 9% and the gradients go up to 15% near the finale. It's a very hard climb and it remains so until the very end as the final kilometers is the steepest of all so not only is it one where pacing is vital, after such a hard week and race it's judging what you can do and see where alliances can be formed, because you can't afford to go hard very early.
To start of the final week, there is no easy ride in, at all! Stage 16 is yet another mountain brute and this once includes a trio of Asturian colossus, the San Lorenzo, Cobertoria and Cubilla. The day stars off with a relatively flat 50 kilometers but then the dificulty starts.
The Puerto de San Lorenzo is a climb of two parts where the gradients are normally above 10% but there's a 2Km section in the middle that allows some rest, but it's very hard and in any scenario can be a dangerous one.
The Alto de la Cobertoria is a brute, after the rest day there may be some riders suffering and this is definetely a place where teams can test their rivals, it's hard enough to create gaps if needed and it's a climb that can be vital for the stage, we'll see how hard are the GC contenders willing to go but above all see how much horse power is left to work both in the front of the race and in the back.
And the final climb to la Cubilla is somewhat different from the habit, not a steep climb but one where the dificulty lies in the lenght of it, being 18.2Km long officially but even more if you so wanted to categorize it. There are some hard kilometers, the first half of the climb is harder but excluding some easier couple of kilometers most of the climb is on a steady 6 and 7%, so it's one where the attacks can come as brutal after a dificult combination of climbs.
Stage 17 is a well deserved easier day and one where the sprinters will finally get their chance again after a rough week, that is, those who have resisted. The stage is mostly flat, there are some rolling sections but this one is honestly flat, but even with all of that we can't call it a pure sprint, because although most of the stage is flat enough to be controled the finale features again a slight dificulty.
Not one for the puncheurs, it doesn't get that steep, but the final three kilometers have an average 3%, it will definetely put some lactic acid on the sprinters' legs before they get to the decisive moment but to be fair the sprinters that make it this far into the race must be used to the climbing needed to thrive on such a finish.
Stage 18 looks remarcably like a memorable stage back in 2015 where Tom Dumoulin dramatically lost his lead after a super breakthrough Vuelta. It's almost exactly the same in fact, only with a different finishing city. It's a flat start for a rought stage.
Starts with the first ascent of the Navacerrada, Madrid's most iconic climb perhaps that leads to the foor of the Bola del Mundo, but that one won't be ascended this year, instead the riders will loop around the Puerto de la Morcuera and back up the Navacerrada.
The first Morcuera is fairly smooth, the gradients don't really bite but it's hard terrain and will further set up what's to come.
This one is where Dumoulin infamously cracked that year, it doesn't look any out of the ordinary, specially with what's been climbed so far but it's the sheer amount of climbing that makes such a climb a brute, where riders can crack at any time, it summits with 57Km to go.
And the final climb to Navacerrada, the Puerto de Cotos leaves the riders with 26Km to the finish and it's the hardest climb of the day, the start is steady but it ramps up and ramps up and the gradients really bite on those final kilometers.
After the summit there's a bit of a plateau and then the descent that leads to the finish in Becerril de la Sierra.
Stage 19 goes through the interior and is another rough finish to a relatively easy stage, the stage is indeed mostly flat through the desertic straightforwards roads of Spain, not something you see everyday in this race but then the run-up to Toledo is a roller-coaster and the finish...
Is at a 6% gradient and quite technical finish in the Toledo city center, one suited for the puncheurs again or the sprinters that can resist the explosiveness of the climb and still make it until the end.
And the final stage, that can properly be called the queen stage, it's 190 kilometers long and it's the stage with most climbing in the race with over 4500 meters, and it's through an area not used often in the race finishing on the Sierra de Gredos after a grueling day on the Sierras.
The first climb of the day will pretty much decide who will be on the breakaway but for raids, to have teammates in front or to actually find youself in front, this climb is shallow enough to see big riders with some teammates in front building gaps, this is perfect raiding terrain with lots of climbing and descending, winding roads and it's not too hard to make comebacks if your behind.
As there are three more categorized climbs on the way and a lot more uncategorized there are no definitive spots on the stage that can be said it will be attacked, that's what makes it such dangerous territory, all the GC contenders and their teams must be up on their attention all day long to prevent being caught up in what would be a disaster of a situation.
However the place where the attacks may come is the Puerto de Peña Negra, it's the last long climb of the race, it's in a vital point of the stage where there's only 35Km to go and it's hard enough for all kinds of attacks, even if the stage is easily controlled until then. It's the last place where the climbers can attack and forge real gap but there is still a lot of ground to cover.
There's a descent and some roller-coaster roads before the final summit finish to the Plataforma de Gredos, a 4Km climb at 7% but the dificulty will be much more enhanced from all the fatigue from the stage and the race, it's a straightforwards valley road which further accentuates that it's such a hard climb to deal at a proper pace, it's one to just survive or keep the gaps opened until that point.
And the final stage which is familirar by now, with the circuit in Madrid to take the honours once again in an interesting finish that gives the sprinters that have resisted this brutal race another opportunity to top things of.
It's a circuit finish and despite there being some shallow gradients either up or down the final avenue it should be no bother for the sprinters.
In relation to last year there's a clear difference spotted there but most of it comes from a different positioning of the mountain stages. However it's easy to see that this year there's more climbing on the final week, perhaps not in the amount of stages bu there are longer climbs and some really have a big amount of climbing throughout the whole day.
And in comparison to the other Grand Tours this year, well there's definetely more, despite the other two being very very hard this year, something which I was really pleased, they all favoured the climbing over the time-trialing. However what separates the Vuelta is that it doesn't depend on a finite number of mountain ranges like the others (again, the Tour was very good in that aspect this year but it usually isn't), the Vuelta organizers can put summit finishes almost anywhere in the country so they can move around and put hard stages when they want, it's well made in there and the lack of certain structure and early climbing is something that forces a good fitness from the begining and where consistency is needed throughout the whole race.
I really, really like this route. The Vuelta is known for the steep finishes, the trap-filled profiles and a lot of variety and inovation, with new climbs every year and this year it was again something acomplished. There are murito stages, stages with ultra-steep mountains, stages with long multi-climbs and a very short mountain stage, the time-trial is on very early on and after a rest day which is ideal, means no-one will be saving themselves for the stage and there is plenty racing after to make up for the gaps made there.
Climbs like Los Machucos, Acebo and Javalambre will all make big gaps, in those stages are the core of the race overall, the final mountain stage is very well designed, and the Madrid Sierras aswell, those stages are just perfect for raids and that's exactly what you want in the end of the race, and having so many hilly stages will not only give plenty of opportunities for the spectacle, will increase the fatigue that will later be noticed.
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