Vuelta a España: Picón Blanco delivers vertical pain early

Vuelta packing mountain punch early in a climb that's steep enough to make some differences just three days into the race.

Photo: Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

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BURGOS, Spain (VN) — The 2021 Vuelta a España isn’t wasting time before going full-on vertical.

Following Sunday’s bunch sprint, the Spanish grand tour turns straight into the mountains Monday with Picón Blanco, the first of seven major mountaintop finales in this year’s route.

“It’s the real deal,” said Bahrain-Victorious rider Jack Haig, who lost 38 seconds Sunday after being caught up behind a late crash. “We did it a few years ago at the Vuelta a Burgos. It’s hard. It’s the first real test to see where everyone is.”

In what’s coming especially early in a grand tour, a major summit finale will be in the cards right from the gun.

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The 7.6km climb on the northern edge of the Burgos province is famous among local riders. With an average grade of 9.3 percent, the steepest grades are in the final 3km with one ramp hitting 18 percent.

Coming so early in the race means that riders need to be sharp right from the gun.

“It’s an important climb and all the favorites will need to be there,” said Movistar’s Enric Mas. “It’s one of those days when you cannot win the Vuelta, but you can lose it. A bad day there would be hard to recover later in the race.”

Vuelta a España follows a different drumbeat

Seeing a summit finale so early in the course reflects the continued evolution of the Vuelta. Unlike the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France, which typically follow a more traditional blueprint for grand tours, the Vuelta isn’t afraid to spice it up.

Throughout this year’s Vuelta, the climbing stages are sprinkled across the race, rather than having them all bundled together in the final week, as is often the case in the Giro or Tour.

This year’s Vuelta sees its major summit finales spread across the course throughout the entire route, with major mountaintop finales in each of the three weeks.

“Having a climb like that so early means that the guys who come here to win have to be ready to race early,” BikeExchange sport director Matt White said. “The cream will rise to the top quickly.

“The template at the Vuelta is a little different than the Tour, which has its tradition of the Pyrénées and Alps,” White told VeloNews. “The Vuelta isn’t afraid to mix things up and the race is more diverse, with the mountains scattered throughout the race. The Vuelta is always hard, second to none.”

White said organizers are also hoping that a singular rider isn’t strong enough to ride everyone off the wheel, and take the air out of the GC battle right from the gun.

A big advantage so early in the race could force others to attack, but it could also deflate the GC battle if a major rider on a strong team opens up major gains.

Of course, the rider most poised for that is Primož Roglič. The Slovenian won Saturday’s time trial, and will be looking to hit out on Picón Blanco if he can.

“We will see how it goes [Monday],” Roglič said. “If there’s a chance to take time, you have to do it. The climb is hard enough to see some time differences between the riders.”

For Roglič, he seemed more worried about battling crosswinds and avoiding crashes than what lies await at the top of the Vuelta’s first summit finale.

Arch-rivals Egan Bernal and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) cannot afford to lose any more time and will want to try to take back some of the 25 seconds or so they ceded against the clock to Roglič in Burgos on Saturday.

“The stage of Picón Blanco is a great chance to try to take the red jersey,” said Carapaz. “The team will have different cards to play, and the race will put everyone in their place. There will be chances for everyone. I’d love to try to win the stage.”

Picón Blanco has featured five times in recent editions of the Vuelta a Burgos, the traditional warm-up race ahead of the Vuelta. Riders such as Iván Sosa, Remco Evenepoel, and Mikel Landa have all won on the highly exposed summit. Romain Bardet (DSM) won there last week in a stage that went over the summit and finished in the valley, so the favorites will be angling for the win.

“Picón Blanco is going to be more focused on the GC riders, it’s the first summit finish, it comes early in the race, and they won’t want to lose time,” said Alejandro Valverde (Movistar). “For me, there will be other days that can be a good opportunity to play our strategy, which is not that complicated. It’s just about being strong.”

The 202.8km stage from Santo Domingo de Silos to Picón Blanco hits some rolling terrain early that will see some breakaways riders, but with the first major summit and time bonuses waiting at the top, it will be a day for the top contenders to push to the front.

“I think it’s too hard to make predictions for this Vuelta,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Yaroslav Popovych. “As usual, the third week will be the decisive one, but an unprecedented and very hard finish like Picón Blanco already in stage three says a lot about the difficulties of what the GC contenders will find.”

That’s how the Vuelta rolls — always a little different, always very interesting.

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