Course Preview: The 2013 Vuelta is one for the climbers

With 39 rated climbs and nine mountaintop finishes, the Vuelta a España rolls off on Saturday for a mountain goats' showdown

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LEON, Spain (VN) — The Vuelta a España is serving up a climber’s paradise for the season’s third and final grand tour, with no less than a dozen hilly and mountainous stages during its three-week run, which begins Saturday, August 24.

GC candidates will be under the gun from start to finish, with a steep uphill finale on the Vuelta’s second day in Galicia, all the way through the feared Anglirú climb on the penultimate stage.

Packed in between are an seemingly endless string of uphill finales, including new favorites such as Valdepeñas de Jaén and Alto de Cabarga, as well as three consecutive days across the Pyrénées and some brutal climbs in Andalucía.

With only one individual time trial, the Vuelta is set up to crown a pure climber as winner of the 68th edition of the Spanish tour.

“The Vuelta is similar to what we’ve seen the past few years, but these longer, demanding stages in the Pyrénées can make a real difference,” said Movistar sport director Chente García Acosta. “The big margins will be made at the Anglirú and Granada; apart from that, it should be pretty tight among the favorites.”

With such a demanding course, it’s no surprise that sprinters and some of the more all-round GC contenders are steering clear. Chris Froome (Sky), Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and defending champion Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff) are among the top names skipping the demands of the Vuelta.

Top favorites such as 2009 winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp), and a bevy of Colombians are among the top-flight climbers making tracks to Galicia for Saturday’s start.

One rider who is particularly motivated for the Vuelta is Rodríguez, who seems ideally suited for the string of uphill finales, all with time bonuses waiting at the finish lines.

“I like the look for the race, because it’s going to be very hard. It will force everyone to be in top shape right from the beginning,” Rodríguez said. “The first week is like last year, demanding from the gun. The second week will calm things down, then the final week, from the Pyrénées to the Anglirú, will be a battle to the end.”

One rider coming into the Vuelta unsure of how he will stack up against such a demanding course is 2010 winner Nibali, who won the Giro in May and is building his form with one eye on the world championships in Italy on September 27.

“The idea is to start at 75 percent and leave at 100 percent, to be good for my other top goal, the worlds,” Nibali said. “I planned the season to race two grand tours this year. I did the same in 2010, when I was third in the Giro and won the Vuelta. I’ve improved a lot since then, and there’s no reason I cannot be a protagonist in this Vuelta. It’s worth it to try.”

While the 68th Vuelta is long on climbs, it’s very short on time trials. The race opens Saturday with a team time trial and the lone individual time trial comes midrace on a hilly route that will give the climbers a chance to limit their losses against the specialists.

The 68th Vuelta takes in all of Spain

Last year’s Vuelta broke with tradition and stayed in the northern half of Spain, skipping in entirety all of southern Spain. This year, organizers seem intent on touching every corner of country. That means three long-distance transfers throughout the course of three weeks.

The route loops around Spain counter-clockwise, starting with five stages in hilly Galicia in northwest Spain, before pushing south into Andalucía for the first serious mountain stages at the end of the first week.

A transfer brings the course to the lone individual time trial in stage 11 before the race circles through Catalunya and dips into Andorra and France for a trio of decisive climbing stages at the end of the second week.

The final run across northern Spain is packed with climbs, including a return to the insanely steep ramps at the Anglirú on the penultimate day before finishing with a sprinter’s stage in Madrid.

Time bonuses are back

All 19 WorldTour teams are joined by three wildcards, in Cofidis, NetApp-Enduro and Caja Rural.

One key difference between the Vuelta and the Tour is the inclusion of finish-line time bonuses (20, 12 and 6 seconds, respectively, for the top three finishers). Riders like Rodríguez can exploit the finish-line bonuses, but many of the top-flight climbers also boast good finish-line kicks, with the likes of Martin and Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale) packing a punch.

That should set up some thrilling racing, all the way to the line.

In all, the Vuelta covers from 3,358 kilometers, with 21 stages and two rest days. There are two time trials — the team time trial Saturday and the individual time trial on stage 11 — and six flat stages favoring the sprinters.

There are 13 legs that are medium- or high-mountain stages, with 39 rated climbs over the three weeks of racing. Nine mountaintop finishes mark the route, with four others finishing atop short but steep kickers.

Buckle your seatbelts; it should be quite the battle.

The stages

Stage 1, August 24: Vilanova de Arousa to Sanxenxo, 27.4km (team time trial)
The 68th Vuelta opens with a rolling course over narrow, technical roads. Wind could be a factor in some areas, but the time differences could be bigger than a typical Vuelta TTT course, which tend to be around 20km. Movistar will be looking to repeat its victory from last year, but Astana, Sky, and Orica-GreenEdge will also have strong squads.

Stage 2, August 25: Pontevedra to Baiona (Alto Do Monte Da Groba), 176km
The Vuelta isn’t wasting any time in making things interesting, rolling out the first hilltop finale in the opening weekend. Breakaways will likely be reeled in as the GC favorites will be looking to test their rivals for the first time. The final, 11km climb scales nearly 2,000 vertical feet, so anyone not hot out of the gate could see their GC chances evaporate very quickly. A reduced bunch sprint among a select group of top riders could be in the cards, ideal for the likes of Martin or Betancur.

Stage 3, August 26: Vigo to Mirador de Lobeira, 184.8km
A rolling stage with a short, punchy hilltop finale waiting at the end; perfect terrain for Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) to try to win his first race of the year in the world champion’s jersey.

Stage 4, August 27: Lalín to Fisterra, 189km
Even more hills are featured in this rolling course that culminates in Fisterra (“end of earth”), considered the end of the known world among medieval pilgrims who ended their trek along the Camino de Santiago across northern Spain. The finale kicks up, but slightly less so than the previous day; strong all-rounders, the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), should be in with a shot for the win.

Stage 5, August 28: Sober to Lago de Sanabria, 174km
The stage features two Cat. 2 climbs midway through the route as the Vuelta exits Galicia and heads into Castilla y León. Breakaway riders will take a shot, but it should come down to a large group sprint. The fifth leg is ideal for one of Orica’s fast men, and the Australian team has plenty in this Vuelta.

Stage 6, August 29: Guijuelo to Cáceres, 175km
The Vuelta pushes across the wide-open expanses of Extremadura, where crosswinds and heat can cause trouble. Without any rated hills, this one is for the sprinters, with Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) hoping to score a win during this Vuelta.

Stage 7, August 30: Almendralejo to Mairena de Aljarafe, 205.9km
Another rolling stage without any rated climbs, the stage heads south into Andalucía, where Africa-like heat will be waiting for the peloton. The peloton will circle through Sevilla before another likely bunch sprint. This could be a shot for former track star Theo Bos (Belkin) to snag his first grand tour stage win.

Stage 8, August 31: Jerez de la Frontera to Alto Peñas Blancas, 166.6km
The Vuelta’s second major mountaintop finale features the never-before-used Peñas Blancas climb, 14km with ramps early on as steep as 14 percent. The GC riders will have their first serious test, where anyone losing time will find it difficult to regain it. A handful of riders should come in together, with Dani Moreno (Katusha) perhaps getting a chance to win the stage.

Stage 9, September 1: Antequera to Valdepeñas de Jaén, 165.7km
One of the most explosive finales in the Vuelta, the final climb through the whitewashed village at the finish line features ramps as steep as 30 percent. A bad day here can ruin a rider’s GC chances. Timing is everything to win the stage, and Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Igor Antón will be eager to win in what will be the team’s final grand tour.

Stage 10, September 2: Torredelcampo to Guejar (Alto Hazallanas), 186.8km
The hardest stage so far, the route tackles the Cat. 1 Alto de Monachil before the final charge up the 15km finish climb. There’s a slight downhill kicker with 8km to go, and then it heads straight into a wall with 18-percent ramps, and it’s brutally steep all the way to the line. This is the chance for the legitimate GC contenders to impose their will on the race. Sergio Henao, who is getting the leadership nod at Sky, could make a move.

Stage 11, September 4: Tarazona-Tarazona, 38.8km (individual time trial)
The Vuelta’s lone ITT comes following a long rest-day transfer into Aragon in northern Spain. The technical route features a third-category climb midway through the course, and important time differences can be made, especially by Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), who holds a major advantage against the clock versus the spindly climbers. Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) will the favorite for the win in an important test ahead of the worlds.

Stage 12, September 5: Maella to Tarragona, 164.2km
The rolling stage will give the GC riders a chance to breathe easy after four action-packed days. The sprinters will have another shot, with a slightly rising finish favoring the likes of Greg Henderson (Lotto-Belisol).

Stage 13, September 6: Valls to Castelldefels, 169km
Wind could be a factor in a rolling stage ending with another short but steep kicker at the line. A Cat. 1 climb at Rat Penat with 50km to go should shed a majority of the sprinters, opening the door for the puncheurs like Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge).

Stage 14, September 7: Bagà to Andorra (Collada de la Gallina), 155.7km
The first of two stages in the Pyrénées, the four-climb 14th leg enters the mountain principality of Andorra, home to “Purito” Rodríguez. Last year saw a fantastic battle between Purito, Valverde, and Contador, with Valverde taking the win. Rodríguez will be the favorite to win this year to avenge for his loss on his favorite training climb.

Stage 15, September 8: Andorra to Peyragudes, France, 224.9km
This is an old school “queen stage” across the heart of the Pyrénées, featuring four first-category climbs and ending atop the Peyragudes climb, where Valverde won a stage in the 2012 Tour de France. In the Vuelta’s longest stage, it’s the first French mountaintop finish in the race since Cauterets in 2003. Valverde will be looking to consolidate any gains he’s made up to now.

Stage 16, September 9: Graus to Sallent de Gállego, Aramón Formigal, 146.8km
The third straight day of climbing will crack anyone who is barely hanging on. The Cat. 2 Puerto de Cotéfablo at 100km will soften up the legs and give breakaways a chance to make it to the line. The final climb to the ski resort at Formigal is not terribly steep, but it’s the kind of grinding, high-speed climb that can cause havoc. An escape should stay clear, with Mikel Nieve (Euskaltel) ideal for a stage like this.

Stage 17, September 11: Calahorra to Burgos, 189km
After a transfer to the northern meseta, there are only five days to go, but there is still plenty of hard racing ahead. The GC riders will get a respite in this one, a rolling stage that features two moderate climbs that are perfect for springing stage hunters. The only question will be if the sprinters’ teams have anything left to put in a chase. A break should stay clear, with opportunists like Luís Maté (Cofidis) in with a chance.

Stage 18, September 12: Burgos to Peña Cabarga, 186.5km
Stage 18 offers up an explosive, five-climb leg ending atop the brutally steep Cabarga climb that saw the epic showdown between Chris Froome and Juanjo Cobo in the 2011 Vuelta. Though only 5.9km long, the climb features ramps as steep as 20 percent, with an average grade of 9.2 percent, setting the stage for a magnificent shootout, especially if there’s still a fight for the lead. Look for the Colombians to shine here, with either Henao or Sky teammate Rigoberto Urán making a move.

Stage 19, September 13: San Vicente Barquera to Oviedo (Alto Naranco), 181km
A rolling stage across Asturias provides an appetizer for what lies in wait tomorrow. Two bumpy climbs will set the pack up for the Cat. 2 climb up the Naranco, which towers above Oviedo. A breakaway will have its chance, with the likes of Luis León Sánchez (Belkin) and Gerrans thriving in stages like this.

Stage 20, September 14: Avilés to Alto de l’Angliru, 142.2km
The Vuelta could come down to this final charge up Spain’s hardest climb. Three climbs, including the Cat. 1 Alto de Cordal, set up the weary pack for the brutally steep Anglirú, infamous for its 24-percent grades. The 12.2km Anglirú climb is feared throughout the peloton, and most of the pack rides with gearing more suited for mountain biking. Some consider roads this steep to be gimmicky, but the Anglirú never fails to deliver surprises. It’s so steep that it’s more a climb of attrition than of aggression, and anyone who hits the bottom without his A game can bleed time. A GC leader with a cushion can follow the moves, opening the door for top-level climbers like Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida) to chase the win.

Stage 21, September 15: Leganés to Madrid, 109.6km
After a transfer down to the outskirts of Spain’s capital, the 68th Vuelta concludes with a likely bunch sprint, finishing with eight laps on the Paseo de Castellana in central Madrid. Any sprinters who’ve made it this far will want to finish off their Vuelta with one more shot at the flowers.

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