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Ah, the Vuelta a España, the grand tour season’s answer to the last-chance saloon. Every year a cast of top GC riders descends on the Vuelta to try and make the most of their respective seasons. Up-and-coming GC stars look to the Vuelta to capture their first, elusive grand tour win. Veteran riders look to salvage a season should races earlier in the year not go as planned. And plenty of other GC stars simply look to chase those important and elusive victories.
This year’s Vuelta a España route is bound to test the legs, lungs, and motivation of its GC stars with a course that packs in seven mountain stages and summit finishes throughout the entire three-week race. Rather than cluster the climbing into weeks two and three, like the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, this year’s Vuelta peppers the tough mountain stages throughout the entire journey. What does that mean? Any GC rider hoping to battle for the win will have to be both mentally and physically sharp throughout the entire race.
There are a handful of stages that are likely to separate the strongest riders from the field. We’ve analyzed the five stages that are most likely to crown the Vuelta a España’s overall champion.
Stage 3: Santo Domingo de Silos – Espinosa de los Monteros/Picón Blanco (202.8km), Monday, August 16
How can a stage this early in a grand tour be considered decisive? Remember — this isn’t the Tour de France, where every rider is at his physical and mental peak. This is the Vuelta, where legs and motivation can be tired, and when early obstacles can shake lose those riders who aren’t yet ready for a maximum level of suffering. This year, the Picón Blanco climb provides this early test. The climb is a regular in the Vuelta a Burgos race, and it comes after a hilly and long stage across Castille y León, when breakaways are likely to launch. The summit finish itself is a true test of steep and explosive effort. At 7.6km this climb is not terribly long, however, it averages 9.3 percent, and includes ramps in the middle well over 10 percent, including two segments at 17 percent. This isn’t a climb for grinders — riders must be able to attack with explosive speed in order to win and carve out time on their opponents.
Picón Blanco won’t decide the Vuelta winner, but it will absolutely torpedo a few GC favorites who have ambitions of winning.
Stage 9: Puerto Lumbreras – Alto de Velefique (188km), Sunday, August 22
The Vuelta’s opening week concludes with a brute of a mountain stage across Almeria that packs in 4,500 meters total of climbing (14,763 feet). The accrued feet of elevation is likely to test the resolve of some of the stronger GC riders on the summit finish climb to Alto de Velefique. With an average gradient of 6.4 percent, the climb is not a brute on the level of Picón Blanco, although there are slopes near the base above 10 percent. But at 13.2 kilometers long, with multiple switchbacks and barren spots at the top, the climb is likely to produce a tactical battle between the favorites. We saw such a battle play out on the final climbing stage of the 2020 Vuelta a España, where Richard Carapaz nearly took the overall from Primož Roglič. On the Alto de Velefique, a motivated escapee could put ample time into his chasers, if they are unwilling to work together to close a gap.
Stage 14: Don Benito – Pico Villuercas (165.7km), Saturday, August 28
There’s no secret to this stage — it’s a climbing test that looks custom-built for an ambush. The stage’s middle climb, Alto Collado de Ballesteros, includes a super-steep, goat-path-like ramp at the top that approaches 20 percent at the summit, which is a perfect launchpad for a rider who is looking to upset the GC applecart. This stage is perfect for a rider who saw his chances explode on the Picón Blanco, and is now looking to claw back time in the GC standings. After a long descent, the stage hits a series of steep hills before the summit finish to Pico Villuercas. The final push to Pico Villuercas is a long grind, so any escapee is going to need to keep plenty of gas in the tank for the climb. But if legs are tired in the chase group, this climb could see a tactical battle that allows a motivated rider to gain time on the group.
Stage 19: Salas – Altu d’El Gamoniteiru (162.6km), Thursday, September 2
This is the hardest stage of the Vuelta, and it comes after nearly three weeks of mountains, wind, twists, and turns, so legs and minds will be fatigued. This stage through Asturias packs four categorized climbs into just 160 kilometers or so, including the HC summit finish to the Vuelta’s newest feared climb, the Gamoniteiru, which is located in the same mountains as the Alto de l’Angliru. Cycling fans are already comparing the two, hyper-climbs for their similar steepness and height. While the Gamoniteiru isn’t as consistently steep as the Angliru, it is higher and longer at 14.6 kilometers, with an average gradient of 9.8 percent. And like the Angliru, the climb is narrow and seems to get steeper the further you ascend. The steepest ramps of 17 percent are near the summit. Those pure climbers looking to gain an advantage before the final individual time trial will need to attack on this stage. And if time gaps are still tight, the final push to the summit will likely produce a dramatic, slow-speed chase effect that we often see on the Angliru, where riders inch forward, fall back, and then surge ahead again in the span of a kilometer or two. There will be few tactics on the climb, other than to suffer it out to the finish. This stage is going to be a treat to watch, and hell to ride.
Stage 21: Padrón – Santiago de Compostela (33.8km), Sunday, September 5
It’s not glamorous or showy, it’s just an individual time trial. But this individual time trial will undoubtedly have a major impact on the final GC standings. There’s one climb, one descent, and then a gradual uphill drag to the finish. There are also plenty of twists and turns and corners for the riders to navigate. Watch for the final technical section in the town of Santiago de Campostela. If the GC is tight, riders will need to take chances in order to take the red jersey. Time gaps could be small, but in this Vuelta, everyone will be looking to gain advantages on every stretch of road.