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Did you watch this year’s Vuelta a España? Of course you did. Like me, you found it impossible to look away for even a second, because the moment you closed your web browser, the race would inevitably be upended by some bonkers attack, or more realistically, some hellacious hill with 21-percent pitches. I’m now convinced that Spain is just littered with short climbs that are far too steep for actual driving, let alone competitive bicycle racing. Or perhaps the Vuelta organization simply employs some madman who spends his life scouring the Spanish countryside for wall-like kickers on which to place the finish line.
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But hey, those short and steep summit finishes made the Vuelta a España the most exciting and most watchable grand tour of the year. And the Vuelta’s use of these painful uphills is a teachable moment for the snoozy Tour de France.
For eons, the Tour has centered its drama around monster climbing days in the Alps and Pyrenees, where the peloton tackles multiple categorized climbs spread out over 180km, before taking on some grueling HC summit finish. That formula made for edge-of-your-seat action in the full-gas Marco Pantani/Lance era. Wow, these guys can roar up climb after climb out of the saddle in the drops and never get tired. Entire teams can’t bring them back. What athletes!
Well, in this new era of uber-team domination (cough, Sky), this course format has lost its panache. Sorry guys, wake me when they get there. As we saw during this year’s Tour de France, Team Sky can simply program their power meters to the CRUSH THOSE FOOLS setting, and then stomp the peloton into mush on the long, gradual climbs. Attack? Yeah right. By the time the group gets midway up the final climb, the GC men are all making their best Mancebo face. Guys surge forward, only to gain a few meters and then poop out. It’s the grand tour by attrition, not aggression.
On the handful of occasions when the Tour has included punchy finishes — such as 2015 when stage 3 finished atop the Mur de Huy — the end result has been exciting finishes and impact to the GC.
At the Vuelta, the calculus was different. It’s true, there were no dominant teams this year. Movistar did its best to protect Nairo Quintana’s jersey and control the peloton. Sky’s grand tour B team was more of a C-minus or D team. Still, even Sky’s A team would have a tough time controlling the pack on a 3km climb with multiple pitches over 20 percent. There’s no drafting at 17 percent, and no real pacing. Guys simply rev up the engine, stomp on the pedals, and go for it. Muscle, guts, and panache outweigh marginal gains on 1km at 25 percent. And no team can control the peloton when everyone is struggling to simply ride up the climb. Sorry, Wout Poels, your power meter has just one setting on a climb like that, that’s the OWWW setting.
Of the Vuelta’s 21 stages, seven featured finishes that included some version of the short, terrible climb. For stages 3, 4, 8, 9, 11, and 17, the finish line was atop said kicker. Do you recall some of the action on these climbs? On that stage 3 kicker, which had ramps at 30 percent, Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome, and Esteban Chaves took turns landing body blows, while Alberto Contador got dropped. On the stage 4 climb, these guys again were slugging each other, with nobody gaining time. On the stage 8 finish up the Alto de la Camperona, Quintana finally dropped Froome, and took the red leader’s jersey. On Stage 11, a furious Froome took the stage victory after failing to drop Quintana on the finish at Pena Cabarga, while Contador and Chaves were dropped. And then, on that stage 17 climb to Mas de la Costa, the Vuelta’s heavy hitters took turns punching each other in the face, before the fight ended in a draw.
Conversely, the Vuelta kept its big, long, Tour-like stages to a minimum. There was the stage 10 to Lagos de Covadonga and the monster stage 14, which featured three Cat 1 climbs and then the HC finish to the Col d’Aubisque. Each stage featured plenty of fireworks, but neither was truly decisive.
Look, I’m not a sadist. I understand that the plethora of these terrible climbs is one reason that some riders said that this year’s Vuelta was so hard that most of the riders were simply going “through the motions.” Perhaps the answer is shortening the length of each stage, but keeping the kickers.
But I am a fan, and I watch a ton of bicycle racing. I believe there’s something to be learned from the Vuelta’s course format — perhaps the Tour can experiment with the short, punchy climbs some year. Of course, if ASO does, they’ll have to hire some madman to search France for the worst, most painful climbs. I humbly volunteer.