We spoke to our Cycling Ambassador and the author of the 100 Greatest climbs books, Simon Warren to find out the crucial information about La Vuelta España and our trips to see this iconic race. Simon is a vastly experienced rider, who as the title of the books suggest has completed hundreds of the world’s greatest climbs, so it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about riding iconic climbs. So over to you Simon…
In writing this blog I got to take my first really close look at the parcours of this year’s Vuelta and I can tell you by the time I reached stage 16 I had to walk away from the computer and take a break as I was exhausted just thinking about it. It is an absolute killer, too much some may say for the riders, but for those of us that love watching cycling in the mountains it is a festival of epic passes and mountain top finishes. If you choose to travel with Sports Tours International on one of their three packages then trust me, each one features the opportunity to catch decisive and compelling drama from the first day to the last.
The race starts in the province of Valencia this year taking in three stages between Salinas de Torrevieja and Calpe. If you head to this region of Spain in February or March each year you’ll find the roads filled with pale skinned northern Europeans looking for some winter sun to get quality training miles in their legs. Dotted with plenty of climbs, not too long or harsh and of a low enough altitude to avoid last snowfall it is the perfect spot to build fitness. Aside from the opening Team Time trial these early stages pack in plenty of small climbs all of which will be contested vigorously by those riders looking for an early lead in the king of the mountains competition and the chance to get on the podium at the end of the day. The pick of the bunch are on the second stage, those of Puerto de Confrides and the Alto de Puig Llorenca, both second category the latter might see only a select bunch contesting the sprint. On stage three and four there are another hand full of lumps but the real the real action begins on Stage five and the first summit finish of this year’s race.
The Vuelta never wastes time getting stuck in and in the shape of the Alto de Javalambre we have a gem of a road to shake the pack up. The ramp up to the Javalambre Observatory is close to 12km in length and takes the riders to an altitude of almost 2000m. With an average gradient of 7.3%, it’s tough, but looking at the profile you will notice the first four kilometres average less than 5% meaning the final two thirds are vicious. With each Kilometre over 10% and even close to 12% this is going to be one hell of a stage and although it will be too soon to decide the winner it will certainly draw up a short list of protagonists to challenge each other for the next two weeks. [On the Sports Tours International trip you’ll get to witness the battle from the comfort of VIP Hospitality]
In every other stage race the next day would likely be an easier stage, but the Vuelta isn’t a normal stage race, so next day, there is another summit finish! Although not the challenge of the previous one it promises drama all the same with the newly established leaders trying to fight a few more seconds off each other, to compound the gaps they made the day before or make amends for time lost. [With Sports Tours International you’ll have the option to make your own attack for the finish line, as on this stage you’ll enjoy an official Cross the Finish Line Experience].
Then moving on to stage seven, and yes, you guessed it, ANOTHER summit finish and this one is a beast, an absolute beast. Although not long, the Alto mas de la Costa is like a wall with four kilometres averaging 10% and sections as steep as 21%. Before the riders get there they will have already crossed a number of categorized and uncategorized climbs but they are all mere ripples compared to the savage finish. Approaching the finale the second category Puerto del Salto del Caballo will likely be used by the teams of the favourites to thin out the pack before the principle actors flex their sinuous legs up to the summit, the end of three, hopefully epic days racing.
The second week of the race starts with a bumpy but steady day with only a single categorized accent, that of the Puerto de Monserrat but there will be no complaints from anyone as what lies on the Horizon will be giving them nightmares. Stage nine may only be 96.6km but it is a relentless, roller-coaster of a day featuring three monumental peaks. Proceedings kick off immediately up the first category Coll d’Ordino, so expect everyone to be on the rollers well before the flag drops to ensure they can jump from the blocks like a pack of greyhounds. From the top of the Ordino they rocket down the valley and without stopping for breath head onto the Hors category Coll de la Gallina, an 11.8 kilometres climb with a punishing average gradient of 8.3%. Then it is time for the final showdown. On the profile the final 30 kilometres are composed of three named peaks all carrying mountain jersey points, but in reality the first two a mere stepping stones on the way to the summit. The twin second cat climbs of Alto de la Comella and Alto de Engolasters are both followed by breaks in the climbing but essentially it is all up hill to the line at Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp. If that wasn’t enough of a challenge and to satisfy the demands of the gravel bike industry there is a 4km section of dirt road thrown in before the final climb just to make things even more interesting. This on paper promises to be maybe the best stage of the race. Early enough for the riders to have fresh legs, short enough for all tactics to be thrown out the window and hard enough to ensure the strongest man wins.
After this vicious day in the mountains comes the first rest day, in Pau, France, which gives you the spectator the opportunity to sample the delights of the Pyrenese and do some serious climbing of your own whilst the pros catch up on box sets and call their mums [With Sports Tours International we have a supported ride over the Tourmalet] Then comes the time trial which gives you a chance to see each rider in unison, perfect your fast motion photography and check out the aero bike porn. To finish the second week the race heads back into Spain crossing the Pyrenees via the easiest route possible to further protect the riders legs before what may be one of the most frightening third weeks of any grand Tour ever [With Sports Tours International you can practice your own TT with an official Cross the Finish Experience]
Following the three summit finishes in week one, the crazy Andorran stage in week two, the third key battle ground of this years Vuelta arrives in the third week and is spread out over five killer stages, with a further five gentle ones for on the bike rest days.
To start with stage 12 is by Vuelta standards a flat one with just the four third category climbs, the last of which, the Alto de Arraiz coming just 7km from the line in Bilbao, a tempting springboard for an attack if I have ever seen one. Don’t expect anything from the GC riders here as the next day (stage 13) is a horror story. Before I mention the finish there are the small mater of six categorized climbs to cross but these are merely the peas next to the pod. What lies at the end is crazy. Labeled inhuman by locals the 7.3 kilometre narrow, twisting road up to Alto de los Machucos will be a crazy spectacle. Starting with a 17.5% ramp it then drops down a steep descent before kicking up this time to a maximum of 26%. There is no chance to find a rhythm, no chance to stick to power, as all the way to the top it fluctuates from plateau to vicious gradient and everything in between. This is one climb not to miss. [With Sports Tours International you can ride all or part of this climb and then relax in the comfort of VIP finish line hospitality]
Mercifully stage 14 is flat, actually flat, which means a sprint day and a chance to witness giant thighs pumping their 53/11’s at 45 mph, if you like that sort of thing. Mercy is short lived though as the mountains return on stage 15, with yes, you guessed it a summit finish. One established cycling periodical dared to ask recently if we, the viewing public were bored of summit finishes. BORED! Are you kidding! Do kids get bored of Christmas, NEVER. The prelude to today’s violent end comes in the shape of the second cat Puerto del Acebo, which as you may have noticed is the same climb as the finish, but to begin with they just ride the first 7.5 kilometres before moving on to the first category Puerto del Connio and Puerto del Pozo de las Mujeres Muertas. Returning to the Puerto del Acebo it is now time to finish it off, familiar with the lower slopes they must now race to the summit which the addition of four extra kilometres turns what was a 2nd category climb into a hors category climb with ramps as steep as 16%. [Today with Sports Tours International you’ll get to see the race twice and then test your legs on the final climb]
To compound the damage caused by stage 15, stage 16 is another monumental challenge with this time five peaks to cross, two third category and three first category, each harder than the one before. The final climb, to the, yes, summit finish at Alto de La Cubilla is a 27 kilometres slog however with a steady average gradient of just 5% and nothing more savage than a maximum of 10%. [With Sports Tours International you’ll have the opportunity to ride the final three climbs] As if they need it, the following day is a rest day, however the circus must be packed up and driven south to play out its final drama in Castilla y Léon, to the north and west of Madrid.
Stage 17 is flat, in fact it’s better than flat it’s downhill, and if there is a tailwind they might even get away with pedaling until the last 10km which is great because stage 18 packs in four, FOUR first category climbs. By now most riders will have simply had enough. The sprinters will have gone home, the sick and lame eliminated to leave just the climbers and GC riders, unless they call a truce to keep fighting on each and every slope for our entertainment. Falling into the lap of the spectator the stage 18 route uses the slopes of the first category Puerto de la Morcuera twice, all be it from different sides to allow you to easily catch the action twice with minimal effort.
So, three stages to go, 19 is flat, 21 is flat, sprint finish, boring, but sandwiched in between lies the final challenge of what must be one of the hardest final weeks of any grand tour ever. Five more categorized climbs two of which are first category the Puerto de Pedro Bernardo and Puerto de Pena Negra and then the eight and final summit finish. EIGHTH. Whoever holds on up the third category Alto de Gredos on Saturday September the 14th will surely be one of the most worthy winners of a grand tour of all time [With Sports Tours International trip you’ll get to witness the battle from the comfort of VIP Hospitality]
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