Fin. The 68th Vuelta a España is at an end. Today’s stage is the flattest of the lot. Yes, even flatter than the opening TTT, in that there was 115m of altitude gain, whereas today has but 79m of altitude gain, pushing us to 31,926m of total altitude gained, or about 4 times from sea level to the top of Everest. Also, 184 roundabouts.
After spending some quality time touring the North of the country, it seems we’ve all got to know Spain a bit better than we might’ve done, from more proof as to why Basques are good at hills to silly Asturian hats and bagpipes and the stunning Galician coastline, plus bits about various languages along the way. Indeed, instead of making the best attempt at circling the entire country, this template seems to have suited the race quite well.
Today’s stage is a 58km run-in to Madrid, with ten laps of a 5.7km circuit tagged onto the end. The circuit has two 180 degree turns, one of which is but 1,100m from the finish line, so a well positioned leadout will be key.
The race also passes through the Plaza de Emperador Carlos V, now a roundabout, la Glorieta del Emperador Carlos V, nicknamed “Scalextric” by locals. Carlos I of Spain or Emperador Carlos/Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire was a very interesting character indeed. Successor to Queen Isabella of Castille and King Ferdinand of Aragon, he is perhaps arguably the single person most responsible for Spain’s existence as a nation. Having held a bewildering number of titles and offices (from memory, Duke of Burgundy, Archduke of Austria, King of Naples, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Aragon & Castille, plus countless other territorial claims, as well as control of the Americas), he retired from all of his offices due to what we’d describe now as a mental breakdown due to several factors: all of his territories circled France, and the kings of France were shall we say less than accommodating, plus the outbreak of Lutheranism/Protestantism that plunged the Holy Roman Empire into civil war, plus the Turks advancing on Vienna.
So, stating such disparate titles were much too much for one man to handle, he bequeathed Aragon, Castille, Burgundy (what is now much of Belgium and the Netherlands) and the New World to his son Philip with the rest going to his brother Ferdinand, thus Philip became the de facto first King of a mostly united Spain (save Navarre) He saw out his days in a monastery in Andalucia suffering from gout and an obsession with making clocks tick exactly in time and was in many ways the embodiment of anachronistic chivalry, much like Spain’s well known literary hero, Don Quijoté.
Anyway, a likely sprint finish. Argos-Shimano have performed their duties well, delivering Degenkolb to the finish and on to victory in all but one bunch gallop. However, that one occasion was the most recent, and Sky will be motivated to not finish their Vuelta on a duck and if Swift can pick the right wheels (which he hasn’t yet) he’ll surely finish well.
Climbing: 79 vertical metres
Categorised climbs: 0
Intermediate sprints: at 58,1km passing the finish line 1st time, and at 75,1km passing the finish line for the 4th time.
Uff. In 2010, the Bola del Mundo presented Eziquiel Mozquera with his final chance of winning La Vuelta and Vincenzo Nibali’s last test before winning the race. It is testament to the relative insanity of this year’s Vuelta that a repeat of the most dramatic stage of 2010 has barely figured in the imagination of many pundits, riders and directors.
The sight of Nibali chasing after Mosquera through the fog up to the top of this peak outside of Madrid provided one of the most iconic images of the Vuelta which was to some extent repeated by Juanjo Cobo at the Alto de l’Angliru last year, pursued through the low lying cloud by Froome and eventually Wiggins, and Alberto Contador has spoken publicly about his hope of bad weather for today’s stage. In 2008, Alberto Contador beat Alejandro Valverde to the top of the legendary Alto de L’Angliru on his way to his first Vuelta win. Today could be the day he cements his 2nd, and in 2010, the rider once tipped at the next Indurain, Vuelta race director Abraham Olano stated that there was no doubt in his mind that the Vuelta would be decided here.
Today is potentially one of the hardest days of the Vuelta; 3870 vertical metres of climbing - only one stage has had more. Four testing leg softeners before the main climb present ample opportunity for David Moncoutié to attack and see if he can chip away at Simon Clarke’s lead in the KOM title, although Valverde or Rodriguez’s performance in the final might be enough to displace him.
At this stage it’ll be hard to look past the racing itself, but please do - Spain has some crazy beautiful landscape and occasionally the views are sacrificed for racing, particularly to facilitate transitory stages on the Autopista, but there really are some spectacular views to be had here.
Many of the towns surrounding Madrid have become dormitory villages for the Madrileños and the towns on the run in to this stage are no exception, particularly Guadarrama, a town founded by the Arabs who ran parts of this bit of the world from the around 8th century until the end of the 15th century, are known for it.
Anyway, I’m tipping either Contador, Rodriguez or a breakaway win from the likes of Roche or Moncoutié. In yesterday’s “AS”, Contador talked up the Bola del Mundo as harder than the other super hard day over the Cuitu Negru. Similarly Rodriguez was described in El Mundo as “the fly of Contador”, persistently buzzing around him, perhaps the only one able to hold on and nip past him at the end, but surely unlikely to be able to take sufficient time back to leapfrog Valverde AND Contador to win the GC.
Make no bones about it, Contador wants to win here (as he always does) - he’s local and should know the climb as well as anyone could. Similarly, if Saxobank are too tired from the chase of the previous few days, a breakaway win could take the line, with Roche performing well out of breaks as of late (perhaps one big break away from a GC podium?) plus Moncoutié will want to have a bash at that last KOM title.
Stage 19 is Friday and tomorrow is Saturday and Sunday (therefore Madrid!) comes afterwards. That can only mean one thing: The race’s 3rd most southern start and co-incidentally the 3rd most southern finish, as the Vuelta organisers realised that during this Greatest Hits of Northern Spain race, that they’d eventually have to go to Madrid and probably make a joined up way of doing so.
So, like yesterday a flat, transitory stage ending in a bunch sprint? Wrong! Or right, depending on your idea of a bunch sprint. The roads are what you might refer to as heavy - lots of up and down with relatively little of it being pan flat. By the end of it, your Garmin/Strava file will say you’ve gained 820m in altitude, which is a little bit more than most other flat stages, although a little less than that which allowed Steve Cummings to win. Nevertheless, the road tilts up towards the end, gaining 85 metres in altitude over 1,700m of race, giving that last part an average gradient of 5%, potentially enough to give the likes of Philippe Gilbert a sniff of victory; a good placing here will leave him brimming with confidence ahead of the World Championships in Limburg, with are rapidly approaching.
The official site describes the start town of Peñafiel as “taking a step back in time” (much like the rest of Spain then QUIET AT THE BACK YOU) the day winds it’s way towards somewhere close to the start of tomorrow’s stage. Passing by a huge country pile of the Royal Palace of Riofrío dedicated to the history of hunting. Palacio Real de Riofrío was built in the Italian Baroque style as a counterpart to the official Royal residence in Madrid.
Much of the stage is hosted by the province of Segovia, the capital of which is the birthplace of the renowned cyclist now commentator Pedro Delgado, winner of one Tour and Two Vueltas, finishing on the podium of 8 grand tours. It’s also home to plenty of museums and a huge cathedral, the last Gothic Cathederal built in Spain, as well as having the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama in the background.
So, a sprint finish, but enough to shake the chunkier sprinters up and give the lighter guys like Philippe Gilbert just a sniff of victory. Bola del Mundo tomorrow. Bigtime.
Climbing: 820 vertical metres
Categorised climbs: 0
Intermediate sprints: at 112,0km in Villacastín and 143,6km in Los Ángeles de San Rafael
Sometimes the Vuelta says it is a flat stage and they finish the day on a 2nd cat. climb like the previous stage. Sometimes it is a genuinely flat stage, like today happens to be. The longest and also the flattest stage (excluding all but the opening Team Time Trial, which had 115 vertical metres) in the Vuelta, 204,5km to be trundled across before either a massed sprint finish or a select breakaway win.
Several teams are still empty handed (including perhaps surprisingly Team Sky) in terms of stage wins, with Argos-Shimano, Movistar and Katusha taking the lion’s share between them - ten of the total stage wins so far - it’s likely that, depending on the composition, the breakaway may succeed today. However, it is rather hard to tell, seeing as how the day is largely downhill with a light crosswind forecast, and also the state of everyone’s legs after so much climbing is hard to guess at. Certainly it’s more favourable to a bunch sprint than tomorrow’s stage.
The stage finishes in Valladolid, a city steeped in History. Spain’s first capital (until Philip II, known for his Armada amongst other things, moved to Madrid), it was also where Cervantes (author of Don Quijote) finished his book and where Christopher Columbus died. It also is at the centre of various wine making regions and Denominación de Origenes - Cigales, Toro & Rueda for example.
So, today represents the 2nd to last opportunity for the sprinters. Several of them may also take a moment to remember Wouter Weylandt, as Valladolid was where he took a victory in 2008. Valladolid also hosts one of the day’s intermediate sprints, something which has happened several times during this Vuelta in order to give spectators two shots at seeing the charging peloton. The run-in itself is not particularly technical, as sprints at the Vuelta tend to be, although there is perhaps a tricky bend at 700m to go which could serve to eliminate a few riders with poor positioning.
So, five stages of this Vuelta a España, with the GC balanced on a knife edge between Purito and Contador, although with Rodriguez having ridden a fantastic race on a course that suited him down to a T, it’s still hard to see Contador having the strength to distance Purito sufficiently, particularly as while there are two stages which could affect the GC, one of those (today, in fact) finishes on a longish but by Vuelta standards relatively easy climb, certainly one where Rodriguez can feel reasonably confident in his abilities to take bonus seconds.
Indeed, this Vuelta could perhaps make us look at the awarding of bonus seconds in the same way we looked at the time trialling in the Tour this year - the amount Rodriguez has gained in bonus seconds by finishing well is certainly comparable to the time Wiggins gained in time trialling in the Tour.
But yes, a day for a breakaway. Perversely, it looks like it will be Contador’s team looking to control and bring the race to a GC fistfight - Katusha I’m sure will be more than happy to let a group of riders an hour down on GC go up the road and hoover up the bonus seconds on the finish line, with Rodriguez more than able to mark Contador on the final 3,8% average climb, back in the Picos de Europa National Park.
The start of the final climb starts on in the town of Quintana HEY THAT’S THE SAME NAME AS THAT GUY’S NAME and although Nairo is Colombian, I’m sure the 260 or so people living there will be excited, in the same way my accountant friend Ben is thrilled by the exploits of Contador.
This Vuelta has of course been a tour of Northern Spain rather than Spain as a whole, but has given us a little more time to savour the regional aspects of Spain as a country, having spent good, quality time in Basque, Galician and Asturian regions, all of which have their own languages and such. The main aspect of Asturian culture that has caught the eye is those odd black pointy hats, known as montera picona. Made of dark wool and worn by men, the point was apparently to protect the face from the cold but is now just ornamental, and forms part of the traditional dress worn by Asturian bagpipe bands. Yes, spanish bagpipes, gaita asturiana. ￼
So, with two stages to grab time on GC, I’d expect, should they not be too tired, GC teams bringing the race back together for a fine finale, although I don’t think that there is both the strength left, as well as the will to do so, given the “Other Queen Stage”, featuring the Bola del Mundo is yet to come. Having said that though, the amount of climbing today (2990 vertical metres) is actually Quite A Lot.
Climbing: 2990 vertical metres
Categorised climbs: 3
124,3km: 3rd cat. Collado de Ozalba, 395m gained, 5,9km at 6,6%
138,0km: 2nd cat. Collado La Hoz, 435m gained, 5,7km at 7,6%
170,0km: 2nd cat.Fuente Dé, 690m gained, 17,3% at 3,9%
Today’s set piece climb is a long climb up the Cuitunigru via the Pajares mountain pass. The Puerto de Pajares is actually a climb in itself, although as it forms part of the drag up to the top of the Cuitunigru it remains unclassified. This stage has widely been cited as the Queen stage (Etapa Reina?) of the race, although the stage of the Bola del Mundo could conceivably also make such a claim.
The race kicks off in the seaside spa town of Gijón, if you’re being generous you could describe it as a spanish Bognor Regis. Generous to Bognor Regis, that is. The 3rd category Alto de Cabruñana serves as the first leg softener and first real opportunity for attacking and is followed immediately with a long drag up through the village of Belmonte and the feed zone in the tiny hamlet of Almurfe. We’ll be treated to the best of the Asturian landscape today. Well, we would be if the TV coverage started early enough, sadly.
The limestone landscape in this part of Asturias have led to the formation of fantastic cave structures - if you were unaware, limestone is very much soluble in acid conditions, even in the weak acid formed by the dissolving of carbon dioxide in rainwater, forming huge underground structures like that near the town of Teverga which the race passes through after the first 1st cat. climb - the local Huerta Cave is an astonishing 12km long.
The climb itself of the Cuitunigru (or Cuitu Negru depending on where you read it) was only recently paved, it was previously a fire road through the national park, and has significant changes of pace throughout the long 19,4km drag to the summit. Indeed, it only gets steeper towards the top, and like seemingly so many climbs in the Vuelta, tops out at around 24%, and while there is a rest day on tuesday, Wednesday’s stage features an uphill finish anyway.
So, Contador, Valverde or Rodriguez? With Froome cracking today, you’d expect him to merely want to get through this stage and make up time potentially at the Bola del Mundo later in the week. It’s certainly going to be fascinating to watch!
Climbing: 4300 vertical metres.
Categorised climbs: 4; 3rd, 1st, 1st and ESP respectively.
41,2km: 3rd cat. Alto de la Cabruñana, 255m gain, 4.4km long at 5,7%.
101,0km: 1st cat. Puerto de San Lorenza, 850m gain, 10km long at 8,5%.
141,7km: Alto de la Cobertoria, 692m gain, 8km long at 8,6%.
164,1km: Valgrande-Pajares. Cuitunigru, 1.340m gain, 19,4km long at 6,9% average.
Intermediate sprints: at 70km in Belmonte & 158,0km.
In looking at today’s profile, I’d expect most riders except perhaps one sighed, saying “ho hum, more mountains then” except perhaps one rider called Alberto.
We end today’s stage in Spain’s oldest national park, the Picos de Europa, allegedly named as such as it was the first part of Europe that sailors returning from the New World would see. The national park also has many of the world’s deepest caves. Traditionally, a local cheese, the cabrales cheese, a blue cheese made from cow’s milk, occasionally mixed with goat or sheep milk, is stored and cured in caves - underground temperatures are broadly stable at around 7-13 degrees despite surface temperatures.
Surface temperatures are of course a concern at the Vuelta where the stages tend not to be run in caves you can make cheese in, and certainly this stage will make the riders work hard (although it potentially may be easier on the grupetto than yesterday). The first climb of the day, the uncategorised Puerto de Pajares starts as soon as the gun goes off, leading into a long descent towards the first categorised climb of the day, but also the town of Mieres which hosts the first intermediate sprint.
Mieres was the town that produced the renowned singer/crooner Victor Manuel who is linked with the Spanish Transition from the dictatorship in the same way Pink Floyd might be linked with the anti war and hippie movements of the 60s. Of course, I am far too cool to post a video of his, so here is a video of a song by La Casa Azul which I should’ve posted when the Vuelta reached Barcelona.
With fewer points on offer throughout the stage as yesterday (there are 3 categorised climbs compared to yesterday’s 5) it’s likely a group of KOM hunters will go up the road, although whether Moncoutie does or not is likely to be influenced by what Simon Clarke is doing. The entire stage is of course building towards a set piece fist fight on the final climb of the day, the famed climb to the lakes of Covadonga, arguably one of the most important climb in Vuelta history, it demands longer range attacks than would have suited Rodriguez in the past.
The most demanding section of the climb is 7km from the summit, an 800m section at around 15% known as La Huesera. Previous winners here include Carlos Barredo, Vladimir Efemkin, Robert Millar, Pedro Delgado, Lucho Herrera, Pavel Tonkov and Laurent Jalabert - plenty of heroes for today’s protagonists to look to emulate.
So, with Rodriguez both content and able to mark everything until the last 500m, it doesn’t seem likely that anyone can beat him. Half of the last kilometre however is downhill, turning up towards the end, meaning the climb itself may not be as selective as it perhaps may need to be to wrest control from Purito and Katusha, particularly with our top 4 been relatively evenly matched.
Climbing: 2830 vertical metres
Categorised climbs: 3 - 3rd, 1st and ESP respectively.
72,0km: 3rd cat. Santo Emiliano, 310m gain, 6,2km long at 5%
146,4km: 1st cat. Alto del Mirador del Fito, 570m gain, 6,8km long at 8,30%
186,5km: Esp. cat. Lagos de Covadonga, 1120m gain, 13,5km long at 7% average
Intermediate sprints: at 64,3km in Mieres (mired puns, anyone?) and at 164,3km in Cangas de Onis (or Cangues d’Onís in Asturian)
Today may be the start of 3 days in the mountains, but it’s actually the start of four consecutive uphill finishes. Indeed, while there may be 7 stages left including today, only two of them could be reasonably described as flat finishing sprinter friendly stages.
Today is certainly also a day for attacking, with four categorised climbs to be had before the final climb of the Puerto de Ancares, the first of which starts after the descent of a fairly meaty uncategorised climb as we leave the start town of Palas de Rei. Indeed, we stay in Galicia until the finale, crossing over to Asturias on the climb of the Puerto de Ancares, remembered for the famous battle between Purito & Cobo last year (no it isn’t; last year it was Brits vs Cobo, obv). Indeed, while Galicia might’ve been the star of the preceding stages, today it’s all about the climbs.
While normally with the road going uphill, this would preempt an attack from Contador, the biggest play I believe will come from Movistar while Contador has an eye on the next two days in particular. With Juanjo Cobo and Nairo Quintata both significantly down on the GC, today’s huge variety of climbs provides ample opportunity for one rider to attack, with Valverde perhaps able to make the bridge across to gain the significant time he has lost before today, both in echelon related mishaps and also more surprisingly in mountainous stages.
It’s increasingly looking like instead of a four way battle for red, a two way battle for the lead between Contador and Purito, with Froome and Valverde fighting for that last podium spot, and on form and the remaining course, it certainly favours both Rodriguez and Valverde, with Purito able to match Contador’s attacks and often take bonus seconds away from him on the line. However, Contador is of course an excellent tactician, there is plenty of bike riding to be done before the race is done.
Stage 14 will certainly be a day for general classification riders to win, and while Rodriguez looks as unbeatable on the steeper stuff as Degenkolb on the flat, I believe a longer range attack from Valverde could see him take the win without taking significant time - the final climb is an average of 8,10% although the climb is separated by a short downhill section, the 2nd half has ramps of 10,4%, 12,8%, 6,5% and finally 10,8% to finish.
Length: 149,2 km
Climbing: 3165 vertical metres
Categorised climbs: 5, 3rd, 2nd, 3rd, 1st and 1st respectively.
34,4km: Alto de Castro, 280m gain, 4,7km long at 5,9%
71,0km: Alto de Vilaesteva, 430m gain, 9,5km long at 4,5%
90,4km: Alto de O Lago, 350m gain, 8,4km long at 4,1%
125,6km: Alto Folgueiras de Algas, 650m gain, 9,7km long at 6,7%
149,2km :Puerto de Ancares, 770m gain, 9,5km long at 8,1% average
Intermediate sprints: at 97,5km to go and 12,2km to go
Stage 13, while not as flat by any means (even yesterday had fewer vertical metres of altitude gained across the day, despite the presence of a 3rd cat climb, with none of those today) does possess a flat finish. Having said that, the up and down almost sawtooth profile it could be argued does favour a break over the team of Degenkolb, who are perhaps the only team fully committed to looking for sprint wins for their man on the Vuelta.
The race rolls out of Santiago de Compostella, the capital of the Galician region and as legend has it, the final resting place of Saint James, one of the 12 Apostles and patron saint of Spain. The City’s cathedral is actually depicted on the Spanish €0.01, €0.02 and €0.05 coins.
The biggest lumps appear on the course in the first 35km, although it may take longer for an acceptable break to form, if today is anything to judge by. The first intermediate sprint is in the town of A Laracha. The letter/word “A” denotes “the”, in a similar way to a, an or am in Irish or Scots Gaelic, languages bearing a passing similarity to Galician. A Laracha sits in the province of A Coruña, whose football club Real Club Deportivo de la Coruña we’ve all heard of. For additional linguistic fun, the archaic english name for the city is “The Groyne”. Coincidentally with the Castillian word for English, Inglés bearing a passing similarity to the word for groin, “Ingle”.
The race undulates up and down from just above sea level, passing through the finishing town of Ferrol after 146,5km, before looping north for a few more uncategorised hills, then an intermediate sprint in the suburb of Catabois at 167,8km before finishing back in Ferrol after 172,8km.
So, today either Andalucia or Caja Rural will have the fruits of their labour pay off, right? Depending on the composition of the break, we could easily see them gaining 15 minutes with Katusha pulling them back under the 10 minute mark; with such intense racing over the past few days and more to come, it’s perhaps unreasonable to expect many teams to work for a sprint finish with Argos-Shimano’s John Degenkolb in such dominant form. Indeed, he’s won 4 stages so far, with only one sprinter ever winning more - Alessandro Petacchi won 5 stages in 2003, but with a sprint not out of the question tomorrow and of course the final day in Madrid generally being a sprint finish, it’s certainly possible for that record to be broken.
Length: 172,8 km
Climbing: 1020m vertical metres
Categorised climbs: 0
Intermediate sprints at 72,5km in A Laracha and at 167,8km in the Cartabois suburb of Ferrol
One last day after today in Galicia, and the 2nd day of the four here hugging the coast but while this stage, compared to stage 10 has a very similar makeup, the 3rd category climb comes right at the end rather than the beginning. After a short transfer north, the race leaves Villagarcía de Arousa (the 8th largest town in Galicia, no less!)
Villagarcía de Arousa is the home of Gustavo César, a cyclist on the Andalucia team who managed to win a stage in the 2009. He’s wearing race number 23 this year and there are two uncategorised rises a little way out of the town, so even if he’s not going to commit to a break, expect to see him attack to show off to his chums.
The first intermediate sprint is held in the town of Noia, which is what one might say is the quintessential Galician town, a small fishing town known for the shellfish harvested in the Autumn and the host of beaches nearby. Some guides compare the coastline around Galicia to that of Norway, and while it would more than likely have more sunshine, it’s not hard to see why that might be not entirely inaccurate.
The 2nd intermediate sprint is held in neighbouring Muros, the bay of which is coincidentally also visible in that photograph. From then on, there isn’t really much in the way of features to the race until the centrepiece of the day, the short yet incredibly sharp climb, the Mirador de Ézaro, 1,9km long at an average of 13,1% with ramps up to 25%. If any stage had “PURITO” written all over it, it’s this stage. Having said that, with Gilbert winning earlier in the race, it might be more favourable for the Belgian, if he’s again feeling good.
Also of note as we leave the province/nation of Galicia (in the same way that Wales is a nation within the UK) is the language: a significant proportion of Galicians speak both Castilian Spanish as well as Galician, with a small minority only speaking Galician, again with parallels to Welsh, one particular feature is that the letter of X is pronounced almost in exactly the same way as J in Castilian Spanish.
Length: 190.5 km
3rd cat, Mirador de Ézaro, 250m gain, 1,9km, 13,1% average
Intermediate sprints: 128,4km in Noia and at 156,7km as the race enters Muros