Blazin' Saddles: All you need to know about the 2019 Vuelta route
Eight mountain-top finishes but ample opportunity for the sprinters are in line for the 2019 edition of La Vuelta a Espana. With a return to Los Machucos and an arduous stage in Andorra that includes a previously unused gravel climb, it's a balanced route which favours the pure climbers. Felix Lowe runs through what's on the typically spicy menu.
Cycling's great and good descended on Alicante on Wednesday for the route presentation of next year's Vuelta. Among those present were the reigning champion Simon Yates (in a snazzy black shirt), his fellow podium finishers Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez, the world champion Alejandro Valverde (in a regulation Movistar suit and tie) and retired legend Alberto Contador, who rocked the turtle-neck-jumper-and-blue-suit combo with aplomb.
Starting in Torrevieja a week later than usual on Saturday 24th August and running through to Madrid on Sunday 16th September, the 3272.2km route offers fireworks from the outset with four summit finishes in the opening week and a slightly atypical third week that may prove highly unpredictable.
While no stage breaks the two-hundred-kilometre barrier and the race only once ventures above two-thousand metres, make no mistake, the 74th edition of La Vuelta will be no siesta. Here's a run through of the main talking points from the route presentation.
The route in a nutshell
Just 0.8km shorter than last year, the race starts at Salinas de Torrevieja with an 18km team time trial and ends in Madrid with the customary city-centre circuit race. It's a largely anti-clockwise route that eschews the south and instead heads up through Catalonia, Andorra, France, the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias.
There are eight summit finishes, eight sprint stages, a single downhill finish in the mountains, a couple of stages suited to breakaways, the opening TTT and one individual race against the clock.
Two time trials
If the opening 18km urban pan-flat team time trial should not put too much of a wedge between the main contenders for the red jersey, then the race's only individual time trial offers fertile territory for significant time gains. The largely flat 32km race against the clock comes after the first rest day and takes place entirely in France. While it won't be enough to catch the eye of Tom Dumoulin, it could put a nail into the chances of many GC riders.
Eight sprint stages
Next year's route should put to bed with a bedtime story the notion that the Vuelta is only a climbers' race, with up to eight finishes potentially on offer for the peloton's fast men.
Following the salt-lake TTT on day one, three successive stages could well boil down to sprint finishes – although, this being the Vuelta, they are hardly flat. Stage 2, for instance, features three categorised climbs and some rolling roads ahead of the expected bunch kick in Calpe, while Stage 3 to Alicante covers similar terrain.
Stage 4 to El Puig, however, culminates with a long descent and then 25km of entirely flat roads before what will surely be a ding-dong sprint. Stage 14 along the north coast to Oviedo should suit the fast men who, unlike in previous years, will have greater reason to stick things out beyond the second week – for the final week offers three occasions for sprints, including the race's final showdown in Madrid.
Eight summit finishes
Although there is one fewer summit showdown than last year's Vuelta, the 74th edition of the race still provides fertile grazing land for the mountain goats. If the early ascents of the opening stages should not be enough to despatch the sprinters, then their time in the spotlight will be put on hold with the race's first summit finish in Stage 5.
Before the first big GC showdown on the second Sunday, there are two more summit finishes in the opening week – including up the steep ramp of Mas de la Costa in Stage 17, where Nairo Quintana consolidated his overall lead on a day where Mathias Frank soloed to glory.
Gravelly GC summit meeting in Andorra
If Simon Yates defends his Vuelta crown then his first major rendez-vous will be on his 'home' roads of Andorra. Just 96.6km long, Stage 9 features five beastly climbs including the Coll de la Gallina and the arduous Alto Els Cortals d'Encamp, where Mikel Landa won what was deemed one of the hardest ever Grand Tour stages in 2015.
Spicing things up even further, the finale is preceded by four kilometres of gravel on the Alto de Engolasters, which is being used for the first time in the race's history. It may come early, but this could well prove to be the race's 'queen stage'.
"Overall in terms of just how much climbing there is in such a short space of time I think you could call it the hardest single stage of the 2019 Vuelta," the race route designer and former Tour podium finisher Fernando Escartin told Cyclingnews.
Only two breakaway stages
Increasing the sprint count while keeping in many mountains looks to have hampered the opportunities for the breakaway specialists. While most terrain in Spain has the ability to play into the hands of the canny opportunist, on paper it's just the two stages following the ITT that jump out for the baroudeurs.
Stage 11 through the Basque hills culminates with a tough finishing circuit in Urdax that should surely split the pack and play into the hands of a break.
Meanwhile, a day later, in Stage 12 to Bilbao, an early climb could provide a decent platform before a tough trio of ascents in the final third.
Return to Los Machucos
Six climbs precede the final slog to Los Machucos in a fiery Stage 13 that promises to put the cat among the pigeons. Climbed for the first time in the 2017 Vuelta, it was here, on gradients pushing 30 percent, that the Froome, in red, lost time to his rivals on a day Stefan Denifl took the spoils.
Savage end to second week
Back-to-back stages in the Asturias – the second, oddly, on a Monday – might mean that the GC battle is done and dusted before the final leg of the race. There are nine climbs spread over 310-odd kilometres in total, with the pick of the pair probably Stage 16 to the Alto de la Cubilla.
A late second rest day
Contrary to usual practice, the second rest day comes on a Tuesday. It follows that particularly tough second week and is followed by just five stages before the finish.
An easy final 'week'?
It certainly looks so on paper – at least, from the comfort of the armchair. Things kick off with the longest stage on the Vuelta – an undulating 199.7km affair that gradually drops down towards the finish at Guadalajara, where the sprinters should return to the fold.
Before another possible sprint on the ramped finish into Toleda two days later, the GC battle will resume with a mountainous stage in the Sierra de Guadarrama that concludes after a fast descent off the back of the fourth climb.
Ahead of the traditional sprint finish in Madrid the decisive stage of the week is an intriguing affair that concludes on the Cat.3 Alto de Gredos after a series of climbs of mixed length and difficulty. With practically no flat roads over the course of 189km, Stage 19 is perfect ambush territory for any team or riders who still have some petrol in the tank.
Who's going to be there?
Logically, though, one can assume that Yates will be present at the start – following a Giro-Vuelta programme also adopted by Alejandro Valverde of Movistar. The world champion does not like the look of the Tour de France route and instead favours his national race, which only features one climb above 2,000m.
Valverde will be joined by Movistar team-mate Nairo Quintana, with the Colombian set to ride both the Tour and Vuelta this year, while the third of the Spanish team's trident of leaders will tackle the Giro and Tour (ditto Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain-Merida).
Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) looks set to repeat his Tour-Vuelta programme while you would expect one – or both – of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas to be present in Spain, perhaps in a farewell ride if Team Sky have still not found a new sponsor.
Other riders we can expect to see roll down the TTT ramp at Salinas de Torrevieja are Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) and last year's runner-up Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) should race the Vuelta to complete his targeted hat-trick of major races in 2019, while the increased opportunities for the sprinters should ensure that there is a competitive field of fast men involved.
Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana, Movistar TeamGetty Images
It's too early to tell – and we still don't know who's going to crash out of one of their earlier season objectives and then target the Vuelta as a fall-back – but this is a route that should see Quintana, Valverde, Lopez, Pinot, Kruijswijk and Mas all push defending champion Yates for the red jersey.
Surely it's time for Movistar to deliver the goods – and who better than the main in rainbow stripes, Alejandro Valverde?