Blazin' Saddles: La Vuelta a Espana - 7 key stages of the 2019 race
Starting with a team time trial in Torrevieja and finishing in Madrid with a showpiece circuit race in the Spanish capital, the 2019 Vuelta a Espana is a tough, persistently hilly affair. Here's a closer look at seven of the key stages where the battle for red will be won and lost.
Kicking off with a box-ticking 10km pan-flat team time trial around the salt flats of Torrevieja, two unpredictable stages follow before the first certain bunch sprint of the race. The first of those eight summit finishes comes early – in stage 5 – with the others split evenly over the course of a race.
But with three flat stages in the final week, the sprinters will have good reason to stick it through to the end. The only individual time trial comes on the race's full day in France after the first rest day, a largely flat 36.2km ride from Jurancon to Pau.
One for the chrono specialists, the only rider from the GC favourites who will be relishing the ITT will be the Slovenian Primoz Roglic. But given the profile of some of the more mountainous terrain, it may not prove so much of a crucial point in the race.
Stage 5: L'Eliana to Observatorio Astrofisico de Javalambre (170.7km)
The first major summit finish of any Grand Tour rarely decides the overall outcome of the race but usually sees at least one or two general classification hopefuls fall by the wayside.
Two lower-category climbs here will get the blood flowing before the Vuelta's first ever ascent of the Pico del Buitre. It's an 11.1km climb with an average gradient of 7.8% and extensive sections in double figures, peaking at 16% straight after a short downhill blip in the fifth kilometre.
Pandering perhaps to the current trend in cycling, the road to the Javalambre Observatory on the summit (just 50m shy of 2,000m) is nothing more than a gravel track. 'Buitre' translates as 'vulture' in Spanish; there should be plenty of them hovering above the cycling carcasses knocked for six on the first serious day of climbing.
Stage 7: Onda to Mas de la Costa (183.2km)
A flat opening third is followed by a succession of lower-category climbs which shouldn't prove too taxing. But then, in true Vuelta fashion, Spain's answer to Inland Revenue – the Agencia Tributaria – come calling with a climb of hellish proportions that will carry out an internal audit on all the red jersey hopefuls. Those fraudulent riders writing cheques their withholding legs can't cash in will be slapped with a hefty fine in the general classification stakes as their rivals make some key capital gains.
When last used in 2016, the Alto Mas de la Costa – although just 4.1km long – took its toll on the peloton with its average gradient of 12.3%. Switzerland's Mathias Frank emerged the strongest from the break ahead of Sky's Leopold Konig as favourites Alberto Contador, Esteban Chaves, eventual winner Nairo Quintana and a yo-yoing Chris Froome all came home together.
As the riders made the left-hand turn onto the final climb, the message "Hell starts here" was daubed across the road in paint. We seriously doubt things have got any more heavenly since.
Stage 9: Andorra La Vella to Cortals d'Encamp (94.4km)
Over 3,000m of climbing is crammed into this short stage of under 100km which boasts five climbs and very little of anything resembling a flat road.
The Coll de Ordino kicks things off, tackled from the opposite side as that used in the deciding stage of the Vuelta last year, won by Enric Mas. If it's a gentle 8.9km ascent at 5% then things get serious with the HC climb of the Coll de la Gallina (12.2km at 8.3%) which features regular double-digit ramps and twice peaks at 14%.
Two short but sharp climbs take the riders to the foot of the final ascent of Cortels d'Encamp, which is reached by a new 3.5km gravel track as the riders skirt the Engolasters lake and pass through a tunnel. The damage could well be done on the dirt road and the steep opening 2km of the final climb before the gradient eases near the finish.
The organisers have described this Andorran stage as "epic" while local retired rider Joaquim Rodriguez – who was behind bringing the Alto de Engolasters to the Vuelta – has described the sterrato section as "spectacular".
Stage 13: Bilbao to Los Machucos (166.4km)
"Like riding up a wall" is how Chris Froome described the climb of Los Machucos when it first took a bow on the Vuelta in 2017. The Briton conceded 42 seconds to his red jersey rival Vincenzo Nibali that day on the former cattle-herding track – a narrow, irregular climb, which peaks at 28% and only drops below double digits on the four short occasions the road heads downhill.
A series of steep steps (or 'rampas inhumanas' as the locals say), it's not as continuously hard as the Angliru and it only rises to around 900m, but it's a true brute whose gradient is felt even more keenly in the rain, when getting out of the saddle is impossible for fear of skidding on some of the concrete ramps.
Before the deciding climb of Los Machucos and its finish alongside the Monument to the Pasiega Cow, there's the small matter of six preceding climbs, none of which are particularly long nor steep, but whose cruel succession will be felt in the legs ahead of the final, arduous, see-sawing rise to the line.
Stage 16: Pravia to Alto de la Cubilla (144.4km)
If the profile makes this stage look quite tricky, a glance over the stats should make the riders sleep easy the night before. The two opening Cat.1 climbs may both contain some tricky double-digit segments, but they're nothing compared to Los Machucos or the Mas de la Costa. And then there's that final climb with its average gradient of just 6.2% which could well lull many into a false sense of security.
For coming right after the second rest day, this stage could catch some legs still in downtime mode. And while hardly steep, the final 27km climb of the Alto de la Cubilla is a real grind which could hold some hostages. In short: the views from the top will be spectacular but not every GC rider will be in a frame of mind to enjoy them.
Stage 18: Colmenar Viejo to Bercerril de la Sierra (177.5km)
Held in the Sierra de Guadarrama, a mountain range close to the Spanish capital, where Fabio Aru overturned his deficit on Tom Dumoulin on the penultimate day of the 2015 Vuelta, this stage features four first-category climbs and a fast, technical descent to the finish.
An intriguing loop sees the riders tackle the same two climbs from both directions. The Puerto de Navacerrada (11.8km at 6.3%) warms things up ahead of the gentler west side of the Puerto de la Morcuera (13.2km at 5%). After turning round, the race returns up the east side of the Morcuera (10.4km at 6.7%) before tackling the reverse side of the Navacerrada, which is called the Puerto do Cotos (13.9km at 4.8%).
None of the climbs are particularly tough – and the gradient only once goes into double figures in the opening kilometre of the first ascent. But this will be deep into the third week and the temperatures of central Spain close to Madrid should be very high.
The nature of the course will mean the clever riders will have eyes in the back of their heads for the first climb so they can recon the final descent to the finish. Such a finale will assure that the overall winner of the race will be as adept going down as he is going up.
Stage 20: Arenas de San Pedro to Plataforma de Gredos (190.4km)
After 15km the riders can wave goodbye to anything resembling a flat road and buckle down to the task in hand: six categorised peaks and numerous ups-and-downs over the remaining 175km which will, if it hasn't already, decide the outcome of the race.
While none of the climbs are particularly steep, the two Cat.1 ascents – the Puerto de Pedro Bernardo and the Puerto do Peña Negra – are 18.4km and 14.2km long respectively. At the back end of a draining race, this could prove perfect ambush terrain particularly for a GC hopeful in possession of a strong team.
You can imagine a well-oiled Astana, Jumbo-Visma or Movistar having a field day here, with whoever's leading the race forced on the back foot and on red alert right to the finish. After all, it's often the gentler climbs where the real damage is done rather than the ridiculously steep double-digit ramps which, perversely, can act as a leveller among the top riders.
With just the final processional stage into Madrid remaining, the leader after stage 20 will be the man in red atop the final podium in the Spanish capital. Who's your pesetas on?