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A short, punchy time trial to open the 2021 Vuelta a España - Preview

Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) during the stage 13 time trial at the 2020 Vuelta a Espana
Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) during the stage 13 time trial at the 2020 Vuelta a Espana (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

When Pelayo Sanchez (Burgos-BH) rolls down the starting ramp of the Vuelta a España at 17:44 CET this evening and simultaneously kicks off proceedings in the race's inaugural time trial, the third and last Grand Tour of 2021 will finally have begun and a longstanding unspoken debt between the Vuelta and the region of Burgos will finally have been settled, too.

After no fewer than 26 stage starts or finishes in the northerly region of Burgos, for the first time in its 86-year history, the Vuelta a España will actually begin there.  Appropriately enough for such a landmark event, the start will be in the region's eponymously named capital city.

It is no coincidence that the 2021 Vuelta start is in the shadow of the city of Burgos cathedral, either, given the cathedral authorities are anchoring the celebrations of the 800th anniversary of its existence this year around events like Spain's biggest bike race. Furthermore, to round off what has been dubbed 'la Vuelta de las Catedrales', this year's Vuelta will end with another time trial finishing just outside another world-famous Spanish cathedral, at Santiago de Compostela in north-westerly Galicia.

The links between the two cathedrals go much deeper than the Vuelta 2021 route, though. Burgos cathedral is a major waymark on the series of pilgrim trails that criss-cross Spain, known as the Roads to Santiago and ending, like the 2021 Vuelta, outside the Galician cathedral. On top of those connections, in 2021 another major Spanish religious festival, the Año Xacobeo or Jacobean Year, is currently being celebrated in Santiago de Compostela. And that, in turn, explains why the Vuelta is finishing in the Galician city and not in Madrid this year.

Quite apart from the religious links, the Vuelta's start in Burgos is a timely reminder of its rich cycling culture, too. Perhaps partly thanks to its proximity to the Basque Country, which has a well-deserved reputation as Spain's cycling heartland, Burgos has a strong tradition in the sport, too. Apart from being the home to Burgos-BH, the only Pro Continental team in Spain with no direct or indirect Basque links, the region's eponymous stage race is one of the three 2.Pro events in the country.

Ever since 1995, the Vuelta a Burgos has acted as a curtain-raiser to the Vuelta a España. And on Monday, the Vuelta will have its first summit finish at Picón Blanco, an ascent which many of the riders present tackled in the Vuelta a Burgos only last week. It shouldn't be forgotten that last year, too, the Vuelta a Burgos acted as a testbed for cycling as a whole, by being the first major post-pandemic race to be held in western Europe.

As for the Vuelta a España, Burgos has often been witness to bunch sprints in Spain's Grand Tour, with Oscar Freire, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish among the former winners on the Calle Vitoria in Burgos' Gamonal district, where the race will be finishing on stage 2 on Sunday.

However, the most recent stage in Burgos was, curiously enough, a time trial - in this case, a 38.7-kilometre chrono in the third week of the 2015 race won by Tom Dumoulin. Dumoulin won by a considerable margin, more than a minute, ahead of Poland's Maciej Bodnar, and it enabled the Dutchman to move into the overall lead.

But despite taking the red jersey and much to the disappointment of the sudden flood of Dutch journalists who had jumped on planes to Madrid and forced the Vuelta organisers to cram an increasingly improbable number of tables in the race's limited-capacity press rooms, Dumoulin could not stop Fabio Aru from turning the tables in the sierra of Avila a few days later.

A TT of two halves

At 7.1 kilometres, and as the opening leg of the 3,417 kilometres that make up the 2021 route, Saturday's time trial is far too short to have similar consequences to Burgos' previous TT. But even so, as Cyclingnews discovered on its recon, the stage 1 course is tricky and technical enough to catch out the unwary or unprepared.

Essentially a time trial of two halves, the first four kilometres are shaped entirely by a third-category ascent to the Alto del Castillo, a climb which features frequently in the opening stage of the Vuelta a Burgos, and which played host to the stage 1 finish in 2021 and 2020.

After leaving Burgos cathedral square, the route almost immediately hits a sharp right and begins to climb up the 2.5-kilometre ascent in the heart of the city's old quarter. Twisting rapidly on two-lane urban roads, initially, the gradient is not too daunting, only six or seven per cent at most. Probably the trickiest points in the first half are the corners, with two much steeper near-180 degree turns acting as the entrance and exit point for a flatter mid-climb segment.

The last half of the climb heads into woodland, on straighter, much more undulating roads, with even a fast 200-metre section of downhill breaking up the ascent. Far flatter at the top, the downhill is quick, fairly broad and well-surfaced, and on paper, only a sharp, badly cambered right-left chicane at its foot could cause real problems.

The course is more than halfway done by then, but the second part is completely different and has its own challenges. For nearly two kilometres riders will blast along broad, open boulevards, with only two big corners to slow them on the slightly downhill section. Even in such a short distance, only the final segment into the finish run on narrower but still fast roads could keep the power riders from opening up some sizable gaps and punishing the lighter-built climbers.

On paper, the time trial looks made for specialists like Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), equally at home on rolling courses as they are on the flat. On top of that, the radical difference between the first and second part of the route may catch out those who either push too hard on the climb and then pay for their effort later or who take it too easy on the ascent and then find there is not enough time to make up the gap in the closing flatter kilometres.

Outside factors that could widen small gaps include the weather. Burgos is forecast to have its hottest day of the year on Saturday, with thermometers reaching a sizzling 38.8°C in the early afternoon. However, with the TT running late into the evening, the worst of the heat should have eased off by then and on Sunday and Monday, while still very hot overall thankfully further drops in maximum temperatures are expected.

"There will be some gaps in the seven-kilometre TT," Vuelta director Javier Guilén told local newspaper El Diario de Burgos earlier this week. 

"In early stages like this one, you always get at least one rider who stands out ahead of the rest." And in the process, apart from donning the red jersey of la roja, that rider will inevitably become the first key reference point for the 2021 Vuelta a España."

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.