The immensely long, straight Avenida de Vitoria in Burgos will play host to French sprinter Arnaud Démare’s first opportunity on Sunday to complete his Grand Tour set of stage wins with a victory in the Vuelta a España.
The Groupama-FDJ rider already has five stage wins in the Giro d’Italia and two in the Tour de France on his palmarès, although an early bad crash in the Tour this July put paid to any chance of Démare adding a third stage for at least this year.
Hence Démare’s redoubled interest in the 2021 Vuelta a España, where, after eight wins this season, the Frenchman is still both on the hunt for his first WorldTour victory of the year and his first in the Spanish Grand Tour.
Despite five starts in the Tour and four in the Giro, Démare has never raced the Vuelta. Rather than show concern about his lack of first-hand knowledge of the race, the 29-year-old said earlier this week that making his Vuelta debut in Burgos "makes me feel as enthusiastic as a neo-pro when he starts his career.
"I’ve raced very little in Spain, so it will be good to discover a new race at my age. Things like the hot weather will be a new challenge as well," he added.
Démare said that he was not exactly in denial after his early crash in the Tour, which left the Frenchman outside the time limit on stage nine as a result of his injuries. But he had found it hard to accept all the same, at least at first.
"It was very difficult to get over what happened to me in the Tour, and in fact I didn’t want to watch the race on TV after I had to abandon. I just looked at each day’s results and that was it," he recalled.
"But I always had the Vuelta in the back of my mind, and with a lot of support from my parents, wife and sister I managed to get back into it all. And this Sunday, assuming it’s not too windy, we’ll have the first sprint."
Barring Rudy Molard, a former Vuelta a España leader back in 2018, it’s no exaggeration to say the entire Groupama-FDJ Vuelta line-up is built around Démare. Italy’s Jacopo Guarnieri remains his main lead-out man while Olivier Le Gac, part of Démare’s support network of riders but missing from several races this year, forms part of the team’s line up in Spain.
Groupama-FDJ’s renewed interest in the 2021 Vuelta's bunch sprints could be boosted by the race having an unusually high number of flat stages this year. Last year there were just three clear-cut bunch sprint opportunities after the Dutch and Portuguese legs of the race were axed or substituted because of the pandemic. This time around, the Vuelta has no fewer than seven such stages in 2021, four of them in the first week.
The first of them this Sunday will see the Vuelta’s finish in an outlying suburb of Burgos called El Gamonal. The finishing straight, regularly used by the Vuelta up until 2013, is one of the race's most striking: 1.5 kilometres of corner-less straightaway on a broad two-lane boulevard.
This Paris-Tours-esque finish is preceded by several kilometres of broad, untechnical city boulevards, as well as a long, straight downhill segment at around four kilometres to go. All in all, should the wind not cause any echelons on Burgos exposed flatlands, as happened in the Vuelta in 2019, the likelihood of a very fast bunch sprint are high.
However, a word of warning: the last time the Vuelta reached the same finish in the Avenida de Vitoria in 2013, at the last minute Bauke Mollema managed to foil the sprinters with a blistering solo attack in the final kilometre. And in 2019, when the Vuelta had a similarly flat stage starting in the province of Burgos, it was ripped into several echelons almost before the start flag had dropped.
Should a bunch sprint materialise, Démare’s chances of a spell in the red jersey are now virtually nil after he finished 47th in the opening TT, 28 seconds down. But he is by far the most decorated of the sprinters taking part in the Vuelta this year and has to be considered the top favourite.
Démare’s stand-out position among the fastmen, in any case, highlights the absence of some other top sprinters like Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), initially due to race the Vuelta but still recovering from his Tour injuries. Neither Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick Step) nor Pascal Ackermann (Bora-hansgrohe), who dominated what few Vuelta sprints there were last year, are present.
"Maybe not all the big names are here, but riders like Fabio Jakobsen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) will be up there for sure," observed Démare earlier this week.
"Davide Cimolai (Israel Start Up Nation) has been very good in the Giro, too, and he could be a factor for the more technical sprints. Plus there will always be new names to watch out for as well."
Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), who took three second places in the Tour this year as well as a stage of the Vuelta in 2020, is one relative newcomer. Equally, Juan Sebastian Molano (UAE Team Emirates), normally Fernando Gaviria’s lead-out man, but who took two stages in the Vuelta a Burgos last week, will also be keen to add a third win in the region before the race leaves Burgos on Tuesday. Given Monday is a summit finish, Sunday is his only realistic chance.
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.
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