A full-length final day time trial for the first time in nearly two decades looks set to shape much of the outcome of the 2021 Vuelta a España, on a course also featuring a notably easier first half than 2020 and a much harder final week.
The Vuelta last had a final individual time trial in 2014 also finishing, like in 2021, in Santiago de Compostela, the same northwestern city that was the Vuelta's endpoint seven years ago when the race last finished outside Madrid. However, it was only 9.7 kilometres long, ended up being partially neutralised because of wet weather on an overly dangerous finish, and had no major effect whatsoever on the GC.
In 2021 the final stage should be a very different story. This year's time trial is 33.7 kilometres long through rolling terrain, tough enough and long enough to decide the outcome of the Vuelta, as last happened in 2002 when Aitor Gonzalez ousted Roberto Heras from the overall lead on the race's final time trial into Madrid.
The 2021 Vuelta route, which was revealed Thursday morning, contains several of the modern-day race's trademarks, including numerous summit finishes, relatively few 'transition' stages and only one stage over 200 kilometres.
The Vuelta starts in the northern city of Burgos with a short, technical urban time trial, and the first major mountain challenge comes as soon as stage 3 with a summit finish on the nine-kilometre, first category Picón Blanco.
Barring the short, sharp ascent to Alto the Cullera on stage 6, where Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) won in the Volta ao Comunitat Valenciana last year, and a difficult trek through the mountains of Alicante on stage 7, the sprinters will have no fewer than four opportunities in the 2021 Vuelta's first week. That's already one more than the total number of bunch sprints in the whole 2020 Vuelta, and another two or three stages will likely end up in bunch sprints as well.
As for the overall battle, assuming the GC favourites hold fire on the Picón Blanco and in Alicante, as both days are comparatively early in the race, the Vuelta's fourth summit finish, at Velefique in south-east Spain on stage 10, may well prove another story.
Only previously tackled in 2009 when Ryder Hesjedal took a breakthrough stage win, Velefique's relentlessly switchbacking 13 kilometres of ascending in the midst of the arid moonscape mountain ranges of Almeria culminate a stage featuring 4,500 metres of vertical climbing. If that wasn't hard enough, they are likely to be run off in extreme heat, too - this is Andalusia in August, after all. With a rest day immediately following, Velefique could well be a good day for overall favourites to make a first, serious, test of the GC waters.
The second week, after a relatively easy first half, piles on the difficulty as the race zigzags north through Andalusia and into the remote westerly region of Extremadura. A double ascent of the previously unused and dauntingly steep Pico de Villuercas ascent on stage 14 immediately precedes one of the most attractive mountain rides of the whole race - a non-stop rollercoaster of first, second and third category climbs through the little known Sierras de Avila. The stage concludes with a speedy downhill finish into El Barraco, the hometown of Spanish climbing legend Jose María Jiménez. As cliffhanger finales in the second week go, stage 15 could hardly be bettered.
A massive transfer north then ushers in the third week of the Vuelta, with two monster climbing stages through the Picos de Europa mountains the first serious challenges. First up is the 22nd ascent by the Vuelta to the Lagos de Covadonga, one of the country's most emblematic climbs and home to some of the last wolves in Western Europe. Then it's straight onto the Gaimoniteiru, a 15-kilometre long ascent averaging 9.6 per cent, on stage 17. Although not as steep as the neighbouring Angliru, any 15.1km climb like the Gaimoniteiru with final gradients of 17 per cent and several cement sections will surely be a major challenge - particularly it represents the last real opportunity for the climbers to make an impact in the race.
Other stand-out features of the 2021 Vuelta include the complete absence, for a second year running, of stages on foreign soil and the return to the southernmost reaches of Spain after the 2020 edition stayed strictly on the country's northern half. Then there's the welcome return of Spain's equivalent of the Mur de Huy, the leg-breakingly steep finishing ascent in Valdepeñas de Jaén on stage 11, and what will surely be an emotive homage to Alejandro Valverde in his last ever Grand Tour, in the shape of stages 8 and 9, either starting or finishing in his native region of Murcia. On the downside, there are also numerous and sometimes overly lengthy transfers between almost every stage finish and the next day's start, but one welcome bonus is an appealing rise in the number of medium mountain stages, too, in the second and third week.
Stage 10 to Rincon de la Victoria features a tricky second category climb just before the finish, as does stage 12 to Cordoba, while stage 20 to Mos, with numerous short, punchy ascents, has been described by former racer and route designer Fernando Escartin as a 'Galician version of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.' But in terms of the overall Vuelta outcome, it's the final time trial 24 hours later, which will almost certainly make the greater difference.
2021 Vuelta a España route
- Stage 1: Saturday August 14 - Burgos - Burgos (ITT), 8km
- Stage 2: Sunday August 15 - Calaruega - Burgos, 169.5km
- Stage 3: Monday August 16 - Santo Domingo de Silos - Picón Blanco, 203km
- Stage 4: Tuesday August 17 - El Burgo de Osma - Molina de Aragón, 163.6km
- Stage 5: Wednesday August 18 - Tarancon - Albacete, 184.4km
- Stage 6: Thursday August 19 - Requena - Alto de Cullera, 159km
- Stage 7: Friday August 20 - Gandia - Puerto de Tibi, 152km
- Stage 8: Saturday August 21 - Santa Pola - La Manga del Mar Menor, 163.3km
- Stage 9: Sunday August 22 - Puerto Lumbreras - Velefique, 187km
- Rest Day 1: Monday August 23
- Stage 10: Tuesday August 24 - Roquetas de Mar - Rincon de la Victoria, 190.2km
- Stage 11: Wednesday August 25 - Antequera - Valdepeñas de Jaén, 131km
- Stage 12: Thursday August 26 - Jaén - Cordoba, 166.7km
- Stage 13: Friday August 27 - Belmez - Villanueva de la Sierra, 197.2km
- Stage 14: Saturday August 28 - Don Benito - Pico de Villuercas, 159.7km
- Stage 15: Sunday August 29 - Navalmoral de la Mata - El Barraco, 193.4km
- Rest Day 2: Monday August 30
- Stage 16: Tuesday August 31 - Laredo - Santa Cruz de Bezana, 170.8km
- Stage 17: Wednesday September 1 - Unquera - Lagos de Covadonga, 181.6km
- Stage 18: Thursday September 2 - Salas - Alto de Gamoniteiru, 159.2km
- Stage 19: Friday September 3 - Tapia - Monforte de Lemos, 187.8km
- Stage 20: Saturday September 4 - Sanxenxo - Mos, 173km
- Stage 21: Sunday September 5 - Padrón - Santiago de Compostela (ITT), 33.7km
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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