PAMPLONA (VN) — With 10 uphill finishes, nearly 40 rated climbs and maybe a half-dozen chances at best for the sprinters, is the 2012 Vuelta a España simply too hard?
Last year’s Vuelta was nearly universally hailed as the hardest Spanish tour ever, with several riders calling it more difficult than even the Tour de France, typically the season’s hardest and fastest race.
Race officials unveiled a route Wednesday that, at least on paper, the 2012 Vuelta is even more demanding that what the peloton confronted last year.
The 21-stage route stays in the northern half of Spain, hitting such brutally steep climbs as Lagos de Covadonga and the Bola del Mundo. The final 2km to a new summit finale at Cuitu Negro set high atop an Asturian ski area still needs to be paved.
Three years ago, in a move that coincided with ASO taking a controlling interest in the Vuelta, officials from the Spanish tour started to make moves to shake up the season’s grand tour.
After its move from April to September in 1995, the Vuelta initially gained momentum and became one of the season’s most hotly contested races. But the race got stuck in third-gear in the middle-2000s, in large part because the race would race over long, flat wide open national highways to take the race from one major city to another. That meant boring stages and almost no public at all along the route.
Two years ago, the Vuelta searched out the smaller, secondary roads of “España profunda” and started to include out-of-the-way villages and roads as the backdrop for the stages. That’s resulted in more exciting competition, with the Vuelta enjoying a resurgence the past few years with nail-biting racing all the way to the end.
VeloNews spoke to Vuelta technical director Abraham Olano following Wednesday’s 2012 Vuelta presentation. Olano defended the increasingly difficult nature of the Vuelta and said that it’s the riders, not the profile, that make a race hard. Here’s what he had to say about the Vuelta’s continuing transformation:
VeloNews.com: The Vuelta has changed a lot in the past few years, with the race moving off the wide, flat highways onto smaller, hillier terrain, what has been the result?
Abraham Olano: There are still ocassions when we have to go on the big highways. What’s curious, is that when we go on the big roads, they crash more. When they’re on narrower, smaller roads, they’re more awake and they crash less.
VN: The race is more interesting?
AO: Well, what we’re trying to do is to make each stage more interesting, both for the racer and for the spectator. Above all, we’re trying to make the final kilometers of each stage as interesting as possible. In Spain, we have a lot of big national highways, we also have a good network of state roads, but behind that, we have smaller country roads, and that’s where we are trying to take the Vuelta. Those are more complicated to race across, but it makes things more interesting for everyone.
VN: And sometimes you even have to build the road, like at Cuitu Negro this year in Asturias?
AO: Someone will be building those roads, but not me (laughs). There is a lot of demand from different parts of Spain, where people are seeking out interesting finales for the Vuelta. People will contact us and tell us, look, we have this great stretch of road. And sometimes there’s not even pavement yet! They ask us to come check it out, and when we can, we go see what’s available. And sometimes it works out that it’s perfect for the race.
VN: Last year, many inside the peloton said the 2011 Vuelta was the hardest ever, do you agree?
AO: The most difficult, no, the most complicated, yes. There were days that on paper should have been easy but in the end became very difficult. In the end, it’s the racers that make the race difficult, not so much the profile of the stage. And that’s the same for this year. Despite having one stage that will top 4,000 meters of climbing, the other stages are not so hard.
VN: And this year, even more difficult?
AO: Well, there are more challenging final climbs, true, but it’s usually just on the final climb that is very difficult. The problem is that the peloton is going so fast these days that at the end of the Vuelta, everyone feels very tired.
VN: You don’t think the Vuelta for 2012 is exaggerated, with 10 uphill finales, you think it’s balanced?
AO: Perhaps it will be exaggerated for the leaders, those who are fighting to win the race. For the rest of the peloton, because the complications come in the final part of the stage, it won’t be so bad. That’s when the gruppetto can form and arrive to the finish line. It will be difficult for the leaders, yes, but a grand tour should not be easy, otherwise it is boring for everyone.
VN: The sprinters do not look to have many chances this year, maybe four or five days at best?
AO: Last year, it turned out that there were only two or three true bunch sprints, but I believe this year there will be five or six mass sprints. We are in a country that is very sinuous and in this case, the fans demand more challenging finales, with a short climb or something to spice things up in the closing kilometers. Sometimes the sprinters do not like that, but this year there will be more opportunities for the pure sprinters. Maybe last year we passed that line.
VN: This year the entire Vuelta stays in northern Spain, was that to avoid long transfers?
AO: Well, sometimes we only stay in southern Spain. We try to combine stages in all parts of Spain, but we’re also trying to reduce the distances of the stages, having stages from 150 to 170km, and Spain is very big, so it’s impossible to go to all parts of the nation. Even this year, we will have more than 3,000km of transfers (note: 1,200km from Barcelona to Galicia after stage 9), so for the teams, that’s one more complication.
VN: How would you characterize the 2012 Vuelta route?
AO: I think it’s a beautiful and interesting route. We hope that it will be as exciting as the Vuelta this past year in 2011. We’re hoping that we will not know who will win the Vuelta until we arrive to the Bola del Mundo on the penultimate stage. That’s a sign that the leaders are at a very high level and it’s a great show for the fans.
VN: Are you hoping that Alberto Contador will race the Vuelta if he’s cleared on his doping charges?
AO: We hope that Contador is here, along with Valverde, Samuel, the Schleck brothers, and whoever else wants to come, but we realize that everyone has to make their own calendar as they see fit. We know it’s complicated to race two grand tours in one season. We want everyone who wants to come to the Vuelta, but we want those who do come to come to fight for the victory.
VN: So the idea of moving the Vuelta back to April and reducing its number of stages is no longer even on the table as it was a few years ago?
AO: That would require entirely changing the calendar once again to do this. The Vuelta is now in its good place.
VN: From the Vuelta’s perspective, the race is better off in September?
AO: I think so, because if we go back to where we were before in April, it’s colder, rainier, snowy. Now it’s warmer, but I think the cyclists prefer heat to cold. What’s good is that we moved the race up a week into August, that’s really helped us. We already saw more public because the kids are still not yet back in school, people are here in Spain on vacation, and they’ve come out to watch the race. We had some of our biggest crowds ever last year.