The Vuelta a España is sticking to its “harder-the-better” philosophy, and the 2016 edition appears to be even more difficult than last year’s brutal version.
The route for the 71st edition of the Spanish grand tour will be officially unveiled Saturday in Spain’s Galicia region. For 2016, the Vuelta is packing in even more climbs from August 20 to September 11 than it did last year.
According to Spanish media reports, the Vuelta could include as many as 10 major mountaintop finales, one more than in 2015. If true, a climb-heavy route confirms that the Vuelta organization is not shying away from its recent focus on a dynamic, climb-riddled course design.
Some riders are grumbling that the Vuelta is becoming too difficult, with more than a few suggesting it’s harder than the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France. Last summer, Mark Cavendish skipped the Vuelta and summed up the thoughts of many, saying, “The Vuelta has become stupid!”
Despite a sprint-friendly world championship course set for Qatar in early October and a climb-heavy route at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in August — two events that might have tempted organizers to design an easier route to appeal to a wider range of riders — the Vuelta is keeping its focus on going uphill.
The Vuelta will start with a team time trial in Ourense, a spa town in northwest Spain, and will conclude September 11 in a repeat of a Vuelta tradition, with a sprint stage down the Paseo de Castellana in downtown Madrid. In between will be a steady stream of suffering for the peloton.
With such an obsession on vertical, the Vuelta risks losing its status as a favorite training ground for worlds-bound riders. When the Vuelta moved from April to September in 1995, the race became the preferred road to the world championships, and nearly every eventual winner came out of the Vuelta.
Two recent world champions — Rui Costa (2013) and Michal Kwiatkowski (2014) — did not race the Vuelta, the first two riders to break that trend. That was a sign that riders can find less-demanding race options beyond the Iberian peninsula that still provide sound training without too much suffering ahead of the worlds. That could be bad news for the Vuelta, which always counts on worlds-bound riders to add star power to its start list.
Vuelta officials don’t seem worried. They insist the race has found a sweet spot since it started to search out new roads in a concentrated push into “España profunda” a few years ago. Long gone are boring, flat stages held along four-lane highways between major cities that induced heat-induced siestas. The Vuelta now pedals onto narrower, more interesting roads and tackles previously undiscovered summits such as Mirador de Ézaro and Peña Cabarga, two climbs that return to the Vuelta route this year. That trend has proven extremely popular with fans and media alike.
“The Vuelta has discovered a new identity,” race director Javier Guillén told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “We want an unpredictable race that leaves the suspense of the winner to the last possible moment.”
The modern Vuelta has certainly delivered that. Last year’s battle came right down to the final climbs, with Fabio Aru finally shedding Tom Dumoulin to claim his first grand tour.
While some worlds-bound riders might skip the excesses of the Vuelta, the flipside is that harder course design has started to draw top-shelf GC riders. Two-time Tour winner Chris Froome of Sky has made the Vuelta an integral part of his racing program, starting every edition since 2011 except in 2013 because Sky believes that putting three weeks into Froome’s legs in September pays off going into the following season. In fact, last year’s Vuelta field included every major GC star with the exception of Alberto Contador, who skipped it after racing the Giro and Tour.
Things could be different this year, and the Olympics’ presence on the schedule will result in more than a few big GC names steering clear of the Vuelta. With a climb-heavy route on tap for the August 6 Rio road race, nearly all the top climbers and GC stars are hoping to strike gold. The Tour-Rio combo, therefore, could mean that riders like Contador and Froome will skip the Vuelta this year. The only major riders so far to commit to the Vuelta include Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Esteban Chavez (Orica-GreenEdge). The Vuelta’s position after the Tour, however, typically sees more than a handful of big names lining up, depending on how their respective seasons unfold.
Folks worried about how Tour de France owner ASO’s purchase of the Vuelta would impact the Spanish race can breathe easy. Under ASO’s wing, the Vuelta has not only consolidated its position on the calendar, but in some ways it’s become even more Spanish. There is a Tour de France veneer on the race, with some ASO sponsors and French teams crossing over to the Vuelta, but for the most part, the Vuelta remains very much a Spanish race.
One thing that should make racers and bus drivers happier this year is a reduction of transfers in the 2016 route. For the most part, the distances between stage starts and finishes has been dramatically reduced, a trend that is also reflected in the Giro and Tour for 2016. Riders who complained of driving three hours each day after a stage will be happy with what they see Saturday.
Rather than zig-zagging across Spain, this year’s route largely stays in the northern half of the country. Galicia is expected to see the opening five stages. The route will follow transition stages across the northern meseta, with climbs into the rugged heart of Asturias and Cantabria and a possible return of Vuelta favorite Lagos de Covadonga. Many expect a return to the Basque Country before sweeping east into the Pyrénées for at least one major summit finale.
From there, team buses will get a workout in the closing week. The Vuelta is expected to transfer south to the Alicante region along the Mediterranean coast, a favorite destination for mid-winter training camps for several top teams. A time trial along the coast road to Calpe and a climbing stage in the closing days should settle the GC before a long haul back up to Madrid.