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Where the Vuelta will be won: Spanish grand tour on a slow boil

NIMES, France (VN) — It might start in France, and end in Madrid, but the Vuelta a España always has been, and certainly will be this year, about the mountains.

Just like any Vuelta, the 72nd edition features a few new twists and novelties — how about riding through a Roman arena in Saturday’s opening team time trial? But the winner will be decided on the climbs. With nine summit finales, this year’s course has plenty of vertical.

“The Vuelta will be again a tough race,” said Quick-Step sport director Geert Van Bondt. “It will be grueling, even for the best climbers. With steep gradients, some kicking out at 25 percent, and the extreme temperatures, [it will] test the riders these three weeks.”

With a stellar start list — the only notable names missing are Giro d’Italia winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb), defending champion Nairo Quintana and the injured Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) — the Vuelta could deliver the most engaging GC fight of the season. Who is at this year’s race? It’s an embarrassment of GC talent: Chris Froome (Sky), Romain Bardet (AG2R), Fabio Aru (Astana), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), Esteban Chaves, Adam and Simon Yates (all three Orica-Scott), Illnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), George Bennett (Lotto-Jumbo) to name a few.

What makes the Vuelta so unpredictable?

The Vuelta comes at the back-end of the season, and that means riders have a wide range of fitness. Some contenders have tired legs from the Tour de France. Others are comparatively fresh, after having raced the Giro d’Italia. A few need a big result to secure their respective futures. Add Spanish summer heat and endless pressure, and the Vuelta is the season’s most surprising, and entertaining, grand tour to watch.

Call this the Vuelta on slow boil. The 2017 edition becomes harder as it unfolds. The hardest climbs are packed into the final week, including a return of the fearsome Alto de l’Angliru on the penultimate stage. The GC battle could come down to the final ramp on the final weekend.

Week one: A few early surprises

Despite the race’s long history dating back to the 1930s, Saturday’s start in France is only the third time the race has ventured beyond the borders of Spain to start. The first foreign adventure was in Lisbon in 1997, and the second in the wildly successful start in Assen, Netherlands, in 2009.

It won’t take long to get back into Spain, however. Saturday’s team time trial is followed by a transition stage to Gruissan. The race quickly dips into Andorra for stage 3 before returning to the more comfortable confines of the Iberian peninsula.

Week One could deliver a few surprises. The explosive “puncheurs” will have plenty of chances to win a stage, and any one of the GC favorites who don’t have strong legs out of the gate could cede early ground.

The climbs come early and quick. Stage 3 into Andorra features two difficult climbs in the final hour of racing. Stages 5 and 7 serve up explosive finales, with pure sprinters looking for their few chances in between.

Things heat up by the second weekend, with uphill finales at Xorret de Catí in stage 8 and Cumbre del Sol in stage 9. Both are sharp, explosive climbs where the first major GC differences will be set.

“The race ramps up as it goes,” said Orica-Scott sport director Neil Stephens. “The first half of the Vuelta has some surprisingly difficult stages that don’t look difficult on paper, but might catch people off-guard.”

The 2017 Vuelta will likely be won in the mountains. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Week Two: Heat and more climbs

Week two will see the main GC favorites pedal to the fore. And temperatures will rise.

After finishing second three times, Chris Froome (Sky) wants to get that elusive Vuelta victory. The course stacks up in his favor. Only Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil have won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and no one’s done it since the Vuelta moved to late summer in 1995.

“It certainly feels as if I’ve got unfinished business with this race,” Froome said this week. “It’s a race I love doing, but it’s relentless. It’s more mountainous than the Tour, and being in mid-August, it’s common to have temperatures up in the mid-40s [well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit]. It’s absolutely brutal.”

That undoubtedly will be the case in week two. Every stage in the second week, with the exception of stage 13 to Tomares, features at least one first category climb.

The Vuelta’s first major mountaintop finale comes in stage 13 to Calar Alto, with the double-whammy of the La Pandera climb in stage 14 and the Monachil ascent in Stage 15. Be sure to tune in for these three days—the climbs will certainly divide the wheat from the chafe.

Spain’s summer heat will take a toll in week two. As the route pushes south into Andalucía, the thermometer will soar into the high 90s and above on a daily basis. Managing recovery and hydration will be vitally important.

The podium picture will be more complete by the end of two weeks of racing. The pure climbers will need to stick it to Froome early if they hope to have a chance at overall victory.

Week 3 to decide all

A long transfer into northern Spain on the second rest day carries the race into the decisive final week. Cooler temperatures in the climbs along Spain’s “green coast” will come as a welcome respite, but the roads won’t get any easier.

The inclusion of a 40.2km individual time trial at Logroño at stage 16 tilts heavily in favor of Froome. Last year, he took back enough time on the climbers in a late-race TT that likely would have delivered victory had he not lost time on the road to Formigal. Froome will be looking to avoid mistakes like that this year, and the Logroño TT will be his best chance to sew up the GC.

Even if Froome takes big gains, the climbers will have further opportunities in the closing stages.

The Vuelta delivers another surprise the very next day on stage 17 to Los Machucos. The race has been able to dig up these incredibly steep and hidden climbs with consistency over the past 15 years. The final climb features ramps as steep as 25 percent, with short respites as it stair-steps up the 6km summit. The final kilometer is flat, which should set up an incredible stage.

Two more transition stages lead to the Vuelta’s “queen stage” and the return of the fearsome Angliru. Back for the first time since Chris Horner won the 2013 Vuelta, the Angliru is one of Europe’s steepest climbs.

The Vuelta never lets up.

“With a course like that, you have to take it like you’re racing a ‘classic’ every day, because anything can happen,” said BMC’s Samuel Sánchez. “One day you’re fighting for the GC, but you can be out of it the very next day. In the Vuelta, you cannot afford even one slip of concentration.”

What’s it going to take to win? Consistency, strong climbing legs, and a solid time trial.

Can the climbers beat a “fresher” Froome? That will be the big storyline of this Vuelta.

And a predictably unpredictable Vuelta course sets the tone. We expect nothing less from the Vuelta.

The 72nd Vuelta begins Saturday in Nimes, France, and concludes September 10 in Madrid.

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