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Vuelta route: Short mountain stages remain key ingredient

Gregor Brown / Updated
Chris Froome was isolated in the Vuelta's stage 15, which is what made the racing so exciting. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

FLORENCE, Italy (VN) — The Vuelta a España kept an explosive ingredient in its route recipe for 2018: a short summit-finish mountain stage.

When organizer Unipublic raised the curtains Saturday on the 20th and penultimate stage to be held in Andorra, everyone perked up, remembering 2016 when Nairo Quintana upset grand tour king Chris Froome en route to Formigal.

It is not unheard of to include six mountain passes over 1,000 meters in a grand tour stage, but squeezing those into 105.8 kilometers complicates life for some and opens up opportunities for others.

Of the nine summit finishes the Vuelta a España named, the final one could be the most challenging. It will certainly be decisive with only a flat sprint stage in Madrid on Sunday.

In Andorra, the principality nestled in the mountains between Spain and France, the stage will climb 4,000 meters. The first “small” pass over the Comella is followed by Beixalis, Ordino, again Beixalis and Comella, and a summit finish to Coll del la Gallina.

Race director Javier Guillén wanted to end the 2018 route on a high. In 2016, he did so on the Aitana climb. In 2017, Alberto Contador celebrated his final professional victory on L’Angliru. As per tradition, the race finishes with the final day on Madrid’s flat roads.

Guillén told AS Saturday that the idea is “nothing is resolved until [la Gallina] and that it can change everything.”

The Vuelta experimented with a similar stage in 2016 but used it near the end of the second week. After one kilometer, Team Sky’s Chris Froome found himself isolated without teammates. Rivals Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador attacked. He never saw them again and lost the Vuelta over the short 118.5 kilometers.

Froome said this year that he learned “two aspects” from 2016 that he took forward: “have numbers at the front so my teammates can control and, my reasonability, making sure important rivals don’t go clear without me following.”

The Vuelta organizer included a 129-kilometer stage to Sierra Nevada in 2017, but that failed to shake up the overall classification quite the same.

The Tour de France rolled out its own short stages recently as well.

In 2017, the Tour’s 101-kilometer stage to Foix, Alberto Contador, Mikel Landa, and Nairo Quintana all took turns attacking and forced race leader Fabio Aru to defend all day. For 2018, the French grand tour will go a step further with stage 17, a 65km race with more than 3,000 meters of climbing.

“You start and you can almost see the finish line,” Quick-Step sport director Brian Holm told VeloNews. “It’s like doing a criterium and a BMX and cyclocross race together, riders just going mad.”

The Gallina ingredient in the Vuelta’s recipe may fail to change the overall, but it is guaranteed to rattle the foundations before Unipublic awards the final red leader’s jersey and trophy in Madrid.

The Tour’s Foix stage added a much-needed balance with the long, 200-plus-kilometer stages through France’s heartland. Last year, organizer ASO included eight days over 200.

“The long stages are part of cycling’s story, but I think that in modern cycling you get much more out of short stages with just two mountains,” team Movistar manager Eusebio Unzué told VeloNews.

“Like you saw in Formigal in the Vuelta or in the stage to La Planche des Belles Filles in the Tour, which wasn’t very long, but raced all-out.”

The Vuelta in 2018 only includes one stage over 200, the 208.8-kilometer hilly stage in Galicia mid-race.

“There are short and explosive finishes, high-mountain stages, and in the middle, there are stages that nobody can say are transitional,” Guillén told Zikloland.

“They all contain something, they all have a reason in the end. The race can be lost on any day.”

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