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Steep climbs and explosive stages expected for 2020 Vuelta a España route

The Vuelta route will be unveiled in December, but early indications are that it will stick to the trusted formula of explosive stages and punishing climbs.

We already know the Giro d’Italia is going old-school in 2020. The Tour de France is embracing a modern, “short-is-long” route that organizers hope will deliver both fireworks and suspense at the same time.

So what’s in store for the Vuelta a España? The Spanish grand tour will officially unveil its route on December 17 in Madrid, but organizers say the Vuelta will stay true to its colors.

The Spanish grand tour is expected to hold the line with a mix of explosive stages, steep walls, “impossible” climbs, with a balance of time trials and sprint stages to keep everyone else happy.

It’s a formula that’s worked well for the Vuelta, which has seen its statue and prestige grow by leaps and bounds over the past 15 years.

Mixing what’s already known — the Vuelta will start in the Netherlands on August 14 and end in Madrid on September 6 — with some tantalizing hints leaked by local media, the Vuelta route should once again live up to its creed.

Let’s start first with what’s confirmed for the 75th anniversary of the Spanish grand tour, the youngest of cycling’s three-week stage races.

In Holland, the race is expected to open with a team time trial in Utrecht in what’s become the norm to open recent editions of the Vuelta. Stage 2 will run from Hertogenbosch — site of the 1996 Tour’s grand départ — and loop back to Utrecht. The third Dutch stage will start and finish in Breda, with sprinters holding court.

Opening stage team time trials have become the norm at the Vuelta. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

With such a long transfer, the Vuelta will start on a Friday, meaning the peloton will have an extra rest day in the first week to help recover from the travel day.

It will be the fourth time the Vuelta has started outside of Spain, and the second in the Netherlands. The Vuelta started in Lisbon in 1997, Assen in 2009 and Nimes, France in 2017. By hosting the Vuelta, Utrecht will become the first city to host stages of all three grand tours.

And now to what’s churning on the rumor mill.

Organizing and planning a three-week grand tour takes months of work. Officials must meet with local politicians, police and government representatives to organize road closures, routes, and logistics. So it’s all but impossible to keep everything under wraps until the official unveiling celebration.

The latest and most tantalizing rumor is that the Vuelta could dip into the French Pyrénées and tackle the fearsome Col du Tourmalet. With favorite Vuelta stop Andorra giving the race a miss this year — with rumors hinting the mountain enclave is hoping for a return of the Tour de France perhaps in 2021 — Vuelta organizers don’t want to skip the Pyrénées altogether.

It’s unclear where the Vuelta will return to in Spain, though some reports suggest the entourage could touch down in the Basque Country, most likely at the airport in Bilbao. Other likely spots include Barcelona or Madrid, with two large airports that could smoothly handle a direct flight from the Netherlands.

Local Basque papers have revealed that the Vuelta is expected to return to the Basque Country for at least two stages.

2020 will likely see the Vuelta visit the Basque country, the cycling heart of Spain. Photo: Jim Fryer / BrakeThrough Media | brakethroughmedia.com

With the mountains of northern Spain and Galicia expected to play a key role in the final week, the middle week could see some transition stages across the Pyrénées before pushing into central Spain ahead of a U-turn for the final week in the north.

Other reports suggest that the 30-percent-graded wall at Mirador do Ézaro in Galicia is also on the menu, perhaps even as a climbing individual time trial. One official suggested the route would be about 30-35km of flat roads until the base of the final climb, meaning that many riders would likely swap bikes for the final assault on the Ézaro wall.

Along the way will be the steep climbs of the Cantabrian range in northern Spain that have proven decisive in so many winning campaigns. There’s also talk of a climbing stage to San Miguel de Aralar, a popular climb with local pros in Navarra.

Per tradition, the Vuelta will end in Madrid, this year on September 6.

This year’s Vuelta could see some top pros staying away that might otherwise race. The inclusion of the 2020 Olympic Games is already having an impact on how many of the top GC riders are approaching the coming racing season. With a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity on a climb-heavy course, many grand tour riders and climbers believe they have a rare chance to try to win a one-day race typically reserved for the classics-style riders and sprinters.

The lure of the Olympic gold medal could see a few riders who typically would race the Vuelta give it a miss, especially riders who race both the Tour and the Olympics. That would mean less time for recovery and altitude training, at least for the GC-style riders.

No matter who shows up at the start line, the Vuelta also promises one of the most hard-fought and dramatic races on the elite men’s racing calendar.