Stage 1: Burgos (Catedral VIII Centenario 2021)–Catedral
Inside a cathedral
Burgos, a city of 175,000, is this year celebrating the 800th anniversary of the founding of its world renowned cathedral. The Vuelta is honoring this historic event by starting the stage 1 time trial at the entrance of the cathedral facing the Plaza de Santa Maria — with the blessing of its archbishop! The course then passes through the city’s narrow streets before starting a stair-step ascent to Burgos Castle, 80 meters (262 feet) above the start. The 1.2-kilometer climb at a 7.1-percent grade has been given a Cat. 3 ranking to decide the Vuelta’s first holder of the KOM jersey.
The second half of the 7-kilometer circuit is downhill and flat before finishing outside the cathedral. On such a technical course with constant turns and uphills in the opening half, the stage winner will likely be a rider with high power output and climbing skills, rather than a pure time trialist. So, this prologue-style TT could see an initial battle between GC favorites Primož Roglič and British rookie Tom Pidcock, fresh off his Olympic mountain-bike gold medal, could use his outrageous bike-handling and climbing skills to beat them both.
Stage 2: Caleruega (VIII Centenario de Santo Domingo de Guzmán)–Burgos (Gamonal)
Sprint, sprint, sprint!
The religious theme of the Vuelta’s opening continues with a stage starting in Caleruega, the birthplace of Santa Domingo, founder of the Dominican Order, who died 800 years ago. On a course that zigzags its way north, back to Burgos and its modern suburb of Gamonal, there is plenty of time for a breakaway to stick; but with crosswinds likely in the finale and everyone having fresh legs, expect the sprinters’ teams to work toward a mass-sprint finish.
The top contenders are Fabio Jakobsen of Deceuninck-Quick-Step (who returned to winning ways in July for the first time since suffering terrible facial injuries in a high-speed crash at last year’s Tour of Poland); Arnaud Démare of Groupama-FDJ, and Jasper Philipsen of Alpecin-Fenix.
Stage 3: Santo Domingo de Silos–Espinosa de los Monteros (Picón Blanco)
A savage summit
Still in the Burgos region with its typical strong winds, this long stage 3 will already be challenging before reaching the savage finishing climb to Picón Blanco. This demanding ascent (7.6 kilometers at 9.3 percent, with 17-percent pitches) to an abandoned military post has been used in the five-day Tour of Burgos, including last year, when Belgian phenom Remco Evenepoel was first to the 1,485-meter (4,900-foot) summit. He’s not starting this Vuelta, but others in the top dozen of that 2020 stage are potential GC contenders, including Mikel Landa, Richard Carapaz, Simon Yates, Fabio Aru and Ben Hermans—who can use their knowledge of the climb to challenge the likes of Roglič, Pidcock, Adam Yates, Egan Bernal, Romain Bardet, Sepp Kuss, Miguel Ángel López, and Giulio Ciccone. This is the defining stage of opening week and is likely to create the hierarchy for the rest of the Vuelta.
Stage 4: El Burgo de Osma–Molina de Aragón
Another mass sprint?
After three days in the Burgos area, the Vuelta heads southeast across the plains of central Spain to the small town of Molina de Aragón, dominated by its 10th century castle, two hours east of Madrid. High heat and strong winds can play a part in racing in this part of Castilla-La Mancha, perhaps giving rise to a fast-moving peloton smothering the day’s breakaway; so the chances are for a second mass sprint in three days in which Jakobsen, Philipsen, and Démare are again likely to be the fastest finishers.
Stage 5: Tarancón–Albacete
Watch for echelons!
Wide-open plains and strong crosswinds are traditional features of stages that end in Albacete. In the past, such stages have resulted in sprint winners such as Sean Kelly in the 1980s, Djamolidin Abdujaparov in the ’90s, and Oscar Freire and Alessandro Petacchi in more recent decades. This year, if the winds kick up, look for powerful teams such as INEOS Grenadiers to join forces with the sprint teams from Belgium, Lotto-Soudal and Deceuninck-Quick-Step. They’ll have different goals—INEOS hoping to distance some climbers, the Belgians seeking the stage win—but there should be a spectacular afternoon of flat-out action.
Stage 6: Requena–Alto de la Montaña de Cullera
Breakaways—with a savage ending
This is a stage with all kinds of possibilities. The first half is mostly downhill with a few rollers, providing the perfect terrain for a big breakaway to form; the second half, from Valencia to Cullera is completely flat along the Mediterranean Sea, where coastal winds could split the peloton (and the break). But then they all have to face a savage climb to the finish at the beautifully preserved 10th century Castle of Cullera. The zigzag ascent averages almost 10 percent for 1.9 kilometers. It looks like a perfect setting for a veteran such as Alejandro Valverde or a rookie like Pidcock to make their mark on the race.
Stage 7: Gandia–Balcón de Alicante
Into the mountains!
This is the first true mountain stage, with a total of 3,800 meters (12,500 feet) of uphill work, over six categorized climbs. It opens with the Cat. 1 Puerto La Llacuna right out of the blocks and ends on the summit of another Cat. 1 ascent, the Balcón de Alicante, which is 8.4 kilometers’ long at a 6.2 percent grade, with double-digit pitches on a quarter of the climb. Add blistering temperatures to the climbing and anyone who has a bad day here can wave goodbye to the final victory. These may not be the steepest and longest climbs, so an elite group is likely to form over the 152 kilometers, with the stage likely to go to a rider with a strong finishing kick, such as Kuss, Carthy, Ciccone or Adam Yates.
Stage 8: Santa Pola–La Manga del Mar Menor
Along the water
The Mediterranean is never far from sight on this flat stage that hugs the Costa Blanca, briefly loops inland and, after passing through the city of Cartagena, heads toward the Mar Menor lagoon; the peloton then races north along a narrow spit of land with water on both sides to finish in the tourist resort of La Manga. The aerial shots should be spectacular, while possible coastal winds will add to the challenges of what should be this Vuelta’s fourth sprint finish. An early breakaway could stick, but the sprinters’ teams should still be fresh enough to control matters. Another chance for Démare to add to his potential list of Vuelta stage wins that began in his only other appearance in 2015.
Stage 9: Puerto Lumbreras–Alto de Velefique
First high-altitude climbs
With a total of 4,800 meters (more than 15,000 feet) of climbing and the finish on this Vuelta’s first Especial summit, all the GC riders will want to be at their very best. Again, none of the day’s four climbs are particularly steep. The serpentine ascent to the Alto de Velefique is more than 20 kilometers long, with a 5.4 percent average grade (the final 13 kilometers average 6.4 percent), with just one of the kilometers in double digits.
When a similar stage was raced in 2009, Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal took the victory in a late surge; the top two GC contenders, Cadel Evans and Valverde, were only 16 seconds back. So, although overall favorites Bernal, Landa, Carthy, and Roglič will likely be in the mix, the time differences should be minimal. Whatever happens, the whole peloton will be grateful that a rest day awaits them on the Costa del Sol.
Stage 10: Roquetas de Mar–Rincón de la Victoria
Hot breakaway day
On the face of it, this looks like another stage for the sprinters, but after 160 kilometers of almost completely flat roads along the Costa del Sol, the route turns inland to climb the Cat. 2 Puerto de Almáchar (which has frequent double-digit pitches in the last 4.7 kilometers). This hill is followed by 16 kilometers of descending roads to the finish near Málaga. With no guarantee of success, the sprinters’ team will be happy to let a breakaway go clear and contest the finale. It is the sort of stage that could suit riders like Lawson Craddock, Gianluca Brambila of Trek-Segafredo, or Geoffrey Bouchard of AG2R-Citroën. The big guns will be saving their powder for stage 11.
Stage 11: Antequera–Valdepeñas de Jaén
Sting in the tail!
The three times that Vuelta stages have ended atop the wall-like finish in Valdepeñas de Jaén, a Spanish climber has won solo, a handful of seconds ahead of a strung-out field: Igor Anton in 2010, Joaquim Rodriguez the following year and Dani Moreno in 2013. The “wall” is only a kilometer long, but the first part, angling straight up a narrow street through the Andalusian town has long stretches at a 25-percent grade. Those three past stage winners have all since retired but two men who finished as runners-up on this wall a decade ago are in the 2021 field: Valverde and Poels. So, their intimate knowledge of the challenging climb, which flattens out in the final 300 meters, could prove very useful. This stage 11 is a short 130 kilometers, with a succession of rolling hills and a couple of categorized climbs, so expect a reduced bunch to arrive at the foot of the “wall” for what should be a rousing finale.
Stage 12: Jaén–Córdoba
Breakaways vs. sprinters
This unusual stage first heads mainly downhill to the city of Córdoba, where two hilly loops await the peloton: one of 26 kilometers, the other 44. This final loop features a not particularly steep Cat. 2 climb that is followed by 19 kilometers of descending and flat roads into the center of the city. That’s long enough for a sizeable group to reform, giving a sprinter like Ewan an outside chance of winning. But the chances are that the day’s breakaway will hang on until the finish, with any number of strong riders having a chance of success. Perhaps one of the Astana-Premier Tech riders, Luis León Sánchez or Gorka Izagirre.
Stage 13: Belmez–Villanueva de la Serena
Long, hot breakaway stage
This stage and stage 16 are the only remaining flat stages of the 2021 Vuelta, so those teams still with sprinters have a strong incentive to control any breakaway to ensure a field sprint in Villanueva de la Serena, a small town in western Spain. With more than 200 kilometers to cover across the low hills and shallow valleys of Extremadura, it will be a long day under a probably blazing sun. It could also be a stage favorable to the stronger spring classics riders like Sep Vanmarcke, Matteo Trentin or Zdeněk Štybar.
Stage 14: Don Benito–Pico Villuercas
Down and up the same mountain
With 3,200 meters (over 11,000 feet) of climbing, mostly packed into the final 80 kilometers, this mountain stage is even tougher than it looks. The climbing starts with 8 kilometers at an easy 5 percent to the Cat. 3 Puerto Berzocama; then comes 8 kilometers on a high plateau before the real action commences: a nasty 2.8-kilometer wall averaging 14 percent on striated concrete to a saddle just short of the day’s finish on the Pico Villuercas.
But there’s still 60 kilometers of racing to go. This commences by descending for 12 kilometers to Guadalupe on what will be the first part of the finishing climb—which could be a nasty psychological trial when they return here after a hilly 35-kilometer loop. The climb to the Pico Villuercas summit is almost 15 kilometers long at over 6 percent, with a 10-percent section in the middle. This is the first time that this mountain has featured in the Vuelta and its first stage winner will almost certainly be a top GC contender, maybe Roglič, Bernal, or Adam Yates.
Stage 15: Navalmoral de la Mata–El Barraco
Climbing in the Avila heat
This last stage before a long transfer to Spain’s northern coast and the second rest day is a classic medium-mountain stage. It has four climbs in the peaks between Avila and Madrid, so it will attract huge Sunday crowds. None of the climbs has grades steeper than 6 percent, but with the two Cat. 1 climbs each measuring between 15 and 20 kilometers, their length will be a factor as the riders climb in the typical summer heat of Avila. The last climb, a Cat. 3, summits 5.4 kilometers from El Barraco, so expect to see a finishing sprint between a reduced group of favorites.
Stage 16: Laredo–Santa Cruz de Bezana
An enterprising breakaway?
This is the last flat stage of the 2021 Vuelta and, yes, the sprinters should be favored, but it’s also one of the last chances for teams that haven’t won any stages. So the short hills in the middle part of this looping course along the coast near Santander should inspire the more enterprising riders to make the day’s breakaway stay clear till the finish. Perhaps it will be a day for a grand-tour rookie like Trek-Segafredo’s Quinn Simmons to break through.
Stage 17: Unquera–Lagos de Covadonga
Up to the Picos de Europa
This is the first of two extremely mountainous stages, this one in the Picos de Europa above the Cantabrian coast, the second in the Asturias. Together, they will decide who’s going to finish on the final podium. The chances are that the favorites will be content to mark each other on this stage, knowing that tomorrow is the really big day. With that in mind, it’s probable that a breakaway group of decent climbers will form in the opening two hours before they reach the heart of the stage: two laps of a 42-kilometer circuit that includes the massive climb of La Collada Llomena. This Cat. 1 ascent is only 7.6 kilometers long, but it averages over 9 percent and has more than 2 kilometers of grades as high as 14 percent.
The second lap will see just the strongest survive in the break, while severely thinning out the peloton. Then comes a 30-kilometer downhill approach to the stage’s classic finale up to the Lagos de Covadonga—that’s 12.5 kilometers long with an erratic collection of gradients from below 4 percent to over 10 percent. It’s a stage that could well favor climbers who are out of contention on GC, perhaps Mark Padun of Bahrain-Victorious, Jay Vine of Alpecin-Fenix, or Aleksandr Vlasov of Astana-Premier Tech.
Stage 18: Salas–Altu d’El Gamoniteiru
Beware of El Gamoniteiru!
Anyone who still has some gas in the tank after such a tough series of stages can envision having an outstanding day on this truly savage finale. Each of the two Cat. 1 climbs in the opening 90 kilometers are brutal: the Puerto de San Lorenzo is 10 kilometers at almost 9 percent and the Puerto de la Cobertoria is 8 kilometers at a similarly steep gradient. These are just a preamble to an intense final 30 kilometers. First comes the 12-kilometer Cat. 2 Alto de Cordal, which has a gentle uphill grade but then plunges 7 kilometers at a double-digit rate to the town of Pola de Lena at the base of El Gamoniteiru.
This mountain is named for Alberto Fernández, the local Cantabrian rider who died in a 1984 car crash at age 29, when he was at the height of his pro career. This monster Especial category climb is 15 kilometers long, averages 10 percent and has more than 20 pitches exceeding 13 percent! It starts on wide roads that have multiple kilometers with double-digit sections, followed by 2 kilometers of gentler slopes before ending with 6 ultra-steep kilometers on a very narrow mountain road to the 1,764-meter (5,787 feet) summit. Basque climber Landa may well take the honors, but keep an eye on Roglič, Carthy, and Bernal. But whatever you do on this September Thursday, don’t miss this peak’s spectacular Vuelta debut!
Stage 19: Tapia–Monforte de Lemos
Made for breakaways
There have been no “easy” stages in this Vuelta, so after perhaps the toughest one of all, most of the peloton will be looking for some respite on this close-to-200-kilometer trip through Galicia, Spain’s most northwestern province. It’s constantly up and down, with three categorized climbs in the opening 60 kilometers—perfect for the formation of a big breakaway group. It’s anybody’s guess who will win this one, but it’s certain that the top-placed GC men will be taking it easy before the challenges of the final weekend.
Stage 20: Sanxenxo– Mos. Castro de Herville
A classic climbing stage
The climbs in the second half of this penultimate stage may not look that impressive, but that’s because the course is never far from the Atlantic coast of Galicia; so, though the highest point of the day is only 632 meters (just over 2,000 feet) above sea level, the five climbs all start near the ocean. The course has been compared to that of Liège–Bastogne–Liège, but the cumulative length of these five Spanish climbs is 37.5 kilometers, twice that of the final nine climbs in the Belgian classic. That means this stage is equivalent to a true mountain stage, not just a hilly classic. With the finish on a Cat. 2 climb that’s 10 kilometers long with frequent steep pitches out of sharp corners, only a strongman will win the stage; and it’s possible that if the podium contenders are separated by seconds rather than minutes, this ultimate climbing stage might have more impact than the final day’s time trial. Look to Cofidis’ Guillaume Martin or Qhubeka-NextHash’s Fabio Aru to battle for the stage win; the latter will be on the final climb of his professional career.
Stage 21: Padrón–Santiago de Compostela
The final hurdle
Whoever is wearing the leader’s red jersey on the start ramp to this relatively long time trial, he will have to be on his best form to clinch overall victory. In a similar TT, starting and finishing at the same points in the 1993 Vuelta, there was a bitter fight between the two Swiss stars Tony Rominger and Alex Zülle, who were both ace time trialists. Before the stage, Rominger was leading his compatriot by 77 seconds on overall time. Zülle won the TT by 48 seconds from Rominger—who thus took the second of his three Vuelta titles by just 29 seconds. Their closest challengers in the TT finished minutes behind.
This year’s final TT is a little shorter, but the right-angle-shaped course is likely to have crosswinds on the opening half that contains a long climb to the first split after 13 kilometers, while the second half should have a tailwind. If they both start the race and emerge healthy after three weeks of racing, this Vuelta could come down to Roglič vs. Bernal, also both ace time trialists, battling for victory. The finish is in the center of historic Santiago de Compostela, the end point of the centuries-old Camino de Santiago, which draws thousands of pilgrims every year to the cathedral that houses the tomb of James the Apostle.