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Analysis: More balanced Vuelta route still packs punch

The route that was unveiled this week is old school — at least by Vuelta standards, writes Andrew Hood.

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Just when it seems like the other grand tours are trying to emulate the Vuelta a España, the Spanish grand tour decided to go old-school. At least by Vuelta standards.

Next year’s Tour de France looks to have learned a few things from its southern cousin. Shorter mountain stages, explosive finales, and few time trial kilometers are now part of the Tour landscape. In fact, the 2019 “grand boucle” looks a lot like a Vuelta with a French accent.

Just as the Tour has adapted many of the Vuelta’s innovations — ASO owns both races so some cross-pollination is expected — the Vuelta delivered a route for 2019 that’s almost un-Vuelta in many of its aspects.

Who would have ever thought the Vuelta would have the longest individual time trial of all three grand tours? It does in 2019.

“It’s a complete route, but maybe a little bit different than what everyone is accustomed to seeing lately,” said ex-pro Alberto Contador at Wednesday’s presentation. “They’ve incorporated some new climbs that are longer and they wanted to look for something a bit different. We’ll see an attractive and hard-fought Vuelta.”

The Vuelta is still the Vuelta. The 2019 route is packed with trademark short, explosive stages — there isn’t one stage longer than 200km — but some of the characteristic touches of the modern Vuelta are missing.

Gone are the endless rows of torturous walls, or muros in Spanish, that have punctuated the Vuelta the past few editions. There are a few more opportunities for sprinters and the overall elevation gain looks a little more humane, especially in the transition stages. Organizers have toned down some of the over-the-top exaggerations. There’s still plenty of climbing and yes, the season’s longest time trial.

For race director Javier Guillén, the 2019 edition is a chance to celebrate a decade of innovation as well as the 10-year anniversary of the introduction of the race leader’s red jersey. The “maillot rojo” is not as emblematic as the Tour’s yellow jersey or the Giro’s pink jersey, but it’s catching on. That’s thanks in large part to how willing the Vuelta has been to try out something new.

“The route is loyal to its style and philosophy to mix innovation and tradition, and keep the drama right up until the end,” Guillén told EFE at Wednesday’s presentation. “This Vuelta includes all the elements that have defined the race over the past several years.”

Like any modern Vuelta, this is a race about discovering new mountains. Guillén and his staff are obsessed with finding untapped climbs in Spain’s endless seams of mountains and rumpled terrain. For 2019, five new climbs — Javalambre, Ares de Maestrat, La Cubilla, Gredos, and Monte Arraiz — make their Vuelta debut.

The Vuelta has also reincorporated some longer, more sustained climbs. For geographic and geologic reasons, the Vuelta lacks the consistent 20km-plus climbs of the Alps featured in the Giro and Tour. This year, organizers do their best with what they have. La Cubilla, which grinds up 28km in Spain’s Asturias region, is about as close as it gets in the Iberian Peninsula.

“They’ve taken away some of the most extreme finales, but the route still has the Vuelta look,” said ex-pro Joaquim Rodríguez, who helped design the stages in Andorra. “There won’t be a week when nothing happens. They don’t want the race to go into ‘siesta’ mode, and they’ve created an interesting route.”

There are three decisive chunks of the race. The first comes in Andorra at the end of the first week, which, as Contador said, “will separate the wheat from the chaff.” After a dip into France for the time trial at Pau, the second week traces across Asturias, always the race-breaker in northern Spain. Finally there’s the penultimate stage across the Gredos mountains on the final weekend. With around 4,000 vertical meters and five rated climbs, the stage has “raid” written all over it.

The 2019 Vuelta route is missing a marquee climb, such as the Anglirú or Bola del Mundo, to give identity to the race. Instead, there are some interesting routes in Andorra, including what’s now almost a cliché of a few token kilometers of gravel roads. Los Machucos, so decisive in Chris Froome’s 2017 Vuelta victory, and the Mas de la Costa still pack the Vuelta’s trademark steepness. The penultimate stage is a lumpy, drawn out affair across five climbs over the Gredos Mountains personally designed by 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre.

This Vuelta might not pack a “wow” factor, but its mix of longer, more sustained climbs balanced with a few Vuelta-style, gut-buster finales works well.

It’s the Vuelta’s larger sum that works in this route. The Vuelta is still the Vuelta, but without some of the unnecessary gimmicks.