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2021 Vuelta a España sticks to its mountainous template

Spanish grand tour features more chances for sprinters, a closing-day time trial, and the 'cousin of the Angliru' at Gamoniteiru.

The Vuelta a España is sticking to what works best — lots of mountains and tension until the end.

Officials unveiled the 2021 route, replete with 21 stages following its COVID-shortened edition of 18 stages last year. The Vuelta starts in Burgos on August 14 and ends September 5 in Galicia, meaning the race is skipping its traditional finale in Madrid.

There are a few surprises packed into the route dubbed the “Vuelta de las Catedrales.”

“It’s a difficult route, with a climb already on the third day. The end of the race is demanding as well,” said five-time Tour de France winner Miguel Indurain during Thursday’s presentation. “The question is, do you arrive at top form at the start of the race or try to hit a peak at the end? It will be interesting.”

Officials said more details will be forthcoming for the Ceratizit Challenge by la Vuelta (September 3-5). The route for the 2021 Giro d’Italia is expected to be revealed later this month.

New climbs, old favorites

Balance is the word in 2021. The route features 11 new starts or finishes, with six flatter stages, two steeper uphill puncheur-style, and a traditional challenging final week packed with altitude.

Back-to-back summit finales at Lagos de Covadonga, one of the Vuelta’s classics, and Altu d’El Gamoniteiru, its latest discovery, in stages 17 and 18, respectively, could clinch the overall.

Covadonga, last featured in 2018 when Thibaut Pinot won, was long considered the “queen stage” at the Vuelta until newcomers like the Angliru overshadowed its stature.

“It’s a route that’s like all the Vuelta’s we’ve seen, that it won’t be decided until the final stage,” said 2006 Tour winner Oscar Pereiro. “It’s good to see Lagos back in the Vuelta. It’s true that the last few years that the Vuelta has discovered new climbs, but Lagos de Covadonga is a classic climb of the race.”

The big hype will be around the Gamoniteiru, located in the same spur of mountains called the Sierra del Aramo as the famous heights of the Angliru.

Though not as steep as its nearby cousin, the Gamoniteiru still packs a punch. Topping out at 1,791 meters (5,910 feet), the 15.1km climb has an average grade of 9.69 percent, with ramps as steep as 17 percent in the final kilometer. What makes it even more painful is that there is hardly any breathing room in the 1,500 vertical meters of climbing.

Week two sees plenty of challenging climbs, including Velefique and Valdepeñas de Jaén, two familiar but challenging climbs. The route tackles the very hard Pico Villuercas in stage 14, and finishes the next day with a leg-breaker stage into El Barranco, hometown of Carlos Sastre.

Fast out of the gun

The Vuelta opens with a short, 8km technical time trial in the city streets of Burgos, with the start ramp below the portico of the Burgos cathedral (the final stage ends in front of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela). Stage 2 is one for the sprinters, with stage 3 punching straight into the mountains with a  summit finale at Picón Blanco. In what’s the first mountain-top finale, the climb features ramps as steep as 17 percent.

Stages 4-6 see at least one day — stage 5 — for the sprinters, while steeper, uphill punches await in stage 4 and 6. The short but steep climbs will see the puncheurs trying to upset the apple cart. The first week ends with stage 7, the first truly challenging day for the climbers, with six mountain climbs, of which two are first category, ends with the steep Balcón de Alicante.

“The first week is a little bit different than normal, with the first big climb coming early and some challenging terrain,” said race director Javier Guillén. “We want to give something to everyone this year.”

More chances for sprinters

The past several editions have made it hard on the sprinters in the bunch. The Vuelta has ramped up the difficulty over the past decade or so that the “flatter” stages on the profile book would sometimes still pack 3,000 vertical meters of climbing.

Similar to the template that the Tour is following this year, where up to eight sprints might be in play in July, the Vuelta will see more chances for the fastest riders in the bunch. On paper, there are at least stages that could tip in favor of the sprinters. What’s gone is the final sprint stage into Madrid.

“The sprinters are going to see more chances in the Vuelta this year,” said ex-pro and three-time world champion Oscar Freire. “They will want to take advantage of their opportunities.”

Book-ended by time trials

This year, the race ends with a longer — at least by Vuelta standards — 33.7km individual time trial. What’s missing is the penultimate mountain stage to decide everything. Instead, after rolling out of Asturias, the race could still come down to some classics-style grinds over the steep hills in Galicia before the final test against the clock.

That could tip the table in favor of anyone with a time trial edge, especially if the likes of Primož Roglič returns to defend his title. Of course, the race could well be decided by then.

Heat will be a factor

Starting even earlier than usual, due to the Olympic Games on the calendar, the Vuelta will start in mid-August. That will mean there could be some very hot days, both on the northern meseta and when the race dips south into Andalucía and Extremadura. The closing stages across the north of Spain will likely see cooler temperatures, but a higher chance of rain. After last year’s “Vuelta del Otoño,” the sometimes-suffocating heat of Spain’s summer could be a deciding factor in 2021.