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Froome getting framed, López going loco, and more: In praise of the Vuelta a España’s wild, wacky mountain stages

The Vuelta revealed a cartoonish 10-climb stage for its 2023 edition – in homage, we look back at some of the grand tour's most madcap moments.

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If movie makers made grand tour stages, they would look to the Vuelta a España for inspiration.

The Spanish grand tour has a habit of serving up some of the wildest and wackiest stages on the grand tour calendar, building cartoon-shaped courses that give an open invitation for attacks, intrigue, ambushes, and traps.

From Chris Froome being found out by the Spanish-speaking climbers on the roads to Formigal, to Miguel Ángel López plummeting into a race-abandoning rage in Galicia, the Vuelta’s jagged stage shapes have delivered enough drama to fill the finest box set.

And Vuelta a España brass seems to have set the scene for another chapter of chaos in the 2023 edition of the race.

Also read: Tourmalet, Angliru anchor mountain-riddled 2023 Vuelta

Stage 20 and its 10 – count ’em, 10 – categorized climbs look like something made for Mario Kart, and beg for a big bust-up in the race for the red jersey.

Vuelta 2023, stage 20: No, it’s not a joke.

“At 208 kilometers long and just one day before the grand finale, this is the longest stage of La Vuelta. The route doesn’t feature any particularly challenging climbs, though it will include over 4,000 meters of slopes spread out over 10 3rd category climbs,” warned Vuelta route collaborator Fernando Escartín.

“The terrain is winding and crazy, allowing little to no time to relax. Not even on the way down.”

Sitting in the serene-looking lands outside of Madrid, the stage from Manzanares El Real looks poised to join some of the Vuelta’s brimming back catalog of barnstormer stages.

In hope and anticipation of us seeing another wild ride on September 16 this summer, here’s a quick trip through a few of the modern-era Vuelta’s weirdest, wildest days:

Stage 20, 2021: Miguel Ángel López goes loco in Galicia

An image from Spanish TV of the moment López abandoned the 2021 Vuelta.
An image from Spanish TV of the moment López clambered into the team car and abandoned the 2021 Vuelta. (Photo: Spanish TV)

The most “WTF” day of racing in recent memory?

It’s got to be.

Movistar started the final day of racing of the 2021 Vuelta two-three on the podium with Enric Mas and López and seemingly set for its best Vuelta performance since Alejandro Valverde won red in the Caisse d’Epargne era of 2009.

It ended the day second on the podium and pondering what to do about a seemingly loco López after the Colombian threw a tantrum and exited the race, just kilometers from the finish.

 

Vuelta 2021, stage 20: The shape of the stage that saw ‘Superman’ throw in his cape.

Ineos burst the race open early into a Liège-Bastogne-Liège-shaped stage through the jagged Galician hills. The rollercoaster parcours looked ready-made for mayhem, and chaos quickly ensued.

The Movistar massive was burst wide open in a series of splits, and López was caught out as a bunch of his GC threats – including teammate Mas – rampaged up the road.

Losing time and reportedly ordered by team staff to stop chasing, López lost his Colombian cool while he watched his third-place finish spin out of his grasp. On-the-road arguments ensued as an increasingly furious López dialed into the team car.

Despite the directors’ best efforts, the angered climber clambered off the bike and into the team car some 20km from the finish line to crown one of the most bizarre racing moments in recent memory.

Two weeks later, Movistar dissolved the Colombian’s contract, and he rapidly returned to his former team, Astana.

And we all know how that worked out …

Stage 15, 2016: Chris Froome worked over in Formigal

Froome was caught napping when Contador and Quintana attacked early and turned the race upside down.

It was all going right for Chris Froome as the 2016 Vuelta rolled into its final week.

Hot off the back of a third Tour de France title and riding in the wheels of a steaming Team Sky train, Froome was poised second overall and less than one minute back on Nairo Quintana. And with a 37km TT on the near horizon, Froome was top “dawg” over his Colombian foe and seemingly all set on red.

Until a silly short stage in the Spanish Pyrénées rolled along, that is.

 

Vuelta 2016. stage 15: Froome will have tried to scrub this to parcours from his memory.

After a 5,000-meter suffer-fest in France the day before, Froome and Team Sky were found snoozing at the start of a short and spicey 15th stage from Sabiñánigo.

Quintana and a super-motivated, fourth-place Alberto Contador attacked in the opening minutes and drove a wedge between their lead group and the scattered Sky team after it was caught in a traditional midday siesta.

With only two teammates for company, Froome was forced to bat away repeat attacks by Quintana’s Movistar teammate Valverde while Quintana and Contador crushed the pace up front.

Froome was eventually left stranded by the Sky team as Movistar kept digging, and he desperately worked to limit the damage to the fast-flying breakaway. But even the huge-engined time trial talent could only do so much while Quintana rampaged to second on the stage.

Froome rolled in nearly three minutes back on his Colombian foe, a GC chasm even he couldn’t bridge in the few days of racing that remained.

The “Froomigal” stage was hailed the race-day of the decade. It could still sit as one of the best of the 21st century.

Stage 20, 2015: Astana gangs up on Tom Dumoulin in the Guadarrama

Tom Dumoulin had to deal with disappointment in front of everyone at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana
Dumoulin was destraught after Aru ripped the red jersey off his back. (: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

Tom Dumoulin lit a fire within Dutch fans as the 2015 Vuelta rolled toward its conclusion.

The then-rising “Butterfly of Maastricht” had spent six days wearing red and never dropped lower than fourth after he held the wheels in the mountains and mashed the climbers in the late-race TT.

By stage 20, Dumoulin sat on a slender six-second lead over closest rival Fabio Aru and an Astana team committed to victory after seeing the Sardinian and his co-captain Mikel Landa go two-three in that year’s Giro d’Italia.

Sorry Tom, this one’s for you.

The Kazakh crew made the final stage of racing its own.

The team scattered its blue-clad climbers all over the road on a filthy four-climb suffer-fest in the Sierra de Guadarrama before Landa and Aru launched a two-prong assault on “big Tom” and his big diesel racing dynamic.

Dumoulin was distanced on the day’s third climb as Aru launched himself across to waiting teammates from the break.

And from there, even the Vuelta peloton’s truest time trialist couldn’t catch back. Dumoulin hit the line almost four minutes down on the GC group, plummeted off the podium, and was left bereft directly in the world’s view.

It was a tactical masterpiece and a day for Dumoulin to forget as he tumbled from first to sixth overall. Eighteen months later, the Dutchman rebounded in style with Giro d’Italia victory in a stunner season that also served the time trial world title and top honors at BinckBank.