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Updated Vuelta retains excursions into France, Portugal

The Spanish tour got the dates it wanted in hopes of better weather, but it's keeping its potentially risky border-crossings.

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The 2020 Vuelta a España scrapped its planned start in the Netherlands, but the Spanish grand tour retains two potentially disruptive excursions into neighboring countries.

With two scheduled international border crossings, there will be an additional risk of disruption for the peloton due to the possibility of travel restrictions that might be in place or unexpectedly spring up in what’s already a very unpredictable reality.

The Vuelta — rescheduled for October 20 to November 8 — confirmed its updated route as part of a revised pro cycling calendar revealed this week by the UCI. The reduced route, down from 21 stages to 18, will not feature the planned started in the Netherlands, canceled due to the coronavirus crisis gripping Europe. Instead, the Vuelta will start in Spain’s Basque Country in the port city of Irún on October 20.

Yet unlike the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia, both of which will remain inside the borders of their respective nations, the Vuelta is maintaining planned stages into France and Portugal.

Vuelta director Javier Guillén said the race is sticking to its 18-stage route, but said changes could be coming if conditions require so.

“I don’t rule out that there could be some variations of stages, but the modifications will be minimal and will have substitutes,” Guillén told journalists. “The Vuelta will continue with 18 stages no matter how many changes there might be with the starts or finishes.”

This year’s Vuelta route uncharacteristically hangs in the northern half of Spain, sweeping first from the Basque Country toward the Pyrénées with a decisive stage in France at the Col du Tourmalet. After the first rest day, the route then pushes east to west, across the Cantabrian mountains, including back-to-back summit finales at Lagos de Somiedo and the Angliru. After the peloton rides into Galicia in northwest Spain, the route dips into Portugal for the first time since 1997, with a finish near Oporto and stage start in northern Portugal before returning to Spain for the home stretch.

Despite the uncertainty of coronavirus lockdowns, Guillén said officials along the entire route expressed interest to keep their place in the Spanish grand tour.

“All the institutions have demonstrated their interest to host stages,” he said. “Of course, things could change. Our 18 stages, starting in Irún and ending in Madrid, will be maintained nearly in their entirety.”

The Vuelta will leave Spain for several days. The first comes in stage 6, set to cross the Pyrénées from Biescas and enter France to finish the stage atop the Col du Tourmalet in France on October 25, the same day the Giro concludes as well as Paris-Roubaix. Following a rest day, the Vuelta entourage returns to Spain for stage 7 starting in Vitoria.

The second comes November 5 when stage 15 leaves Galicia in northwest Spain and dips into Portugal, overnighting in Oporto. The following day’s stage 16 starts in Viseu, and re-enters Spain to finish in Cuidad Rodrigo. From there, the penultimate stage finishes atop the Covatilla climb, and the Vuelta concludes in Madrid on November 8.

Teams will be wary of a possible replay of what happened at the UAE Tour in February, when riders and staffers were locked away in hotel rooms, sometimes for weeks, in a sudden flare-up of the coronavirus.

Despite overlapping with the Giro and the loss of the starting stages in the Netherlands, Guillén expressed his satisfaction with how the Vuelta was placed on the new-look calendar.

“Things ended up well,” he said. “It was the best possible solution.”

As the revised calendar stands now, the Vuelta is the only major European race that will try to cross borders during the coronavirus pandemic. Under normal conditions in Europe, that’s not a problem with open borders across the Schengen area. Yet with lockdown regulations varying from country to country within the EU zone, there is a possibility of travel difficulties and inconsistent restrictions in the months ahead.

In that regard, the Vuelta route stands apart from its grand tour peers.

This year’s Tour de France (August 29 to September 20) route remains largely unchanged, and will be run entirely inside France as previously planned. The Giro d’Italia (October 3-25) will not start in Budapest as originally scheduled, and officials confirmed Thursday the Italian grand tour will run entirely within Italian borders. The Giro’s start stages have not yet been revealed, but it’s expected the Giro will start in southern Italy, perhaps in Sicily.

Another factor about the Vuelta’s adjusted dates is weather. The 2020 Vuelta stays entirely in the northern half of Spain, and sees stages higher than 2,000 meters in the Pyrénées. The route also includes stages at Lagos de Covadonga, Angliru, and Covatilla, all high-altitude summits that could be swamped with snow that late into autumn.

One reason for the Giro-Vuelta overlap was to give the Spanish race an extra week or so in the better conditions of late October with hopes that the weather will hold until the finale. Initially, there was some discussion of starting the Vuelta after the Giro concluded, but that would have pushed the Spanish tour into late November and probably forced a major reshuffling of the stages.

Guillén said the Vuelta must remain flexible and be ready to adjust to any final-hour conditions, but expressed his confidence the rescheduled Vuelta is in a good spot on the calendar.

“There are always alternative scenarios,” Guillén said. “It’s something we have to take into account because the weather in August and September is not the same in October and November. We will start working with the main plan, not the alternative. We’ll reconsider things when we get closer and we see how things are, but right now, it’s not worth wasting time over.”