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2011 Vuelta a España route again favours the climbers

The organisers of the Vuelta a España, chronologically the last of cycling’s three Grand Tours, unveiled the details of this year’s 66th edition on Wednesday. The race returns to the Basque country after a 33-year absence and, unusually, avoids both the Pyrenees and Catalunya altogether.

An initial assessment of the route suggests, as in 2010, this will be an extremely demanding three weeks slanted firmly in favour of climbing specialists, with a total of six summit finishes in its 21 stages. Last year’s champion Vincenzo Nibali will rate his chances of defending his title, but will come under heavy attack from the massed ranks of Spanish climbers desperate to claim glory on home soil.

2010 winner Vincenzo Nibali

In total, the 2011 race features ten mountain stages and nine flat stages, with just two time trials – one team, one individual – which bookend a punishing ten-day opening stint before the first rest day.

This year’s race starts with a short team time trial of 16km around Benidorm, replicating the opening of last year’s race, where HTC-Columbia won a 13km team time trial around the streets of Seville to put Mark Cavendish in the race leader’s jersey, en route to winning the points competition.

Five of the next six stages are classified as ‘flat’ days, although three of these feature tricky categorised climbs in the last dozen kilometres which are likely to shatter the normal sprint trains and favour strong-man classics specialists such as Thor Hushovd. Stage five also finishes on the uncategorised but murderous ascent of Valdepeñas de Jaén (where long-time race leader Igor Antón won last year). And stage two, though flat, finishes at Playas de Orihuela with an unusually steep five percent gradient.

Stage four is the first proper day in the mountains and features the first of six summit finishes, with a familiar ascent to the Sierra Nevada ski resort in Andalucia, which peaks at 2,126 metres. This climb was last visited in 2008, where David Moncoutié won en route to his first of three consecutive King of the Mountains titles.

Stage 4 profile

The race returns to the mountains four days later for two contrasting stage finishes. Stage eight starts with a first-category climb but is only moderately challenging thereafter until a short, sharp shock at the finish in San Lorenzo, where the punishing final climb features ramps of up to 28% in gradient. Stage nine is a more traditional high mountain stage, with a flat run-in to the finish atop the 1,970-metre high Sierra de Bejar which is likely to see the first real selection among the top contenders.

Stage 9 profile

The cumulative effect of nine hard days of racing on tired legs may produce some surprising results in the individual time trial around Salamanca which follows over a 40km course that climbs steadily over its first half before descending to the finish. Everyone will no doubt relish the rest day which follows.

There are just five days of racing before the second rest day, but they include four mountain stages and three summit finishes. Stage 11 takes the race back to Galicia for the first time since 2007 and concludes with the 30-kilometre climb of La Manzaneda, which is new to the Vuelta. After an ordinary transition day – the sprinters’ only opportunity between stages seven and 16 – the riders will spend one final day in Galicia on a day which features two first-category climbs but a relatively benign 50-kilometre run to the finish in Ponferrada.

The next two days, however, will produce decisive gaps to thin out the top of the race order. Both stage 14 and 15 start with a second-category mountain, move on to a first-category climb and then conclude with tough summit finishes at Lagos di Somiedo (a Vuelta debutant) and Anglirú. The latter is a beast of a 13-kilometre climb with an ascent of over 1,200 metres, which is regarded as the toughest climb in Spain. As the last truly punishing stage finish of the race, it is guaranteed to see serious attacks launched among the lead group and is likely to determine the final general classification.

Stage 15 profile

After the final rest day the closing stretch, while hardly straightforward, lacks an obvious headline-grabbing profile. Stage 17 does finish with the climb of Peña Cabarga, on the approach to which Antón crashed out of the race lead last year, while stage 19 sees the Vuelta return to the Basque region after a 33-year absence with a stage finish in Bilbao. The penultimate stage includes two first-category climbs, but these will be negated by a flat run-in of nearly 50 kilometres. And the final stage, of course, is the usual processional affair with the sprinters taking centre stage as the peloton completes several circuits of Madrid city centre.

Garmin-Cervélo‘s David Millar summed up the route as follows:

It’s a classic new-wave Grand Tour style with a lot less time trialling and a lot of potential for ambushes. There are going to a lot of sudden changes, a lot of hill-top battles. It’s not suited to the stage racers we knew and loved when we were growing up, it’s more for the modern-day Grand Tour rider.

It will certainly be an intense, demanding and unpredictable challenge. Coming as it does after Giro d’Italia and Tour de France routes which are among the most punishing in memory, many of cycling’s big names may well be absent in Spain, as they were in 2010. (It is unlikely any big names will attempt the Tour-Vuelta combination, although a number will probably target the Giro-Vuelta double.) But last year’s race, if anything, benefited from that, producing some spectacular finishes, and with the fate of the red jersey in doubt throughout the three weeks. If the 2011 edition is even half as good, it will be a brilliant race.

The 2011 Vuelta a España begins in Benidorm on Saturday 20th August and concludes in Madrid on Sunday 11th September.

2011 Vuelta a España stages

August 20: Stage 1 – Benidorm – team time trial, 16.0km

August 21: Stage 2 – La Nucía to Playas de Orihuela, 171.5km

August 22: Stage 3 – Petrer to Totana, 164.0km

August 23: Stage 4 –Baza to Sierra Nevada, 172.0km

August 24: Stage 5 – Sierra Nevada to Valdepeñas de Jaén, 200.0km

August 25: Stage 6 – Úbeda to Córdoba, 185.7km

August 26: Stage 7 – Almadén to Talavera de la Reina, 185.0km

August 27: Stage 8 – Talavera de la Reina to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, 182.0km

August 28: Stage 9 – Villacastín to Sierra de Bejar La Covatilla, 179.5km

August 29: Stage 10 –Salamanca  – individual time trial, 40.0km

August 30: Rest day

August 31: Stage 11 – Verín to Estación de Esquí Alto de la Manzaneda, 171.0km

September 1: Stage 12 – Ponteareas to Pontevedra, 160.0km

September 2: Stage 13 – Sarria to Ponferrada, 150.0km

September 3: Stage 14 – Astorga to La Farrapona Lagos de Somiedo, 173.2km

September 4: Stage 15 – Avilés to Anglirú, 144.0km

September 5: Rest day

September 6: Stage 16 – Villa Romana La Olmeda (Palencia) to Haro, 180.0km

September 7: Stage 17 – Faustino V to Peña Cabarga, 212.5km

September 8 Stage 18 – Solares to Noja, 169.7km

September 9: Stage 19 – Noja to Bilbao, 157.9km

September 10: Stage 20 – Bilbao to Vitoria, 187.0km

September 11: Stage 21 – Circuito del Jarama to Madrid, 94.0km

Video walk-through

Link: Vuelta a España official website

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About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to 2011 Vuelta a España route again favours the climbers

  1. Pingback: My sporting month: August 2011 « The armchair sports fan

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