In which we climb from one piece of heaven to another: from Arrate to Tourmalet
ANOTHER Grand Tour? What- do these things grow on trees? Yeppers, although one shouldn’t be too positive in the year of our lord 2020 what with COVID and all. But for the purposes of this post let’s pretend that the Vuelta a Espana will actually happen and a preview is actually warranted. Which is what we have here. I needed help in writing this preview so I flew over to San Sebastian and wondered around to various outdoor cafes to get the local opinions. Nice place, Donostia. Haven’t learned much but the zurito in bar after bar is excellent! I need to find an expert and…can it be? That clam over there swimming in their drink…It is!
Ursula- Hey Txirla! How you doing? I though you got et in some grungy dive in the U-District up in Seattle a few years ago!
Txirla- She bear! Nah I dropped that guy on the climb to Capitol Hill. Weirdo kept yelling Soup! Gimme my chowder! It’s riding away! Next time perhaps he could ride without holding on to his Instant Pot. Nice cycling clothes though, unlike that guy I avoided in Sweden the year before. So anyway, drop the little beers and have some sidra. Stuff is excellent here, rivals the best from your neck of the woods. So what brings you to my town?
Ursula- Trying to figure out this Vuelta especially the stages. Can you give me some tips?
Txirla- Sure thing. You know I designed some of the stages. Not the flat stages though. Those stages are ridiculous.
Ursula- Hey- let me tape you. (I take out my tape recorder, turn it on and many hours and many more sidras later I wake up in my room with hunks of seaweed strewn about. I have no idea what happened. I do have a pounding headache. I do get a clue. Once I listed to the transcription. l. Here you go:
Txirla- Probably of all the races this year this Vuelta has had the most tortuous journey to get to the start. It may be hard for you humans to recall anything pre-COVID lockdown but despite the recent history of the Vuelta being a climbers sufferfest this particular edition was gonna tone it down and give some love to gasp sprinters. Originally this Vuelta was supposed to start in the Netherlands, and not in the teeny part of that fair country that has a hill or two. Three stages, the first a TTT then two flat flat flat stages for the sprinters. Then in the third week and there were planned two sprinter friendly stages though northern Portugal. This race was looking um I dunno balanced? Not that I liked it especially because that third week was similar to last year’s third week which had only a stage or two that mattered to the GC. I sense a trend and I am not happy. What I’d like is for the Vuelta to loosely coordinate with the World Championships and have a more sprinter friendly race on years where the Worlds RR is for sprinters. Then on years with climby Worlds courses have a more mountainous Vuelta. And you could do most anything. There’s enough variety in Spain to emphasize different flavors of Grand Tours every year. But do they listen to a clam? Noooooooo. (I can’t believe they consulted that silly northern Cobble! He was probably drunk in a ditch and didn’t notice the fall races. But I digress.
Then COVID happened and everything changed. Once the race organizers settled on dates, those five stages on foreign soil-gone! The Dutch stages were never replaced while the Portuguese stages shifted to Spain and while they didn’t transform into GC stages they were toughened up a bunch: they sure ain’t sprinter stages anymore. When the smoke cleared the race’s spirit had changed almost totally besides being 18 stages in total. Stage one is probably the hardest first stage in any Grand Tour in decades and after that the race barely lets up in a very front loaded race. By the time we climb l’Angrilu at the end of week two the GC race will most likely-95%-be decided. We might even have the race basically decided by the end of the first week when we get to the top of Tourmalet.
But first, let’s scan the startlist and see who the riders are that will make this race.
Tangent! Like de Ronde, la Vuelta will try to not have any spectators on their big climbs. Let’s see how that goes. We haven’t had any WT post-lockdown races in Spain yet so we don’t know how that is gonna play out.
Riders and the teams that employ them
Copying shamelessly form Chris’ Flanders preview let’s organize the teams and riders into tiers.
Only one team here, Jumbo Visma, which has the favorite to win this race, Primoz Roglic, plus another guy who looks so good in a cowboy hat, Tom Dumoulin who could end up on the podium or win it himself. Roglic to his fans’ relief, doesn’t have a stage 20 to deal with! There are other riders on this team that could wind up in the top five or win it like Bennett, or Kuss. Along for domestique duties are Gesink, Martens, Hofstede, and Vingegaard. The team is packed and unless they crash out they should dominate the climby stages with their train. Which are most of the stages. The TT looks right up their alley. No Wout present and correct, but they will manage. BUT are there any under 23s looking to take the win?
Tier 2- the main GC challengers
Couple teams here
Astana. With Aleksandr Vlasov over his Giro tummy ache and lining up here this team moves from a real solid breakaway team to a very serious GC team. Vlasov with so little experience in a GC might be a is a feature not a bug in 2020. The support he has is the envy of every non-Jumbo rider: Aranburu and Gruzdev for the flats (well small hills) Fraile, Kudus, both Izzys, and Lulu Sanchez for tougher stuff. Experienced, climby, know how to close out a stage: exactly what a kid phenom needs. And if Vlasov gets a sick again this will be one hell of a stage hunting team.
Ineos. Richard Carapaz is maybe the biggest rival to Rogla and he’s got a good though thin team behind him. One wonders if he will quickly get isolated. On the plus side is Amador and van Baarle- both old hands at supporting GC guys. Sosa is here though has done squat since the lockdown lifted and Rivera and Golas are more of the same in that regard. Cameron Wurf was signed to the team after being out of road cycling since 2017-which brings to the point that some of these teams are really weird because each team is so spread out between by having to field basically three different teams: the Vuelta, the Giro and the cobbles. Teams need to use their end of the bench riders to suit up and these riders are not well suited for a Grand Tour. Oh and Chris Froome is here! Doubtful he wil be a factor though.
Movistar. How can you have a Vuelta without Movistar playing a big part? You can’t so shut up. I will say that their team, which is almost the same team that they fielded at the Tour, shows the gap in quality between the Tour and Vuelta which I just talked about above with Ineos. They could easily win multiple stages and with Enric Mas they have a podium threat at least. And Mas has support with the evergreen bullet Valverde and everyone’s favorite FSA-DS rider, Marc Soler. Verona, JJ Rojas, Ervitti, Olivera, etc look like an experienced and versatile support team. Did I mention that Valverde took second place on GC in last year’s race? Seems so long ago. Now watch Marc Soler win the race.
Groupma-FDJ. On paper this is roughly similar to Ineos: high quality in the leaders but then a steep drop off. But the brought Pinot, who is partial to colder weather, and Gaudu. And hey! There’s no stage 19 for Thibaut Pinot to deal with! If Pinot finds himself in first place in the first week it is hard to see this team controlling things too well. , but that’’s what Jumbo’s train is for.
Tier 3- Outsiders for the overall
EF. These guys kinda straddle the divide with the above tier. Between Danny Martinez and Michael Woods, they have two who could land high in the GC and they have the some support staff to back them up: Carthy and Tejay mainly, and good riders on the low hills. Remember Magnus Cort? He’s here! Honest! Look for him to place fourth on those vertically challenged stages.
Cofidis. When Cofidis is one of the better teams things are different. But they bring back Guillaume Martin who has some help with well just the not so good Herrada as the better one just tested positive. Let’s wish Guillaume and the team luck.
Israel Start-Up Nation. They got Dan Martin and hopefully he’s al healed up. If he is and has some form he’ll be a factor. If so he’ll call upon Badliatti and Rory Sutherland on the climbs.
UAE- Davide Formolo and David de la Cruz look to salvage their seasons with two top 10’s? Top 5? The team is also sporting Jasper Phillipsen which gets us to…
Tier 4- Stagehunters only please
Basically every other team. Basically there’s good quality up top then a lot of below average Grand Tour riders. The good thing about this is that for some stages, mostly in week three, all sorts of riders may get out in a break. And believe me there are some weird weird teams with riders thrown into this race because teams literally have no other riders available. One thing is that most of the rest of the teams are no better than the pro tour teams Caja Rural and Burgos-BH so we could be seeing some fascinating breakaways made up of all sorts of odd personages. I mean look at this startlist. Teams like Lotto Soudal or Sunweb or CCC: nuts. Which I guess means that Sunweb will win the race. Lots of riders in this race that have results listed like “125” and “DNF” and “OOT”.
Okay I’m being harsh. There are some excellent non-GC guys who I want to see show up. All of Quickstep, particularly Bagioli who has been waging a friendly game involving holding each other’s beer, with Almeida. On AG2R there’s Geniez who should be good for a stage and Champoussin making his GT debut. Here’s hoping Sunweb is throwing their team against the wall hoping some fo the kids will stick- and that Trek’s kids are equally aggro.
A kind word for the sprinters. and yes there are a couple sprinter stages in this race. We love them, every one. They are special. To be cherished. Yes, cherish is the word that I use to describe them. No I don’t think they are here out of punishment as I remember seeing some of them listed for this race in pre-COVID times and back then there were a bunch of sprinter stages. Phillipsen and Ackermann and Bennett make up a nice big three with guys like Cort, Aberasturi, and OHMIGOD JAKOB MARECZKO IS HERE? WHY DOES 2020 PUNISH US THIS WAY????? Over/under for stages raced before Mareczko is out of time? 1.
Speaking of Mareczko, pour one out for CCC and NTT, two teams that cease to exist when this race ends. To the first week’s stages!
Stage 1- Irun-Arrate 171.0 km
Txirla- Welcome to the Basque Country! Stage one is pure Pais Vasco Queen stage with the Arrate climb at the end. What a great way to start a great race! My only regret is that since this stage starts east of here and goes right past San Seb the Jaizkibel isn’t included. That’s a shame even if it would have meant nothing by the end of the day.
But that’s the only thing wrong! We got the Queen stage of the Tour of the Basque County on stage 1! And with this climb up to Arrate, the GC guys will have to come out even though we are in the opening stage. How often do you see that? Remember 20123 when pre-race, there were four guys listed as favorites: J-Rod, Valverde, Froome and Contador? Remember how all four finished together ahead of the rest of the peloton on this very climb? Yep- and those four were the top four in GC in Madrid. Chances are we’ll see a similar flexing of the climby guys this year- especially since this first week is so intense. There’s just no way a GC contender can ride into form in this race and be anywhere near the top 10 by Madrid. GC guys have to be on form right from the beginning and the Arrate climb is just the appetizer. It is just long enough and just hard enough to cause separations. Not big separations but quality will out on this climb. After stage one we will know who is serious about this race.
Viewing priority? High. Wake up early cause this day is a busy one. Being stage 1 the fireworks don’t start until the last climb but it will be otherwise fun to watch. There’s two other races going on that may have some overlap: De Panne in Belgium and a long and testing but probably not affecting the GC much if at all Giro stage. Definitely the Vuelta has the best stage.
Stage 2- Pamplona – Lekunberri 151.6 km
Now THIS is an interesting stage. That last climb, San Miguel de Aralar, is a real bear- It rises by 7.9% on average over 9.4 km and is very uneven. There are parts over 15% and it crests just 16km before the stage end. One for the breakaway? Maybe. But stage 2 is awfully early to allow riders who can climb to just ride away especially since no one yet knows who the real contenders are. I think it will come back together. If Arrate doesn’t expose someone who isn’t in top shape, this stage will.
Viewing priority? Medium. The Giro is back in the mountains and we’ll all be wondering if today is the day that Almeida loses the pink jersey. Watch that and come back to Spain for the end of this stage.
Stage 3- Lodosa – La Laguna Negra de Vinuesa, 166.1 km
Txirla- Ho hum. A second MTF. This one though is not too hard- 8.8 km by 5.8%. It is uneven with parts almost 10% but my guess is that this won’t cause big separations on GC and may possibly be won from the break. A wild card here is the possibility of poor weather and since this tops out at 1735 meters might we see some snow?
Viewing priority? Medium high. The Giro takes precedence with their Stelvio stage- IF snow doesn’t cancel it or RCS makes it flatter.
Stage 4- Numancia – Ejea de los Caballeros, 191.7 km
Txirla- Sprinter alert! So there are three main sprinter teams here: Quickstep with Bennett, Bora with Ackerman and UAE with Philipsen. Of those three teams only UAE have a GC threat and a marginal one at that in Formolo so expect these three teams to flex some on the day.
There is a chance of crosswinds on the day which could make things interesting with the GC boys. This is also at 191km the longest stage of the first week; only one other stage exceeds 200km.
Viewing priority? Medium low. Sleep in and catch the highlights later. The Giro also has a sprinter stage which Demare wil win. Here in Spain we get to look at the big three sprinters for the first time.
Stage 5- Huesca – Sabiñanigo, 184.4 km
Txirla- back to some climbing! But these climbs are kinda soft, just enough to eliminate the sprinters but not enough to eliminate a breakaway- especially since they know what comes the next day. A day to skip watching if you don’t care that after this race is done who knows how long it will be until the next race. Cherish what you got in front of you humans. You’ll never know when some weirdo in Sweden might chase after you with a frying pan.
Viewing priority? Hopefully low. Today is the last climby stage in the Giro if it isn’t snowed out. That is priority #1 viewing.
Stage 5- Biescas – Col du Tourmalet, 136.6 km
- Oh boy oh boy oh boy. Words escape me here. Just look:
The Tourmalet is the high point in the race and at the moment the weather is looking good- and cold. But no snow so at the moment it looks like we’ll see this stage all the way thru.
Do you remember Pinot won the Tourmalet stage in last year’s Tour?
Viewing priority? HIGH HIGH HIGH. Quit work if you have to. The last stage of the Giro is happening- a short TT through Milan. Ganna is gonna win that and otherwise the only rides to watch are the last couple. So do periodic check-ins to Italy while otherwise tuning in this stage in Spain, er France.
There. That’s the first week. I’ll be back to preview week two!