The Explainer: This could be the best grand tour of the year

Dear Explainer,
Hello Charles! First, let me say thanks for doing those updates during the Tour de France. I admit you ruined my morning productivity, but I probably would have been scouring the ‘Net for news on the stages anyway.

So the big question is whether we can see more during the Vuelta. Will you be ruining my work in August and September or are you making the big switch to being a lawyer full-time?

Whether you do or don’t, I wonder about this year’s race. There was talk before about moving the race back on the calendar, making it the first grand tour of the year again and maybe even making it shorter. Now, instead, we have a three week grand tour even earlier – and closer to the Tour – than before. What’s up with that?

Also, I wonder about this year’s route. It’s all in northern Spain and there is nothing on this year’s route anywhere south of Madrid. Don’t grand tours usually touch on the entire country?

Here’s hoping you will be back for the Vuelta.
– James

Hello James,
Thank you for the kind note and rest assured that I will do my best to ruin your morning productivity for another three weeks later this month. With the help of my good friend and colleague, Patrick O’Grady, we’ll be delivering Live Updates throughout the 2012 Vuelta a España, right here on Red Kite Prayer.

So, let’s talk a little about this year’s race. First, the Vuelta’s spot on the calendar. Since its creation in 1935 and until 1995, the Vuelta was traditionally held in April and would often finish within a week or two of the start of the Giro d’Italia. In an effort to remove that schedule conflict, the race was moved to late August. A few years ago, there was some talk of moving the race back to April and even shortening it to a two-week event, rather than the grand-tour standard of three weeks. With a full UCI calendar and a reluctance to trim its length – and diminish its standing – the idea was (thankfully) scrapped.

2012 Vuelta a España (Click Links for Stage Profile)

Stage 1 – Saturday, August 18: Pamplona to Pamplona (TTT), 16.2km
Stage 2 – Sunday, August 19: Pamplona to Viana, 180km
Stage 3 – Monday, August 20: Faustino V to Eibar (Arrate), 153km
Stage 4 – Tuesday, August 21: Barakaldo to Estación de Valdezcaray, 155.4km
Stage 5 – Wednesday, August 22: Logroño to Logroño, 172km
Stage 6 – Thursday, August 23: Tarragona to Jaca, 174.8km
Stage 7 – Friday, August 24: Huesca to Alcañiz. (Motorland Aragón), 160km
Stage 8 – Saturday, August 25: Lleida to Andorra (Collada de la Gallina), 175km
Stage 9 – Sunday, August 26: Andorra to Barcelona, 194km
Rest Day – Monday, August 27
Stage 10 – Tuesday, August 28: Ponteareas to Sanxenxo, 166.4km
Stage 11 – Wednesday, August 29: Cambados to Pontevedra (ITT), 40km
Stage 12 – Thursday, August 30: Vilagarcía de Arousa to Dumbría (Mirador de Ézaro), 184.6km
Stage 13 – Friday, August 31: Santiago de Compostela to Ferrol, 172.7km
Stage 14 – Saturday, September 1: Palas de Rei to Puerto de Ancares, 152km
Stage 15 – Sunday, September 2: La Robla to Lagos de Covadonga, 186.7km
Stage 16 – Monday, September 3: Gijón to Valgrande-Pajares (Cuitu Negru), 185km
Rest Day – Tuesday, September 4
Stage 17 – Wednesday, – September 5: Santander to Fuente Dé, 177km
Stage 18 – Thursday, September 6: Aguilar de Campoo to Valladolid, 186.4km
Stage 19 – Friday, September 7: Peñafiel to La Lastrilla, 169km
Stage 20 – Saturday, September 8: La Faisanera Golf. Segovia 21 to Bola del Mundo, 169.5km
Stage 21 – Sunday, September 9: Cercedilla to Madrid, 111.9km

You’re right in that this year’s race does seem to be a little earlier than most past editions. It was actually last year when the race was moved to a spot a week earlier than it had been in past years. The thinking behind that move was to further distance it from the world championships, which might serve as an incentive for sprinters to stick around for the whole race, rather than bail in an effort to prepare for the race for the rainbow jersey. Of course, this year’s edition may not be all that appealing to sprinters anyway, but we’ll talk about that later.

This year’s Vuelta starts on Saturday, August 18, with a 16.2-kilometer team time trial in Pamplona, the capital of the old Kingdom of Navarre and home to the “Running of the Bulls” in July. I mention that famous festival because the time trial route will actually turn on to the same streets used for the traditional running of the bulls and then finish in Pamplona’s Plaza de Toros. (And no, fans will not be permitted to try and out-run cyclists through the narrow streets during this opening stage.)

Unlike this year’s Tour de France, the Vuelta will be relatively short on time trials. While the 2012 Tour de France offered up a total of 95 kilometers of the “race of truth” (stages 9 and 19), this year’s Vuelta will offer only a 16.2km team time trial and a 40km individual time trial on stage 11.

Looking back at Bradley Wiggins’ dominance in the time trials and the relatively few mountain-top finishes (just three) in this year’s Tour, the race was clearly designed to favor a guy with his talents.

Conversely, with Spain’s national cycling hero soon to return to competition – with his Clenbuterol suspension over this week – this race seems to be designed with Alberto Contator in mind. Like I said, the Tour de France only offered up three summit finishes. The Vuelta, on the other hand (and yeah, I think this is really cool) will feature 10 – count ‘em, ten – stage finishes atop hills and mountains. Some of them are going to be killer, too.

It should be a spectacular race, with Contador back in the mix and an-often-frustrated Chris Froome just aching to ride his own race without the obligation of having to hold back on the big mountains and set tempo for Brave, Brave Sir Wiggo.

As for the geographic concentration of this race, there are two good reasons. One is simply meteorological. By moving the Vuelta forward by one week, the race starts in mid-August. While Northern Spain is not exactly cool at that time of year, the temperatures are downright chilly when compared to conditions in Southern Spain. Do recall that the southernmost reaches of Spain feature Europe’s only deserts and they are freakin’ hot. Even in September, temperatures out on the road can approach 110 (F) and beyond.

I doubt we’ll ever see a similar concentration of Vuelta stages in southern Spain, since we could run the risk of having riders simply spontaneously combust out there on the road.

Another big reason, though, is something we mentioned earlier and that is that this is a climbers’ grand tour and the northern portions of Spain offer up some of the world’s most spectacular and challenging climbs you will ever see in a bike race. Sure, the southern reaches of Spain do offer up some great climbs, too, but they are more concentrated in the north.

This compressed format also limits the number and distance of transfers, which were a common feature – and source of irritation – in past editions of the Vuelta. Of course there is still a massive transfer from Barcelona to Ponteareas, which on the other side of the country. At least that one’s by plane and comes on the evening before a rest day. Absent, though, are the 100 to 200km transfers that seemed to pop up in the middle of the week, making life tough for riders, staff and anyone else traveling with the race.

Shorter, faster and more exciting?

One thing you might also notice on the list of stages is that the Vuelta, once again, will feature shorter stages than the Tour or the Giro. The Tour, for example, featured 13 stages that were 190km or longer, with the longest being 226km. The Vuelta has just four stages longer than 190k, and the longest is just 204.5km.

Shorter stages tend to compress the action, with breaks allowed to get away, but large gaps forming less frequently and more real racing along the way. The dreaded “_____ kilometers to go and the break has an advantage of _____” will be something we’ll hopefully be posting less frequently during Live this month.

There’s also the big bonus that shorter stages mean later start times, which means that viewers all over the U.S., for example, can keep track of the action from start to finish, without missing too many Zzzzzzz’s.

I’ve long said that the Vuelta is my favorite of the grand tours. This year’s Giro, however, set the bar quite high on the excitement scale, but the route and some seriously strong riders in the mix should make this one a race to remember. In addition to Contador and Froome, we’ll be seeing  Igor Anton (Euskaltel), who crashed out of the 2010 Vuelta while leading the race; this year’s Tour of Calofornia winner Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and the man who lost the Giro to Ryder Hesjedal, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Hesjedal, unfortunately, won’t be in Spain.

While an anticipated re-match between Contador and Andy Schleck is not in the cards, Froome’s presence will probably more than make up for the Luxembourger’s absence. In fact, this could turn out to be one of those GC fights that we’ll be talking about for years.
– Charles

The Explainer is a weekly feature on Red Kite Prayer. If you have a question related to the sport of cycling, doping or the legal issues faced by cyclists of all stripes, feel free to send it directly to The Explainer at [email protected]. PLEASE NOTE: Understand that reading the information contained here does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Charles Pelkey. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained therein without first seeking the advice of qualified legal counsel licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.

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  1. Jesus from Cancun

    Aah, that’s great news. LUGging is an addiction I very much look forward to.

    I also like the Vuelta a lot. It usually has great racing among not-so-big names; a lot of action from unusual suspects.

    Counting down the days…

  2. John in Miami


    Thanx for the update and bit of history lesson. Everyone talks about the Giro/Tour double, but before 1995 when the Vuelta ran in April, how many times was there a Vuelta/Giro double winner?

  3. Nick

    This was a great primer to get ready for the Vuelta.

    I’m curious about the climbs and ten summit finishes. What kind of grades are we talking here? Are these the kind of incredibly steep, death-march climbs that saw Cobo get a gap last year? Or will the leaders still be together more, slugging it out?

  4. spiff

    This race has always had great racing. It’s always fun to watch. But 10 hill/mountain top finishes is unheard up. I can’t wait!

  5. Tom

    I got my LUG-mug in the mail! Woohoo!!! Will you be offering the bumper stickers again? I’d like to get one of those during the Vuelta.

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