Race Design Thread

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So over the pandemic period I’ve branched out quite a bit in this thread, covering various parts of the globe that I’ve either always wanted to or areas that had been off my radar and the lack of racing in more well-trodden parts of the world gave me the time to explore. I finally finished off my GT-length race in Brazil and my long-delayed Tour of Quebec, and the switch of Cronoescalada to an OSM-based underlying mapping engine meant I could finally explore China, since the differences in their mapping system resulted in inaccuracies when mapping on most systems rendering data unreliable when it came to race designing. I also went through watching - and becoming interested in - all manner of minor races from early 2020, such as the Vuelta a la Independencia Nacional in the Dominican Republic, and of course once racing began again, with the mighty HTV Cup. I have a huge backlog of races I’ve not got round to posting, since spring and summer 2020 gave plenty of time for this and of course many races in the early season in 2021 were also delayed or cancelled too, while for many months social endeavours had been minimised too, as had travel.

A lot of racing was compressed into a tight calendar in 2020, and by and large we have managed to see a full calendar, more or less, in 2021, albeit with some amendments to cover for coronavirus issues earlier on and some cancellations of course. International races in Europe have largely got by OK, but elsewhere restrictions remaining has impacted the availability of extranjero teams, so we have seen events which usually have cosmopolitan fields drawing a much more insular lineup, such as the Tour of Qinghai Lake, and races which are dependent on outside interest struggling to run.

Races which successfully managed to run in 2020, but were unable to in 2021, were few, and largely limited to those like the Vuelta a San Juan which are early season races and got their 2020 editions in before the pandemic gained critical mass. We recently had another, however, which was scheduled to run in the final week of October but had to be cancelled due to coronavirus restrictions, despite having run successfully in a similar slot the previous year. This was particularly sad because this is a race which usually draws one of the most enthusiastic crowds anywhere, despite being in a small and somewhat insular scene, and a country where, despite never having had a rider hit the top levels, cycling remains one of their most popular sports; I talk, of course, of the chaotic, turbulent but somehow compelling Vuelta a Guatemala.

I did at one point have plans for a GT-length race through Central America, but there was just too much to undertake, too much to investigate, and with a lot of the best terrain - and biggest cycling interest - at opposite ends of the isthmus, a race with a genuine flow of stages and including all of the locations I felt crucial inclusions was difficult. But the options in Guatemala, where I had planned to finish, had long intrigued me. There is a certain madness to the Vuelta a Guatemala that other races even in this region just don’t quite capture. The race is small, but it’s a national institution, such that Guatemalan domestic teams can be sponsored by massive multinationals like Coca-Cola and Pizza Hut; finishes tend to draw huge crowds, and large, brightly-coloured sponsor displays and enormous cannons of confetti blasting across the victorious riders are just part of the show. The race has a long history going back to 1957, with only five cancellations (including 2021), a pretty impressive level of consistency when compared with other races in the region. And despite the traditional insularity of Guatemalan cycling, it was inspired by the Guatemaltecan federation’s exploits in Colombian races, and has always been a pretty international race - even that inaugural edition included teams from Mexico, Costa Rica and El Salvador, while it was expressly with the intent of reciprocating those invites in Colombia and Venezuela that early races were planned.

The Colombians locked out the podium of the second edition, in 1958, and remain the most successful nation at the race, with 25 winners to the host nation’s 19. Spain won 5 editions in the early days, and this includes perhaps the highest profile winner in this period, José Segú, who had finished 2nd in the 1959 Vuelta and was here in Guatemala winning the local Vuelta six years later. The race has also been won by riders from Mexico, Cuba, Venezuela and Costa Rica, while Brazil, the USA and, since last year’s edition, Ecuador have also contributed riders to the podium. High profile winners include José Patrocinio Jiménez, José Castelblanco, Giovanny Báez and Álex Cano, while Óscar Sevilla, Carlos José Ochoa, Francisco Colorado, Juan Pablo Suárez and Mauricio Ortega have also managed the podium. A young Richard Carapaz scored one of his first notable senior results, finishing 9th on GC in 2013 as a fresh-faced 20-year-old.

After a few years’ languishing behind the extranjeros in their own race, however, the Guatemalans have come back strong, winning all of the last four editions of the race and being present at the front in greater numbers than at any time since the late 90s and the heyday of Rodolfo “el Tractorcito” Muj, and a host of relatively young home talent has started travelling to Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Costa Rica to compete and try to bring up the level of Guatemalan cycling.

Mardóqueo Vásquez with the 2020 GC podium

Of course, it wasn’t always thus. One of the reasons that the home riders have come back to the fore has been a drop away in the calibre of the overseas talent entering the race; 2020 is a bit of an anomaly but nevertheless we are still seeing reasonably cosmopolitan entry lists with teams from Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, Colombia and Ecuador, as well as a few interesting talents from elsewhere choosing Guatemala for their cycling education, most notably Honduran national champion Luís Fernando López, who won the espoir version of the race in 2019 and won the U23 classification of the main event in 2018 too.

Part of this has been a scaling back of sponsorship following another of the reasons why Guatemalan cycling has struggled to break out of its Central American niche despite seemingly strong reserves of talent, and that is… reasons that need to be discussed in another part of the forum. Central American cycling has never had the best of reputations, with Mexican, Guatemalan and Costa Rican cycling all having had their share of ridiculous exploits and positive tests. Overseas riders had come to dominate the upper levels of the GC by the early 2000s, but the local hope to overcome this was young sensation Lizandro Ajcú, whose bright red Coca-Cola support squad was all over the race. He brought Guatemala its first win in four years in 2004, but the race was plunged into chaos after nine riders across four nationalities, including six in the top 10 of the GC and the entire podium, tested positive for either testosterone, EPO, or both. Fifth-placed Paulo Vargas, of Costa Rica, inherited the win somewhat sheepishly.

This wasn’t even the race’s most notorious doping issue, however; that came five years later, when Néry Velásquez, leader of the Cafés Quetzal team, won four stages and the GC. Velásquez had been a regular stage winner for most of the previous decade - at least when he wasn’t banned, that is, having been one of those who had tested positive at the 2004 race - but Guatemala was now a decade removed from a home winner, so although his winning wasn’t that shocking, the dominant manner of said victory was; the 29-year-old tested positive, along with a younger teammate, after the final stage and was stripped of his title. To add insult to injury, the victory was therefore conceded to Juan Carlos Rojas, who along with his brother had been waging an EPO-fuelled reign of terror on Costa Rican cycling for many years. With it being his second positive, he was facing a life ban. So he hit on an inspired solution: the positive couldn’t be ratified without testing the B-sample. But what if there was no B-sample to test? Soon, the news was that a DHL truck housing the race winner’s B-sample had been hi-jacked at gunpoint and the suspect samples destroyed.

No, really. It was on this site and everything.

Since then, for a few years overseas riders dominated the Vuelta de Oro, as the race is informally known, with the local riders on a somewhat tighter leash as the race tried to regain a bit of its pride, after being known in the 2000s as to Latin American cycling more or less what the Volta a Portugal is to European cycling - and think of what that means. Local hopes largely rested with Manuel Rodas, who won his first stage of the race in 2006 and got his maiden GC top 10 in 2009 thanks to Velásquez’ disqualification, and eventually rising to GC threat when the top Colombian teams that had dominated the race in the early 2010s stopped coming, winning the 2017 and 2019 editions. In recent years, a spate of younger riders have energised the Guatemalan péloton and with their overseas excursions and some riders from other Latin American countries starting to make inroads into the pro péloton (Ecuador becoming a scouted destination for European teams, and with the World Tour seeing its first Puerto Rican in 2021) and the pro-am world (López from Honduras as mentioned, plus the Panama es Cultura y Valores project and the Venezuela País del Futuro team) the scene actually looks to be rebounding somewhat. Alongside 2020 winner and two-time national champion Mardóqueo Vásquez (1995), there is Leonardo González (1997, 4th in 2020), Álex Julajuj (1998, 6th on GC 2020 and 2021 national champion), the Toc Xon brothers, Gerson (1995) and Fredy (1997), Sérgio Chumil (2000, 7th in both the Vuelta a Guatemala and Vuelta al Ecuador in 2020), and with other young riders taking international selections, the time is ripe for Guatemala to try to take that next step and expand their cycling tradition to the wider world. At the same time, though, 2018’s edition was won by Alfredo Ajpacajá - the young teammate of Néry Velásquez who had tested positive for boldenone back in 2009 when he was just 20. The victory for Mardóqueo and prominence in the GC of a younger, less tainted generation was, therefore, seen as something of a triumph for renewal, with a comparatively young and untainted rider succeeding and a breath of fresh air for Guatemalan cycling. We shall see if it is another false dawn like Ajcú in 2004 or Ajpacajá in 2009, but for the moment at least the signs are good.

The Vuelta a Guatemala’s traditional length is 10 stages, no rest days, and usually finishing in Ciudad de Guatemala (and often starting either there or near there too). Stages tend to be shorter than the average, with 110-150km the standard, but the occasional stage which is still reasonably long at pro level, like the 204km first stage in 2019 or the 218km stage 3 in 2020. There are a couple of traditional strong climbs which are classics of the race - the most traditional is the Alto de Zunil (or Alto de Almolonga if they choose to use that route, more in recent years as the highway goes flat from Zunil) outside Quetzaltenango, but the hardest is El Mirador/Ojo de Agua, from Malacatán up to Esquipulas Palo Gordo and often then finishing in San Marcos. Sadly I couldn’t find a way to include this Ventoux-sized monster, but with much of Guatemala’s most populous area being up on an altiplano, there are myriad possibilities to be had, including a number of climbs in areas that I can’t trace have ever really seen racing, so are ripe for discovery. And these are of all shapes and sizes, too; the other thing is that Guatemala offers some blinding scenery, and if there’s one thing I can associate the race with almost as much as the manic crowds and the difficult relationship with Clinical materials, it’s the beautiful scenery. So let’s get underway.

Vuelta a Guatemala backdrops outside of the cities can be incredible

Stage 1: Villa Nueva - Jutiapa

Mirador del Lago Amatitlán (cat.3) 4,7km @ 7,4%
San Ixtán (cat.3) 7,2km @ 6,8%

We start, as promised, in the wider Guatemala City agglomeration, in nearby Villa Nueva. Located around 15km southwest of downtown Ciudad de Guatemala, its population of 600.000 are not included in the urban statistics for the national capital, but it is sometimes included in the metropolitan population statistics. Go figure. Founded in 1763, its independence of the urban sprawl of the nearby metropolis has been enshrined in law, dating back to Mariano Rivera Paz, Guatemala’s first president, in 1839, who declared it part of the Departamento de Amatitlán. This was dissolved under Jorge Úbico’s brutal regime in 1935 (again, much as when I discussed Rafael Trujillo doing the Vuelta a la Independencia Nacional, probably somebody that doesn’t get talked about enough in the annals of historical villains) and placed Villa Nueva in the same administrative region as the capital, but the century of its affairs being administered from elsewhere had rather changed the character of the city relative to Ciudad de Guatemala, and have enabled it to keep its own identity to this day. It remained an outlying district for several decades but underwent rapid expansion in the mid-20th century, becoming an industrial city. Strictly speaking, however, it never achieved city status until the 21st Century, remaining a villa until it had a population of over 350000.

It has also appeared on the Vuelta a Guatemala route a couple of times lately, in 2017 when Jefferson Cepeda won solo on a largely downhill stage to San José El Idolo in the lowlands and in 2019 when a similar stage was won by Peruvian André Álex González. These were mid-race stages however, whereas here we’re starting the race, so we’re heading eastwards, toward the Salvadoran border, for a hilly-to-intermediate short stage to open up the race.

More scenic than your average industrial satellite city, no?

Now, in order to travel eastwards here we have to move between levels of the altiplano, so we have an early categorised climb. In an earlier draft of this stage I had the same start but climbed Peachtown Drive, an unusual anglophone road adrift in a sea of Hispanic nomenclature, from Villa Canales - but this was about 5km at 10%, a completely unnecessary first 15km when you consider that it would be over 100km from the line and just for the sake of giving out some GPM points. As a result, we take the much more straightforward climb to one of the many miradors overlooking Lago Amatitlán. At just under 5km at just over 7% it’s not inconsiderable, but given the scale of a lot of the climbing to be done in Guatemala, this is nice and straightforward at least, and gives us a chance of a strong breakaway before we join the highway over the undulating terrain that categorises the middle period of the stage.

The first meta volante comes in Barberena, after around 12km of gradual uphill at around 2,5%. We divert from the major road in order to pass directly through town, even though the town is probably best known either for its proclivity to provide stalls selling American goods or for its inordinately high - even by Guatemalan standards - crime rates. This then leads us to a long and fairly fast - wide and straight - descent, save for a more technical section where we once more leave the main road in order to pass through the city of Cuilapa. The second intermediate sprint is once more at the top of a false flat ascent, this time in Oratorio, a farming market town known for maize, maicillo and rice, plus beans for personal and coffee for commercial consumption. Cuilapa is actually the main regional town, but the difficulty of putting a safe sprint there with the downhill approach means I have used the neighbouring towns as intermediate sprint locations. This also means missing the CA-1 junction that heads direct to Jutiapa, moving us onto a lower plateau and therefore meaning we can put a somewhat sterner challenge in the second part of the stage to make for a more lively stage 1 than would otherwise have been the case.

After around 9km descending at 5% we have the feedzone, then a flat stretch to the village of Los Hoyos. Here we turn left, onto the JUT-3 highway, and back up into the mountains up onto the high plateau on which the “sun city” of Jutiapa stands.

The climb to the town of San Ixtán is probably one that in most races would get a cat.2 status. I’m being stingy here, however, so cat.3 it is (I’ve gone without any HC climbs in this race at all, everything is cat.1, 2 or 3, like the real race, so as a result, some climbs will get shunted down the categorisation line). 7km or so at 7%, this is reasonable enough to be somewhat selective, but simultaneously it’s on a wide road, it’s mostly pretty consistent, and it’s 27km from the finish at the summit, so in reality it’s probably more like one of those Vuelta stages at Bilbao after El Vivero, or at Castellón de la Plana after Desierto de las Palmas, or perhaps even the old version of San Sebastián where Arkale was the last obstacle and Jaizkibel was 40-45km from home, since this race is obviously shorter so the length from the finish is comparable relative to race distance?

Unlike most of those European races, however, because the climb takes us up onto a plateau, there is not the respite of a descent to come, instead the final 25km are undulating, with slightly downhill false flat predominating, dropping just over 200m from the summit to the finishing line, with a section of about 3,5km at 3,5% just over 10km from home. As a result we could see a group formed by the San Ixtán climb, or we could simply see a sprint from a heavily reduced bunch when we get to Jutiapa, our first stage town and, with a population of almost 150.000, the final large town before the Salvadoran border.

Jutiapa is an important hub for trade and a market town for various farmers and planters of coffee, rice, corn and cattle ranchers in the southeastern high plateau region, and is one of the few places in the country where some remnants of the Xinca population survive, an indigenous but non-Mayan population that once lived in these highlands and is thought to pre-date the Mayans. While bloodlines are long since mixed, their languages long dead and most of those with this heritage are undoubtedly mestizo, since 1994 Xinca organisations have worked hard to identify Xinca roots and heritage and preserve these; the number of people declaring partial Xinca origin has increased 15-fold from 2002 to 2018. Cultural efforts have taken a back seat over the last decade, however, to protesting the Escobal mine in nearby San Rafael las Flores, built on historic Xinca lands and hazardous to the environment. The mine opened in 2014 despite a torrent of protest including shootings and blockades, and was suspended in 2017 due to the indigenous population opening up legal proceedings against the Canadian company responsible for the operation of the mine, but doing so through the Canadian rather than Guatemalan courts. It remains a highly charged situation to this day.

Jutiapa is also the hometown of national poet Angelina Acuña, who wrote several volumes of poetry, her sonnets in particular being highly acclaimed, and was able to circumvent through the power of metaphor the censorship of the dictatorship of Úbico. She continued to write well into her 90s and eventually died at home in Guatemala City at the age of 101 in 2006. It has appeared sporadically in the Vuelta a Guatemala, but the region in these eastern highlands has been supportive in recent years, and the city itself showed up on the route in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, it was stage 1, from Guatemala City, and not dissimilar to my stage; a four man break contested the stage, a minute ahead of the pack, with Alder Torres winning to take the race’s first maillot jaune; it then hosted a stage start the following day with Alfredo Ajpacajá victorious. The following year a 27,5km TTT took place in the city, with Decorabaños, the team of Ajpacajá and Manuel Rodas, winning by a clear minute and a half, which proved crucial in the end over the Hino-One-La Red squad’s GC combatants; this was followed by a road stage to San José Pinula, which was won by Alder Torres in another four-up sprint, preserving home pride against Byron Guama and the later-suspended duo of Costa Rica’s Vladimir Fernández and Colombia’s Luís Alfredo Martínez.

My initial plan was to put the finish at the Parque Central de Jutiapa, but I swiftly realised this would mean a corner very close to the line, or heading out through town, then two back to back 90º corners to return from whence they came, so although a sprint may be made safer, the lead-in would be much more dangerous given the somewhat narrow roads. Instead, therefore, we arrive in town on the main road, turning right into the city, a gradual right then shallow left into the Parque Central, then a straight through the heart of the city. This takes us to a 90º right with 1,2km to go, onto the 23 (the highway which takes you up the hillside to Mirador de Yupiltepeque and then on to the Salvadoran border), before swiftly turning left back off it onto the road toward Granja Flores, with a 1km final straight ensuring safe passage to the finish line, which is located at the Complejo Deportivo de Jutiapa. This complex, consisting of soccer fields, an athletics stadium and an indoor hall for basketball, volleyball and other such sports, had been in a bad way and was on the verge of abandonment in 2015, when an investment of Q5m saw the area revamped - exactly the kind of place that would want to show off with a bike race, no? So it makes sense to honour the site with a ceremonial presentation of the first leader’s jersey…
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Stage 2: Jutiapa - Zacapa, 116km

Quebrada del Muerto (cat.3) 4,7km @ 5,1%

Stage 2 of the Vuelta a Guatemala may necessitate one of my shortest stage descriptions in a long time; it’s a relatively unassuming stage, there’s no transfer from yesterday’s stage town, and by, and with the majority of the cultural and historical figures of Guatemalan history being concentrated in a handful of the cities along the central plateau, there’s less reason for me to get diverted into multi-paragraph tales of historical figures or myths and legends.

Of course, that’s not to say I won’t, but this is very much a transitional stage through one of the less densely populated parts of Guatemala.

High plateau of Jutiapa department

Essentially this is a short and fast stage which transitions between a sequence of plateaus separated by hill ridges, each successively slightly reducing in altitude. As a result we start at around 900m and finish at only 200m or so, with the only serious climb coming pretty early on in the day. The first point of interest is El Progreso, formerly known as Achuapa, a name derived from the achiote tree that was widely cultivated in the area. This also serves as the gateway to the Eastern Plains of Guatemala, an area of interest primarily for being the only area in the Central American isthmus officially classified as a desert. It is also not to be confused with the department of El Progreso, which is slightly to its west; El Progreso has been listed as a stage town in 2018 and 2019, however the 2019 stage to “El Progreso” was in fact to Guastatoya, the capital of the department of that name, rather than the town (confusing, hey?). That stage was won by the Honduran Luís Fernando López. I am unsure if the 2018 stage (won by the Peruvian Alonso Gamero) was similar, its short distance from Jalapa suggests this was probably also the case on that occasion. In the 2020 race, Guastatoya was listed as the stage town, removing the confusion.

Volcán Suchitán, around which the only categorised climb of the day travels

The only categorised climb of the day comes early on, and despite the somewhat evocative name of Quebrada del Muerto it isn’t much of a challenge, being just around 5% for less than 5km and fairly consistent. At the base of the descent is Santa Catarina Mita, hometown of Baudilio Palma, who served as acting President of Guatemala for an extremely brief and tumultuous reign of four days; he was part of Lázaro Chacón’s government and when Chacón suffered a stroke while serving as President, Palma was appointed acting president to enable the leader to recuperate; however just three days later a military coup d’état saw him deposed. Mauro de León, another member of the government, was killed in the battle and Palma was alleged to have been assassinated by troops led by General Manuel María Orellana. It was a somewhat fruitless coup, as Orellana resigned just 12 days later after the US refused to deal with the new order, but the blood shed in its undertaking left a lasting legacy. However, Palma’s body was never recovered and many sources believe he was exiled to El Salvador under an assumed name, with the man many believe to have been Palma passing away peacefully in 1944.

Some uphill false flat takes us onto a lengthy plateau through Águas Blancas to the intermediate sprint at Ipala, at the foot of the eponymous volcano, and an oasis of housing and civilian life amid a sea of lava rock and cacti. This is also home to a former President, this time the 19th Century statesman and military figure Field Marshal Vicente Cerna y Cerna. He was a loyal right hand man to Rafael Carrera who had distinguished himself leading the Guatemalan forces at the Battle of La Arada, one of the biggest challenges to Guatemalan sovereignty as they fought an Allied force of Hondurans and Salvadorans. This loyalty led him to also contribute to the Honduran civil wars that were raging at the time, as Guatemala intervened on behalf of José María Medina. He was appointed president on Carrera’s death in 1865, but as the nation was very much in an early stage of development at the time, his government was described as being a state of the people not well-organised enough to rise against his dictatorial, theocratic regime. After some rather dubious elections in 1869, disquiet gradually increased, however, and in June1871 following intervention from Mexican premier Benito Juárez and a military campaign where the Guatemalans suffered back to back heavy defeats he was forced to resign.

There is then a weaving descent from the battleground of La Arada down to the town of San José La Arada. This is nowadays known for its complex, twisting rail tunnels which effectively serve as mountain passes in their own right, just taking place entirely underground. There is a brief detour from the main road into the departmental capital of Chiquimula, where with 26km remaining the second intermediate sprint takes place. This is, with over 110.000 inhabitants, the largest city in Eastern Guatemala, and is growing rapidly, with the population having trebled in the last 25 years. This is also partly to do with current immigration concerns, with many Hondurans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans travelling north with the ultimate aim of reaching the US, Chiquimula is a strongly guarded town as a common first transit point in Guatemala. Its most famous alumnus is Ismael Cerna, a poet who was the nephew of the aforementioned Vicente Cerna y Cerna.

Downtown Chiquimula, the park named for Ismael Cerna

From here it’s a rolling charge in to the finishing town of Zacapa. There is a climb on the way, it looks to be about 3km at between 4 and 4,5%, so not worthy of categorisation. Cronoescalada suggests there’s a steeper ramp lower down but it’s on a wide highway and relatively straight so unlikely to be decisive other than maybe if the stage goes to a breakaway as it will give the baroudeurs something to work with at least. The summit is 15km from home, the first 8km of which is downhill at a little over 3% and the remainder being flat and mostly very straight into the city of Zacapa which hosts the stage finish.

Founded in 1871 and home to around 60.000 people, Zacapa is best known to the rest of the world for its highly-prized premium rum, which won gold medals at the International Rum Festival for best premium rum four consecutive times in the late 90s and early 00s. It largely expanded in the first half of the 20th Century, thanks to its position as a junction on the Ferrocarril del Norte, which transported much of the produce for the United Fruit Company and provided service from Guatemala City to Puerto Barrios, the country’s primary Caribbean seaport. The lines from Guatemala City and from the Salvadoran border converged at Zacapa and it became an important trading post as a result. The combination of the completion of the Atlantic Highway and the default of the United Fruit Company meant that traffic on the rail lines dropped considerably and the condition of the tracks deteriorated; by 1996 the commercial lines were closed, and after a couple of years of running tourist trains, the lines were closed permanently in 1998. A museum to the Ferrocarril is located in Zacapa to remember that brief time when it was one of the most strategically important towns in the country.

Entering Zacapa - this pinch point at just inside 2km to go will be the last obstacle of the stage, with only a couple of corners remaining

Zacapa has a strong recent history in the Vuelta a Guatemala, hosting stages almost annually in the 2000s. With nearby cities and towns like Guastatoya and Jalapa being more common hosts in recent years it has dropped away from favour, but it did most recently host the race in 2017, with the Dutchman Niels van Der Pijl winning from a five man breakaway on stage 1, a very unusual race winner among the annals of the race’s history, being as he is from one of the traditional cycling heartlands of Europe - and especially as he is from one of those traditional cycling heartlands other than Spain, which has always had a handful of expat riders in Mexico or the Caribbean that might show up, such as Victor Manuel García riding for Canel’s or Diego Milán naturalising to the Dominican Republic. The most recognisable winner in Zacapa, however, would probably be from that period in the early 2000s where a few top European U23 teams would turn up to develop riders for recovery; in 2003, 22-year-old future Lampre and Katyusha man Danilo Napolitano, a future Giro stage winner, won a bunch gallop in Zacapa ahead of 23-year-old future long time Cofidis stalwart Leonardo Duque. The city also appeared as both a stage start and a stage finish in 2012’s Vuelta al Mundo Maya, a one-off secondary national tour in the fashion of the Clásico RCN in Colombia, the Clásico Banfoandes in Venezuela or the Rutas de América in Uruguay. On that occasion, durable sprinter and stalwart of Central American cycling (and Ryo Hazuki favourite) Byron Guama took the stage into the city before Alejandro Serna won the stage to Puerto Barrios immediately following. 2003, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2010 and, in the Vuelta al Mundo Maya, 2012, saw stages here go to a sprint, and I’m liable to believe that this is more likely than the small groups that we saw in 2002, 2003 (two stages, you see, as after reaching Puerto Barrios the péloton turned back on itself from whence it came) and 2017 - nevertheless I’ve given an opportunity to those hunting a chance to escape!
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Stage 3: Estanzuela - Cobán, 180km

Mirador de San Jerónimo (cat.3) 36,4km @ 3,4%

The third stage of the Vuelta a Guatemala is its longest, at what would be more or less middle length for a top level pro péloton (at least until recently). What a top level pro péloton won’t have done too much of in Europe, however, is stages involving long flat stretches at 1500m altitude. Hardly Qinghai Lake or the Tour of Colorado, I know, but nevertheless it is a different challenge from sea level sprint stages in Belgium, France or the UK. Especially when you have an erstwhile sprint stage yet finish at over 1000m higher altitude than you started. Something along these lines used to be done in the Vuelta with stages beginning on the northern coast or in the cities and then finishing on the meseta, resulting in mid-stage climbs that were not descended, but not really like this. The nearest I can imagine would be following a Lagos de Covadonga stage with one climbing from Cangas de Onis up to the Puerto del Pontón, very long and gradual, and then a long trek either through Cistierna to León or through Guardo to Palencia. Even then, it doesn’t replicate the altitude, as well as of course that, largely weaned on courses in the 110-140km range with the occasional longer one, a 180km stage in the Vuelta a Guatemala is liable to have an impact more like a 220-225km one in a higher level race.

Neighbouring Zacapa, the town of Estanzuela actually predates it by over a century, being founded by the coloniser Juan Navas in 1740, originally planned as a resting place en route to the highlands of the west with the ultimate goal of reaching the Pacific, but due to its ideal conditions for harvesting and agriculture it was settled by some of the Spaniards, given the name “La Estancia” translating as both ‘ranch’ and ‘resting place’ in different locations in the Latin American world, before being given a diminutive form of that as a name, which through contortions of dialect and creole over time became La Estanzuela. It is home to just over 10.000 people.

Downtown Estanzuela

Essentially the stage is split into three parts, the first of which is around 65km in length and takes place largely heading westbound along the CA9 highway which runs from Ciudad de Guatemala to Puerto Barrios on the Caribbean coast. This is largely sheltered valley roads in the floodplains of the Rio Motagua, also sometimes called the Rio Grande, passing through the department of El Progreso mentioned in the previous stage’s write-up. This includes an early meta volante in El Rancho, where we leave the CA9 - this is where it ceases to be a valley road and starts to climb up toward the capital, and the first part of this is about 6km at 5% up to Guastatoya which has proven noteworthy in recent Vueltas. Instead, however, we go straight on where the CA9 bears southward, we stay headed west on the CA14 briefly, before it starts to wind inexorably upwards and northwards, twisting and turning to keep the gradient down on an almost never-ending low-gradient grind of the kind of interminable false flat that helps explain why, despite the height metres gained, the Big Bear Lake stages of the Tour of California never quite delivered what the organisers hoped.

However, unlike the Big Bear Lake stages, there isn’t any expectation on this one. This is a pure transitional stage, and although there is over 35km of climbing, it is mostly consistent and at the 3-4% kind of gradient. Not only that, but a full 80km remain when we arrive at the Mirador which overlooks the town of San Jerónimo, gateway to the Verapaces from the south. This enables us to look down on the Salamá valley, which was briefly settled by the British and then developed by American speculators, however given how the area was isolated from holdings in British Honduras (modern Belize), the British hacienda owners became isolated and eventually the hands of control would turn back to the Spanish.

View into Baja Verapaz from the summit

The remaining 80km are pretty much flat - in fact more than flat as the stage finish is 250m lower in altitude than the summit of the ascent. Nevertheless, after a feed station shortly after the summit, there is still some gradual ascending - less than 1% so really nothing to be concerned by - for about 20km along the high plateau of Alta Verapaz. After passing through Purulha, which follows a brief descent, we arrive at the scenic Cueva de Chicoy and join national highway 5, which heads north from the west side of Ciudad de Guatemala and then heads through Salamá and over some - not fully paved - mountain passes to join the CA14.

The long run-in is broken up by an intermediate sprint in Tactic (that is indeed its name) with just under 30km remaining. It was an outlying town of Cobán, and set up as part of Bartolomé de Las Casas’ plan to eradicate conflict with the indigenous groups through the medium of European settlement dispersed through their homelands. It was also settled in the 19th Century by a number of Germans; they were a significant minority throughout the Alta Verapaz region, but Tactic was one of their largest concentrations. Although most of the Germans were either assimilated or expelled following social backlash after World War II, their legacy is clearly imprinted, not least in that Tactic is one of the few majority-Protestant towns in Latin America. The same cannot be said of our final staging point, Santa Cruz Verapaz, which was a very early settlement in the Las Casas expansions and has one of Guatemala’s oldest and most traditional mountain churches.

The stage finishes with a slightly downhill run for the last 6km, in which we descend approximately 150m of altitude at an average of 2,5%. This worries me slightly however as it is all on highways and the grid layout of cities in the New World means there is only one corner - a 60º sweeping right hander at 650m from the line - that could cause accidents, especially given the finishing straight is completely flat in order to prevent the same kind of problem arising. Plus a 36km grinder climb may well mean leadouts are hardly going at the express pace we may have got used to in European races. There are some curves in the road but the last 5km are very straight and quite wide so I don’t think this is as dangerous as some of those Tour de Pologne set-ups that are why this kind of finish came into sharp focus, not to mention that the péloton will be smaller and at a lower level, so the chances that we get an absolutely full bunch gallop when we get to Cobán is small.

Central Cobán, stage finish

Officially known as Santo Domingo de Cobán, the capital of the Alta Verapaz region has a population of officially a little over 200.000 which makes it one of the biggest cities in the northern part (discounting the very sparsely populated rainforest area in the Mundo Maya) of Guatemala. “Cobán” was the Spanish interpretation of the name of a local cacique and is believed to come from the Q’eqchi term for “between the clouds”, due to the high altitude at which the groups led by Cobán settled. Cobán’s people had burnt down churches set up by Christian missionaries, but were pacified by the cacique of Sacapulas, who had converted to Christianity and convinced him of the honourable intentions of the Spaniards, even offering the hand of one of his daughters in marriage. Las Casas’ history in the region is somewhat chequered and complex; he began and accelerated the process of indoctrination into Catholicism of the native population, but simultaneously he brought about an end to the encomienda system of effective enslavement of the natives in the region and made Cobán the local centre for this more humane variety of colonial Christianity.

The plateau’s suitability for coffee planting has made it a useful centre for the industry, and of course Guatemalan coffee has become a relatively high prestige variety in many parts of the world. The particular variety of the Alta Verapaz region is well regarded and reputed and this attracted strong development, and it was this, in accordance with the local circle of German business owners, that helped expand the city in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Coffee continues to be one of the prime drivers of the economy in Cobán, but palm oil is catching up rapidly. Cobán is also an important city for sports; its basketball academies are seen as the best in the country and its football team is a former national champion. It is best known for endurance sports, however, due to its relatively temperate climate as a result of its altitude. It is home to a decently-sized marathon, but it is for the Vuelta a Guatemala that we pay it attention, and much like Zacapa, it was a frequent host in the 2000s, but less common nowadays. Apart from former LPR Brakes man Daniele Masolino and Wilson Marentes, who would later go on to ride the Giro with Colombia-Coldeportes, winners in Cobán have largely been confined to Latin American racing, however it is worth noting that a couple of times stages into Cobán have been won by eventual GC victors even if the stage was not relevant to the overall GC - Manuel Medina of Venezuela took the stage here in a sprint in 2008, before establishing a lead with a 4 minute advantage on the mountain stage to Quetzaltenango, while Juan Carlos Rojas won a reduced sprint here a year later, and eventually acquired the race after Néry Velásquez’ DQ. Speaking of our favourite cycling hijacker, he won a stage here in 2007, while the most recent victor - ending a spate of known dopers to have won in Cobán - was Gregolry Panizo.

My stage is likely to be similar in character - sprint should ensue, but it will likely be somewhat reduced given the sheer length of the climb mid-stage, however there is little reason to expect serious GC fireworks. At least not with what we have on the cards for tomorrow’s stage on the cards…

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Stage 4: San Cristóbal Verapaz - Sierra de los Cuchumatanes (Alto de La Capellania), 161km

Alto de Xejul (cat.2) 23,4km @ 5,0%
Mirador de Sacapulas (cat.2) 9,2km @ 5,9%
Llano del Coyote (cat.3) 4,1km @ 9,4%
Puerto de Aguacatán (cat.3) 4,8km @ 7,0%
Alto de la Capellania (cat.1) 12,9km @ 9,0%

Well, the riders’ chance to ease their way into the race is over, as it’s time we go big or go home, with the first true mountain stage, in an area and using climbs seldom used in the real race, so this will be a new - and probably quite painful - experience for most of them as we take on a bona fide HC monstrosity that you’ve probably never heard of, in northern Guatemala.

Of course, there’s a reason that the race, other than its occasional trips to Cobán, seldom ventures this far north, and it’s that the Franja Transversal del Norte (“the northern transversal strip”) saw the majority of the fighting in the second half of the Guatemalan Civil War, meaning that it is economically far removed from the rest of the country, and most tourists will see it only as a fleeting glimpse in the window on their way from the cities of the south to the Mayan ruins of Tikal and the surrounding area. Like a lot of Central and South American conflict at the time, a large part of it was fuelled by the interventionist action of the USA and the Cold War; successive leftist governments winning elections in Guatemala led an American government with the Cuban Revolution fresh in the memory to back a military coup d’état, installing Carlos Castillo Armas and propping up a series of right wing dictators on what the US felt was a “lesser of two evils” strategy. Dissident liberal officers set up the MR-13 opposition movement and in quelling the resistance, successive fraudulent elections and military coups against military governments followed, while rural areas saw government repression and kidnappings and killings of dissidents and oppositional voices. The Mayan population in the northwest suffered particularly badly from 1978 onwards and some consider this to have verged on the genocidal. After the armistice in 1996, investigations estimated that some 93% of the war crimes carried out were by the government. Efraín Rios Montt became the first former head of state in the world to be found guilty of genocide by his own nation’s court of justice in 2013 in relation to indiscriminate killings of indigenous peoples in Quiché between 1981 and 1983, and though the verdict was overturned and a retrial organised, Montt died in custody before a definitive conclusion could be reached.

But hey, thank God the US intervened to rid the Guatemalans of that left-leaning democratically-elected government, I mean, at least genocidal military despots don’t believe in redistribution of wealth…

Protestors carry the images and identities of the disappeared

Although San Cristóbal Verapaz is not in the Franja Transversal del Norte, it suffered hugely economically as a result of the Civil War, and because it is difficult to access from all but the main route to the larger and more important Cobán, it became rather ignored economically. Today, its dependence on the nearby city is more figurative; the biggest employer in the city is a shoe company called Cobán, appropriately enough, and with almost 70.000 people it is recovering somewhat, with its scenic location on the edge of Lago Chichoy making it into a potential tourist site and watersports centre for inland Guatemala.

Realistically, however, this was a necessary stop-off on the route, because the alternative in order to get where I am headed in today’s stage was to start in Cobán once more and have a near-200km mountain stage, a real rarity in Central American cycling, and also because San Cristóbal Verapaz has a number of outlying suburbs and other small villages within its municipality. One of these is called Chiyuc, and Chiyuc is the hometown of one of Guatemala’s favourite sons, Érick Bernabé Barrondo García.

Born in San Cristóbal in 1991, Érick Barrondo was originally a long-distance runner, as he came from a family of athletes and being born in a city around 1500m above sea level proves beneficial for endurance sports. His Primož Roglič-esque backstory begins when he suffered an injury and was encouraged to walk as part of his recovery, and inspired by the success of various other Latin American countries in the discipline, he became a race walker. He started to work with the coach of prominent Salvadoran race walker Cristina Esmeralda López, and became a somewhat instant hit on the international scene, scoring a gold medal in the 20km at the Pan-American Games in 2011 at just 20 years of age, and gradually improving his results in the world field to reach the top 10 in the World Championships. He continued to improve through 2012, with a podium at the GP Lugano before his finest moment came in London at the 2012 Olympics, when he took a silver medal in the 20km to become Guatemala’s first - and to date only - Olympic medallist.

In an instant, the 21-year-old Barrondo was Guatemala’s greatest ever sportsman. But he struggled to replicate this success, other than at regional events where he would dominate, such as the Bolivarian Games and the Central American and Caribbean Games. He won silver in the 50k at the 2015 Pan-American Games, but was disqualified from the 20k just a few metres from the finish, while leading, in a heartbreaking moment for his fans back at home. Although he has settled into a strong niche and is still a good competitor at the World level, he has struggled to maintain the level of that early promise, rendering him a sort of race walking version of Damiano Cunego. He has also had to deal with status as a sort of unofficial spokesman for the indigenous population after a racism row erupted over comments made by media personalities about his Quiché (K’iche) heritage. However, by and large Guatemala remains resoundingly proud of its only Olympic medallist and one of the largest urban green spaces in Ciudad de Guatemala has been named for Barrondo, hosting a stage finish of the Vuelta a Guatemala most years within its confines. So of course we had to have his hometown on the route.

The stage starts out with what is probably its easiest section, an opening 25km which sees us descend approximately 800m, albeit not steadily but still without any real steep sections. This takes us to the Chixoy river, from which a long and painful cat.2 ascent will begin. All of the uphill totals 34,8km at 3,7%, but I’ve elected to only categorise the part which consists of what could be considered genuine climbing, as the last 10-11km of that averages only 1%. The remainder is 23,4km at 5%, although that in and of itself consists of smaller climbs within itself - the first 5km average 7,6%, then after a short descent we have 2,5km at 8,5% up to Aldea la Cruz, a flattening out before 5,2km at 4,6%, then a slightly downhill false flat for a couple of kilometres before another 5,2km averaging a pretty consistent 6,6% to reach the village of Xejul, after which I have named the climb. It’s one of those that, shape-wise, mimics those multi-stepped Spanish ascents like Llano de las Ovejas or the Puerto de La Marta, although it is not as difficult as those. It would reasonably be a cat.1 elsewhere or split into multiple climbs to break it up as sometimes happens in Latin American cycling, but I have kept it as one, and because I’m only going with three categories of climb in line with the real race, as I have some notably harder ones, this one gets to stay as a stingily-rated cat.2. And while for many years it was unpaved, now, however, it is a treat of a road.

Shortly after the categorised summit, we have an interlude in the town of Uspantán. This small town of 2.800 people is home to another key public figure in Guatemala, the indigenous rights activist, feminist, politician and campaigner Rigoberta Menchú. A K’iche’ Maya born into a poor family in a small village outside Uspantán only accessible by 4-wheel drive or on foot, Menchú’s father campaigned for indigenous peoples’ farming rights. During the 1979-80 campaign against the indigenous people, Menchú’s brother and mother were both kidnapped and murdered by the Guatemalan army; in protest against the brutal treatment of the indigenous population, her father was among the peasants who protested by marching to Guatemala City on January 31st, 1980 and entering the Spanish Embassy, due to their sympathetic outlook to the peasants’ cause and concern over the Guatemalan Army being allegedly responsible for the murders of Spanish priests in the region. They announced a press conference would be held at noon, but before the deadline was reached, the Guatemalan police stormed the embassy despite pleas from the Spanish ambassador, Máximo Cajal y López, to negotiate. The police set the embassy ablaze, and while Cajal y López was able to escape through a window, the Spanish Consul Jaime Ruíz y Arbol was burnt to death in the blaze, along with several members of the embassy staff and all of the peasant protestors bar one who survived with third-degree burns, but was then abducted and shot by masked men believed to be plainclothes policemen. His body was dumped at the University of San Carlos in western Guatemala with a placard reading “Cajal, comunista, te ocurrirá lo mismo”. Cajal y López fled the country and Spain immediately terminated diplomatic relations with Guatemala, a state of affairs which took four years to resolve.

Menchú, for her part, was exiled to Mexico, and took up residence in Chiapas, where she became instrumental in orchestrating protest and campaigns for the native populations in western Guatemala. Having only learnt Spanish in her teenage years, she dictated her struggles and her family’s fates to Venezuelan author Elizabeth Burgos, which became an International story and brought great attention to the plight of the indigenous peoples of Central America. In 1992 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to activism for the rights of the indigenous people of the region, and became a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 1996, upon the end of the Civil War, a role she reprised as a Governmental Goodwill Ambassador in the Peace Accords as Guatemala segued to democracy once more. In 1999, she brought a case before the courts in Spain seeking justice for the burning of the Spanish Embassy in 1980. While several of the cases stalled due to the need to first seek justice in Guatemala, the nature of the crime in 1980 enabled Spain to seek damages; the accused included three former Guatemalan presidents. Romeo Lucas García was unable to be extradited from Venezuela due to medical issues with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease, while Montt would be convicted of genocide later by a Guatemalan court and Óscar Mejía Victores likewise was able to delay proceedings until he was medically unable to stand trial. Donald Álvares, the Interior Minister responsible, remains at large and is considered a fugitive under international law. SWAT Chief Pedro García Arredondo was in 2015 found guilty of murder and crimes against humanity for ordering the building to be sealed to prevent any survivors. He was also found to have murdered two further people at the funeral for those that died in the blaze. So you can see the kind of people that Menchú was fighting against.

In latter years, Menchú has busied herself as a politician, twice running on minority tickets for President, and founding Winaq, a leftist political party which stands for the indigenous people in Guatemala. Stepping into political life has led to some controversies being generated about veracity of her testimony in the 1982 book of her young life, where some facts have been argued to have been exaggerated, but she has largely remained a key figure in domestic politics in the country.

After passing through Uspantán, it’s a gradual grind up to the eventual ‘summit’, Aldea la Hacienda, before a descent leads us to our next climb, the two-stepped ascent up to the Mirador de Sacapulas. Its’ overall stats lend it a cat.2 status (9km at 6%, approximately), though it consists of 3km at 8% (with a steepest section of 900m averaging nearly 13%!), before a couple of kilometres of flat and a final 3,8km at 7,6% to make for a more serious ascent. This serves as the halfway point in the stage and our gateway to the Sierra de Cuchumatanes, a northern Guatemalan Sierra that stands proud over the southern half of the country and which proved an incredibly difficult nut to crack against pockets of indigenous resistance for the Spanish colonists. Coming over the summit we get a glimpse down into the Chixoy valley and the town of Sacapulas, built around a key Dominican convent established by the Spanish in their attempts to capture control of the area, on the site of a former Mayan town called Chutixtiox, described in the Popol Vuh as being the home of the Kumatz group.

A descent of 12km at 7,5% leads us into the town itself, once the gateway to the Sierra de Cuchumatanes, which the Spaniards were drawn to in search of gold. After conquering Huehuetenango, the remote and isolated mountain groups of natives were proving harder to conquer, until de las Casas’ intervention moving westward from the recently-conquered Verapaz. Many clergymen were recruited from Spain but proved difficult to rein in in the newly-acquired territories. Sacapulas became the centre of a large ‘doctrine’ of Dominican friaries, which led to its growth and an elevated importance, until the monastery was forced to be abandoned a few years after independence from the colonial masters, in 1829. The clergy would return and be run out time and again through the middle of the 19th Century, but they were expelled for good and the town officially christened (metaphorically of course, though it would have been ironic) a municipality in 1871. Sacapulas was controlled by the EGP (Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres, “Guerrilla Army of the Poor”) for much of the Civil War, with terrorist attacks designed to prevent the Guatemalan authorities from approaching the city. 12 massacres and indiscriminate airstrikes were carried out by the government in the municipality from 1980 to 1983, two of which on the town itself. Since the armistice, however, construction of roads and reconstructions of transport links destroyed during the war have continued apace.

The next 55km continue the theme, with two cat.3 climbs included. The first of these is the Llano del Coyote, which is short but steep - just over 4km at 9,4% - although like with Xejul, the actual summit is a lot later. Realistically, this is a climb a lot like (although slightly easier than) Erlaitz in the Basque Country - the GPM has been placed at the end of the steep bit, though conventional profiles extend to include the false flat afterward. 10km of downhill false flat gives way to uphill false flat with our first intermediate sprint in it - yes, all this way into the stage - in Aguacatán, another city linked to the outside world by paved road only in 2006. This isolation has helped it preserve its native culture, and it is the only community in the world where Awakateko, a moribund and endangered indigenous tongue, is the native language. This then gives way to the most straightforward climb of the day, a gradual increase in the road until a final 4,8km at 7% on that new paved road which links Aguacatán to the region’s dominant city, Huehuetenango.

We don’t make it all the way to Huehuetenango, however, because the road meets a T-junction just north of the city; we have to turn left to go into Huehuetenango, instead we turn right, into the mining town of Chiantla. The base altitude of the stage has been largely, slowly increasing, and now we reach its apogee - this is the base of the final, most difficult climb of the day, and it’s at 2000m altitude already. The final climb is going to really, really mess with the riders. It’s not the long, grinding climbs that the riders are used to in this race from climbs like Zunil and Almolonga, nor is it the monoliths we know from Colombia, Costa Rica and so on when it comes to this kind of altitude (Cerro de la Muerte, in Costa Rica, has a real case to make about being the toughest regular climb in world cycling, being an eye-watering 45km at 6,1%). This is European horror show steep, but at Latin American altitude.

12,9km at 9%. This is comparable to the Puerto de Ancares via Pan do Zarco, Passo Pennes, Passo di Pampeago (all the way to the summit), Ovronnaz, Col du Lein, Signal de Bisanne… this is bona fide HC. Before you consider the altitude. And considering the way it eases its way in for you. There is legitimately a stretch of this of 8km at 10,5%, and there are five different kilometre stretches in excess of 10%, the steepest of which, 3km from home, averages 12,6%. After 9km remaining, the only time the gradient relents to less than 7% is in the last 200m. This one is really savage, as we’re not just travelling along the base of the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes, instead we’re headed direct for them with all the subtlety of a Stefano Pirazzi tactical plan.

Luckily, as well as being high in altitude and brutal in gradient, the Cuchumatanes are also very beautiful.

Winding road up to the summit

Looking down to Chiantla and Huehuetenango from the summit

La Capellania is the name of the village at the high point in the road, but the stage finish would more accurately be titled Mirador Juan Dieguez Olaverri; outside the village of La Capellania, there is a dramatic overlook which, as you can see from the above, offers a glorious window of a view down into the valleys below and although the picture I have above shows a sea of clouds, on clear days you can see all the way down to the great volcanoes of Guatemala obscuring the Pacific coast, with the far horizon being made up of the Tacaná, Tajumulco and Santa María volcanoes. The great Guatemalan poet Juan Dieguez Olaverri wrote one of his most beloved poems with inspiration from the views of this overlook, and titled it “A Los Cuchumatanes” after the mountain range whose imposing power and fragile beauty so transfixed him. Historically, when the auberge was constructed at the pass, it was known as Mirador de la Cumbre, but it has since been renamed in honour of the man who so evocatively depicted the range.

This one is going to be an almighty slaughter which will set up the race for a difficult second half. It’s also going to be some serious scenery, with beautiful landscapes and riders suffering their battle against both the gradient and the altitude. So we, as viewers, are the winners. Yes, realistically only the last 40 minutes will be vital as the final climb will neuter moves earlier. But there’s no way in hell that this one doesn’t open up serious gaps given the nature of the péloton that will contest it.
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Stage 5: Huehuetenango - San Juan Ostuncalco, 133km

Aldea Pitzal (cat.3) 36,7km @ 2,9%
Alto de Cajola (cat.2) 4,9km @ 10,8%
Parque Municipal San Juan (cat.3) 3,9km @ 8,9%

After yesterday’s monster MTF, the riders will be grateful for a shorter stage, more typical of the length seen in a ‘normal’ Vuelta a Guatemala. They will also likely be thankful for the short transfer, since we essentially just descend the climb back to Chiantla then cross over to Huehuetenango for the overnight stop. A city of around 120.000, Huehuetenango is important logistically as the first (or last, depending on direction) Guatemalan stop on the Pan-American Highway, being the conurbation most adjacent to the Mexican border in this part of the country (although San Marcos is far closer to the border, the Pan-American is travelling along the altiplano at this point, so crosses the border not on the Pacific lowlands but up in the mountains). It is built on the former site of the capital of the Mam civilisation, Xinabajul, although far less of this remains today than of nearby Zaculeu (Saqulew), the prior capital around 4km outside modern Huehuetenango, and which has become a major archaeological site and tourist attraction. For its position as a pre-eminent city in an area where indigenous people are still in something of a majority, the city took its present name from the conquistador Gonzalo de Alvarado y Contreras, who recorded the name his indigenous allies reported to him, which was the Nahuatl word for ‘place of the ancestors’. The Zaculeu site was extensively renovated with the help of the United Fruit Company in the 1940s, however some of the techniques are somewhat artificial with use of plaster to try to project completed buildings around the remains which has lent them a mixed response from the native population.


The city is also a frequent stop for the Vuelta a Guatemala, tending as here to host more stage starts rather than stage finishes; it did, however, see the 2013 stage that enabled Óscar Sánchez to take the lead of the race, which he’d take to the finish, thanks to a three man break that also included the young Richard Carapaz; Giovanny Báez won solo here in 2010, and the last home winner was Manuel Rodas in 2008. It was last seen in 2016, when it hosted back to back stage starts, first a mountain stage to Sololá won by Byron Guama, and then a flat stage to Tecpan won by Jhonatán Josué de León.


Aside from cycling, Huehuetenango is known for a prestige variety of coffee and for high quality musical instruments, particularly classical guitars. But it is also most notorious as the hometown of Efraín Ríos Montt, mentioned in earlier stages as the first former head of state to be found guilty of genocide by the same country he had presided over. A career military man, he only came to get involved in politics in the early 70s; he was promoted to Brigadier-General and served as Army Chief of Staff in 1973, but after he was relegated to sideline roles by military president Carlos Arana, he grew embittered and resolved to take a more active role. He contested the 1974 election as presidential nominee for the FNO (national oppositional front). A typically for the time contested election result saw him lose the election by a narrow margin (in reality, most sources believe he won fairly convincingly); with nobody holding an absolute majority, the government-backed national congress voted in favour of the incumbent, and Ríos Montt disappeared to take an overseas job as military attaché to Spain - possibly to avoid repercussions for his opposition, and possibly after being given a sweetheart deal to steer clear of politics for a few years.

On his retirement from active service, he returned to Guatemala, converted to an evangelical branch of Christianity and was called back to politics after the successful coup of 1982; he had not been involved but was chosen by those who had to preside over the junta because of the respect he had acquired in his opposition in 1974. Ríos Montt then followed the template of every dictator to a tee - he declared martial law, suspended the constitution, forced the other members of the junta to resign over trivial matters, established a new and powerful state council of hand-picked yes-men, and broadcast regular Sunday speeches with clear influence from US televangelists. But while the junta has been swept to power on a wave of popularity following repeated fraudulent elections and corruption, the alternative offered by Ríos Montt was a pacification policy known as frijoles y fusiles, trying to deter guerrilla activity by bringing together poorly-armed and equipped indigenous groups to establish government presence in oppositional areas. He established a state of siege, barring unions and opposition parties, and a policy of killing anybody even suspected of being tangentially connected to somebody who may have been tempted to think something oppositional. Over 3000 died or disappeared every month and 600 indigenous villages were wiped out, with 1,5 million Maya displaced or uprooted during a reign which lasted less than 2 years. On the flip side, the killings were less indiscriminate than previously and the policy was rooted in counter-insurgency, just with the sense of proportionality of Asami Yamazaki in Audition. Such that Ríos Montt was able to convince Ronald Reagan to supply him with military equipment, arguing his policies were not “scorched earth” but “scorched Communists” and if there’s one thing that the one percenters in the US during the Cold War thought worse than genocide, it was redistribution of wealth.

However, the machinations of the Guatemalan state, and the nation’s geography and history, made the establishment of the kind of long-term dictatorship seen elsewhere difficult for Ríos Montt to establish; he alienated far too many people far too quickly and wore out his welcome as an overseas ‘useful idiot’, too. He offended the military by ignoring traditional hierarchies, he declared a state of emergency in order to give himself a level of immunity for his actions, but he perhaps went too far in snubbing the Pope’s appeal for clemency towards insurgents - perhaps a foolhardy step in a deeply Catholic country. He was deposed in August 1983 in a coup by his own Minister of Defence, Óscar Mejía Victores. He later founded the Guatemalan Republican Front and ran to return to power in 1989, with successive failed governments having followed him and, the further time got from his reign, the more hazily the worst of his shortcomings were remembered. However, as the Guatemalan constitution forbade participants in military coups from standing for President (which Ríos Montt claimed to have been specifically targeted at him), he was unable to take control of the country, but when after the Civil War concluded the party was voted in under Alfonso Portillo, Efraín Ríos Montt served as the President of Congress - even as Portillo officially admitted government involvement in unjust massacres during Ríos Montt’s leadership.

Despite this, Ríos Montt took the lead in the FRG’s presidential candidacy race in 2003, and when again the subject of his ineligibility was brought up, the party bussed in armed supporters to protest violently, leading to two days of rioting in central Ciudad de Guatemala in which a television presenter died while fleeing from a mob. This succeeded in getting the law overturned to enable Ríos Montt to legitimately run for office - but undermined his popularity and destroyed his political momentum. He was barred from leaving the country until the conclusion of his manslaughter trial for the death of the TV presenter, which enabled the Spanish courts to access him in the genocide case brought by Menchú, as he was unable to ‘disappear’ incognito into other sympathetic parts of Latin America as many of the other defendants had. He managed to escape this by getting elected to a seat in congress in 2007, which gave him immunity, but when this expired in 2012, he was summonsed to court to face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years’ imprisonment in May 2013, but the trial was quickly ruled unconstitutional and a retrial ordered. This commenced in 2015, but by this point the octogenarian former dictator’s health was failing and the trial resultantly had not been completed by the time he died in 2018 at the age of 91, yet another of those despots who thrived with US backing on the “better the devil you know” principle, who retained a surprising level of popularity after the regime change that kept them in politics and able to shield themselves from justice, and who never had to suffer consequence for their actions.

Well, that’s put me in a bad mood. So time for some cycling. The first part of the stage is rolling before, like in stage 3, we have an endless uphill false flat grind. This time it’s even longer, and even less steep, climbing just over 1000m to an eventual summit of 2800m altitude, but taking around 40km to do so, most of which is very consistent, as we head southwards toward the main east-west axis of major population centres in Guatemala. After this summit there’s 25km of low gradient up and down at high plateau levels, before we descend from the Alto de La Cumbre into the volcanic basin that makes up most of the Departamento de Quetzaltenango. This is an active seismic area, so there’s always the possibility of some unwanted action.

The main selectivity in this stage, however, comes in the final 40km. After entering the Quetzaltenango basin, we have 15km of westward flat terrain before the town of Cajola, a city of 16.000 people around 15km northwest of the departmental capital. It also sits on the very edge of the basin, and climbing up on to the volcanic ridge above it, a steep road winds up the mountainside at the kind of gradients to make Javier Guillén grin in delight. Its 4,9km at 10,8% puts it into the same kind of ballpark as Mas de la Costa or Xorret del Catí - although this is also gloriously inconsistent, with a steepest kilometre (from about 2,6 tot 3,6km on the profile) averaging almost 17% - that is Cueña de los Cabres level. What Javier Guillén might be less impressed by, however, is the 32km remaining after the summit. As we all know, the presiding head of Unipublic prefers a mountaintop finish, but hey, we had one of those yesterday. Now it’s time for those tired legs to deal with re-building the race after a steep climb.

The road from Cajolá to Sibilia has only been recently repaved so is in pretty good condition, helpful because it’s also an area which has seen snow and is susceptible to bad weather. The climb is also lopsided - after the summit there’s a short flat, then around 3km descending at a mere 5%, before turning southwest away from Sibilia towards Aldea El Eden at a steeper gradient, before repeating the process with some flat and then gradually steepening descent on a narrower - but still well paved - road into Palestina de los Altos, an important staging post on the road from Quetzaltenango to San Marcos, being the biggest municipality (comparable in size to Cajolá) passed through between San Juan Ostuncalco, which is in the Quetzaltenango basin, and San Pedro Sacatepéquez, which is part of the San Marcos suburban sprawl. We therefore turn left and return to the Quetzaltenango basin via National Highway 1, which features surprisingly often in stages this far west with the Ojo de Agua and El Mirador climbs and Esquipulas Palo Gordo providing a fairly common host in recent years. Palestina de los Altos is important to us as an intermediate sprint point to try to incentivise moves being made on the Cajolá climb - I’m aware tomorrow’s stage may be a disincentive, you see, so I want to encourage more breaking up of the race.

Here, however, to return to the finish it’s a matter of climbing up and over the mountain ridge once more, in a climb which, in and of itself, would be an interesting little obstacle - just under 4km at just under 9% is a pretty reasonable climb, especially considering it’s only 13km from the line, most of which is fairly gradual downhill. It looks pretty benign in comparison to the Alto de Cajolá and it is on much wider and more consistent roads thanks to being a major highway, and that’s why it’s been given cat. 3 rather than 2, but it is still pretty steep and will offer an opportunity to make some time given the tired legs that will be facing this after yesterday’s mountain odyssey.

In this video, the driver is descending what serves as our final climb of the day, from the San Juan park at the summit down into Palestina de los Altos. At the 8 minute mark, they bear left on the main road, the road ahead is where we come out from the descent from the Alto de Cajolá. You can enjoy the deep house soundtrack as well, it’s certainly less intrusive than we often get on this type of video.

The first part of the final 13km is basically downhill false flat, it then becomes a legitimate descent - around 5km at 6% - which ends just 1800m from the line. The bad news for escapees, however, is that that 1800m is pan flat, and ramrod straight. I mean like old school Paris-Tours finishing straight straight. Like, you can see the red kite coming the whole way, and then the finish will just appear in front of you as you arrive at the main market square of San Juan Ostuncalco, a largely Nam-Speaking city of 20.000 in the Quetzaltenango urban sprawl which serves as our stage town for the day.

San Juan Ostuncalco has appeared just the once in the Vuelta a Guatemala lately, a stage start in 2015 to the popular cycling city of Totonicapán which was won by former Movistar Team America rider Álvaro Duarte. Like many Guatemalan cities, it sprang from a former doctrine settlement, this time a Mercedarian settlement established in the altiplano of the Guatemalan Highlands. Bishop Marroquín had awarded them a number of doctrines close to the contemporary capital, Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala (this name has been given to three cities, the original being the site of the Kaqchikel Mayan city of Quauhtemallan, from whence the modern name Guatemala comes; following rebellions, Santiago de los Caballeros was re-established in the Almolonga valley, close to present day Quetzaltenango, but this was destroyed by floods following a volcanic eruption, so the third city was constructed at the site of the modern city of Antigua Guatemala, which was the one carrying the name in the timeframe in question) but they had traded these for the harder to maintain but more lucrative Sierra de los Cuchumatanes doctrines. They then re-established new doctrines as outposts, numbering nine in the outlying areas. San Juan de Ostuncalco was one of these, but as with all of the doctrines it was secularised and became a municipality in 1754. However, the Mercedarian church still stands proud as the city’s defining architectural feature.

Will the chasers catch the leaders on that final run-in, or is this going to be another rough day in the saddle for any non-climber?

Stage 6: Champérico - Retalhuleu, 40km (CRI)

Stage 6 is the only time trial of the race, and it’s one of those things I just couldn’t mess with. The Champérico to Retalhuleu time trial has begun and ended at different points on the road over recent years to increase and decrease the length depending on what suits the rest of the race, and to account for municipal business, road conditions and so on, but it’s essentially a key feature of the race: this is where the time trial is, because you’ve got as many kilometres as you like of pure power to counterbalance the climbing elsewhere. The organisers have favoured including a time trial in recent years, whereas until the early 2000s it was an infrequent inclusion. Nowadays it’s more or less a staple, and tends to take place in the Pacific lowlands.

There are two routes which frequently crop up in these time trials. One is between Escuintla and Santa Lucía, but the other one is between Champérico and Retalhuleu, or also occasionally to San Sebastián, an outlying town which has more or less been consumed by Retalhuleu. This is about as pure a power test as you can get in a time trial - there are almost no corners and it climbs around 200m in 40km. All of the last 5 editions of the Vuelta a Guatemala have included this route, across varying lengths - not all of them place the start in the port of Champérico but often at service stations on the route to adjust the length as needed, but we have seen:

2016 stage 4: Puerto Champérico - Retalhuleu (37,5km) - won by Manuel Rodas by over a minute, ahead of Roman Villalobos
2017 stage 6: San Sebastián - Champérico (43,6km) - again won by Manuel Rodas, this time by nearly two minutes from Alder Torres and Luís Fernando López.
2018 stage 5: Aldea el Rosario - San Sebastián (33,5km) - closer to the 1 minute mark again for Rodas, with Alfredo Ajpacajá in 2nd ahead of the remainder of the previous year’s podium.
2019 stage 5: Champérico-Aldea el Rosario - Retalhuleu (33,5km) - believe this is identical to the previous year’s route. Again Rodas wins, but by only 30 seconds this time ahead of Luís López and Alfredo Ajpacajá. His time is a minute and a half slower than the previous year too.
2020 stage 4: Champérico - Retalhuleu (43,0km) - this time Rodas can only manage 3rd, being beaten by extranjeros - Christofer Jurado for the Panamanian national team wins the stage, with Santiago Ordoñez, a Colombian riding for the Mexican Cane’s team coming in 2nd.

Champérico is a coastal city, on the Pacific shoreline of Guatemala, and is the most convenient oceanside location to the San Marcos and Quetzaltenango conurbations - so it’s perhaps inevitable that it is well known for two things. Firstly as a logistical hub, and an important port for the trading and import/export of various products from Guatemala, with coffee, chocolate and sugar seeing significant traffic through the town; and secondly as a holiday destination, especially as the high altitude nudges typical temperatures down in the altiplano, so a good old fashioned subtropical shoreline with its associated sunshine and high temperature makes for a popular excursion for many Guatemalans. Average temperatures never get below 24ºC and most months hover around the 30º mark, and it is also in the process of developing itself as a surfing destination. The permanent population is a little over 30.000, but that is rapidly expanded over the summer months with the short-term holiday makers and seasonal dwellers.

There’s only the one road into Champérico; until we reach the national route 13 junction at Santa Cruz Cajolá, the only alternative roads are to outlying villages and hamlets along the coast. Between Colonia 20 Octubre and San Miguel las Pilas, there are a couple of sweeping corners, my understanding is that this collection of outlying villages is known as Aldea el Rosario which is why the stage distances vary in the time trials along this route - I calculate that it’s about 30km from San Miguel las Pilas to Retalhuleu, and then another 3-4 kilometres into San Sebastián up the road which accounts for the 33,5km distance in those stages and the 43km distance in 2020. Procyclingstats appears to back me up. We, however, are not going as far as San Sebastián, because we’re starting back in Champérico itself. I suspect in 2017 when the stage was downhill in direction they needed to finish on the seafront so didn’t finish in central Champérico.

2017 time trial clips

The long straight line of the road doesn’t let up until the last 1500m, where we negotiate a few city corners to get to the centre of Retalhuleu for the finish. Unlike Champérico, Retalhuleu often appears on the route other than in the time trial - often as a stage start for one of the big climbs to Zunil or Almolonga back up into the Central Highlands, or heading west and then up El Mirador to San Marcos. Back in the early 2000s it would also host a flat stage descending down from Ciudad Guatemala, with probably the biggest name winner of one such stage being future Cofidis stalwart Leonardo Duque in 2003. Frequent stages up the mountains from Retalhuleu to Quetzaltenango have been the preserve of the likes of Juan Carlos Rojas (2006) and Óscar Sevilla (2014). Home winners have something of a chequered history as well - in 2009 the stage was won by Néry Velásquez in the leader’s jersey, while 2004’s stage, won by Lizandro Ajcú, was the stage that resulted in the enormous number of positive tests that clouded that edition of the race.

Essentially, 40km of this

Part of the challenge of this stage will be the relative low altitude - we’re used to the challenge of high altitude but here we have a race where the majority of the event is up over 1000m, and then we drop down to sea level for the chrono. With a population of 90.000 it is the second largest (after Escuintla) lowland city of southern Guatemala, and has built its strength on being a necessary gateway to the trading ports for goods travelling from Quetzaltenango and the Lago Atitlán area as well as a useful staging post for travelling from Chiapas and elsewhere in southeastern Mexico, as continuing along the lowlands and ascending from either Retalhuleu to Zunil and Quetzaltenango, or continuing through Retalhuleu to Escuintla and climbing to Guatemala City, are far easier journeys than ascending through El Mirador to San Marcos and then travelling across the Sierra Madre mountains with their up-and-down geography. Locals know the city by the abbreviation of “Reu”. Originally part of the Mazatenango department on its founding, the city’s important location at the crossroads of trade routes swiftly led it to eclipse its neighbour and acquire its own departmental surroundings. It is also important agriculturally, with the surrounding lowlands being crucial for several crops. But most Guatemaltecans know it either for the Mayan ruins of Abaj Takalik or the Xetulul amusement park.

Stage 7: Quetzaltenango - Chichicastenango, 106km

Totonicapán Iglesia de Dios (cat.3) 6,7km @ 6,3%

After the challenge of three tough GC days in a row, a nice treat for the riders, in a short stage with only the one categorised climb. And having included climbs like La Capellania that are never used in the real race, I’ve therefore spared them the need to face the long and painful drag up from Retalhuleu (Kalel el Zarco to be precise) into Quetzaltenango’s department, either to Zunil (39,4km @ 4,8%) or to Almolonga (42,0km @ 5,0%) - the road is largely the same but there is a fork in the road a couple of kilometres before Zunil meaning you can either head into Zunil and then around the eastern part of the altiplano or you can head directly over the top to head into Quetzaltenango without any diversion.

Instead, we will simply do that job by coach and, after yesterday’s time trial was at sea level, we’re back spending the whole day around the 2000m altitude mark with this one, which I’m sure the riders will (not) appreciate from an acclimatisation point of view, beginning at 2400m in Quetzaltenango, which with a population of 180.000 is the fifth largest in the country, but culturally and with the network of towns in the basin essentially forming one large conurbation, it functions as Guatemala’s second city and the beating heart of the Mayan ethnic groups that form a majority in the city to this day.

One of Guatemala’s oldest extant cities, the Mam (and later K’iche) city of Xelajú had been established for well over 300 years before the arrival of the Spaniards, and after the conquistador Pedro de Álvarado defeated the local ruler and subjugated the city, much as with Huehuetenango he let his Nahuatl-speaking guides and allies explain to him the name of the place; as such it was dubbed Quetzaltenango, or “place of the quetzal bird” - though the original Mayan name of the city persists in informal nomenclature to this day, akin to the casual use of Sài Gòn as a parallel name for Ho Chi Minh City - only if this was still happening in over 500 years’ time.

When the Spanish Empire was overthrown in the region, it was briefly the capital of Los Altos, a small highland province within the Federation of Central America. However, with the collapse of the Federation, it was too small and weak to continue as an independent state in its own right and was subsumed back into Guatemala shortly afterward. In the second half of the 19th Century the city grew wealthy and developed off the back of coffee as a cash crop and internal production of wheat, maize and livestock farming, however its continued progress has been hindered by natural disasters; the 1902 eruption of the nearby Santa María volcano caused a great deal of damage, while the Ferrocarril de los Altos, the first electric railway in Guatemala, was destroyed by mudslides, although some evidence of its history remains and a museum to its heritage take pride of place in the city. However, subsequent redevelopment plans and advances in earthquake-proofing of buildings have neutralised or at least lessened some of the dangers, and today Quetzaltenango is a booming and rapidly-growing city. It had intended to host the Central American and Caribbean Games in 2018 as its coming out party to the world, but funding from the central government was lacking and the games had to be relocated to Barranquilla, Colombia. Perhaps because of how rapid this expansion is, it is the largest city in Guatemala without public transport - taxis and privateer minibuses are the only transport options within the city, which has led to it becoming a haven for cycling due to the comparative cheapness of the bicycle as a mode of transport and the unreliability of depending on privateer firms.

Three former Presidents hail from Quetzaltenango, these being Manuel Barillas, Manuel Estrada Cabrera and Jacobo Árbenz. The first two are intertwined by history. Barillas achieved the presidency by subterfuge - telling the Congress president during the funeral for former president Justo Rafino Barrios that he had 5.000 troops waiting in Mixco to storm the offices; this was not true, but the Congress president was scared enough to award Barillas the interim presidency pending elections in order to prevent further unrest. These elections did not happen for a further six years, however despite the fraudulent means of assuming office and the somewhat dubious clinging to power preventing elections taking place, Barillas is a complex figure to pin down as he isn’t the usual military dictator type that we frequently see from such situations; uniquely among presidents of Guatemala from 1871 to 1944, Barillas was defeated in an election cleanly (by Barrios’ nephew, a man he had exiled and then welcomed back to the country in fact), and handed over power peaceably; all other transitions of power in this era were either to colleagues or by force. He even paid the campaign costs of the losing candidates in the 1892 election to avoid causing offence. Reyna Barrios, his successor, was murdered in 1898 during campaigning, and the new president, Manuel Estrada Cabrera, was a personal enemy of Barillas, leading him to go into exile in Mexico.

As Estrada was more of your typical Latin American dictator, whose development programs came largely as a result of kowtowing to the United Fruit Company, many plans were put forward to depose him and, as a strong leader of yesteryear who retained a level of popularity in the country, Barillas was solicited as a potential leader. Due to his personal animosity with Estrada, the former leader took on this role with gusto, and by 1907, tiring of the constant interference from abroad and calls for democracy, human rights and all of those other things that just get on a tinpot dictator’s nerves and having just survived an assassination attempt on his own life (not related to Barillas), Estrada despatched two members of his personal guard to Mexico to have him assassinated. Not used to facing consequences for their actions as, as personal assistants to the dictator, they were able to use force and violence unchecked at home in Guatemala, the assassins were not subtle enough in their task and were captured by Mexican forces where they confessed to their having been sent as contract killers on official state business. Estrada was able to maintain a hold on power through consecutive fraudulent and manipulated elections as his iron grip on the country grew tighter through increasingly excessive use of force. As an example, a member of a military cadet regiment attempted to shoot Estrada at a reception, and though the assailant had been killed on the spot by Estrada’s bodyguards, Estrada decided on sending a message and had the entire military academy from which the assailant had come killed.

Estrada’s undoing came after a series of natural disasters and, having focused far too long on politically-motivated repression and keeping the country profitable based on proceeds of produce, poor conditions and poverty caused by the destruction of earthquakes in 1917 and 1918 exposed the weaknesses of the government in dealing with real-world issues and the population realised they had been coasting on profitable natural resources. As is often the case in these deeply religious countries, the Catholic Church turning on the president in 1919 was a further hammer blow. Estrada was forced to accept the founding of a new oppositional party, the Unionists, and when the army was instructed to fire on members of the Unionists at a peaceful protest, it enraged the public. The national assembly declared Estrada unfit to continue his office, to which the dictator responded by barricading himself into his residence and resisting for a week before eventually surrendering. The former president was immediately incarcerated and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes, eventually dying an impoverished and bitter man in prison four years later. His life and work, along with the tumultuous relationship of the Guatemalan people with the United Fruit Company that he fostered, were later explored in four books by Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias. His legacy is complex; the first decade of his rule was characterised by development (albeit often gained by dubious means) but the latter was one of the most brutal periods of repression in pre-Civil War Guatemala.

Manuel Barillas and Manuel Estrada

Estrada’s legacy was to help destroy the third President from Quetzaltenango, Jacobo Árbenz. Widely regarded one of the country’s most progressive and revered politicians, he led multiple civilian and military groups opposed to the dictatorial rule of US-backed dictator (hey, it’s Central America) Jorge Ubico, and was a key part in the overthrow of the man who compared himself favourably to Hitler in 1944. This led to a ten year program of radical democratisation of Guatemala and the dismantling of the machinations of dictatorship. Árbenz became president in 1950 and enacted extensive social reforms to modernise the country. This included extending the franchise, legalising workers’ rights to unionise and to strike, legitimising opposition political parties, and enacting agrarian reform to offer poverty-stricken agricultural workers a holding on un-cultivated land being held but unused by large land-holdings.

Even though the reform was only intended to redistribute land that was going unused, offering the agricultural workers an alternative to borderline indentured slavery at the hands of the United Fruit Company did not sit well with the conglomerate, which had enjoyed over half a century of preferential treatment at the hands of the Guatemalan government including a 99-year lease on vast tracts of land signed by Ubico, and did not fancy conceding any of the benefits that this entailed. They campaigned to have Árbenz overthrown, and the redistribution of land, although designed as part of reforms designed to make the country more self-sufficient and keep them away from falling into the hands of extreme ideologies, offered them the opportunity to sell the McCarthyist-era American government the story that Guatemala’s government was under the spell of Communists and therefore they should intervene (the Communist party had in fact been banned by Árbenz’ predecessor, and were only legalised in 1951, but this very step was a worrying sign for the US). The Americans, of course, like to think of themselves as anti-imperialist, but their paranoid fear of even the concept of left wing politics in the post-war era and overwhelmingly disproportionate response to anything even remotely resembling social democracy has been responsible for as much untold misery in Central and South America as anything - especially after the Cuban Revolution gave them an even bigger reason to fear Communism on their doorstep, although at this point that had yet to happen, and one of the things that helped foment the support for the Communists there was the US’ explicit support for Bautista and Cuban resentment of having been forced to include in their constitution a clause that essentially granted the US the right to intervene in Cuban politics whenever they saw fit. So, yes, the CIA and the Department of State (both of which were led at the time by individuals closely linked to the United Fruit Company) orchestrated and backed a military coup d’état to depose Árbenz. The famous quote on this came from US Ambassador John Peurifoy, and it encapsulates the country’s Latin American policy of the era pretty well: “If he is not a communist, he will do until one comes along”.

The US had been blocking arms purchases to Guatemala for a number of years, and with belligerents on their doorstep, Árbenz turned to Czechoslovakia for a shipment of arms. The US used this as justification that the Guatemalans were under the spell of Communism and that Árbenz needed to be stopped. The intention was to turn these over to the peasant militia, but the US seeded knowledge of the shipment to the military, forcing the president to provide the arms to them; the rebel forces, led by Castillo Armas and backed by the US, marched into Guatemala in June 1954, and, seizing power, forced Árbenz into exile. The CIA acquired his personal documents, doctored them and published them to discredit him, and underwent a six year policy of intense defamation to prevent any wave of popularity for the former leader resulting in dissatisfaction with the new puppet government. With the defamation campaign making it difficult for Árbenz to settle anywhere in the west, he was forced to seek exile in the Soviet Union, which of course only aided the US in portraying him as a dangerous left wing agitant, as did his relocation to Uruguay, and then to Cuba after an invite following on from the revolution. The separation of his family had caused Árbenz to fall into depression, and after his daughter committed suicide in Bogotá in 1965 he became more disenchanted. He left Cuba for Mexico with the intention of settling, and died after a short illness - some saying heart attack, others saying suicide - in 1971. In 1995 his remains were repatriated to Guatemala and he received a state burial from the post-war nation. In 1999, his surviving family began demanding an apology for the deposition and defamation, which was settled in 2011 with a payment to the family and a restoration of his legacy. His reputation remains divisive, largely a product of the CIA’s defamation campaign as his political legacy has been restored and acknowledged.

The later life and death of Jacobo Árbenz is a shining example of why US Senator Joseph McCarthy is one of the most under-reviled villains of the 20th Century. The level of fear of Communism being such that “the land of the free” will trample on anybody’s civil liberties to prevent legislative protection of other people’s civil liberties; and hardline right-wing dictatorship and bloodshed is worth embracing if the alternative is social democracy just on the off-chance that it might one day lead to Communism (not to mention that the way the US trampled on the soft left overseas probably did plenty to steer peaceable reform-minded politicians towards a harder line approach). The ease with which one US company’s profits being affected by overseas legislation designed to keep poor people from starvation or indentured labour could turn into an incentive to overthrow a democratically-elected leader who was instrumental in overthrowing a fascist dictatorship, and set into motion a six year smear campaign and germinate the seed of a thirty-year civil war in which millions of people died is probably the most effective anti-American propaganda campaign the Soviet Union could have dreamed of. And yet it all happened, right there in the open, in Guatemala.

Rehabilitation of the image and legacy of Jacobo Árbenz has been ongoing for the last decade

Oh yea, there’s a bike race to talk about, not just a lecture on the history of democracy in Guatemala and US imperialism and interventionism in Latin America. Rather got on my soapbox there.

The first part of the stage is a loop which effectively heads around Quetzaltenango, going over the Alto de Almalonga but not as a categorised climb as it’s only a false flat uphill for a couple of kilometres before descending down to the fork in the road where we turn left and head over Zunil to keep at least some tradition alive. This means there is a climb of about 2,5km at 5,5% around Zunil early on in the stage but I haven’t bothered to categorise it because, well, it’s 2,5km at 5,5% which in this race is nothing. The subsequent flat phase in the middle of the stage around the eastern edge of the Quetzaltenango basin takes in the city of Salcajá, which hosts an early intermediate sprint, and is home to the Iglesia de San Jacinto, one of the first churches built in Guatemala (dating to 1524). This is one of the very first places conquered in the Spanish expansion into the region, although interestingly despite being one of the oldest Spanish cities in the country its main recognition comes as a manufacturer of traditional Mayan dress and alcoholic beverages.

Sweeping eastward from here, we arrive in Totonicapán, which is a city of around 100.000 which grew out of a former spa town. It was briefly independent during the federation of Central America days, from 1838 to 1840, but was subsumed within Guatemala shortly afterward. Its spa origins are reflected in its K’iché name, Chwi Meq’ina’, translating as “on the hot water”, but the reason for coming through here now are more related to, well, bike racing. It has hosted five of the last seven editions of the Vuelta a Guatemala and TEO Totonicapán is one of the country’s best development teams. 2019’s stage was a short but sharp brute with the Alto de Almalonga mid-stage and a 30km flat run-in, won by Alfredo Ajpacajá (who is also from Totonicapán), but one of the main reasons to include the city is the other local man that Ajpacajá beat to 2nd place in that sprint of the small group that made it over the summit together: the Totonicapense rider who captured the general classification in 2020 and has become the new face of hope for Guatemaltecan cycling, Mardóqueo Vásquez Vásquez.

The current popularity that Mardóqueo enjoys runs deeper than him just being a current top name in Guatemalan cycling. He represents a lot more than that. Much as how in the 1990s El Tractorcito was the local favourite, and in the early 2000s a lot of Guatemala threw its weight behind Lizandro Ajcú to protect home interest in the face of overseas domination of their national race, Vásquez is a crusader for Guatemalan cycling. He is triumphing in the face not only of the overseas adversaries, but against his local opposition, perceived by many as the Guatemalan escalador who can deliver Guatemalan cycling a future. Central American and Caribbean cycling has long been a backwater and an insular world, but the top levels’ interest in Latin America is expanding beyond its traditional scouting of Colombia and, occasionally, Venezuela. We’ve seen Costa Rica get some names to the highest level, with Andrey Amador and Kevin Rivera the most notable, we’ve seen Ecuador become the next cycling hotbed with the success of Richard Carapaz and the ensuing successes of Caicedo, Narváez and the two Cepedas, we’ve seen Arlenis Sierra become an established WT pro from Cuba and we’ve seen Puerto Rico make its debut at the WT level with Abner González in 2021 too, while countries like Panama, Bolivia and the Dominican Republic have national development teams plying their trade at the UCI Continental level.

Guatemala’s reputation as a hotbed of doping even within the Central American scene makes it somewhat off-limits to higher level scouts, however, and as long as the Guatemalan riders cannot overcome their international opposition, and as long as the Guatemalan riders that compete with them are of an older generation tainted by previous scandals, then Guatemalan cycling will remain a backwater and be increasingly left behind. Fingers were burned in the Ajcú generation by that enormous bust in 2004, but then it was 2004, height of the EPO generation. Since the top Colombian teams stopped coming to Guatemala and the national teams started winning again, winners had been the likes of Manuel Rodas, born in the mid 1980s and having ridden through the worst times, and the aforementioned Alfredo Ajpacajá, who was busted as a 20-year-old alongside Néry Velásquez and so carries the stench of previous doping. So when Vásquez started competing on a level with them in his early 20s, he became a beacon of hope for a generation of young prospects who could extend beyond the borders of Guatemala and be a source of pride for the nation. Also helping to raise his profile is that, despite the Spanish surnames, he is of indigenous extraction and so has become a symbol of pride for the highland native populations as well. Now 26, the chances that he becomes a top level professional cyclist are limited, but if he truly is what he purports to be, then it may pave the way for promising young riders like Sérgio Chumil, Álex Julajuj, Ervín Pérez and Henry Sam to expand Guatemaltecan cycling beyond its present boundaries. The national federation has been taking an increasing number of young riders to events in Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Ecuador in order to improve development for these young riders, typically leaving other veterans at home and riding in support of Mardóqueo, and this can only be a positive sign for the future of the sport in Guatemala, especially as those races are more likely to see higher level talent scouts keeping an eye on proceedings.

The urban sprawl of Totonicapán heads up into the sides of the bowl in which Quetzaltenango sits, and this takes us up to the Iglesia de Dios mission which sits atop the El Aprisco hill, on the shoulder of Campanabaj. This is a fairly straightforward and consistent 7km at 6% kind of climb, including the first couple of kilometres of punchy uphill into Totonicapán itself, common from previous years’ Vueltas. After this, a long, gradual downhill ensues - descending around 900m in about 30km, before a slight uphill takes us to our second intermediate sprint of the day, in Santa Cruz del Quiché, capital of the El Quiché department named for the K’iche’ ethnic group, and built by Pedro de Álvarado on the site of the city of Q’umarkaj, the capital of the local Mayan population, which was known as Utatlán by the Nahuatl guides. It is believed that this was where the Popol Vuh was inscribed, a well-established German alternative group from the 197… no wait, a sacred Text also providing a dedicated listing and chronicle of movements of Maya populations. It was the site of another Dominican doctrine set up under Bartolomé de las Casas in order to expedite the Catholic conversion of the indigenous population, although this one was more aggressive in protecting its local interests and remained an almost unchanged native town for many centuries. It was able to retain economic importance and affluence as a key trading town as a stop-off between most of the major cities of Guatemala until, when the Pan-American Highway was constructed, it was bypassed in favour of a route which navigated closer to Lago Atitlán, making Santa Cruz less important in the shorter and more direct routes and only crucial to the more sparsely travelled Quetzaltenango-Cobán and Huehuetenango-Antigua/Guatemala trade routes. The effect of this was that impoverished indigenous groups from the mountains who relied on Santa Cruz for trade would move into the city, and those who lived there would relocate to Chichicastenango, closer to the newer trade routes, and the city quickly waned in importance and size. It was heavily damaged in the Civil War, being cut off in the aftermath of the Nicaraguan Sandinista revolution as the Guatemalan government and army conducted their scorched earth policy; as an EGP-held town, Santa Cruz was immediately an obvious target, and the army base outside the city was frequently used as the staging point for aggressive manoeuvres in the north of the country with several massacres conducted by the military from this base.

Here we now turn south and take the rolling route to Chichicastenango, the stage finish for today. Originally a small town, Santo Tomás Chichicastenango, like many of these cities, took its name from its church which was dedicated to St. Thomas, and from the Nahuatl word for the area, as Tzitzicaztenanco, from which the name derives, means “city of nettles”. Again, like many of these cities, it was built atop a pre-existing Mayan city called Chaviar which was sacked by Álvarado in 1524, although this was not granted town status until 1872; it remained a small and relatively benign outpost until the Pan-American Highway drove people out of Santa Cruz. Although it is not on the Pan-American, Chichicastenango is not a significant detour to take and it has become a centre for K’iche’ Maya culture (98% of the city is indigenous, and over 90% speak K’iche’ fluently as either their only language or as one of a bilingual identity alongside Spanish), with indigenous music, handicrafts and other cultural artefacts regularly for sale at the city market which has become a tourist attraction in its own right, with the colourful fabrics and scenic setting making this one of the ‘must-see’ stops on the average tourist’s Guatemaltecan itinerary.

Santo Tomás Chichicastenango’s role as a key city in K’iche’ culture has been further established as it was in this city that Fraile Francisco Ximénez transcribed and documented the Popol Vuh, a Mayan sacred text and account of population movements, which had been handed down through oral tradition until that point. The original was stolen but the text, which languished in obscurity for several decades, became well known upon rediscovery in 1941. It also provides a greater level of insight into the culture and mythology of the Mesoamerican people than we largely have access to, thanks to the destruction of many records by the conquistadors and missionaries as part of their attempts to force conversion to Christianity. This includes perhaps its best-known offshoot, the account of the Mesoamerican Ball Game. Chichicastenango is also the home of Pascual Abaj, a pre-Columbine stone sculpture which survived the destruction of Mayan religious artefacts when it was surreptitiously sneaked out of town and stored on a hillside around 3km outside of town. Members of the public would visit the idol to make offerings in secret, away from the doctrine. Hardline Catholics defaced the sculpture in 1950, but it continues to attract veneration to this day. Many other Mayan artefacts, most from the personal collection of the German Franciscan priest Ildefonso Rossbach, are in the regional museum which is now housed within the Iglesia de Santo Tomás.

Cycling into town from the north is a slightly tougher proposition than the average flat stage, although this should probably go to a sprinter, at least a fairly durable one. We have to descend to cross a river with 6km remaining, then there is a 1500m at 6% ascent (first 500m at 9%) that finishes with three and a half kilometres remaining, so that does give the chance to thwart the sprinters if a baroudeur fancies it. And the rest of the stage is uphill as well - we climb 85 altitude metres in the last 3 kilometres, although as you can see, averaging less than 3% this is hardly likely to destroy many would-be stage winning fastmen. Especially when it is literally dead straight for the final 2km. There is, however, at about 400m from home, a short - 100m or so - steep rise as we pass through one of Chichicastenango’s iconic structures, the Arco Gucumatz.

Otherwise, however, there should be nothing stopping the fast men from having their fun here, which they had better enjoy in the face of the upcoming stages.
Reactions: BlueRoads
Stage 8: Panajachel - Sololá, 118km

Alto del Castillo (cat.3) 11,9km @ 4,6%
Volcán San Pedro (cat.2) 5,3km @ 9,6%
Mirador Chuichok’ok (cat.2) 4,6km @ 10,0%
Mirador de Pamezabal (cat.2) 5,2km @ 10,6%

Another short stage, this one is effectively of the same ilk as those Communist era Ostbloc stages you’d see in the DDR-Rundfahrt, with titles like ‘Rund um den Erzgebirge” or “Rund im Thüringer Wald”, where it was clear where they were but not the start, finish or general profile. This one is a tour around Lago Atitlán, which the effective starting and finishing town of Sololá (taking its name from a Hispanicized reading of the original Tz’olojya) sits above the northern shores of. I say ‘above’ because Sololá is not a lakeside town, but 30.000 people within its urban confines sit above a Mirador overlooking the lake, which is around 600m lower in altitude. The population is mostly Kaqchikel Maya, who were rivals to the K’iche’ based primarily around Iximché, and assisted the Spanish in conquering their neighbours. Their history was recorded and documented - in the original language - by Francisco Hernández Arana Xajilá in 1571 in Sololá, and so his work, later completed and expanded by his grandson 33 years later, is known as the Memorial de Sololá, one of the most important documents of the pre-Columbian Guatemalan history as well as being one of the first documents of the actual Spanish conquest from the perspective of the Mayans.

Opening the stage with a steep descent would be something of a dangerous move, however, so I have elected to begin proceedings in neighbouring Panajachel, a city which is rapidly expanding due to its tourist potential, and currently sits at around 16.000. It’s actually a deeply historic location, with one of the oldest Franciscan churches in Guatemala, whose facade remains and is considered one of the definitive examples of colonial architecture in the country. It became a convent and the centre of the Franciscan doctrine which covered the Lago Atitlán area. Following the secularisation of the doctrines in 1754, it became a quieter town, prone to occasional flooding, which prevented further growth despite increasing numbers of irrigation channels being dug out to help till the land. The dramatic scenery led to its being developed as a tourist destination in the 1950s and 60s, but obviously the Civil War put a halt to that, it has however since the end of that conflict started rapidly expanding to account for touristic demand in the Lago Atitlán area. It was most recently in the news in 2017, however, when the Mexican politician Javier Duarte, former Governor of Veracruz for the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, was captured there while on the run following a series of scandals during his time in office, including multiple murders of journalists and state officials being caught with briefcases containing 250 million pesos in cash. He disappeared on 13th October 2016 and was officially regarded as a fugitive from justice, but was captured in Panajachel by Guatemalan civil forces in collaboration with Interpol on 15th April 2017 after six months on the run, and was subsequently sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment. His wife is also currently wanted on corruption charges which she is contesting from her current home in London.

Looking across to Volcán Tolimán from Panajachel

This stage may be short, but it is very sharp. It opens up with a cat.3 climb, although this is probably an under categorisation - it’s more about the low average than anything else, as the climb is sustained for long enough to be a challenge especially considering it’s off a complete cold open - 12km at 4,5% or so is a pretty decent climb, not exactly the easiest to establish separation on, but tough enough to allow a strong break to form. There’s not much choice to be fair - the alternative would be to stay along the shores of the lake and then have an extremely steep and unpaved ascent to Agua Escondida - this is on the lower of the two plateaus as we reach the summit and then drop down from Godíñez to San Lucas Tolimán, but that the climb is unpaved and that it’s at around 12% makes it a poor option. Instead we have the longer and steadier climb, then a slow descent down back to the shores of the lake, which we arrive at at the gateway to the southern flatlands.

San Lucas Tolimán is the staging point at the base of this climb, taking its name from the volcano to its west. This protrudes into the lake and so we are forced to circumnavigate it as we stay on the shores of the lake, before we reach Santiago Atitlán on the opposite side of the peninsula formed by the volcano. This takes us to the much trickier and more complex second half of the stage, with three cat.2 climbs, all of which are reasonably short, but steep enough to attract the attention of Javier Guillén. The first, to the shoulders of the San Pedro volcano, is a little over 5km at a little under 10%, and puts itself into the same kind of ballpark as Peña Cabarga, Supergà and Cumbres Verdes. It comes at around the halfway point in the stage and with a descent which begins benign and then gets tougher as it continues, before arriving in San Juan La Laguna for the first intermediate sprint. From here we continue on along the shores to the similarly-named San Pablo La Laguna, and then se armó un zapatiesto… a two stepped double climb that should be a major challenge. Combined together, cronoescalada believes they should be HC, but individually they are two similarly-styled cat.2 climbs, similar in characteristics to the Volcán San Pedro climb, but slightly shorter and, in fact, also slightly steeper.

The base of the climb

Mirador Chuichok’ok, summit of the first climb

Looking down on San Juan La Laguna from the summit

Climb(s) profile

Of course, you can see why Cronoescalada believes it to be HC. Yes, the climb as a whole is 13,4km at 7,4%, which you would usually see as cat.1, but if you take the ‘just the ascents’ part of it, it’s 9,8km of climbing which averages 10,3% - up there with the likes of Colle San Carlo, Passo di Pampeago, Loma del Escobero and Ovronnaz. However, it’s not climbed as one consistent ascent, but instead there’s a 3km respite in the middle through the town of Santa Clara La Laguna, which will be blissful respite for the riders before the pain begins again, and the first four kilometres of the five up to the final categorised climb of the day begin at 9% and get progressively steeper until the 4th is at 14%, before things ease up again. The actual summit is hard to confirm what the name is. The summit is in the Parque Ecológico Chui Rax Amolo, there is a church to San António de Padua just beneath it, and nearby there is a hill summit with an Aldea named Xojolá. At a curve in the road by the summit however there is the Mirador de Pamezabal, which is what I have named the climb for, to match the first ascent to the adventure park at Mirador de Chuichok’ok.

The Mirador de Pamezabal is a new touristic site inaugurated recently, as a result this was actually a stage host in the 2021 Vuelta Feminina a Guatemala, in the penultimate stage which finished in San Juan Argueta and was won by the Colombian Erika Botero. It looks like this was from a breakaway as the GC battle took place some 30 seconds later, race leader Yeny Colmenares chasing home Myriam Nuñez and Blanca Moreno (all also Colombians) while home heroine Jasmin Soto was able to protect her 6th place on the overall despite losing a few seconds. There’s even highlights, and a (dreadful) theme song.

That video also gives you the chance to see a lot of the roads that we will see in the finale, since after cresting the climb with 28km remaining, the next 15km are descending gradually through Santa Lucía Utatlán and then onto the Pan-American Highway briefly, until the Vuelta Feminina finishing town of San Juan Argueta. The Vuelta Feminina largely headed back and forth on the Highway, including a gradual climb at the eastern end of the circuit, we however turn right and back on to smaller roads and head towards the Mirador Ixchel amusement park, one of the main tourist attractions of the Sololá area. We don’t trace all the way there, however, but there is a small climb - around 1700m at 5% - around 10km remaining before we descend through San José Chacaya to a canyon which we traverse, as Sololá lays on the eastern edge of this. It amounts to a descent of around 5,2km at 7,5%, and then we have a complex run-in which borrows its style from favourite stages of mine like the 2010 Tirreno-Adriatico Chieti stage.

This consists of a tricky, twisty climb - uncategorised - up into the western edges of the city, amounting to 2km at 7,3%. This is the road available on streetview, as well, helpfully. At least until we make it into the city, where we head to the centre via 6a Calle and 7a Calle successively, before turning right and descending (vague downhill) for four blocks to Parque Centro América de Sololá. This would be a convenient place to finish but I didn’t like the downhill sprint, so instead it’s a double left-hander to start climbing up the road parallel to the one we just descended, for a final 800m uphill to finish at the Monumento a la Virgén de la Asunción at the north edge of the city - this averages 7% though due to the grid system in many New World cities, it varies from block to block how steep it is, maxing out at 12%. But the other benefit of this one is that it’s on cobbles…

As a result, this one ought to be tricky - if the super steep stuff doesn’t get you, this tricky run-in will. Even if you’re trying to conserve energy since the etapa Reina is to follow…
Reactions: Bye Bye Bicycle
I'm gonna post an entire Vuelta, atm I don't have much time to write long stage descriptions.

Stage 1: Salamanca - Salamaca (Triunfo al Cantero) ITT, 15.1kms A nice opening TT with a short steep ramp in the middle of it, it should create some gaps.
Stage 2: Salamanca - Avlia; 179.7kms A medium mountain stage with the same Avila uphill finish that we had in 2015, one for the punchers
Stage 3: El Espinar - Toldedo; 151.1kms An easy stage for the sprinters with no proper climbs.
Stage 4: La Puebla de Montalban - Gudalupe; 187.5kms A downhill finish after the Collado de Ballesteros Murito, the first mountain stage
Stage 5: Trujillo - Mérida; 155.7kms Another easy stage for the sprinters, not a lot to say about this one.
Stage 6: Don Benito - Cordoba; 223.6kms a long breakaway stage with 2 medium mountain stages near the finish. This one should go to the stagehunters who are preparing for the Vuelta. The name of the starting town is probably Rojas-approved...
Stage 7: Palma del Rio - La Pandera (MTF); 230.1kms The first MTF of the race and a really long stage.
Stage 8: Huelma - Alto Hoya de la Mora (MTF); 160.1kms A proper Sierra Nevada MTF with Monachil before Sierra Nevada via Hazallanas. It comes early in the race, but one day after a long stage with a hard MTF, so fingers crossed.
Stage 9: La Zubia - Adra; 155,5kms After 2 consecutive MTFs we have a potential ambush stage with Haza del Lino topping with over 40kms to go. The final part of the stage alongside the coast is really exposed and we're in a windy region, so there could even be some crosswinds action near the finish.

Stage 10: Requena - Onda;132kms A short hilly stage comes after the first rest day. This one should be for the breakaway.
Stage 11: Terurel - Cuarte de Huerva; 173.8kms An easy stage, but the final 700ms are at 5.7%, so it's an uphill sprint that allows the puncheurs to mix it up with the lighter sprinters.
Stage 12: Zuera - Huesca ITT; 52.8kms a long flat ITT with a few rolling sections. One for the favourites, the pure climbers will loose lots of time.
Stage 13: Lleida-Port Aine (MTF); 234kms The longest stage of the Vuelta comes right after the long ITT, a multi-mountain stage with a MTF at Port Aine.
Stage 14: Sort - Arguis; 222.2kms A long transitional medium mountain stage. Not super hard, but if someone has a bad day he could loose lots of time.
Stage 15: Pamplona - Luzaide/Valcarlos; 188kms Before the 2nd rest day we have my favourite stage, a big Mountain stage that enters the French (occupied) part of Euskadi and features an easy uphill drag after the brutal Pic de Beillurti.

Stage 16: Irun - Monte Oiz (MTF); 175,4kms. The final MTF of the race, and it's ungodly steep. How many classic Euskadi climbs can you fit in one stage? Yes!
Stage 17: Bilbao - Reinosa ;208.1kms A hard stage, but with no climbs in the final 28kms one might underestimate this one. Another potential ambush stage.
Stage 18: Los Corrales de Buelna - Gijon; 167.2kms An easy stage for the sprinters after all that climbing.
Stage 19: Luanco - Orviedo; 124.9kms A short hilly stage for the stagehunters/breakaway.
Stage 20: Orviedo - Mieres del Camin; 166.2kms The final gc stage. A few shorter climbs at the start, then Puerto de San Lorenzo, la Cobertoria and El Cordal before a short, steep hill near the finish. One has to attack with at least 30-25kms to go if he wants to gain a lot of time, go big or go home!
Stage 21: Hipódromo de la Zarzuela - Madrid; 139.6kms The final Parade stage in Madrid, the same that we had in 202 nothing more to say about this one.

That's it folks!
Overall it's a hard Vuelta. I've tried to reduce the amount of uphill finishes and I've tried to add a decent but still somewhat realistic amount of kms of ITT. We still have steep muritos and 2 uphill sprints, so it still feels like the Vuelta.
Take a look and tell me what you think about it, feedback is appreciated!
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I'm gonna post an entire Vuelta, atm I don't have much time to write long stage descriptions.

Stage 1: Salamanca - Salamaca (Triunfo al Cantero) ITT, 15.1kms A nice opening TT with a short steep ramp in the middle of it, it should create some gaps.
Stage 2: Salamanca - Avlia; 179.7kms A medium mountain stage with the same Avila uphill finish that we had in 2015, one for the punchers
Stage 3: El Espinar - Toldedo; 151.1kms An easy stage for the sprinters with no proper climbs.
Stage 4: La Puebla de Montalban - Gudalupe; 187.5kms A downhill finish after the Collado de Ballesteros Murito, the first mountain stage
Stage 5: Trujillo - Mérida; 155.7kms Another easy stage for the sprinters, not a lot to say about this one.
Stage 6: Don Benito - Cordoba; 223.6kms a long breakaway stage with 2 medium mountain stages near the finish. This one should go to the stagehunters who are preparing for the Vuelta. The name of the starting town is probably Rojas-approved...
Stage 7: Palma del Rio - La Pandera (MTF); 230.1kms The first MTF of the race and a really long stage.
Stage 8: Huelma - Alto Hoya de la Mora (MTF); 160.1kms A proper Sierra Nevada MTF with Monachil before Sierra Nevada via Hazallanas. It comes early in the race, but one day after a long stage with a hard MTF, so fingers crossed.
Stage 9: La Zubia - Adra; 155,5kms After 2 consecutive MTFs we have a potential ambush stage with Haza del Lino topping with over 40kms to go. The final part of the stage alongside the coast is really exposed and we're in a windy region, so there could even be some crosswinds action near the finish.

Stage 10: Requena - Onda;132kms A short hilly stage comes after the first rest day. This one should be for the breakaway.
Stage 11: Terurel - Cuarte de Huerva; 173.8kms An easy stage, but the final 700ms are at 5.7%, so it's an uphill sprint that allows the puncheurs to mix it up with the lighter sprinters.
Stage 12: Zuera - Huesca ITT; 52.8kms a long flat ITT with a few rolling sections. One for the favourites, the pure climbers will loose lots of time.
Stage 13: Lleida-Port Aine (MTF); 234kms The longest stage of the Vuelta comes right after the long ITT, a multi-mountain stage with a MTF at Port Aine.
Stage 14: Sort - Arguis; 222.2kms A long transitional medium mountain stage. Not super hard, but if someone has a bad day he could loose lots of time.
Stage 15: Pamplona - Luzaide/Valcarlos; 188kms Before the 2nd rest day we have my favourite stage, a big Mountain stage that enters the French (occupied) part of Euskadi and features an easy uphill drag after the brutal Pic de Beillurti.

Stage 16: Irun - Monte Oiz (MTF); 175,4kms. The final MTF of the race, and it's ungodly steep. How many classic Euskadi climbs can you fit in one stage? Yes!
Stage 17: Bilbao - Reinosa ;208.1kms A hard stage, but with no climbs in the final 28kms one might underestimate this one. Another potential ambush stage.
Stage 18: Los Corrales de Buelna - Gijon; 167.2kms An easy stage for the sprinters after all that climbing.
Stage 19: Luanco - Orviedo; 124.9kms A short hilly stage for the stagehunters/breakaway.
Stage 20: Orviedo - Mieres del Camin; 166.2kms The final gc stage. A few shorter climbs at the start, then Puerto de San Lorenzo, la Cobertoria and El Cordal before a short, steep hill near the finish. One has to attack with at least 30-25kms to go if he wants to gain a lot of time, go big or go home!
Stage 21: Hipódromo de la Zarzuela - Madrid; 139.6kms The final Parade stage in Madrid, the same that we had in 202 nothing more to say about this one.

That's it folks!
Overall it's a hard Vuelta. I've tried to reduce the amount of uphill finishes and I've tried to add a decent but still somewhat realistic amount of kms of ITT. We still have steep muritos and 2 uphill sprints, so it still feels like the Vuelta.
Take a look and tell me what you think about it, feedback is appreciated!
Nice South Park vid in the first stage.
Lol, I fixed it, that's what happens when you're shitposting with your friends at the same time...
Vuelta looks pretty damn good.

To satisfy the folks at Petulant Whiners United, stage order renders Pandera a bit irrelevant, and also if I really wanna tryhard and say "screw stages that might actually happen" I might whine about the final mountain stage not doing a loopy loop with Trobaniello inbetween San Lorenzo and Cobertoria.

But then a stage with Cobertoria and San Lorenzo without a MTF suspends all disbelief already
Tahús (Serra del Bosc) is sadly another in the same kind of realm as Vegarada - some parts are just not in good enough state unfortunately. If they could widen a couple of the sterrato bits sufficiently to make it passable, however, it would be an absolute godsend of an option in Catalunya. It has a long stretch of hormigón on the ascent before turning to sterrato all the way until the secondary summit at Sant Esteve. But then, Pic de Beillurti and Arnostéguy have those super narrow descents too. And the Vuelta is much more likely to do this experimenting than the Tour, after all they went over Ahusquy in 2016.

My favourite stage might actually be the Reinosa stage (though you might want to check the tracking on the Braguía descent). Really good use of a traditional climb in a way that it would historically be used, but beefed up to meet the demands of the modern péloton. I love the inclusion of that 14% concreted murito early on Portillo de la Sía. I've never really done much in that part of Cantabria in my Vuelta routes for a long time and hadn't noticed that little wall. It's well over 100km from the line but I'd expect to see some people struggle with it because it comes just at the point where Sía steps up to being a harder ascent again.

My least favourite stage is the one to Mieres del Camino with the La Faidosa WALL after descending the Cobertoria-Cordal doublette. Because it means I will likely have to throw my very similar stage from Cangas del Narcea for a Vuelta I had in the offing in the bin (I went Collado Muro - La Colledoria - Puerto del Marabio at the start but everything from Teverga on is identical). I am genuinely amazed Javier Guillén hasn't picked up on La Faidosa.

Tahús (Serra del Bosc) is sadly another in the same kind of realm as Vegarada - some parts are just not in good enough state unfortunately. If they could widen a couple of the sterrato bits sufficiently to make it passable, however, it would be an absolute godsend of an option in Catalunya. It has a long stretch of hormigón on the ascent before turning to sterrato all the way until the secondary summit at Sant Esteve. But then, Pic de Beillurti and Arnostéguy have those super narrow descents too. And the Vuelta is much more likely to do this experimenting than the Tour, after all they went over Ahusquy in 2016.

My favourite stage might actually be the Reinosa stage (though you might want to check the tracking on the Braguía descent). Really good use of a traditional climb in a way that it would historically be used, but beefed up to meet the demands of the modern péloton. I love the inclusion of that 14% concreted murito early on Portillo de la Sía. I've never really done much in that part of Cantabria in my Vuelta routes for a long time and hadn't noticed that little wall. It's well over 100km from the line but I'd expect to see some people struggle with it because it comes just at the point where Sía steps up to being a harder ascent again.

My least favourite stage is the one to Mieres del Camino with the La Faidosa WALL after descending the Cobertoria-Cordal doublette. Because it means I will likely have to throw my very similar stage from Cangas del Narcea for a Vuelta I had in the offing in the bin (I went Collado Muro - La Colledoria - Puerto del Marabio at the start but everything from Teverga on is identical). I am genuinely amazed Javier Guillén hasn't picked up on La Faidosa.

Thanks for the kind words. I'm a bit sorry for messing up your Mieres del Camino stage, but great minds think alike.;)
The Beillurti/Arnostéguy descent isn't that bad, we have seen worse in the Giro (the Passo Daone descent is probably worse, that time the used the more narrow side of the climb as a descent, something that I have tried to avoid on my French Euskadi stage) and probably also the Vuelta.
Stage 9: Antigua Guatemala - Antigua Guatemala (Santo Domingo del Cerro), 149km

Alto de Acatenango (cat.1) 31,9km @ 5,9%
Alto de Vuelta Grande (cat.2) 6,0km @ 9,6%
Santo Domingo del Cerro (cat.3) 1,9km @ 10,0%

The penultimate stage is the queen stage, not the longest but the most savage, at least from a “how far out is racing likely?” kind of perspective. Because the answer is “far”. The stage starts and finishes around the city of Antigua Guatemala, the departmental capital of Sacatepéquez and also the former capital of the Kingdom of Guatemala. The name translates as “old Guatemala”, however despite that nomenclature it is actually the third capital city established by the Spanish, let alone previous Mayan capitals. The original capital was Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, established on the site of the former Mayan city of Iximché in 1524, but a new version of the city was established in the Almolonga valley in 1527 following a number of uprisings from the native population. This city was destroyed by a lahar after a volcanic eruption in 1541, so a new city in the Panchoy Valley was created and inaugurated in 1543. This city was also named Santiago de los Caballeros, and in 1549 it became the seat of the Real Audiencia de Guatemala.

With the Jesuits establishing places of learning and the Franciscans establishing friaries, especially with the works of literacy and Human Rights advocate Pedro de San José Betancourt (known as Santo Hermano Pedro) to bring education to the masses, it became a major cultural centre and also the home of the Universidad de San Carlos, which until 1954 was the only university in Guatemala.

Severe earthquakes in 1717 led to consideration of a further relocation of the capital, but public protest meant this was avoided. Further earthquakes in 1753 led to the topic coming back to public attention, and then when in 1773 the city was ravaged once more, with the Jesuit convent being particularly badly affected, and the decision was made to relocate the capital to a safer, more stable region. The new city was constructed over three years and inaugurated in 1776; unlike previous moves, however, the name of Santiago de los Caballeros was not retained, and instead the city was known as Nueva Guatemala de la Asunción, and the old city, which was ordered to be abandoned, became known instead as Antigua Guatemala, in order to contrast it with the capital of Nueva Guatemala, which then lost the ‘Nueva’ in time as people grew accustomed to it as the capital.

The population of 60.000 quickly dropped to just 4.000 that refused to move on with the capital, and in 1829 Francisco Morazán’s government secularised the country and ordered the remaining religious order buildings in Antigua be converted to schools. The Jesuit convent became a thread mill and a market square, and while the city began to recover some lustre, its churches and colonial facades remained dilapidated. Since the end of the Civil War, however, extensive renovation has gone on to protect the UNESCO-inscribed colonial city and its architectural marvels, such as the Convento de los Capuchinos. It has become a hub for tourism in Guatemala and has expanded rapidly with the population now approaching 50.000 and getting back to almost the kind of size it held when it was the capital of the Kingdom in the 18th Century. With a number of old Spanish churches, convents and traditional cobbled streets with pastel-coloured housing, it is attractive and, in comparison to Ciudad de Guatemala, both tranquil and safe, which has made it a favoured centre for those looking to holiday in the country or to set a base from which to visit the country’s attractions. As a result, however, it has a surprisingly small number of notable inhabitants, having largely been led by the religious orders and the Spanish colonists in its heyday, and then being a poor and somewhat abandoned city for a long time until recent restoration and growth.

Today, however, it is a base for cycling action - not a frequent role it holds, however. 2008 was the last time a Vuelta a Guatemala stage concluded here, with Franklin Chacón winning a reduced bunch sprint, although stages to Tecpan in 2012 and to Sololá in 2013 did start here. None of those stages were as dramatically designed around key GC action as mine today, however. This stage had been through a few re-designs to best utilise the monster terrain available at this part of the country, without going for a monster transfer (for the real race it may be more realistic to start in Escuintla and make it just 111km in length, but that would probably have to result in a drastic reducing effect on the previous day’s stage and, besides, 149km is not too long for this péloton, they do 200km+ stages from time to time).

Especially when the first 28km is essentially descending, dropping 1350m in the first 40km of the stage at an average of a little over 3%, however as this is all on wide roads with very few technical challenges this should be absolutely fine. We begin by heading through Ciudad Vieja, which is now recognised as the earlier site of Santiago de los Caballeros before its relocation to present-day Antigua, whose destruction was immortalised in the Pepe Milla novel La Hija del Adelantado. This has never been fully confirmed due to the destruction of the city by lahars and the plundering of the city for materials to construct its replacement, but this is the accepted location. This then means a long descent into Escuintla, the largest lowlands city in Guatemala with a population of over 150.000 in the municipality, around 2/3 of which is in the city itself.

On the descent we will pass the Autódromo Pedro Cofiño, Guatemala’s premier motor racing circuit and only one at the upper end of FIA categorisation. It was inaugurated as Autódromo de los Volcanes in 2002, but was later renamed in 2007 after local driver Pedro Cofiño, who was killed at the circuit when he was struck by another car in the pitlane. The circuit is just above Escuintla and has excellent views down to the Pacific. Escuintla takes its name from the Nahuatl name, Itzcuintlan, meaning “abundance of dogs”, and is an industrialised region and a centre for sugar cane production in Guatemala. As the primary city that serves as the economic link, being a major train station between the resources of the flatlands and the ports of the Pacific (most specifically Puerto San José), and the population centres of the high plateau, especially Ciudad de Guatemala, it is one of the richest and most economically strong areas in the whole Central American region.

Escuintla last hosted a road stage of the Vuelta a Guatemala back in 2002, but has hosted time trials in 2008, 2009, 2012 and 2015. In the latter, Manuel Rodas took the win by an Indurain-esque 3 minutes over 43km, ahead of prior - and future - World Tour rider Guillaume Boivin, then slumming it with American Continental team Optum p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies after his contract with Cannondale expired. That was on stage 1. No, really, the race opened up with a 43km ITT. The city has also hosted the national championships in 2017 and 2018, christening Walter Escobar and Mardóqueo Vásquez in the road races, and Manuel Rodas both times in the race of truth.

Here, we leave the main coastal road, but continue to head on downhill false flat for several more kilometres until reaching the Achiguate river, continuing then to switch the false flat to uphill on our way to Santa Lucía, which hosted the finish of those Escuintla time trials in 2012 and 2015. There is a slight downhill into the city itself, but then it turns uphill for the biggest behemoth of the race, an absolute monster of a climb which is hors category in any language, as we sweep our way up the climb to Volcán Acatenango, a behemoth which sits to the west of its more famous sibling the Volcán de Água and, along with its neighbouring summit Volcán de Fuego (a calque of its name in Kaqchikel, Chi Q’aq’, “place of fire”), is known as the La Horqueta volcanic park and complex. The only documented eruption of Acatenango was between 1924 and 1927, however we have been able to identify that it must have erupted around 1900 years ago, 2300 years ago and 5000 years ago from study of soil and rock in the area, largely from volcanic vents along the shoulders of the mountain. However, its near neighbour Volcán de Fuego erupts more frequently and most recently did so in 2018; it is near constantly active at a low level, and so hiking Volcán Acatenango to view the summit of Fuego and its activity has become a major attraction for adventure tourists in Guatemala.

Looking across to Volcán de Fuego and down to the Pacific from Volcán Acatenango

Of course, you’re more interested in the ascent on bikes than the hike, which largely only begins at the summit of the road. Climbing here from Santa Lucía is an absolute monster, regardless of where you draw the beginning of the climb. As you can see from the stage profile, it reaches almost 35km at 5,8%, or going right from the town and including the initial false flat it is 38,6km at 5,4%. Once the first real ramps begin, however, is where I have chosen to categorise from, which gives us a full extent of the ascent as being 32km at 5,9%.

Cresting at around 2500m, this is like a real HC Alpine type climb, more so than pretty much anything you would ordinarily find in this part of the world. It is neither the 4-5% highway climbs you get like Zunil or in the Southern Cone, or some of the Mexican inland ascents, nor is it the kind of extreme altitude challenge that we’re used to from Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. The nearest analogues to this behemoth that I can come up with that will be familiar to the average fan will be Berninapass from its Italian side, Splügenpass from Chiavenna, or the harder northern side of the Col du Grand-Saint-Bernard. The overall stats are fairly similar to the southern side, but the characteristics of the climb better reflect the northern side with its final six kilometres at 9% - there is a section from 11km to 3km from the summit of the Acatenango climb that averages similarly 9% and even begins with a 3km stretch at 11%. This moves it almost into the same kind of area as the Colle dell’Agnello from its Italian side in fact - that is 31,6km at 5,7%, but with the final 9km at 9%.

The climb is obviously a brute, but it essentially consists of a very consistent first 10km at 5,3%, then a short descent and then the main body of the climb at 20km at 6,6%, which in and of itself is a tough enough climb, analogous to Glandon or Albulapass. The next section is a gradually steepening 7,6km averaging 5,8% which includes a steep ramp above the village of Yepocapa, then an easier couple of kilometres at 4% before the aforementioned 8km at 9% section leading off with 3km at 11%, and then back down to around 5-6% for the last 3km or so.

First 11 minutes or so of this video covers the climb, albeit descending it

This is the keynote climb of the day, but it is essentially built as the central portion of the stage; 51km still remain at the summit, so this will not be an easy day because I would expect after such a brute that the bunch will be split to pieces by now, as we pass by the small town of San José Calderas, which is close to the summit. From here, the road forks, with one route to the north which entails a slight climb, and one to the east which drops us down to Ciudad Vieja. I could have gone this way and cut some kilometres off the route, but I didn’t want to loop back on myself and have the stage use the same roads twice in opposite directions, so we head on over toward Aldea Chimachoy, a climb which is 2,1km at 6,1% - absolutely not worth categorising in a stage like this of course. It’d be like categorising the little ramps when you’re descending the Croix de Fer, or the Passo Rombo’s Austrian side. This enables us to take the main road back towards Chimaltenango, until the town of Parramos, 35km from home. This is descending 700m in about 17km - including that climb - but realistically this is mostly at 5% or so and it looks like nothing after the monolithic climb the riders just did.

Parramos is effectively district #8 of Chimaltenango, but instead of continuing on into that city, we head right to return to Antigua Guatemala via Jocotenango, a city of a little over 20.000 people with a slightly odd history in that, being a close neighbour to the former capital, it was also relocated close to Ciudad de Guatemala, therefore there are two Jocotenango urban areas, one next to each; unlike the larger cities, however, the later Jocotenango has now been swallowed by Guatemala City and serves as district #2 there, so if somebody mentions Jocotenango they conventionally mean the original location. It is a city largely known for two things: firstly, its scenic red-brick church, and secondly, as the birthplace of multi-platinum singer-songwriter Ricardo Arjona. Emerging from his native Guatemala in the mid-80s, Arjona was well known at home, but after he spent a spell acting in Mexican telenovelas and writing songs for others, he broke out throughout Latin America in 1993-4 with his fourth album, Animal Nocturno, which sold half a million copies and reached critical acclaim, before with Historias in 1994 and, even more so with the more politically-themed Si el Norte Fuera el Sur in 1996, he became a megastar, selling millions of copies of every subsequent album and becoming a huge name throughout Latin America. Most people outside of the Hispanophone sphere will be most likely to have heard of him, however, after some eerie parallels between themes and implications of the narrator of the song Mesías and the September 11th terrorist attacks led to the FBI investigating him, although this was never really a serious implication of the Latin American pop star in terroristic activity. Largely confined to the latin pop genre, he has nevertheless branched out on occasion into heavier rock and also to indigenous sounds, influenced by the Caribbean islands’ native music styles. He has a lifetime achievement award at the Billboard Latin Music Awards, a Grammy, a Latin Grammy, five Billboard Latin awards, three LoNuestros and a spot in the Latin Songwriters’ Hall of Fame.

Then, it’s back to Antigua Guatemala for the first of two intermediate sprints, both of which will also take place in the city, on its cobbled city centre roads near the Santa Catalina arch, because, you know, scenery. And because after the Acatenango climb I’m pretty sure we aren’t going to see a bunch sprint to worry about here. The first sprint comes with 23km remaining, and the second just 3km from the finish, but between them there’s another climb, as we take a nasty cat.2 ascent up to the village of Vuelta Grande, grown from a hilltop Aldea to the east of the city, and which begins on the main road back to Guatemala City before turning into a horrifically steep road, which even features a stretch of uneven cobbles within the town of San Mateo Milpas Altas. How steep? Well, to the actual summit is 6km at an average of 9,6%, but the last kilometre of ascending - at 7% - will seem like an easy recovery after what comes before it. The first 5km average 10,3%, but each kilometre gets progressively more difficult, with the first averaging 6% and the fifth averaging almost 15% - this is La Camperona style. The final 600m of that stretch average 18%, which tells you how monstrous this is. Then it eases off a bit and there’s a bit of up and down along the plateau that will sort of belie the difficulty that the riders just had.

This crests with around 13km remaining, then there is a similarly challenging descent - averaging nearly 9% for over 7km - over El Hato Verde, a scenic mirador and restaurant, to return to Antigua Guatemala for the second intermediate sprint, in the same spot as the first. We take the same trip through the city’s cobbled streets, but this time after leaving the central grid of the old town on highway #10, we hang a right before reaching Santa Inés del Monte Pulciano and head up to a punchy finish at Santo Domingo del Cerro, which is a small hilltop overlooking the city and gives us a spectacular city finish that’s also an HTF after a major mountaintop - very similar to the real race’s Cerro El Baul finishes above Quetzaltenango after the Alto de Almalonga or Alto de Zunil, where that is the main mountain, then after a minimal descent or plateau stretch there’s a final HTF - also similar to my much-loved 2008 Pescocostanzo Giro stage, an example of a great medium mountain design to my mind.

View from the El Tenedor del Cerro restaurant and hotel at the summit of the hill, one of Guatemala’s most revered

The climb to Santo Domingo del Cerro is just under 2km at an average of 10% almost on the dot. It’s absolutely a straight up Muro di Montelupone-alike in its stats, although it is more consistent than the Murito that gave birth to the legend of Murito. The first 500m is at 7,7% on the main road before the right turn, then there’s a short flat, before it ramps up to 800m averaging 14%, before the gradient gradually turns down toward single figures and eventually to flattening out at the line, where there is a museum, hotel, restaurant and a large car park, so this will be plenty comfortably capable of hosting the race’s entourage.

But, just before you think “well, some tough gradients but that’s a relatively straightforward puncheur deal to finish the stage”, there’s a quick sting in the tail: the last 500m are on cobbles.

This stage is likely to be absolute carnage from the point at which the gradients step up on the Acatenango volcano road onwards, so with the péloton that we’re likely to see in the Vuelta a Guatemala, it’s going to be 70km of riders spread all over the road. Riders will have to prove themselves across three types of climbs in succession: 30km+ epics with altitude and endless grind; northern Spanish-style mid-length climbs which are inconsistent and super-steep; and then the short punchy ones that suit a slightly stronger type of rider that can put the power down on the cobbles. Winning this stage will require a rider to prove themselves adept across all of these, so this should be a real coup de grace of a queen stage.
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Stage 10: Ciudad de Guatemala - Ciudad de Guatemala, 105km

No climbs at all on the traditional Ciudad de Guatemala stage; sometimes it opens the race, sometimes it closes the race, but this stage is essentially a direct copy of a common one which is seen almost every year in the Vuelta a Guatemala. This exact stage was the final one of the 2020 edition, while a version with a couple of extra laps was the final stage in 2019. 2016 and 2017 were both the 105km version, while 2018 was the same as 2019 with the additional laps. 2015 did not see the race enter the capital, while 2013 saw the same circuit used but with 122,5km so one extra loop from this but not as many as 2018/19, as the first stage of the race rather than the last.

The Valle de la Ermita, or Hermitage Valley as it is sometimes referred to in English, has been the home of a major city for around three and a half thousand years, since the establishment of the Mayan city of Kaminaljuyu. This city remained one of the main economic centres of the Mayan world for a couple of millennia, but eventually fell from glory and was abandoned around 1200 CE. It became buried during its period of abandonment before the establishment of the Spanish colonial town in the Valle de la Ermita, and its extent was unknown until long after the modern city had been established - much of its ruins were then sadly destroyed in the construction and expansion of the city or have been buried under freeways, tower blocks and construction projects, but it remains one of the foremost archaeological sites of Mesoamerica and the national government have protected the central ceremonial centre and square and converted this into a park with the ancient ruins prominent.

Kaminaljuyu as it stands today

During colonial times, the city now known as Ciudad de Guatemala, or colloquially just “Guate”, was a small town called El Carmén, built around its hermitage, with the first being built in the late 16th century and then its second, and longer-lasting, example being constructed in 1620. This was why the valley became known as Valle de la Ermita by the Spanish. However, when the comparatively seismically tranquil valley was selected as the replacement site for the Guatemalan provincial capital after Santiago de los Caballeros III was damaged by earthquakes, the outpost town was rapidly expanded through the 1770s to accommodate the expected population expansion and renamed Nueva Guatemala, which later became just Ciudad de Guatemala, and officially declared the capital by Carlos III in 1775. Its grandiose metropolitan cathedral was constructed over the following forty years and became the site of the declaration of the independence of Central America from Spain; the city thereby became the capital of the short-lived United Provinces of Central America.

For reasons unclear, the original town plan and the one approved by Spanish royalty had the central square in different locations, and so dictator Carreras, an opera fan, had a colossal theatre built on the superfluous additional central square. This became one of the city’s - and country’s - icons, but was destroyed by the 1917 earthquakes (while the location was selected because of its comparative safety from natural disasters, in Guatemala’s highly seismically active geological profile, the key word of this phrase is ‘comparative’) and after several years of standing derelict in the city centre, it became an icon of the mismanagement of the post-disaster country by Estrada Cabrera. It was eventually torn down in 1923 and turned into a marketplace. The earthquake also destroyed much of the 19th Century city landmarks constructed under Reyna Barrios in the Colonial style, and much of the city’s current infrastructure - especially its southward expansion - owes itself to the military dictator Jorge Ubico, whose large development projects in the city (albeit full of lavish presidential suites and personal halls and palaces) remain the most lasting positive legacy of his otherwise much-reviled time in office. Then again, it’s hardly going with the zeitgeist to compare oneself favourably to Hitler as Ubico once did, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that his era is not really viewed with pride by Guatemalans today. He relocated most of the infrastructure toward the south where his elite buddies were located, and used over a third of the national cement production on his own personal properties. A number of peripheral suburbs became little more than shantytowns, but precarious economic situations around the country drove ever more people to try their luck in Guate, bringing a rapid population expansion, largely of poor and often itinerant workers in the margins of the city. This was even more pronounced after 1976 earthquakes and the effects of the ongoing civil war displaced many in outlying towns, resulting in an almost uncontrollably rapid urbanisation of the population which necessitated a number of urban development projects.

In the post-Ubico era, Guatemala City was rapidly improved by further, and more socially equitable, development projects by the mayor Martin Prado Vélez, who was an engineer and an architect in his pre-political life and oversaw a complete overhaul of the infrastructure and modernisation of the city, which proved surprisingly resistant to the worst excesses of the Civil War. On the other hand, however, it did of course feature prominently in world news with the burning of the Spanish Embassy, which I dove into in my profile for stage 4, and the reaction to this abuse of power by the government and the army was then the catalyst for increased violent action by guerrillas and opposition, resulting in a number of terroristic threats and attacks in Guatemala City, most notably a double car-bomb outside the government buildings by Ejército Guerrillero de los Pobres in September 1980 which killed seven and wounded an undisclosed number. Big businesses and construction firms perceived to be profiteering from the status quo or funding/supporting the military government were targeted as well as the government itself, and there were a number of additional attacks throughout the ensuing years until the resolution of the conflict.

The Spanish Embassy Fire of 1980, a pivotal moment in recent Guatemalan history

Nowadays, the situation has stabilised but it remains a comparatively dangerous capital city to western eyes; its population is officially just under 3 million (1 million of which is in the original settlement itself), but the metropolitan area accounts for well over 5, giving the city officially a little over 1/6 the population of the country but including its outlying areas within the conurbation we are talking almost 1/3. This heavy load of buildings and infrastructure has not been without its problems - the combination of porous karst, tropical climate, nearby volcanic activity and the sewerage and water infrastructure required to cope with a city of this size have led to a high risk of mudslides and, more notably, sinkholes. Guatemala City has become notorious for its sinkholes, gigantic round black holes that have been periodically swallowing traffic intersections, city buildings and anything else in their paths.

As the capital and largest city, Ciudad de Guatemala has been host to the few times Guatemala has been at the centre of events such as the 1950 Central American and Caribbean Games. It is also the home to the majority of Guatemala’s most famous inhabitants, at least of those we haven’t already met on our journey around the country. This includes Nobel laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, a master of the mixing of realism with fantasy and the art of evading censure, for example his novel El Señor Presidente, an early example of magical realism which deals with the impact of dictatorship on the people of an unspecified Central American republic, and Hombres de Maíz, a book which blends his political beliefs and contemporary world views with the mythology and history of the indigenous Maya population. It also includes one of the more unexpected Guatemalan exports (or should that be ex-pats?), the legendary NFL linebacker Ted Hendricks, who is the only Guatemalan-born player in NFL history, and racked up four Super Bowl rings, eight Pro Bowls and four First Team All-Pro nominations in a fifteen year career with the Baltimore Colts, Green Bay Packers and Oakland Raiders.

Guatemala is not a traditional American football country, however, and like most of Latin America (at least outside of the Caribbean islands) its preferred ball sport is soccer; the city is also home to the country’s greatest ever player, Carlos Ruíz, who scored 68 goals in 133 games for his national team - including a record 39 in World Cup qualifying for a player to have never reached the finals - and has amassed a record of 234 goals in 506 competitive matches across his career, largely spent in the US (including being MLS MVP and Golden Boot on one occasion), but with periods in Mexico and Paraguay and bookended by spells at his local team, CSD Municipal, back at home in Guate.

Of course, most such traditional closing circuits have their characteristics. Even in smaller races, since obviously I’m not about to talk to you about the history of the Champs Elysées circuit in Le Tour. However, many races large and small have tried to ape the kind of national pride and glamour attached to that iconic closing circuit, with circuit races of their own focusing on national capitals or major cities’ landmarks to have a sort of ceremonial final stage. I’m not really a fan of the ceremonial final stage if a race isn’t Grand Tour length, but I’m also a sucker for tradition, so these two things can sometimes be at odds with one another. Plus, some sops to tradition are kind of essential for what little realism there exists in this thread. So the Tour of Taiwan opening outside the City Hall with the out-and-back circuit, the Tour of Beijing with its circuit around the Bird’s Nest Stadium and Tiananmen Square, the Paseo del Prado in the Vuelta, Parc Montjuïc in the Volta a Catalunya (albeit hilly, it is nevertheless a traditional inner city closing circuit), the earlier version of the San Benedetto del Tronto stage in Tirreno-Adriatico (before it became an ITT), the Zagreb cobbled circuit in the Tour of Croatia, all examples in the overstocked genre of attempts to pay homage to the Champs Elysées sprint.

Guatemala’s attempt is a bit less glamorous than most, eschewing the narrow, grid-like city centre in favour of a much wider out-and-back type route on the Anillo Periférico, or ring road, not to be confused with the larger and more famous Anillo Periférico in Mexico City, or its neighbour in Honduras. Large parts of the inner city are difficult to close or to even access for the bike race’s logistics especially with congestion problems so the race has traditionally used the Anillo Periférico - as a tradition since 1970 - as its hub in the city, visiting every year either to open or close proceedings.

The Ciudad Guatemala stage frequently ends up in a sprint, as you might expect from what is largely an out and back circuit along a divided highway. It’s not a ‘true’ circuit race, however, as the finish is not on the circuit at all, but on the tarmacked running track at the large Polideportivo and sports complex at Colonia Ciudad de Plata, in Zone 7 of the erstwhile capital. The focal point of this complex is the athletics stadium which hosts the finish, and is named for the Olympic medallist Erick Barrondo, Guatemala’s only such sporting success story, who we met earlier in the race. This gives it an aura of the ceremonial finish akin to the old Peace Race athletics stadium finishes, or the traditional Vuelta del Uruguay finish on the national velodrome in a Paris-Roubaix style. Therefore we have 6 laps of the circuit plus the final kilometre back out to the stadium to the ceremonial finale. It also enabled, in 2020, the organisers to better secure the race and vet the entrants to the finish so as to keep the event more secure from a coronavirus point of view. It’s almost a shame they don’t finish on the circuit as there’s a pedestrian overpass above the intermediate sprint point at the start and finish of the course, which would give a unique bird’s eye view for the fans of the bunch kick.

2020’s bunch finish in Guatemala City was won by Panama’s Cristofer Jurado, and even with small teams and a péloton which seldom sees bunch sprints in its country’s scene, the usual outcome is a bunch gallop. The last time the final Guate stage did not end in a sprint was 2016, when Costa Rican Jeison Vega, 6th in the GC and a teammate of the race leader, was able to escape to take a small gap to the line, finishing four seconds ahead of the pack. In 2014, the same stage led to a group of four, mainly Colombians, escaping with Robigzon Oyola Oyola eventually winning a two-up sprint against compatriot Pedro Herrera. In 2013 the Anillo Periférico circuit took place at the beginning of the race rather than the end, with Juan Pablo Magallanes, the Mexican who once rode for Saeco and Androni Giocattoli (the original team that later became LPR Brakes, not the one that used to be Selle Italia and was run by Gianni Savio) with a small gap in a group of three, just over 10 seconds ahead of the bunch. From 2010 to 2013 the race began with this stage, but before and after that stint the stage was always the traditional finish.

Would I like to give a tourists’ route around the centre of the city? Sure. But there’s a lot of twists and turns and cobbles in the central grid of zone 1; and this is the route that Guatemala always chooses for the finish of the Vuelta a Guatemala, and considering the changes I’ve made to the rest of the race, I think the riders have earned an outright flat stage to finish, don’t you?
Nordic Series #30: Lillehammer

After a long hiatus my occasional series, a palate-cleanser amid the many stage races and over-the-top projects I do, returns. I have rather neglected the Nordic Series of late, with a number of extended projects with feature-length stage races and also the change of the mapping engine for Cronoescalada rendering China mappable for the first time has meant I’ve spent quite a bit of time on either mapping parts of the world I’ve never had a proper look at (China, Southeast Asia) or perfecting my many unfinished Latin American projects. The problem with looking at such areas is that you can often get lost in the fog of possibilities, trying to show off every possibility at once, which would never be viable in a real life race unless it was to become stale and repetitive with multiple editions. With the Nordic Series, however, the entire modus operandi is seeking various options in the same site, and with the new Nordic season beginning, the sport, its stars and its venues are all at the forefront of my mind once again.

After my self-imposed rule of an Olympic venue with every multiple of ten, created out of sheer coincidence with #10 having been Soldier Hollow and #20 Alpensia. So for #30, we’re going to a place I know well, a place with cycling heritage and the host of the first Winter Olympics I remember with any degree of detail whatsoever, Lillehammer ’94.

The crazy thing about Lillehammer ’94 is that it is the last time an Olympic host’s venues largely stayed on the World Cup circuit for several of its sports. Hafjell has been an occasional World Cup host in Alpine skiing but Kvitfjell, which hosted the speed disciplines, remains a regular; Håkons Hall hosted the 1999 IIHF World Championships in ice hockey and remains in regular use; Vikingskipet in Hamar, the long track speed skating venue, is Norway’s national centre for the sport and has hosted the World Championships on numerous occasions as well as an annual stop on the World Cup, and the ski jumps and cross-country stadia have been on the calendar for all Nordic disciplines annually since the Games (although the Norwegian round of the Biathlon World Cup swiftly returned to Holmenkollen and the range only sees use at the national level). While a couple of venues of subsequent games have remained in use - most notably Salt Lake City’s speed skating arena and Sochi’s ice hockey venue - none have become the institution on the sport’s international calendar that Lillehammer’s by and large have, and chief among those are its Nordic venues, the Lysgårdsbakkene ski jump complex and the Birkebeineren ski stadium. In addition to this, the ski stadium also serves as the finish of the annual traditional ski marathon known as the Birkebeinerrennet, a 54km classic-style race taken on by both pros and amateurs, which necessitates the carrying of a small, weighted rucksack.

Lillehammer is one of the small handful of venues on the tour that host all of the Nordic disciplines as one large, combined event, alongside the season opener at Ruka, the Holmenkollen Ski Festival and the Lahti Ski Games. As a result it is an excellent event for the audience, with events taking place across both stadia in all three major disciplines across both genders (at least now, with women’s NoCo being a relatively recent development). I have fond memories of it, travelling to the events in December 2014, jumping on early morning shuttle buses with a hopeful greeting of “hoppbakken?” to ask the driver if they were headed to the ski jump, of seeking out affordable (this is Norway, after all) places to buy dinner and bumping into Justyna Kowalczyk casually walking her dog down the high street, of seeing Devon Kershaw, Alex Harvey and their colleagues in the Canadian team also scouring the restaurant options in the town, and of hurriedly traipsing along the trails of the biathlon stadium to get from the XC venue back to the jump in time for competition after staking out spots in the hills for the pursuit in the stadium. And especially of the final day after the World Cup apparatus was gone, of travelling up to Nordseter to use the ski trails, of going off in the Løype through an empty frozen landscape of snow-covered forests and vast frozen lakes, untouched, pristine and silent, the network of trails seemingly cut for us alone… well, us and Team LeasePlan Go, the professional ski marathon outfit who we bumped into on our way back into the centre…

The twisty road up the hill from the ski jump to the cross-country stadium was one of the places where the idea of the Nordic Series became a thing; my biathlon/XC-based Giro del Trentino was done all the way back in 2013, but that was a one-off at the time. But venues out of the way of traditional bike races gave me the idea of this occasional series, and Lillehammer was one of the places that convinced me that there was mileage in the concept.

Looking down on Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena from above. Note the large parking area and the snaking uphill road to, and past, it

Birkebeineren Skistadion in summer

Of course, the city is not a stranger to hosting bike racing, even given that the Tour of Norway is one of the worst offenders in the “least representative use of terrain” category of race design. This was a notable issue during the days when it was a veritable Tour of the Oslofjord, but since the merger with the Tour of the Fjords to make calendar room for the joke that is Hammer Stavanger, this has been worsened, leaving us fewer race days and less spectacle in those days provided. The Lillehammer stages actually took place during the best period for the race, although with the likes of Kristoff and Boasson Hagen aging and Norway’s best riders going forward being the likes of Tobias Foss and Odd Christian Eiking, hopefully we can get some more varied and representative routes that take the best of what Norway can offer.

However, until such date as the race takes up that opportunity, the Lillehammer stages from the first half of the 2010s will remain our best example of what the race has to offer. From 2012 to 2014 inclusive, almost identical 195km stages from Brumunddal, on the outskirts of Hamar, to Lillehammer took place as the most hilly and most decisive stages of the Tour of Norway. This headed up the valley past the finishing town, up and around Gausdal before returning to the larger and more famous Gudbrandsdal and two laps of a 35km circuit including the pretty solid cat.2 sized Kinnshaugen climb, before a slightly uphill finish into the town centre, not enough to make this a puncheur’s finish but enough to make it not a pure sprint, but with this being the most decisive stage it didn’t end up a sprint for the most part anyway; in 2012, local duo Edvald Boasson Hagen and Lars Petter Nordhaug, riding for Sky, did a number on Simon Clarke enabling EBH to outsprint the latter and they took a few seconds on a chasing group, with the main bunch around 90 seconds down. A year later, Sérgio Paulinho proved a more difficult adversary to shake, so EBH had to go it alone without the benefit of a teammate, coming in solo just ahead of the Portuguese with Bauke Mollema leading a group of 12 in around 30 seconds back, but by 2014 the climb was becoming more familiar, teams were planning around it and, with this stage having underpinned Boasson Hagen’s two GC triumphs prior to this, they were keen to stay in the driving seat. This resulted in a much tighter affair, and also a crash in the sprint of the small group; Bauke Mollema took the win, Jesper Hansen got 2nd with Rubén Fernández and Odd Christian Eiking getting the same time awarded but finishing a little way down in the group that was credited with a 6” time loss, including eventual GC winner Maciej Paterski.

The 2012-14 Lillehammer stage design

Boasson Hagen would be back with a vengeance however, to take the national champion’s jersey on a Lillehammer circuit in 2015, when the decisive stage of the race moved to a different cross-country skiing town further south (Geilo). On that occasion EBH outsprinted Odd Christian Eiking and Vegard Stake Længen to the triumph. In 2017, the Tour of Norway returned to Lillehammer, however, with a new design which featured a shorter circuit and a climb which, while shorter, was both steeper and able to be brought closer to the finish. And went up past the ski jump to what’s known in that edition of the race as “VIP-Veien”, which is a high point around the back of the ski jump in-run that is just a little higher than the direct road to Birkebeineren ski stadium taken by the shuttle buses. The official stats for this are 3,2km at 8% according to the Tour of Norway.

2017 option

Again it was about small gaps, Pieter Weening (at this point in his career exiled to the second tier with Roomport) taking 2 seconds ahead of Sander Armee and four from Simon Gerrans before a group at 7”, while eventual victor Edvald Boasson Hagen (of course) finished in a further group at +16”. The final Tour of Norway stage in Lillehammer, in 2018, was a tougher set up for the same finish, however due to moving what they were classifying in the final climb, it was beefed up to a much more puncheur-favouring 2,5km at 9,3% - and was given a more general name for the hill rather than the name for the road, so appears on that year’s profile as ‘Kanthaugen’. Alexander Kamp outsprinted Eduard Prades, though holding 2nd enabled Prades to gain enough to take the GC, with the duo taking the race out of the hands of then leader… you guessed it, Edvald Boasson Hagen… on the final day.

Lillehammer stopped hosting the Tour of Norway at this point, but it has since instigated a one-day race of its own, at the 1.2 level. Unfortunately no ski jump climb in this one, however - the first two editions were short (sub-140km) circuit races including the Maihaugen climb which is around 2km at just under 5%, not really sufficient to force action but enough to offer it. Kamp also won the inaugural edition the same year as his Tour of Norway win in the city, escaping solo from the group of 10 he had been in to take the win by a few seconds, while another Dane, Niklas Larsen, won a sprint of a 15 man group in 2019. The last two editions, during the pandemic, have also been short, but more resemble something from the Spanish amateur calendar than anything else - a one-day mountaintop finish of a race, with a genuine cat.1 finale here at Hafjelltoppen - 10km+ at 7% is a real challenge, and there are other climbs on the menu too that make this resemble the old Subida al Naranco or Subida a Gorla races. As such, obviously competitiveness and the difficult finale means that time gaps have gone through the roof. Andreas Leknessund won the 2020 edition, contested entirely among Norwegians save for one anomalous, Norway-based Dane, while this year saw Idar Andersen, a 22-year-old grimpeur espoir, climb to glory by a couple of seconds, sprinting away from a select group at the end, finishing just ahead of Gianni Marchand and the two Swedish Erikssons, Lukas and Jacob.

Proposal #1: Vinstra - Lillehammer, 197km

This is easily the most straightforward of the proposals, requires absolutely no optimism, road works or convincing race organisers or Adam Hansen to race, because it consists solely of taking what the Tour of Norway has done with its previous stages into Lillehammer, and combining them to create a single, beefed up medium mountain stage that features a punchy finish to encourage time gaps (this has traditionally been the queen stage of the race when the race has come to Lillehammer) while also ascending both of the climbs used by the real life race as part of one extended circuit.

The first part of the stage is simply a flat run-in from the north in the Gudbrandsdal, to enable me to reference one of Norway’s most divisive exports, the unusual caramelised cheese that is brunost. I have fond memories of fresh waffles with brunost after returning to the service centre after skiing, but it’s definitely an acquired taste and something of a Norwegian shibboleth; the other reason to pick Vinstra is that despite being a very small municipality - population only just exceeding 2500 - it is a more than viable host from a touristic point of view, as this was the hometown of the model for the character of Peer Gynt, the hero of Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem which draws from Norwegian folkloric tales and has become arguably the most enduring piece of Norwegian literature (though a case could be made for A Doll’s House, and some may even argue that Hunger by Knut Hamsun deserves a mention, however the author’s late-life controversial politics (he voiced sympathies for the Nazis) have meant his hitherto large footprint in the national literature has been significantly reduced by the difficulty of separating the art from the artist given this fact); as a result the small town is the centre of the annual Peer Gynt Festival, and a mountain road - not all paved, sadly, so not used here - runs from Vinstra to Lillehammer over Gålå, the farming community which hosts the festival’s…er… festivities - and also cross country skiing in winter - and is known as the Peer Gynt Vegen, or Peer Gynt Way.

This run-in could be from either direction, as it simply follows the valley and the important part of the stage is the 43km circuit which is undertaken three times and takes in the two climbs which have been at the centre of the real race’s stages in Lillehammer.Climbfinder has a profile for Kinnhaugen, under the road name of Saksumdalsvegen, and reports it as being 6km at 7,8%. That’s pretty reasonable all told, a good cat.2, and is crested three times, topping out for the final time around 25km from the finish. The other climb on the circuit, Kanthaugen, is around 5km at 6,8%, but with a section that, as per the Tour of Norway’s visits here, amounts to 2,5km at 9,3%.

The first two times, we go over the summit here, but the final time, we reduce it down to a cat.3 because we only climb as far as the car park at the base of the ski jump’s outrun. This reduces the climb to 2,9km at 6,9%, but where the final kilometre averages 10,9%. Having walked up this road a couple of times it doesn’t feel as steep as when I’ve climbed up similarly steep roads in other environs, but that’s more to do with the open landscape, as the twistier section further up gives you a bit more visual point of reference for how high you’ve got above the land below. You can see a bit more from this video of downhill skateboard competition descending from Birkebeineren to Lillehammer via this route - the finish is at the car park passed at 2:52. This is one which is more than achievable within the current parameters of the Tour of Norway - just adding a serious puncheur finish to open up some bigger time gaps than the usual Lillehammer stages had.

Proposal #2: Gjøvik - Lillehammer, 164km

Only a slight innovation here, as we follow a similar pattern to proposal #1, approaching from a flat lake/river/fjordside run, in this instance from Gjøvik on the western shores of Norway’s largest lake, Mjøsa. While I picked Vinstra as a stage start for the purposes of culture, Gjøvik is here because we’re talking the Nordic Series, so it’s worth noting for being the hometown of two major Norwegian Nordic sports stars. The first is 31-year-old cross-country star Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, a major contributor to Norway’s brutal dominance of the sport in the 2010s, starting out as a sprinter and gradually converting into more of an all-rounder (plus in doing so usurping Heidi Weng as the distance backup du jour especially once Marit Bjørgen started to reduce her calendar; after Therese Johaug, it would frequently be a case of Østberg and Weng skiing everybody else away from the podium, at which point Ingvild would invariably use her sprint prowess to defeat Weng. She has two gold medals from the Olympics, both in team events, one in the relay, and one in the Team Sprint, and a sprint silver from Sochi, as well as a Team Sprint gold at Falun 2015, and five medals - three silver and two bronze - from the Seefeld 2019 Nordic Worlds. In the 2018-19 season she won the World Cup overall, thanks largely to Johaug skipping the Tour de Ski, and Østberg winning four stages en route to the Tour victory. Counting stages, she has 17 individual and 9 team victories at the World Cup, however the pressure to convert her from a sprinter to a pure distance athlete has had consequences, and she was forced to sit out over a year’s competition due to eating disorder problems, from which she has only recently returned.

The second Gjøvik native to have a connection to the Nordic venues around here is the ski jumping trailblazer Maren Lundby. Lundby made her World Cup debut at the age of just 14 and is an Olympic champion, winning the women’s Normal Hill in the Pyeongchang Games and also at the Seefeld Nordic World Championships in 2019. She was a major advocate for the introduction of Large Hill competitions for women, and put her money where her mouth was by becoming the inaugural World Champion on the large hill in Oberstdorf 2021. She is a three-time World Cup overall winner, in 2018, 2019 and 2020, and has twice won Norway’s attempt at replicating the tour feel of the Four Hills Tournament, the cringe-inducingly-named Raw Air, twice back to back too. So, what was the logical next step? Well… about that…

Yes… she made a foul-mouthed pop record and video where she, playing herself, goes into a murderous rampage. She then appeared on Skal vi dansen?, Norway’s version of Dancing With The Stars, and got an injury which caused her to miss the entire 2021-22 season including the Olympics, and cause a minor controversy in Norway with various sports stars opining on the wisdom of her choices.


Essentially the important part of this stage is in the middle - this is an innovation over the Lillehammer stages that actually took place in the early 2010s which is very plausible given the format of the stage is not dissimilar to those which actually happened, but adds some extra terrain to add a bit of novelty and also some new climbing. Its only drawback from a logistical point of view is that up on the plateau inland from Myøsa there are not many settlements large enough to realistically host a sprint or similar, so there is a large part of the middle of this stage going through very sparsely populated terrain. Great for TV cameras in terms of showing off scenery, but not so great for showing off the support for the race. The key innovation is the introduction of the Heimtjørnet climb, because after climbing Kinnhaugen the first time, instead of taking the traditional triangular circuit back to Vingnes we continue on inland to the northwest, towards the Gausa river which we reach at Forset. Instead of crossing the river, however, we turn left and wind our way up a climb which I am informed is a popular training climb for Edvald Boasson Hagen, who lived for most of his career in this area. This is somewhat larger than Kinnhaugen - Climbbybike has it at 10km and 6,3%, although my profile seems to suggest it is a bit shorter and more significant in terms of average gradient - more like 9km at 7,2%. It is sometimes called Mount Værskei, the name of the cafe at its summit, and it also hosts a rollerski race. It looks pretty cool too.

This is admittedly 80+ kilometres from the line so unlikely to impact the stage in a meaningful manner but it does mean more severe and significant climbing in the legs when we come to the more familiar climbs later on. The finale is very much the same as proposal #1, with Kinnhaugen at 25km from the finish and then the uphill finish into the ski jump finish.

Stage 3: Dombås - Lillehammer, 207km

The third proposal is still a sort of hilly/sort of intermediate stage of the kind that the Tour of Norway tends to like for its decisive stages, although this one is longer than the previous proposals and comes from further afield to travel down the Gudbrandsdal, this time from another ski town, the town of Dombås where the road from Oslo forks into two important trade routes, one to Åndalsnes and the other to Trondheim. It also serves as a junction for Norwegian rail across these routes and formerly also as a telegraph junction. This made it strategically significant during World War II and it was the site of a battle in the Norwegian campaign where the German paratroopers were forced to surrender after attempting to parachute in and sever the transport connections and communication lines, but faulty reconnaissance meaning they arrived at the same time as a Norwegian infantry regiment was bivouacking in the small town en route to the north.

But this is the Nordic Series, so you probably know why I picked on Dombås: there is a biathlon stadium above the town, and its most famous alumni are the sitcom siblings, Lars and Tora Berger. Both great stars in their own right, they were also remarkably unlike one another for siblings in the same profession; Lars was one of the most elegant skiers ever to strap them on in skate while his sister was known for an energetic, wasteful thrashing style (although her last lap huntress abilities were pretty second to none, at least until Laura Dahlmeier came along and aped that race breakdown but with somewhat more eye-pleasing ski technique). Tora was known for her killer instincts and fearsome abilities in a high pressure shoot, frequently hitting all 5 standing targets in the blink of an eye when it truly mattered; her brother was renowned as one of the most inconsistent, and at times downright incompetent, shooters on the circuit, with a career standing hit rate of 62%. However, both were also great champions. Tora hit her stride late in her career, having her best success in her late 20s and especially early 30s, becoming an Olympic gold medallist in the Individual in Vancouver and then getting a medal of each colour in Sochi, but also winning everything there was to win in the 2012-13 season, dominating all of the crystal globe battles and taking four gold and two silver medals home from the World Championships, to add to four more gold over 2011 and 2012’s championships, and a fearsome collection of silvers and bronzes picked up from 2006 to 2010. On the face of it Lars is less successful, but at the same time he’s also relatively unusual in being a huge success as a cross-country skier as well as a biathlete, in fact having more gold in pure skiing than in biathlon; he won four silver medals in the World Championships and one gold as a biathlete (his most successful years being 2004 and 2009), but he has three gold medals as a cross-country skier - two on the skate legs of the 4x10km relay, and one when he individually won the 15km Individual skate at Sapporo in 2007, taking advantage of an early start number obtained because, as a transplant from biathlon, his World Cup rank was comparatively low. He also moonlit in the Norwegian cross-country relay at the 2010 Olympic Games, which earned him a silver medal.

This one is an easier stage by and large than the first two, with a flat first half as we take on far more of a point-to-point than the previous stages which did some sizeable loops around Lillehammer. This also sees us include the first cardinal sin of the exercise, in that we have a climb up to a… whisper it… Alpine skiing venue, in Kvitfjell.

Kvitfjell was one of two venues hosting the Alpine skiing at the 1994 Winter Olympics, along with Hafjell, and it remains on the calendar to this day, largely hosting speed disciplines and largely confined to the men’s events, as the men’s and women’s calendars for Alpine have more independent events than most of the other FIS sports. The road climb to it is on the west bank of the Gudbrandsdalslågen river and is around 4,5km at 8%. The descent takes us into Fåvang and then we have a stretch which is the same as proposal #1, until a deviation into Gausdal over another cat.2 climb, around 6,5km at 5,5%. This takes us to Follebu, from whence we follow the route of old Tour of Norway stages around Lillehammer to return to the city, but where they would either head to the west again to tackle Kinnhaugen, or go through the city to the climb to Birkebeineren over Lysgårdsbakken, this time I’m breaking from that move for a slightly different plan.

We will climb to Birkebeineren ski stadium, but not via the ski jump this time. Instead we will take the main road out of Lillehammer onto the higher plateau, towards the long distance XC trails at Nordseter. The overall climb to Nordseter is a continuous but variable - often just false flat - 15km climb at 4,3% according to Climbbybike, however to incorporate it would require an extremely long loop around Nordseter that also takes in the Sjusjøen ski facilities which I may look at at a later date, so instead we hang a right after the first set of climbing out of Lillehammer, and go directly to the ski stadium. This amounts to 5km at 6,2%, finishing 35km from home, and the right hand turn at the top of the climb out of the fjord means not only do we cross our finishing line at the ski stadium at the summit, but we shorten the plateau racing significantly, taking a loop around the outside of the scenic Nord Mesna lake and also this track on the plateau is rolling, including an uncategorised ascent after Mesnali to the summit of Fåberg, another climb out of Lillehammer to the southeast which we will be descending on this occasion. The overall stats are 8km at 4,4%, but it gets tougher as you go along, the final 5km of descending average 6% so it’s similar in characteristics to the Nordseter ascent, just we’re climbing rather than descending this time.

This enables us to take a final intermediate sprint at Maihaugen, one of the distinctive features of Lillehammer, before we take the harder side of the climb to Birkebeineren ski stadium - only because we haven’t come direct from the water’s edge, we skip some of the false flat, making this ascent to the summit only 3,2km, which average 8% as with the Tour of Norway’s visit here in 2017. This also enables us to have a kind of two-stepped finale, with the summit of this climb coming with 2,5km remaining, then we cross across VIP-Veien, and arrive back on the road past the ski stadium that we took earlier, to join the final 1100m of that climb at about 6% or so, a bit like climbing the different sides of Arrate, or an easier version of the Chieti finale from Tirreno-Adriatico a few years ago. The 2010 stage in particular was my primary inspiration for this finish as these climbs in Lillehammer don’t give us the option for anything too similar to the Pietragrossa route with the super steep 11,5% final kilometre. Nevertheless, having the climb peak just 2,5km from the line but with an uphill final kilometre at a not-particularly-threatening-but-still-quite-demonstrably-a-climb gradient will make for an interesting tactical finale of a kind the Tour of Norway has sadly lacked for much of its existence.

Proposal #4: Lillehammer - Lillehammer, 187km

This is where we start to move off the beaten track a bit, with a more straight-up mountain stage which utilises that significant climb from the GP Lillehammer up to the other Alpine skiing venue from the 1994 Olympics, Hafjell, as its key obstacle and where you would wager the main strategic moves will be made. The summit of this cat.1 ascent is 28km from the finish, but at 11,2km at 7,4% according to Climbfinder it’s a pretty serious one for a race of the level of the Tour of Norway, that’s for sure.

Before we get there, however, there’s a good deal of climbing in and out of the Gudbrandsdal to be done, as this stage proposal is essentially a beefed-up version of the GP Lillehammer, to turn it into a more severe race. You’ll notice that the first climb of the day is also a cat.1 although it looks considerably smaller than Hafjelltoppen; this climb, to Sølvskottberget, climbs up one of the two roads to this summit, Midtbygdsvegen, and descends its counterpart, Nordbygdsvegen. The climb is around 7,5km at 7,5% which is very much in the ‘contentious’ cat.1 status category - puts it along the lines of, say, Collado Elosua or Puerto de Orduña in the Basque country, or the 2009 Tour/2011 Tour de Suisse version of Verbier. However, this is an ‘optional’ climb for this stage design I believe; the last 4km of it - and the first 4km of the descent - are on unsealed roads, which are akin to sterrato in characteristic. It is likely passable but in the event of bad weather or if there are significant sketchy drops (I couldn’t find any but not all of it is available on streetview) then this can be skipped as, being the first climb of the day and with a perfectly reasonable riverside alternative, it wouldn’t be too detrimental to the fundamental characteristics of the stage.

We then have a pair of cat.2 climbs at our northernmost point, one on each side of the fjord. The first is another new climb to us, around 5,5km at 8%, and then after crossing the bridge at Ringebu we have the Kvitfjell climb we used in proposal #3. We then follow the west side of the fjord, whose road is far narrower and more undulating than the main highway on the eastern side of it, before a couple of longer but less steep cat.2 climbs to ease us toward the finish of the stage. We use the same route out of the Gudbrandsdal that we did in proposal #3, but where that descended through Follebu on a direct-ish route back to Lillehammer, here we take a right to leave the Fv255 in Segalstad, cross to the south side of the Gausa river, and then cross it once more to climb into Follebu rather than descend into it. We then continue to climb onto Holsbakken, up to the high point of the roads towards the summit of Mount Lundevarden, which is called Follebutoppen. The climb to where I’ve placed the GPM is 5km at 6,7%, but it’s followed by some false flat before we descend via a two-stepped drop to the Gudbrandsdal near Lillehammer to head to our final noteworthy climb.

Hafjelltoppen in winter

Usually, the GP Lillehammer finishes here nowadays, but we continue on. The road does. I think the reason for the GP Lillehammer going with the MTF and not returning to Lillehammer is a short unsealed section between the Reinsvatnet lake’s Nevelåsen parking area and the top of the tarmacked climb from Nordseter Fjellpark to the high point of that road. This road is used as part of the ski trail network in winter, I climbed it from Nordseter up to and around Reinsvatnet, but in the summer it’s part of the road network, albeit part of nature areas and bike paths rather than being commonly-used highways, but still usable for car traffic. With the unsealed section being flat, I really don’t see this as being an impediment to use in a regular race, but if real life organisers did they could instead take the tarmacked road from Reinsvatnet to Mellsjøen and then descend via Sjusjøen, but that would make the summit of Hafjelltoppen between 40 and 45km out rather than inside 30km so less likely to see meaningful action.

After descending from Nordseter via the full route, part of which was used as a climb in proposal #3 (so realistically it’s 3km at 6,5% from the summit to the service centre, then some flat, then 8km at 6% down into Lillehammer, I’ve decided that as part of the bid to induce meaningful action on the Hafjelltoppen climb, I won’t descend all the way down to the water’s edge, and will instead hang a left as soon as we arrive in town, so as to cut the uphill finish at the ski jump down to just that final 1km at 10%, making it less likely to be significant on its own and incentivising the earlier moves, but ensuring that the toughest part of that climb can still be used as a finish and generate some time gaps. The alternative option would be to finish at the cross-country stadium like proposal #3, which brings the distance down to 182km and sees us cut the final descent in half, moving the summit of the cat.1 ascent to 23km from home but with the final kilometre ramp being at just 6% instead of a potentially difference-making 10%. Either option works but I suspected that Lillehammer would want to see some racing in their own streets - though as they get the start as well they may be more amenable to the finis descending direct from Nordseter to Birkebeineren, I guess?

Proposal #5: Hamar - Lillehammer, 226km

Our final proposal is a somewhat beefed up one, at over 220km in length, with some serious climbing and some serious ruler challenges en route as well. This follows the route up from Hamar, opposite Gjøvik on the eastern side of the northern protuberance of Mjøsa, which has hosted a number of the stages into Lillehammer in the Tour of Norway. It was formerly a part of Vang, which it has since outgrown and consumed, and is most famous for Vikingskipet, the speed skating arena which was used for the Lillehammer Olympics and is the home of Norway’s speed skating tradition - the town first held the European Championships in 1894 and the World Championships in 1895, that’s how far back it goes. Figure skating and both short and long-track speed skating took place at Vikingskipet in 1994, but in testing its capacity various events were held between its opening in 1992 and the commencement of the Games. These included the 1993 UCI Track Cycling World Championships, but its greatest contribution to posterity came a month beforehand, when one of cycling’s great underdog stories, and maverick innovators, Graeme Obree, booked the velodrome for an assault on Francesco Moser’s Hour Record. Armed with his outside-the-box thinking on aerodynamic position and a special and unique bicycle he had designed famously including parts from a washing machine, his initial attempt failed, but after a bonkers night without sleep, deliberately waking himself up to loosen his muscles up, the Scot was back the following day where he broke the record. Although it is one of the shortest-lived Hour Records in history, the backstory of both Obree himself, his bicycle, and the pursuit of the record have made this one of the most compelling and legendary such escapades in the history of track cycling. The original “Old Faithful”, as he dubbed his unique creation, is now on display at the National Museum of Scotland.

The route from Hamar to Lillehammer is only around 50km by the most direct route, which is why the real race has then had circuits. We will be circling Lillehammer from all available options (well, not all, but certainly the majority thereof), as well as incorporating a more difficult route from Hamar to Lillehammer by hopping up onto the Kløvstadhøgda mountain which overlooks the Mjøsa lake; the main road on the shores of it is called Turistvegen and we leave it to the tourists, instead taking the partially sterrato climb and plateau which can be seen in the Rally Hedemarken, the traditional final round of the Norwegian rally championships, so you can see the type of road from the rally footage to see it’s not an unachievable road for cycling.

After this, we take the circuit around Lillehammer from proposal #3, but in the reverse order, so climbing towards Mesnali and Sjusjøen on a climb which starts off at about 7-8% but gradually gets less steep, eventually ending up as more or less a false flat, totalling just under 8km at 4,7%. We then have the downhill false flat as we circumnavigate Nord Mesna, and then saunter down past the cross-country stadium and descend the Nordseter road into Lillehammer. From here we cross the Gudbrandsdal and take on the Kinnhaugen climb before a long rolling stretch through the Gausdal and a cat.3 ascent of the easy side of the Musdalsvegen climb. This then enables us to descend and cross back to Tretten, whence we have a double climb which is where the main challenges of this stage lie - first we climb the other side of the Sølvskottsberget climb we saw in proposal #4 - so once more this is sterrato on both sides. It’s a bit more integral to the stage here than it was in proposal #4 so this one might be a bit more pie-in-the-sky, but this is 7,5km at 7% with the final 4,5km on sterrato, cresting at 66km from home.

After this we descend the side that was climbed in the previous proposal, before climbing up another road up the side of Hafjell. This one leads to Hafjell Bike Park, a network of trails and downhill runs which has become popular with thrillseekers and mountain bikers parallel to the main ski route. Typically it is accessed by gondola lift from the valley floor, but there’s a steeper, nastier road that can be taken by the riders instead. They’re not doing the fun cycling, they’re doing the serious cycling.

The overall statistics of this climb are 9,9km at 7,4%, but this is skewed by a couple of easier kilometresm, one at the start and one at the end. The main body of the climb is 8km @ 8,5%, and it also includes a steepest kilometre at 11,7%. The summit is 47km from home but it’s a pretty unforgiving platform, in that you get to the bike park and crest the climb, but that does not earn you a rest, instead there’s now a 10km plateau which is gradually uphill, the first 2/3 of which are on sterrato, so this is actually like a slightly beefed up Plateau des Glières. We then head towards Reinsvatnet and turn right to continue past the main body of the Hafjell resort and descend the main climb from the fourth proposal, which is a wider and more sweeping road than the one we’ve climbed.

After the base of the climb there’s just 10km of flat into the city centre for an intermediate sprint, before we head to the circuit from the 2017-8 Tour of Norway routes using Kinnhaugen, the climb past the ski jump and up toward the cross-country stadium, so if the action has been held back from the earlier climbs because the distance from the finish dissuades it, we have a quick loop around the ski stadia in the classic medium mountain style, and including a bit more of a climb up to the finish than in proposal #4, which would have too short a circuit otherwise.

So there you have it - multiple different options within Lillehammer, with both the short ascent to the ski jump and the longer but not especially significant climb to the cross country stadium as options, and some genuine cat.1 climbs on the outskirts of the city. It’s also one of the least fanciful of the design proposals in this series, seeing as the city is a regular host of the existing Tour of Norway, although some of the unpaved roads might be a bit too far for the current cycling norms, at least where they go downhill, and that’s fair enough. Nevertheless, there is plenty that can be done with the city that isn’t being done at present, as well as the not entirely unreasonable stages that take into account what is being done with the roads around the city in recent years.

Nordic Series #31: Sollefteå

We’re up in Sweden for the next entry in the Nordic Series, which kind of is and kind of isn’t a contributor to the series because the proposals aren’t really to do with skiing at all but to keep things in the spirit of cycling. The city of Sollefteå, close to the Gulf of Bothnia some way east of Sweden’s premier biathlon facility in Östersund, is home to 8600 people and is only really a city for administrative purposes, owing to its small size. It has, however, a fairly significant set of winter ports facilities on a small hill and plateau above the city to the south, called Hallstaberget, and it is this which we are focusing on here. Hallstaberget has a hotel facility and Alpine skiing facilities running down it, but more crucially it has a cross-country skiing and biathlon stadium around 3/4 the way up and a ski jump just below this. The ski jumps are fairly small by today’s standards but the other facilities are fairly decent and they have a long, long history.

Biathlon stadium

The FIS Nordic Ski World Championships took place in Sollefteå all the way back in 1934, in the very early days of the competitions. There were only five events, all of which were for men only, with an 18km and 50k individual start cross-country and a 4x10km mass start relay, along with a single K-70 ski jumping competition and a Nordic Combined across the K-70 and 18km individual start. The Swedish Ski Games, traditionally held in Falun, were held in Sollefteå in 1949 and 1957, and the FIS Nordic Junior World Championships in 2003. At the latter, recognisable names to be successful include Justyna Kowalczyk, a legend of the sport with two individual Olympic golds, a silver and two bronzes, two World Championship golds, three silvers and three bronzes, four overall World Cups and four Tours de Ski (all consecutive); Yevgeny Dementyev, gold medallist in the skiathlon at Torino 2006; Martin Johnsrud Sundby, part of Norway’s victorious relay and winner of three overall World Cups, two team golds and an individual silver and bronze at the Olympics, and three team golds, an individual gold, three silvers and two bronzes at the World Championships along with three Tours de Ski, one of which was later rescinded for over-abuse of asthma medication; Chris Jespersen, who won the 30km and went on to finish 2nd at the Tour de Ski in 2014; Alexey Petukhov, who would win Olympic bronze and World gold in the Team Sprint; Nicole Fessel, a relay bronze medallist at Sochi who led the German team for several years. In the Nordic Combined, the German team included Björn Kircheisen and Tino Edelmann, the Norwegian team Magnus Moan and Mikko Kokslien, and the French team made up the entire generation that was built around the successes of 1-time Olympic and 5-time World champion Jason Lamy Chappuis. The most notable figure in the ski jumping was Thomas Morgenstern, who won the individual event and helped Austria to team gold too, seeing as there were only NH competitions available. The last time international competition at the highest level rocked up in Sollefteå was 2013, for the World Para-Nordic Skiing Championships, although the venue does play host to the Scandinavian Cup, regional tournaments and national events in both cross-country and biathlon.

With this in mind, it is perhaps little surprise that many of the most famous sons and daughters (especially daughters) of Sollefteå have come from these sports. The first to attain major prominence would be Marie-Helene Westin, later Marie-Helene Östlund following her marriage to a fellow competitor, who won 20km individual gold at the World Championships in Oberstdorf in 1987 at just 20 years of age, and a silver four years later at half that distance in Val di Fiemme. Despite eight top 10 finishes across three Olympics - Calgary ’88, Albertville ’92 and Lillehammer ’94 - she never managed a medal at that level and after her breakthrough in Oberstdorf only won one further race at the highest level, however she did get two bronze medals at the Worlds in 1987 and 1995 as part of the Swedish relay. More recently, the city has been home to star biathlete Helena Jonsson, later Helena Ekholm, again following her marriage to a fellow biathlete. Helena was a superstar, operating in tandem with Anna-Carin Olofsson (later Zidek) and developing through the early 2000s before becoming the Swedish team’s primary threat and carrying them on her shoulders through the late 2000s and early 2010s before her retirement in 2012. From 2007 to 2011 she won 13 individual races and 4 relay events. That victory tally leaves her 17th on the list of all-time most successful race winners, though at the time of her retirement she would have been close to the top 10. Officially from Helgum, a village on the outskirts of Sollefteå municipality, Jonsson was known as a superstar shooter who would punish the mistakes of faster but more profligate athletes, she won the overall World Cup in 2008-09 and 6 small globes for individual disciplines, taking at least one in every format. She also won two golds (pursuit in Pyeongchang ’09 and individual in Khanty-Mansiysk ’11) at the World Championships to go with a Mixed Relay gold from Antholz ’07 and a further silver and bronze in the Mixed Relay, plus three further individual bronzes - but sadly never took a medal at the Olympic Games. Jonsson/Ekholm’s siblings were all also biathletes, only sister Jenny Jonsson making it to the World Cup; she was a super sniper like her sister, but sadly not as competitive on the skis, so she largely characterised that painful era for the Swedes between the retirements of Zidek and Ekholm (and then a couple of years later in the men of Ferry and Bergman) and the emergence in 2017-18 or so of Hanna Öberg and Sebastian Samuelsson that kickstarted their current renaissance. Helena now commentates on races for SVT.

Most recently, however, women’s cross-country skiing has been energised by a young starlet from Sollefteå, in the form of the none-more-Swedish Frida Karlsson. An instant hit, Karlsson won three Junior Worlds golds across Obergoms 2018 and Lahti 2019 to punch her ticket as a wildcard for the 2019 Nordic World Championships in Seefeld, where she surprised everybody with the speed of adaptation to senior competition, winning silver in the 10km individual start classic and bronze in the 30km freestyle before being part of the gold medal-winning relay quartet. She has proven herself a star at distance skiing, much needed in a format which has become increasingly predictable as Therese Johaug skis everybody into dust; the longer the format, the more Frida seems to come into it, chasing back a huge margin on Johaug in the Storlien-Meråker pursuit in 2020, taking two silvers and a bronze from the three distance events at the 2021 World Championships, and winning two distance races to start the 2021-2 season. She is very much part of the future of cross-country skiing.

But, however, it was not for any of these skiers that I wanted to focus on Sollefteå. It was for a cyclist.

Yes, Sollefteå is the hone of Emma Johansson, one of the all-time greats of women’s cycling and a woman whose palmarès is a tragedy, with nothing like the number of victories that her talent and capabilities deserved, but with the misfortune of coming up against peak Vos and then, when she was winding down and working on accumulating results on her nous, she came up against the undefeatable iteration of Lizzie Armitstead at the point at which she was beating everything except drugs tests, which she was deftly sidestepping. Johansson actually got her start in sports as a cross-country skier, before moving on to mountain biking in the military trails on the hills around Sollefteå and eventually to road cycling in her early 20s. Among her list of prominent victories, she has taken two overall titles at the Emakumeen Bira, the women’s Vuelta al País Vasco; three overall titles at the Thüringen Rundfahrt; two wins at Omloop het Nieuwsblad; a win at the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, the most established and prestigious women’s Classic that does not have a men’s equivalent; and no fewer than 14 national titles, eight in the road race and six in the time trial.

But Emma is much more famous for what she didn’t win than what she did. Her nickname was “Silver-Emma” due to her propensity to be a Raymond Poulidor of women’s cycling, with more high profile 2nd and 3rd places than you can shake a leg at. I elaborated on the tragedy of Emma Johansson in the “How did they never win it?” thread, which seemed to be entirely made for Emma, with her incredible record of near misses and her record of almost 200 non-victorious podium finishes.

Emma finished in the top 10 of the Ronde van Vlaanderen 7 times, 6 of which were top 5, 4 of which were podiums, but never won it.

She finished on the podium of La Flèche Wallonne 3 times and in the top 10 7 times, but never won it.

She has 7 World Championship Road Race top 10s, 5 of which in the top 5, and 3 of which on the podium... but never won it.

She has two silver medals and a 6th place from three entries in the Olympic Road Race - and therefore, of course, no gold.

She has 7 top 10 finishes in the GP Plouay, 4 of which were podiums (twice 2nd, twice 3rd)... but never won it.

She has 7 top 10 finished in her home race of the GP Vårgårda, 3 of which (spotting a pattern here?) were podiums... but never raised her arms in victory.

She has 6 GC top 10s at the Holland Ladies Tour, 5 of which are in the top 5, but only one podium and no wins.

She has finished top 10 of the GP Elsy Jacobs (basically the Women's Tour of Luxembourg) 5 times, 2x 3rd and 2x 4th... but you guessed it, no wins.

On five occasions she was top 3 in the UCI Women's World Cup ranking... but never won it.

At the Trofeo Alfredo Binda, almost definitely the most prestigious women's classic without a male equivalent, she was on a run of 6 consecutive top 10s and 5 consecutive top 5s (four of which were podiums) without a victory when, in 2014, she finally took that win.
No matter where she went, though, Emma found herself outnumbered or outgunned. At the Worlds and Olympics, she would frequently find herself fighting at a disadvantage; before Susanne Ljungskog retired she was too inexperienced to lead most of the time, and after that, Emilia Fahlin was frequently her only domestique able to ride deep enough into the race to provide support. She would never seem to be able to find a place on the super-teams, and would frequently be on big enough teams - Orica and Wiggle in particular were strong squads - but outnumbered and have had to do more work herself than rivals on heavily stacked lineups like early 2010s Rabobank and mid-late 2010s Boels-Dolmnans.

Perhaps the worst thing as far as Johansson is concerned, however, is that despite all the things she never won, she still won enough in her career that she isn’t likely to become specifically famous for what she didn’t achieve, like a Raymond Poulidor or a Stirling Moss, so she is likely to fade from memory as time goes and I think she deserves better than that. And with the GP Vårgårda liable to fall into the sphere of the Battle of the North stage race, we may be in need of a new one-day race in Sweden to replace its role in the calendar. And seeing as we have so many one-day races named for legends of the sport - GP Miguel Indurain, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, GP Jef Scherens, Memorial Marco Pantani, GP Impanis-van Petegem, and so on… what better rider to give their name to a women’s one-day race in Sweden than Emma Johansson?

GP Sollefteå - Trofé Emma Johansson

Bottom left: start of the road to the summit. Buildings at upper centre: finish

The main feature of doing a race around Sollefteå, especially within the Nordic Series, is the finish at the ski stadium. This is a punchy uphill which eases up towards the finish so would be perfect fodder for a rider like Emma Johansson just to further the concept. This is not too dissimilar to the finishing climb from the 2021 La Course / Tour de France stage 1 in Landerneau, in fact. At 3,1km at 5,7% overall it’s not going to scare anybody at a high level, but it does start with 2,4km at 6,6% (which ends with the steepest ramps, which reach 15-16% at a short burst), before the final 700m is just around 3% and dead straight. The first part in the town is only around 4%, before crossing highway 90 and the main meat and drink of the climb takes place, 1500m at just under 8%, culminating in that steepest ramp which is admittedly only about 75m long, before easing up into the grind to the ski stadium at the end. Therefore this last stretch will be a drag race for those who have some sprinting power left in their legs, but are light and dynamic enough to be still in the group after those earlier ramps. Demi Vollering, I’m looking in your direction here.

Although since this race has been named for Emma Johansson, it might be worthwhile to award a higher prize bounty for 2nd place than for victory, in a kind of “Spirit of Emma Johansson” prize (sorry Emma, love you really)…

Now, the frustrating thing with Sollefteås Skidstadion is that there is only the one road up, and so there is not the option to turn this into an interesting circuit race à la my GP Otepää or some of the options undertaken around Lillehammer. This is purely for use as a hilltop finish. There also are not many nearby hills that have paved roads on them or even roads which are on unsealed or dirt roads which are wide enough to be usable for road bikes, so by and large there’s been a bit more restriction in terms of what we are able to do leading in to a finish at the ski stadium, in order to try to stop the race being totally Unipuerto, even if that isn’t in and of itself a major problem, given that we are looking at a one-day race; there are a few such races on the women’s calendar - most notably the women’s Giro dell’Emilia is literally a flat circuit around Bologna a few times before the San Luca climb. This climb is not as long as that but is far less steep; everybody knows that the Giro dell’Emilia will be a Unipuerto ascent no different to the men’s La Flèche Wallonne (the women’s does still see editions break up before the Mur, though is gravitating toward being more similar to the men’s in recent years. We’ll see what the retirement of the undefeatable queen of Huy, Anna van Der Breggen, will do for the race going forward) so it doesn’t matter that the event is completely flat to that point. This, on the other hand, may benefit from a few adjustments to make it so that there is at least some climbing in the legs prior to the decisive final three kilometres.

Proposal #1: Sollefteå - Sollefteås Skidstadion, 124km

This one is built around Sollefteå itself, with a 30km loop which heads to the southwest and west of the city and is undertaken four times before a final ascent up to the stadium. This is similar in characteristic to the existing GP Vårgårda route, except with the puncheur finish. The circuit has a fairly long but not especially challenging climb - its meagre average shows that. The steepest part of it is in the middle, and amounts to 1600m at 4,4% - so enough to be considered legitimately climbing and provide some baroudeuses with a platform to work from, but not enough to realistically play a meaningful role in the outcome of the race unless the péloton completely switch off and allow a strong group to escape. The main feature on the circuit is the town of Långsele, which is a scenic camping site and railway junction town on the Faxälven river, which we then cross and follow until its confluence with the Ångermanälven which flows back to Sollefteå. When we reach the Ångermanälven following a frustrating little ramp (not steep), we cross back over the Faxälven and have another shoot repecho (around 600m at 5%) into the hamlet of Granvåg, and then heading back into Sollefteå. Coming out of Sollefteå we climb the first part of the Hallstaberget climb - it’s around a kilometre, but with the last 800m at 5% - before descending on Industrivägen back to the main climb again. After four loops of the circuit it’s time for our final climb and to decide who will embody the spirit of Emma Johansson with the podium.

Proposal #2: Sollefteå - Sollefteås Skidstadion, 136km

This second proposal is a little longer and more difficult. The plus side is that the alternative climb I have found to make the race more complex is much more challenging and likely to create time gaps - it averages 5% over 2,4 kilometres, but has an opening kilometre at 6,1% to add a bit more solid climbing that can be used as a platform to work from; the circuit is shorter, at just over 20km, meaning less time for this to all come back together and the climbing accumulates in the legs better. The minus side, however, is that the climb is further away from Sollefteå so not only do we only pass through the city that gives the race its name once after departing, and that being around 3km from the line, but it also means the last passage of the Herrsjövägen climb is 40km from home rather than just over 30km as in the previous variation.

That is a slight misnomer, however; I have extended that distance slightly so as to go around the town in full, rather than just emerging close to it and then skipping the town entirely to do the last 2,1km of the climb to the ski stadium. Just for a minor touch of realism that the town paying for the race is going to want to see the race go through the town.

Storgatan, central Sollefteå

Ultimately, neither of these designs are ultra-complicated, and neither are likely to be revolutionary either; there are a lot of hilly-but-not-too-hlily one-day races on the women’s calendar already of course. In fact, it’s the most over-subscribed style of race. But at the same time, doesn’t that make something like this, in fact, one of the most realistic and achievable race ideas in the thread? After all, it’s got a reason to exist (Sweden’s current one-day contribution to the calendar being likely to fall into the remit of the Battle of the North and needing a replacement), it honours a legendary rider in their hometown, and the course fits within the criteria of being both appropriate to the existing race calendar and appropriate to honour the rider it is for (for example, I do take some umbrage at the Memorial Marco Pantani ending in a sprint, or the GP Miguel Indurain not being a standalone ITT like the Chrono des Nations). Plus, it ends at a cross-country skiing stadium, because I am nothing if not predictable, now, am I?
Tour de France v2

It's finally time for my second version of a Tour de France. After four versions of the Giro and three versions of the Vuelta, it was probably overdue with a second Tour. Unlike several of my Giros and Vueltas, this Tour doesn't have any particular concept. It's more a Tour how I would like to see it designed. It's tougher than the real Tours designed in the later years, but doesn't include any exetremly tough stages like some of mye other GTs, but the mountain stages are typically a bit longer and have more height meters. In addition I've focused more on medium mountain stages (very downplayed in the real Tours except steep ramps like Belles Filles and Mende) and mountain stages where attacks far from the stage finish would be more plausible. The Tour is also considered to be realistic with stage finishes in bigger towns and ski resorts which is used in real life (perhaps with one exception).

Link to the first version

So, to get things started:

Stage 1: Tours - Tours, 19 km ITT

Like several of my other GTs, it kicks off with a short ITT, this time in a historically important cycling location, namely Tours. The riders will do a 19 km loop south and west of the town, including at least one of the hills which was used in earlier versions of Paris-Tours before the route change. The route is therefore mostly flat with a couple of hills of 30-40 height meters. This route should be enough to creat some gaps in the GC and preventing to much chasing and chaos in the sprint stages the first days.


Stage 2: Tours - Bourges, 161 km

The first ordinary road stage is just that, ordinary. A typical transistional stage in the northern part of France, almost certainly ending in a mass sprint. From the start in Tours they continue mostly east and slightly south the entire day before ending in Bourges. Also relatively short with a probable race time of less than 4 hours, the riders should be fairly rested for a significantly tougher day already on stage 3.


Stage 3: Montlucon - Clermont Ferrand, 208 km

Stage 3 and the first hilly/moutainous stage. From the previous day, the peloton have moved slightly south for the stage start in Montlucon. From here they continue south and quickly head into the northern outskirts in Massif Central. The first two thirds of the stage takes the riders southwest and then south towards Clemont Ferrand through a slightly hilly landscape. The more difficult and higher part of the Massif starts about on the latitude and south of the town. This is especially exemplified by the climb to Puy de Dome, just east of Clermont Ferrand which is also why the town is fairly known in the Tour history. Used several times in the 1970s and 80s, it was a spectacular finish on a fairly narrow and very steep road prompting some epic moments in the Tour history. Due to logistical reasons it hasn't been used in the Tour since 1988, and neither in this version.

After about 160 km the route is less than 10 km north of the town centre in Clermont Ferrand. Here they will start the short but very steep climb to Col de Bancillon, a proper murito with ramps of 20 and 22 %. The top of the climb is only 5-6 km descent from the town centre in Clermont Ferrand, and it's quite a suprise that it hasn't been used more in bigger cycling races. On the other hand, this time they aren't heading straight into the town for the stage finish but continue in the northern outskirts of the town to climb to Bonnabry, west of the town centre in Clermont Ferrand. After the top of Bonnabry, they loop back east into the town and then north to do the same circuit once more. Two laps with the brutally steep climb to Bancillon should create gaps and possible point of attack. Aggressive riders like type of Van der Poel and Alaphillipe would probably be among the contenders for a stage like this.

41 km: Cote de la Bosse: 6,8 km, 4,2 %
109 km: Charbonniers: 8,2 km, 3,5 %
162 km: Col de Bancillon: 1,9 km, 10,1 %
174 km: Bonnabry: 4,8 km, 5,3 %
186 km: Col de Bancillon: 1,9 km, 10, 1 %
198 km: Bonnabry: 4,8 km, 5,3 %



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Stage 4: Clermont Ferrand - Roanne, 155 km

A stage heading east/northeast through the northern outskirts of Massif Central, and would probaly and up in a mass sprint after an early breakaway. The first 40-km of the stage is fairly easy before second third of the stage contains the most difficult part of the stage, including the two categorized climbs. But after descending Col Esserts after 75 km and the small "lump" shortly thereafter, the last 60 km of the stage is mostly flat, making it likely the the sprinter teams will catch the breakaways of the day, especially since the number of sprinter's stages later in the Tour is limited.

61 km: Col de Saint-Thomas, 4,8 km, 5,9 %
75 km: Col des Esserts, 5,6 km, 5,4 %


Stage 5: Lyon - Croix de Chaubouret, 191 km

Althogh the stage to Clermont Ferrand could create some action and battling between the GC contenders, this is the first proper road stage for the GC. The peloton have moved to Lyon for the stage start and the first half of the stage takes them to Lyon's "little sister", St.Etienne. The first half of the stage is raced through the hilly landscape between the two cities, but without the most difficult sections. In the first half before reaching Saint Etienne, there are only two climbs on low gradients, of which one is categorized. Saint Etienne has been used in the Tour numours times, perhaps due to it's fairly central location in the Massif Central , and usually with a descent finish from one of the climbs near the city. The climb to Chaubouret and especially the steepest side from the north has on the other been used more often in Paris-Nice than the Tour.

After passing through the eastern part of St.Etienne, they riders almost immediately start the difficult part of the stage with about 100 km to the stage finish. From this point, there are hardly any flat section of significance. The climbs are of fairly low gradient, typically only 4-5 %, but with over 40 km of climbing on the last half of the stage before the MTF to Chaubouret, it should be felt if the pace is set high. From Saint Etienne they ride southwards on the main road to climb Col de la Rebublique. After descending from Republique, they are just south of the MTF on Chaubouret. From there they turn of the main road and do a counter-clockwise loop with three categorized and one uncategorized climb around Chaubouret to reach the starting point for the last climb at the north of the top. After about 180 km they are just south of the village of St.Chamont and start the climb to the MTF, a modestly tough climb on medium gradients. It probably won't cause any big gaps in the GC but should give a first indication on the form of the main GC contenders.

34 km: Col de la Croix de Part: 7,4 km, 4 %
102 km: Col de la Republique, 12,9 km, 4,6 %
130 km: Graix, 9,9 km, 4,4 %
143 km: Col de l'Oellion, 8,4 km, 5 %
158 km: Col de Montvieux, 5,3 km, 4,2 %
191 km: Croix de Chaubouret, 9,7 km, 6,6 %


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