Race Design Thread

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Stage 12- Embrun-Montgenevre, 84 km



Intermediate Sprint Area

A short stage,I thought I had a stage profile already set up, one climb of the Iozard then descent to Briancon over 107km, but that didn’t save so I did this stage instead. The climbers will enjoy this stage, as the Col d’Iozard is the main event today. The mammoth climb will be to the liking of the climbers, but then they have to deal with the diesel climbers ln the Montgenevre, not a steep climb.

Iozard

Montgenevre

Montgenevre in winter.
'Not only was Izoard used in the 2017 La Course, where Van Vleuten did one of her early mountain stompings, but the Izoard-Montgenèvre combo was also a part of the last stage of the 2008 Grande Boucle Féminine to Sestriere, where Christiane Soeder clinched the overall victory.

Whether ASO would go for it is a different matter, but it isn't an extremely crazy idea (at least not compared to the Pla d'Adet stage ;)).
 
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Stage 13- Briancon-Auron



Intermediate sprint
Today, the Queen stage is here. Starting in Briancon, we first go back over the Col d’Izoard, from the other side of course.

After the descent, we next head up the stepped climb of the Col de Vars

After the descent, we reach Jausiers for the sprint points and the Souvenir Henri Desgrange climb, the Cime de la Bonette, a brute of a climb that climbs to high altitude, the main climb of the race.

The final climb of the day awaits us after the descent, the climb to Auron, surely to crown a worthy winner after the day(stage ends at Auron on the profile below)


Auron in wintertime
 
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Stage 13- Briancon-Auron



Intermediate sprint
Today, the Queen stage is here. Starting in Briancon, we first go back over the Col d’Izoard, from the other side of course.

After the descent, we next head up the stepped climb of the Col de Vars

After the descent, we reach Jausiers for the sprint points and the Souvenir Henri Desgrange climb, the Cime de la Bonette, a brute of a climb that climbs to high altitude, the main climb of the race.

The final climb of the day awaits us after the descent, the climb to Auron, surely to crown a worthy winner after the day(stage ends at Auron on the profile below)


Auron in wintertime
You've gone a bit soft on the riders here. When @Mayomaniac made a similar Tour de France stage in 2018, he finished it at over 1600m :p
 
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Stage 14- Isola-Levens



Final K’s

A stage likely for the punchers, because they haven’t had many opportunities and I feel like if they are able to, they will take advantage, though they might save their legs for tomorrow. Low energy, saving myself for the final write up tomorrow, that’s the reason for the short write up.
 
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Stage 14- Isola-Levens



Final K’s

A stage likely for the punchers, because they haven’t had many opportunities and I feel like if they are able to, they will take advantage, though they might save their legs for tomorrow. Low energy, saving myself for the final write up tomorrow, that’s the reason for the short write up.
I thought you were going to finish the race on Mont Blanc, but I'm sure the last stage will still be a Nice one ;)
 
Oct 14, 2021
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I know they're doing a sprint stage that finishes on the Champs for the 2024 Paris Olympics. In an different universe I'd love to see an Olympic stage race that starts in the Velodrome of Roubaix and finishes up Montmartre. The road up there is pretty tight but the race would be so thinned out by that point it wouldn't matter. Basically a Paris-Roubaix in reverse that finishes with a nasty kicker of a climb.
 
Stage 15- Nice-Nice


I felt like I needed a deserving finale to the first ever 2 week Tour de France Femmes, and the only place that came to mind to host the finish was Nice. One of the biggest cities in France, Nice is also home to some very punchy surrounding land to make time differences on. I’m not going to bother with the climb profiles, as all these climbs are used in Paris Nice regularly. However, I do think this race was truly special. My first ever finished race design came out as a success, and I want to do more with race design, though I might focus on the women’s side, which I have ideas for a women’s Tirreno. That’s all for now, I’ll have a library post up in short time.

Looking over Nice.
 
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After JV Fan has finished what can probably best be described as a two-week men’s Tour de France with shorter stages, where the true sprinters would most likely abandon before the mountains Cipollini style, though Kathryn Bertine would probably still criticize the route for its lack of 200 km stages, I will now start posting a proposal for a 2023 Tour de France Femmes route. It will probably not be 100% realistic either though.

Since both JVF, LS and ASO had their races start in Paris, I decided to apply a different “rule” where the Grand Départ will be in sort of the same area of where the previous edition finished.

Strasbourg is 150-200 km away from Super Planche des Belles Filles, but it is still close to the Vosges mountains. It hosted the start of the men’s race back in 2006, but also the opening stages of the 1988 Tour de France féminin and the 1997 Tour Cycliste féminin visited the city, so hopefully they would also welcome this race.

I’ve changed some of the race rules:
1) The time limits will be the same as in the Giro Donne (15-30% on road stages, 30-50% on time trials). It wouldn’t have saved all the riders who were OTL this year, but some of them would have been able to continue under these rules.

2) The weekday stages will finish around 5 o’clock instead of 4:15-4:35 to give the working people more time to watch them. The last two stages will also finish around that time, and not at 5:30 like this year. Stage one will still finish at around 4 o’clock. The weekend stages will also be broadcast in full, but the rest will still be limited to around two and a half hours.

3) The intermediate sprints with bonus seconds will disappear from the race. They were usually not exciting in the men’s race (Van der Poel taking both that and the stage on Mûr-de-Bretagne last year was great though), and they didn’t play any role in the first edition of the women’s race either. Maybe if they were positioned early in the stages they could produce some excitement there, but I haven’t explored that idea.

4) HC climbs will award the same points as in the men’s race. The points distribution for the other climb categories will be unchanged.

Based on this year’s route, ASO seems keen on using circuits to give people extra motivation to stand near the finish lines, because they get to see the riders multiple times, but as things stand that won’t be a thing in my race.


2023 Tour de France Femmes avec Samu

Stage 1: Strasbourg - Colmar, 103 km


Strasbourg's 142 meter tall cathedral was the world's tallest building between 1647 and 1874

The race will start at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, from where a neutralised zone of 7.5 km will lead the riders to the Départ réel. The first part of the stage has a few shorter hills, but the most difficult one starts after 60 km. This year’s race had its only cat. 2 climb on the last stage, but I have my first one day one already. The Col du Schaentzel almost has the same top as the Côte du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, which was used in the 2019 Tour de France, but both the ascent and the following descent are easier.


The top of Schaentzel is at 5.75 km on the profile

With 38 km to go from the top, there’s still about an hour left of the stage. Hopefully at least JV would try to get rid of Wiebes and other sprinters on the climb. Then it depends on whether SD Worx will fully back Wiebes, or they’ll rather attack with some of their other riders or simply follow moves and disrupt them from the inside as per usual. If they also have Kopecky in their team, they obviously wouldn’t have to care much about Wiebes making it anyway.

There’s a few short hills towards the finish. The last one, Col du Brand, has its top 13 km out. The descent is tougher than the ascent, but they’re not hardest in the world. Still, we could hope to see Lucinda Brand or others make a proper attack here.



The finish town of Colmar has hosed both Tour de France and Tour de la CEE féminin stages in the past. The finish line is the same used in the 2001 and 2019 Tours. Marianne Vos will probably win, but there’s at least potential for more interesting racing than what you’ll get from a Paris crit race.



 
After JV Fan has finished what can probably best be described as a two-week men’s Tour de France with shorter stages, where the true sprinters would most likely abandon before the mountains Cipollini style, though Kathryn Bertine would probably still criticize the route for its lack of 200 km stages, I will now start posting a proposal for a 2023 Tour de France Femmes route. It will probably not be 100% realistic either though.

Since both JVF, LS and ASO had their races start in Paris, I decided to apply a different “rule” where the Grand Départ will be in sort of the same area of where the previous edition finished.

Strasbourg is 150-200 km away from Super Planche des Belles Filles, but it is still close to the Vosges mountains. It hosted the start of the men’s race back in 2006, but also the opening stages of the 1988 Tour de France féminin and the 1997 Tour Cycliste féminin visited the city, so hopefully they would also welcome this race.

I’ve changed some of the race rules:
1) The time limits will be the same as in the Giro Donne (15-30% on road stages, 30-50% on time trials). It wouldn’t have saved all the riders who were OTL this year, but some of them would have been able to continue under these rules.

2) The weekday stages will finish around 5 o’clock instead of 4:15-4:35 to give the working people more time to watch them. The last two stages will also finish around that time, and not at 5:30 like this year. Stage one will still finish at around 4 o’clock. The weekend stages will also be broadcast in full, but the rest will still be limited to around two and a half hours.

3) The intermediate sprints with bonus seconds will disappear from the race. They were usually not exciting in the men’s race (Van der Poel taking both that and the stage on Mûr-de-Bretagne last year was great though), and they didn’t play any role in the first edition of the women’s race either. Maybe if they were positioned early in the stages they could produce some excitement there, but I haven’t explored that idea.

4) HC climbs will award the same points as in the men’s race. The points distribution for the other climb categories will be unchanged.

Based on this year’s route, ASO seems keen on using circuits to give people extra motivation to stand near the finish lines, because they get to see the riders multiple times, but as things stand that won’t be a thing in my race.


2023 Tour de France Femmes avec Samu

Stage 1: Strasbourg - Colmar, 103 km


Strasbourg's 142 meter tall cathedral was the world's tallest building between 1647 and 1874

The race will start at the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg, from where a neutralised zone of 7.5 km will lead the riders to the Départ réel. The first part of the stage has a few shorter hills, but the most difficult one starts after 60 km. This year’s race had its only cat. 2 climb on the last stage, but I have my first one day one already. The Col du Schaentzel almost has the same top as the Côte du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, which was used in the 2019 Tour de France, but both the ascent and the following descent are easier.


The top of Schaentzel is at 5.75 km on the profile

With 38 km to go from the top, there’s still about an hour left of the stage. Hopefully at least JV would try to get rid of Wiebes and other sprinters on the climb. Then it depends on whether SD Worx will fully back Wiebes, or they’ll rather attack with some of their other riders or simply follow moves and disrupt them from the inside as per usual. If they also have Kopecky in their team, they obviously wouldn’t have to care much about Wiebes making it anyway.

There’s a few short hills towards the finish. The last one, Col du Brand, has its top 13 km out. The descent is tougher than the ascent, but they’re not hardest in the world. Still, we could hope to see Lucinda Brand or others make a proper attack here.



The finish town of Colmar has hosed both Tour de France and Tour de la CEE féminin stages in the past. The finish line is the same used in the 2001 and 2019 Tours. Marianne Vos will probably win, but there’s at least potential for more interesting racing than what you’ll get from a Paris crit race.



I do agree the circuit thing is bogus, though I do include a circuit on the first two stages. Nice medium mountain stage, though I hope there is an ITT, as I don’t like ITT’s in one week stage races as I prefer ones that aren’t on the first or last stage.
 
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I do agree the circuit thing is bogus, though I do include a circuit on the first two stages. Nice medium mountain stage, though I hope there is an ITT, as I don’t like ITT’s in one week stage races that aren’t on the first or last stage.
There will be an ITT, but it won't be on the last stage, since I doubt the GC would be close enough for it to be an interesting final.
 
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So, if there’s one race that this thread has been saturated with it’s me having go after go at the Vuelta, right? I’ve posted no fewer than 10 Vueltas, yet only 2 Tours and 2 Giri. And yet, even despite my self-imposed no repetition in mountaintop finishes rule… here we are. I have at least 3 Vueltas that are more or less ready to go but with only minor tweaks, but a Grand Tour is a fairly hefty undertaking in this thread when you’re as overly loquacious as me, so I’ve been hesitant to go to the Vuelta well again when I’ve also posted 3 week tours of Vietnam, Brazil and other long-form stage races in recent history.

This particular version of the Vuelta harks back to a design concept dating back to 2018, although the final week was still messy and required several redesigns, however the core of the start and the second week was pretty set. A few changes have been made since, redrawing the second weekend, and a brief period when I considered redrawing the entirety of the three or four stage transition between two sets of mountains just to fit in a fairly small and benign hilltop finish because of real life occurrences in cycling that have taken place since, although eventually rejecting the idea. But while the race has been mothballed, something happened recently that made me circle back to this Vuelta design, and that something is the 2022 Tour de France. The pace on the mountains and the wattages put out made people think back to fifteen-twenty years ago and discuss where people’s power today is relative to those machines from back then. And I thought back to this particular Vuelta concept and recalled that, actually, this is a concept that would give us the opportunity to find out, quite literally, how that is, on the very first day. Because if there's any race where we can actually find out what cycling fifteen to twenty years ago would be like on any given course, it is of course the Volta a Portugal, where the racing of twenty years ago is still happening today.

Stage 1: Portimão (PT) - Portimão (PT), 6,8km (ITT)





Yup, it’s an overseas start. I don’t tend to do these much in my Grand Tour designs, though my second Giro started in Germany. The last of my Vuelta editions to start overseas was the fourth, which started in Casablanca, although I have also had an edition which started in non-contiguous Spain, on the land of Spain’s offshore (on the continent of Africa) exclave in Melilla. However, Portugal is a very conveniently located neighbour which I have popped into a couple of times in my Vueltas, primarily for mountaintop finishes at Alto da Torre and Senhora da Graça, and has indeed also hosted a Grand Départ of the real life Vuelta, in 1997. That ceremonial start was in Lisbon, with Lars Michaelsen winning a stage from Lisbon to Estoril and Marcel Wüst winning a sprint in Vilamoura before a long transfer to the Algarve before stage 3 saw them travel from Loulé into Spain. I am starting us in Algarve from the word go, because I have my edition starting in the southern resort town of Portimão.



You would be forgiven for expecting me, especially given my frequent references to motorsport and the hilly nature of the circuit, to locate the prologue at the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, which hosted the brief return of the Portuguese Grand Prix during Covid times, but has had to be removed from the calendar now to save Hermann Tilke’s much less interesting circuits being shown up by a modern circuit which has flow, elevation changes and overtaking opportunities aplenty. Instead, however, I am staying within the port city itself. Why? Well, because we want to measure how fast our modern riders are compared to the machines of a generation gone by, do we not? This short, fast time trial is the exact same course which was used in the Volta a Portugal in 2007 and 2008, at the height of the era when the race’s péloton was chocked full of elite riders ostracised by Operación Puerto, and attracted good overseas talent with teams like Lampre, Scott-American Beef (i.e. Saunier Duval) and Slipstream attending.

2007’s prologue was won by Argentine veteran chronoman Martin Garrido, ahead of eventual GC winner Xavier Tondó and Spanish veteran of the Portuguese scene Héctor Guerra, who would ride five years with Liberty Seguros before a CERA positive wiped his career. The field also included the likes of José António Pecharromán, Óscar Sevilla, David Bernabéu, David Blanco, José Azevedo, Isidro Nozal and Cândido Barbosa. The following year, Rubén Plaza, who had been kept from the road with Caisse d’Épargne in 2007, took the victory for Benfica, ahead of Guerra and Marcel Wyss. Others in the field back then included Paco Mancebo, Juan José Cobo, Dan Martin, Enrico Gasparotto, Koldo Gil, Nuno Ribeiro, Santi Pérez, Julien El Fares, José Ángel Gómez Marchante, Mauro Santambrogio in 2008, and Claus Michael Møller, Ángel Vicioso, Santambrogio again, Eladio Jiménez, Pedro Cardoso, Domenico Pozzovivo, Matteo Priamo, Bruno Pires and a young Neo-pro by the name of Raúl Alarcón in 2007. Quite the roll call of oft-dubious names to compare our riders against, no?

At just 55.000 inhabitants, certainly Portimão is a small place for a Grand Départ, but it is the second largest urban centre in the Algarve after Faro, and a key tourist destination, as the amenities originally supporting the fishing and shipbuilding communities have been repurposed to accommodate beachgoers, restaurants and facilities. Settlement of the area dates back to pre-Roman times, but modern Portimão is a descendant of the Roman settlement of Portus Magonis. For many years it was under Moorish control, under the name of Burj Munt, and provided the sea access to the capital of the Arabian Algarve, Shilb, which corresponds to modern day Silves. It was conquered and reintegrated into the Kingdom of Portugal in 1249, and in 1453 King Afonso V authorised the construction of a new town centre under the name of São Lourenço Barrosa, or Vila Nova de Portimão, and fortifications to defend from offshore invasion. While its modern history is built around fishing and shipbuilding, and then tourism, it also has its own wine DOC.


Beaches and coastline of Portimão

The Volta a Portugal hasn’t been to Portimão since that 2008 prologue, as the race tends not to head to the south of the country as most of the cycling passion is in the north, even though a couple of the biggest teams are located at the very south, such as Loulé and Tavira. The Volta ao Algarve is a regular attendee, however, with stages often ending in a sprint, although in 2010 through 2012 the ITT was held finishing in the town, over a longer distance than we are using here. Winners in that race in Portimão in the last couple of decades include Cândido Barbosa, Tom Steels, Gert Steegmans, Alessandro Petacchi, Heinrich Haussler, Fabio Jakobsen (twice) and Sam Bennett in road stages, and Luís León Sánchez, Tony Martin and Bradley Wiggins (well, it was 2012!) in time trials. That time trial was 17km so a more comprehensive distance… but that distance would not let us compare to the mighty, mythical Puerto generation, so instead we take the old fashioned Volta route, which takes us from the town centre down to the Praia da Rocha and then back along the coast road to the old town. The prologue is seemingly under-utilised in recent years; the Tour de France has not had an honest to god prologue since 2012, although it has used 10-15km kind of TTs a couple of times since; the Giro hasn’t had a ‘true’ prologue since 2006, although it has had several openings with ITTs in the 8km-10km area which is close enough. The Vuelta, until recently married to the opening TTT (a format I have used maybe once in my 11 Vuelta attempts since my lack of love for the format is well known), ran a genuine prologue in 2021, however, and seems the most likely to go for one at present. So here we are.
 
Stage 2: Lagos (PT) - Alto do Malhão (PT), 177km





GPM:
Alto de Marmalete (cat.3) 2,6km @ 7,9%
Alto de Foia (cat.2) 7,3km @ 7,6%
Alto de Pomba (cat.3) 2,2km @ 9,4%
Alto do Malhão (cat.3) 2,6km @ 9,2%

The first road stage of the Vuelta takes in a few of the icons of the Volta ao Algarve, but rather than being in warmup, February mode, we’re in height of the season mode so hopefully can set some brutal times. It also takes advantage of some somewhat steeper roads than the 2.1 level race accommodates, although the only one likely to cause any damage from a time gaps perspective is as is well known to much of the péloton.

Another tourist town on the coast, Lagos (meaning ‘lakes’) is home to around 30.000 people although this number swells to almost double during peak tourist season. The city was one of the main departure points for Portuguese exploration during the Age of Discovery; for this reason, the similar topography and nearby lakes and lagoons led to the more famous and populous Lagos, the former capital of Nigeria, being named after it by the Portuguese explorers travelling down the African coast.



The city of Lagos has existed for around 2000 years, and has passed between Celtic, Roman, Visigothic, Moorish and eventually Portuguese hands. It was largely grown under the Moorish era, where it became a primary port for al-Gharb al-Andalus, the Moorish province which corresponds to southern Portugal and gives the modern Algarve its name. Zawaia, as it was known at the time, had been grown with fortifications and after the Portuguese assumed control of it and then used it as a base from which to attack and conquer Ceuta in 1415, it became the centre of Portuguese maritime discovery, and the long-time home town of the legendary Infante Dom Henrique, known to most as Henry the Navigator. Another explorer, Gil Eanes, became the first to cross Cape Bojador when he set sail from Lagos in 1434; by 1443 the Portuguese had reached Arguim and Mauritania, and with the influence of Lançarote de Freitas, who led slave raids on sub-Saharan Africa from the city, Lagos became the site of Continental Europe’s first colonial slave market, the Mercado de Escravos, which literally translates as “slave market” and has since been transformed into a self-critical museum analysing the history of the slave trade and Portugal’s role in establishing it. During the Iberian Union, its strategic importance made it an obvious target for the British; the Portuguese defended Lagos from Francis Drake only for him to then sack Faro as a result. However, after much of the city was destroyed in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, it lost its position as the capital of the Algarve and much of the old Moorish city was never restored. As a result, much of what remains of the city is sturdier 17th Century constructions, or more recent developments after the earthquake.

The first part of the stage is the toughest part. The first 20km are mostly flat and the main point of interest is passing the Autódromo Internacional do Algarve, usually known as Portimão, on our way to a trifecta of climbs as we enter the Serra de Monchique. The aim here is to essentially ensure there is a good battle for the breakaway as there is a good chance of holding the GPM for a good few days based on these climbs if you win all of them. The first, up to Marmalete, is 2,6km @ 7,9%, and then we head over some false flat and downhill, and then it’s time for us to take on the Alto de Fóia, the highest point in the Monchique massif. And I have a bit of a treat for the riders here, too. A typical climb to Fóia in the Volta ao Algarve is a 7,5km at 5,8% steady cat.2, perfect for a February race. Take for example the 2020 stage which also shows us the Marmalete climb early in the stage. This is, however, climbing the side of Fóia that we descend, because we are heading up the side which goes via the Portela de Nave, a brutal narrow stretch of 2,2km at 12%, which turns this into more of one of those borderline cat.1/cat.2 climbs that the Vuelta has a few of - Puerto de Orduña, Puerto del Escudo and Mirador del Fito all falling in this range, with a total of 7,3km at 7,6%. Cronoescalada suggests cat.1, because Cronoescalada uses the APM Coeficiente which over-values steep stretches, but I’m downgrading to cat.2 because there are, you know, 136km remaining at the summit so I’m not expecting this to be raced too hard.




Fóia summit

The route down from this climb enables us to take another short, steep ascent, the Alto de Pomba, and another shallower, uncategorised climb, before we descend into São Marcos da Serra and turn southwards from the edges of Alentejo back down to the Algarve coast. The ensuing 75km are more or less pan flat and take us through our first intermediate sprint when we return to the shoreline in the scenic town of Albufeira.



We follow the shoreline until Quarteira, so tracing common ITT terrain from the Volta ao Algarve (Albufeira has hosted many a TT back in the day there, with winners including the likes of Melcior Mauri and Alex Zülle), before we head inland again for the last 40km, beginning with the second intermediate sprint, which takes place after some short uphill false flat in the city of Loulé. Officially the municipality has 70.000 people which makes it bigger than Portimão but since Quarteira is included within the municipality of Loulé it is something of a misnomer. Nevertheless it was an important stop-off for me seeing as it was a host of one of the only real-life Vuelta a España stages to pass through Portugal, won by Marcel Wüst in Huelva, and also because it is home to one of Portugal’s most enduring cycling teams, Louletano, which has run since the 1980s and had a multitude of sponsors over the years including Construções Fol, Imoholding, Madeinox, Dunas Douradas, and most recently Aviludo. Historic alumni include João Cabreira, Eladio Jiménez, Santi Pérez, Tino Zaballa, Jorge Montenegro, Marcos García, pre-reinvention Raúl Alarcón, Carlos Oyarzún, João Benta and Vicente García de Mateos. They continue to this day and are still chasing their first overall win at the Volta, although they have won the Vuelta a Asturias, the Vuelta a Extremadura and every small stage race in Portugal.



Coming out of Loulé we have a 1700m at 5,2% ramp, uncategorised, and then a second uncategorised climb of 2,6km @ 5,1% with 15km to go. This is just to soften things up slightly for the finale of the day, the Volta ao Algarve’s traditional finishing climb of the Alto do Malhão, which is often one of the first climbers’ salvos of the European season, giving them a first chance to source some bragging rights while also not being too far from the range of most puncheurs.

Sharing its name with a popular style of dance, Malhão is a small Algarve village around 500m above sea level which sits on the edge of the elevated plateau that runs into southern Alentejo. The climb up onto the plateau has made it an attractive site for cycle racing, given it is relatively steep but not too long so gaps can be kept to manageable size for a short stage race. Although frequently used in the Volta ao Algarve in its original (well, second, as there were a couple of isolated editions in the early 1960s) incarnation in the 80s and 90s, since the race became an early season pro race which attracted a wider international participation rather than being a plaything of the domestic péloton, Malhão has become the de rigueur mountaintop of choice, being introduced in 2003 and, apart from a short layoff from 2007 and 2008, being ever-present since, either as sole uphill finish, or in more recent years alongside Fóia. Pedro Cardoso was the first to triumph at the summit, as part of that ridiculous Milaneza-Maia squad of 2003 or so who in fact did a 1-2-3, with Claus Michael Møller and David Bernabéu following him home (Bernabéu would then test positive at Paris-Nice a few weeks later). A year later, Floyd Landis won the stage, which doesn’t improve the reputation too much although this is in fact one of the few wins Floyd claimed to have been clean in his confessions several years later. Cândido Barbosa was third (lol). Hugo Sabido and João Cabreira won the next two stages to Malhão to both take the GC win with the stage, but this would then be the last time the domestic bunch would succeed here for many years.

2007 and 2008’s editions of the Volta ao Algarve were, bluntly, rubbish. Excising the mountains in order to secure a better international field, 2007’s edition was won by Alessandro Petacchi after all but one stage ended in a sprint, and 2008’s was won by Devolder in a classic “win the TT win the race” event. Toni Colóm would win 2009’s return to the Alto do Malhão, but this was mid-race, with Alberto Contador, who Colóm had bested in a two-up sprint, taking the stage and the GC in the ensuing ITT. Colóm would test positive for EPO a month later, and Rubén Plaza, riding for Liberty Seguros in his Puerto exile, would have been the next man up. In 2010, Contador put his foot down to prove his point against the new Radioshack team that had been founded out of the team that had exiled him all upping and leaving Astana, and after this point the domestic péloton ceases to compete. Steve Cummings won in 2011 in a four man sprint, ahead of van Garderen, Taaramäe and Tony Martin; Richie Porte would beat home favourites Tiago Machado and Rui Costa in 2012 as part of Sky’s season of strangulation of top races; Costa would move one step closer a year later but Sky would take their third straight win on the climb with Sérgio Henao. Contador would take his second Malhão win in 2014, with Costa again 2nd, then Porte took his second win in the town in 2015. Not to be outdone, Contador added a third in 2016, with the best local talent actually being Amaro Antunes, then riding for the comparatively well-reputed LA-Antarte (again, comparatively speaking) in his home race. The following year, liberated from the concept of repute by signing for the renowned, and notorious, W52-FC Porto, Amaro did this.


With García de Mateos winning the sprint for 2nd, the locals were back in business. Roglič would win the GC and Antunes would settle for 5th overall, but the fire was lit locally once more. The following year’s race was won by Michał Kwiatkowski as Sky decided if they couldn’t individually top Contador’s total, they could at least collectively do so. Zdeněk Štýbar won in 2019, and Miguel Ángel López in 2020. In 2021, the race took place in May due to pandemic issues, which limited the international péloton and enabled W52 to do their thing, Elie Gesbert taking the stage but finishing together with João Rodrigues who took the GC as a result of gapping Ethan Hayter, with fellow W52 riders Joni Brandão and Amaro Antunes also in the top 5. This year, however, back in its regular calendar spot, it was a Colombian veritable festival with Sérgio Higuita and Dani Martínez sharing the spoils.

So, what is this climb? Well, you have video above. And you have this profile from La Flamme Rouge which approximates it at 2,6km @ 9,5%. The race’s own official profile states 2,6km @ 9,2% which is slightly easier - possibly a slightly different waypoint used as the specific summit as well as the official race profile has the summit at 510m and the LFR profile has it at 514. Either way, it’s a pretty tough little climb that will open up some smallish gaps - frequently the real life race has a small bunch sprinting it out and settling gaps of only around 5-10 seconds. The spread of the top 10 in recent years seems to average out at around 30 seconds, and this is in a race where far fewer riders will have a vested interest in keeping themselves in contention and will be in much better form than on the final day of a February stage race too. This should set us up nicely for the rest of week 1.

Drone footage of the Buddhist temple and statue and the village at the summit of Malhão
 
Tour France Femmes avec Samu

Stage 2: Colmar - Cornimont, 127 km


On my second stage, I wanted to see some certain GC action. It’s possible to create a gravel stage in-between the Alsatian vineyards, just like we saw in Champagne this year, but I hope ASO will wait at least a year before doing something similar again. I also wanted the stage to be too hard for Marianne Vos, but still too easy to cause major gaps between the favourites.

It was initially meant to be an MTF at the Rouge Gazon ski station, but I changed it for a descent finish instead. I could easily have made the stage harder, but I wanted the peloton to be decently sized before the main climb. I’ve applied the same principle as the ASO did this year, where the two mountain stages were between 120 and 130 km.

The stage starts at a Leclerc supermarket in the eastern part of Colmar, from where a neutralised zone leads the riders through the town of Andolsheim, before the racing commence. The first climb, the Col du Bannstein, begins after 30 km. I originally had the Côte de Gueberschwih/Col du Hundsplan preceding it, but I decided to make the first part easier instead.



I have called the next categorised climb the Col de Wattwiller, which has its top when it joins the road to Grand Ballon after about 3 km on the profile below. Had this been the queen stage, I would have included Grand Ballon or a different longer climb as well. After reaching the QOM, the riders will descend down to Cernay before continuing north-west.



The Col d'Oderen from Kruth is the final and main climb of the day, and It was previously used on the 2014 Planche des Belles Filles stage. It’s shorter and easier than Lagunas de Neila in Burgos and Norefjell in Norway, climbs that have produced gaps between 45 seconds and 1:30 between the top 10 placed riders, when used as the race deciding climbs in the last two seasons.



The gradients are 4-6% for the most part, and there aren’t any longer steeper sections like on the climbs mentioned above, although there are a few hundred meters at over 10%, less than two km from the top. It probably has the same difficulty as the Black Mountain in the Women’s Tour, so the gaps shouldn’t be massive, but hopefully there’ll be more than one attack before someone rides away. 11 km remains from the top, but the descent is not thar hard, so technical abilities probably won't determine the winner.

I don’t think Cornimont has been visited by the Tour de France before, but it is the birth town of former Tour stage winner Christophe Mengin. It only has a population of 3000, but that is still more than some other towns that ASO has used in the past.




 
Stage 3: Tavira (PT) - Barrio de Triana-Casco Gitano, 176km





GPM:
Alto de Sanlucar (Cuesta de las Doblas)(cat.3) 2,2km @ 4,8%

Of course, on my route back into Spain I was going to stop off at Tavira. How could I not, given it’s such an important cycling town for Portugal? Having included Loulé off the basis of their team, Tavira would be an essential place to call in on for similar reasons, no?

Tavira actually dates its inception back to the Phoenicians, being one of the first settlements established by them to the west of the Straits of Gibraltar. A second town was built nearby after the initial establishment of Baal Saphon was abandoned, and while this too was abandoned, it became the genesis of modern Tavira. The Romans had rebuilt Balsa on the location of the original Phoenician settlement, but by the time of the Moorish conquest, it had long rotted away and been outlasted by Tavira, which was previously a staging post on the way to it. The Moors turned the town into a thriving, bustling trading centre with many fine buildings, but like other Algarve settlements, damages caused by the 1755 earthquake led to massive reconstruction and so much of current Tavira is dated from the 18th Century. And yet, one of Tavira’s most famous sons never actually existed, this being Álvaro de Campos, an alter ego of Fernando Pessoa who had his own full backstory and history rather than just being a nom de plume. The fictitious Campos was two years younger than his creator, and studied in Glasgow and Ireland, and was known for angrier, more vengeful text than Pessoa would publish under his own name.



Of course, talk of Tavira in a cycling forum would be remiss without reference to another of Portugal’s most established cycling teams. The Tavira squad dates back to the mid-1980s, and has had a long list of sponsors including Atum (either Atum Bom Petisco or Atum General, the latter of which being current) for no fewer than three stints as title sponsors, Progecer, Gresco, Würth, Porto da Ravessa, Duja, Palmeiras Resort, Prio, Banco BIC, Carmim and Sporting Clube de Portugal, known by most outside of the country as Sporting Lisbon or similar. Their most successful era was the late 2000s and early 2010s, when they were sponsored primarily by Palmeiras Resort, and they won four consecutive Voltas a Portugal, from 2008 through 2010 with David Blanco (2009’s being won by default after the disqualification of original winner Nuno Ribeiro) and then in 2011 with Ricardo Mestre. Also having the services of late-career Cândido Barbosa, Nelson Victorino, André Cardoso, Martín Garrido and Alejandro Marque through this era, they also took 10 stages of A Grandíssima from 2007 to 2011, as well as countless smaller races. In recent years they have been a little behind the 8-ball compared to Efapel (now Glassdrive) and W52 in the Arms Race, especially after the Sporting sponsorship ended with the Lisbon club being frustrated at the inability to compete with W52’s juggernaut under the auspices of rivals FC Porto. Recent years have seen the veteran likes of Rinaldo Nocentini and a returning Alejandro Marque as team leaders, but the loss of Frederico Figueiredo to Efapel in 2021 was keenly felt after his overall win at the Troféu Joaquim Agostinho and Volta GC podium in 2020; the team now has Délio Fernández returning from his odyssey in France to take the reins.


The modern Atum General-Tavira squad

We cross the border at the 24km mark, but not before we’ve travelled through the town of Vila Real de Santo Antônio, with a population just under 20.000. Constructed in the 18th Century to protect Portuguese interests along the Guadiana river to take the pressure off upstream Castro Marim, then the only settlement on the Portuguese side of the river until Cacela (halfway between Tavira and Castro Marim, and on the seafront, this town had been frequently targeted by pirates), until the Puente Internacional del Guadiana was completed in 1991, the main way to transit between Spain and Portugal in this part of the world was the ferry from Ayamonte to Vila Real de Santo Antônio. It was a fish canning centre for a long time but has recently moved more into tourism, catching up rapidly to more developed tourist towns to the west. It is home to women’s rights activist Lutegarda and former Eurogroup president Mário Centeno, but most crucially for us here, it is home to Amaro Antunes.

A prodigious climber from youth, Amaro got the tongues wagging of many a Portuguese cycling fan when he annihilated the field in the Volta do Futuro in a stage to Arouca over the São Macário climb, and moved around a bit including a stint with the Ceramica Flaminia-Fondriest team in Italy (the later team built around young talent, not the earlier one with Riccardo Riccò and Filippo Simeoni as alumni) before settling at LA-Antarte. He made top 10 of the Volta a Portugal at 24, and top 5 the following year - as well as managing one of the only top 10s of the era for a domestic team in the Volta ao Algarve. For 2017, he moved to W52 and won the MTF at Malhão in Algarve, creating some discussion between those who viewed this success as suspicious and those who had been waiting for Amaro to break out like this for several years now. As ever, however, the truth was likely a little from column A and a little from column B, as we saw him take 2nd in two stages of the Volta a Portugal before one of the most absurd sights of recent years, as he and Raúl Alarcón took flight 80km from home and rode several minutes into the chasers over the Alto da Torre back to Guarda.


Antunes later would acquire two stage wins for his two second places, and a GC victory by default, due to mythical Balarcón’s biopassport data showing significant anomalies and resulting in his performances being scrubbed. Antunes was not declared winner of the 2017 Volta a Portugal until March 2021, and the result is still contested. He did, however, manage to be young and not-totally-shady enough to get out of Portugal, signing for CCC for 2018 and spending two years with them, even managing 2nd in the Giro dell’Appennino and riding the Giro d’Italia in 2019, with a surprising top 3 from the break in a mountaintop finish at San Martino di Castrozza. Returning to W52 for 2020 to replace the suspended Alarcón, he won the reduced-scale 2020 Volta, winning at Mondim de Basto and holding the lead the remainder of the race, and backed this up in 2021 to become a two- or three-time winner of the race, after holding on against the late charge of Mauri Moreira. However, defending his title in 2022 became an impossibility after being the only W52-FC Porto rider to escape the significant hit earlier in the season and his team being barred from starting; potentially his experience of riding at the WT level made him a bit smarter when it came to his extracurriculars?

Entering Spain via the Puente Internacional, we then leave the main roads into Ayamonte and travel through the barren expanses of the flat coastlands of Huelva province between the Guadiana and the Guadalquívir. This will therefore be likely to be one of ‘those’ Vuelta stages, baking hot and through scorched scenery, although some wetlands will at least give us some variety as we approach the intermediate sprint in the regional capital of Huelva, where the final Portuguese stage of the 1997 Vuelta finished. Built on the two rias of the Odiel and Tinto rivers, Huelva has a population of 150.000 and is attested back to Phoenician times, although for many years a theory held currency that Huelva was the Tartessos attested in early Greek sources. The city thrived on fishing and later on copper mining in the 19th Century, and became a provincial capital covering the sparsely-populated western Andalusian plains. It is home - likely due to the influence of British mining interests along the Rio Tinto - to El Decano, as local football team Recreativo de Huelva are known, an appellation which corresponds to Liège-Bastogne-Liège’s nickname of La Doyenne, in note and respect for its age. The city was also an espionage hub during World War II, due to the large British expatriate community relating to the mining heritage and the German community introduced during German interests in North Africa and increased following the Guerra Civíl. Huelva is known as a city of art, with many prominent artists calling the city home, most notably Nobel Prize-winning poet Juan Ramón Jiménez.



This is a very flat stage, so the remainder of the stage is largely transitional, crossing the southern countryside en route from Huelva to Sevilla. This is broken up by a single, and not especially threatening, climb into Sanlucar la Mayor, also called Cuesta de las Doblas. I was originally going to have this as a climb-free stage but seeing as this was a categorised climb in stage 4 of the 1997 Vuelta I thought I’d follow suit. At 2,2km @ 4,8% mostly consistently at 5% and on a wide open highway, this is very much an easy, nominal reward for the breakaway, coming at 24km from the finish. We then descend down in toward Sevilla, only we aren’t really finishing in Sevilla, as I’ve gone for one of those Vuelta-tastic “património” finishes, as we are going to conclude the stage not in central Sevilla, but in one of its outlying barrios - and probably the most famous of those, Triana.


Barrio de Triana

Until 1852, Triana was an independent settlement of Sevilla which was only accessible via a Moorish era “puente de barcos”, or “bridge of boats” which was constructed on the instructions of the Caliph in order to access lands west of the Guadalquívir. The Casco de Triana sat outside of the city walls, and became a magnet for itinerants, traders, and the working classes. This melting pot made it very attractive to the Gitano, i.e. Gypsy, population who would trade, travel and frequently converge upon Triana, and so many of the gypsies that elected to settle on a permanent abode chose central Triana, hence its centre has become known as the Casco Gitano; the district has become emblematic of flamenco, that synthesis of Spanish traditional sounds and gypsy music and dance, and as a result as well as a melting pot of communities and the working classes, it has also become a magnet to artisans (in particular pottery and textiles are famed in Triana), musicians, artists, writers and toreros, a sort of equivalent if you like to the role Prenzlauer Berg played in modern Berlin. To this day, the Calle Betis riverside route contains most of the city’s best known and best loved bars and clubs. Redevelopment in the 1970s has meant much of the post-ghettoisation melting pot character of Triana has been watered down, however, and while the reputation remains, the Gitano population of the barrio has reduced considerably with the demolition or conversion of many of the old corrales in which they used to live.

The heritage of flamenco, gypsy rhumba and art and music in Triana does persist forevermore, however, in the form of the eponymous band, who represent probably Spain’s most notable contribution to the pantheon of progressive rock, with their multi-layered compositions coloured with flamenco guitar instrumentation and melody, helping to birth a uniquely local genre known as Andalusian Rock, or Flamenco Prog. Other bands in the genre followed suit in utilising band names reflecting their Andalusian heritage - whether that be by paying homage to Moorish times or the Gitano population - names like Mezquita and Imán Califate Independiente wear these influences on their sleeves.

This stage will be the first sprint of the race, with a fairly simple and safe run-in; there is a roundabout at 1500m and a wide 90º left hander at 800m, after that it’s one single road which has a gentle curve left then right, but remains four lanes wide with car parking spaces, and so this will be comfortable for a safe bunch sprint as long as nobody does anything stupid.


Calle Pagés del Corro, finish
 
Tour France Femmes avec Samu

Stage 2: Colmar - Cornimont, 127 km


On my second stage, I wanted to see some certain GC action. It’s possible to create a gravel stage in-between the Alsatian vineyards, just like we saw in Champagne this year, but I hope ASO will wait at least a year before doing something similar again. I also wanted the stage to be too hard for Marianne Vos, but still too easy to cause major gaps between the favourites.

It was initially meant to be an MTF at the Rouge Gazon ski station, but I changed it for a descent finish instead. I could easily have made the stage harder, but I wanted the peloton to be decently sized before the main climb. I’ve applied the same principle as the ASO did this year, where the two mountain stages were between 120 and 130 km.

The stage starts at a Leclerc supermarket in the eastern part of Colmar, from where a neutralised zone leads the riders through the town of Andolsheim, before the racing commence. The first climb, the Col du Bannstein, begins after 30 km. I originally had the Côte de Gueberschwih/Col du Hundsplan preceding it, but I decided to make the first part easier instead.



I have called the next categorised climb the Col de Wattwiller, which has its top when it joins the road to Grand Ballon after about 3 km on the profile below. Had this been the queen stage, I would have included Grand Ballon or a different longer climb as well. After reaching the QOM, the riders will descend down to Cernay before continuing north-west.



The Col d'Oderen from Kruth is the final and main climb of the day, and It was previously used on the 2014 Planche des Belles Filles stage. It’s shorter and easier than Lagunas de Neila in Burgos and Norefjell in Norway, climbs that have produced gaps between 45 seconds and 1:30 between the top 10 placed riders, when used as the race deciding climbs in the last two seasons.



The gradients are 4-6% for the most part, and there aren’t any longer steeper sections like on the climbs mentioned above, although there are a few hundred meters at over 10%, less than two km from the top. It probably has the same difficulty as the Black Mountain in the Women’s Tour, so the gaps shouldn’t be massive, but hopefully there’ll be more than one attack before someone rides away. 11 km remains from the top, but the descent is not thar hard, so technical abilities probably won't determine the winner.

I don’t think Cornimont has been visited by the Tour de France before, but it is the birth town of former Tour stage winner Christophe Mengin. It only has a population of 3000, but that is still more than some other towns that ASO has used in the past.




Like the stage, I did feel like one of these stages was missing from my route, though I might be glossing over my own route.
 
Reactions: Samu Cuenca
Stage 4: Sevilla - Córdoba, 192kmp





GPM:
Puerto de Artafí (cat.3) 6,1km @ 5,5%
Alto de San Jerónimo (cat.3) 5,3km @ 6,1%

Back on my fifth Vuelta (probably my favourite of all of those I’ve posted), one of the first stages was basically covering distance between these two cities and finishing with a couple of climbs in the Trassierra range. So you’d be forgiven for saying “hang on Libertine, this is a bit repetitious”. So while for my route I wanted to link those two cities again, I decided to go another route, to shake things up a bit, and use some less well known and well-trodden roads in the Vuelta. I mean, yes, the first part of the stage is pretty much the same, travelling through the Andalusian plains, but the second half of the stage is a bit of innovation travelling through an area in which the Vuelta almost never dares to tread.

Sevilla, of course, is not an area the Vuelta does not tread. Its history with the national tour dates back all the way to the very first edition in 1935, when race leader (and eventual winner) Gustaaf Deloor won a 260km route from Granada. Vicente Carretero won a subsequent stage a year later, and it became a regular host, with the likes of Délio Rodríguez and Julián Berrendero winning stages there. In the El Correo-El Pueblo Vasco days it was less common as a host, with the most decisive stages being focused around the north and the opening parts of the race being based around flat stages linking coastal resorts, and so it needed certain route directions for Sevilla to fall on the route, but nevertheless it cropped up periodically - 1959, 1974 and 1979 in fact, with the latter giving us the highest profile winner in the city, Sean Kelly. It would take until 1990 for Unipublic to visit Sevilla, though it would then appear in 1991 and 1995 as the race’s avoidance of the Basque Country led to the mountain stages pivoting to the south of the country. However, frequent hosting of the race by Málaga and Córdoba meant Sevilla remained on the outside until it hosted the Grand Départ in 2010.

With a Team Time Trial won by HTC-Columbia. It’s a wonder I considered the place at all.



The 2010s have seen Western Andalucia appear much more frequently however this has typically been more for “património” locations so Sevilla has been off the race since. The first half of this stage is a fairly typical transitional stage, heading through typical flat terrain towns like Lora del Rio and Peñaflor, and indeed I have put an early intermediate sprint in the former to give incentive to the breakaway. When we reach Posadas, however, unlike in previous stage routes I have drawn through this area, such as the San José de la Rinconada - Córdoba stage in my fifth Vuelta, we don’t follow directly toward Córdoba but instead turn northwards, into the little-travelled hinterland of the Vuelta, a region almost never seen in the race in real life, the Sierra de Hornachuelos.



This sparsely populated natural park is a hidden gem of Spain, with two large reservoirs (Embalse de la Breña and Embalse del Bembézar) subsumed within acres of green woodland and rugged mountainside, almost devoid of settlements and with only a couple of major roads. Riding through this area will therefore give us some pristine shots from the helicam of some stunning natural landscape in an area that the Vuelta seldom sees (a bit of a theme for this particular Vuelta edition, as you will later see - I’m trying to keep things fresh so using some terrain areas I’ve not yet touched in ten years’ worth of route designs for the Vuelta, plus the countless other Spanish races I’ve done, with a Volta a Catalunya, two Vueltas al País Vasco - and a longer Basque race - a Vuelta a Navarra, a Vuelta a Cantabria, and one-day races/Worlds courses in Bilbao and Ceuta). The Sierra de Hornachuelos doesn’t have too many serious climbs in it, and is hidden away from most major population centres, so has been seen almost never in any level of racing, let alone in La Vuelta. However, while it may not have serious climbing, it does have that famous characteristic of many a Spanish bike race: none of it is flat. It’s consistently up, down, undulating, with various ramps and repechos. To demonstrate, here is the profile of the completely uncategorised set of ascents from Posadas up to the Puerto de La Forestal beginning at the 100km mark - so including 600m at 8% early on into a 2km at 5,6% ascent, higher up there’s another 2,2km at 5,5%, then another 1,2km at 5,3%, and finishing off with some more highly irregular but not steep climbing.



You can view Miguel Baeza and Martín Cerván’s description, along with a large gallery of photos to show what this part of Spain looks like on the climb, here.

There is another uncategorised ascent at the 140km mark, which is the Puerto de San Bernardo, which is 2,4km at 5,8% topping out just over 50km from the line, before a proper descent - 4,2km @ 5,7% - down to the Puente de los Boquerones where it crosses the Rio Guadiato. This being 6,1km @ 5,5% - again there’s a nice gallery of woodland surrounding the climb - it’s a little on the tough side for cat.3 but it’s fairly consistent and over 40km from home, before we roll along the plateau of the top of the Trassierra before we arrive at the Alto de San Jerónimo, a Vuelta classic, and descend down into Córdoba.



Córdoba requires little introduction to the average Vuelta enthusiast. It’s a frequent host over the years and especially in the last 30 years or so, when the nearby climbs in the Trassierra, namely San Jerónimo, Alto del 14%, Las Ermitas and Mirador de las Niñas, have led to a tradition of hilly and medium mountain stages in the area, usually finishing - and my stage is no breaker of tradition - at the Palácio de la Merced. Most people, of course, know Córdoba more from its iconic mosque, since the city gave its name Umayyad Emirate, and subsequently Caliphate, of Córdoba, the most prominent polity of al-Andalus in Muslim Spain. The change was nothing more than ceremonial, as Abd ar-Rahman III, facing invasion from the Fatimid Caliphate based in modern Algeria, Libya and Tunisia, raised his own rank to Caliph in order to not be seen as weaker. Originally a Roman settlement named Colonia Patricia, it was taken by the Muslims in 711, and became the provincial capital five years later under the name قرطبة, usually transcribed Qurṭuba. The old Roman centre was converted into an Umayyad medina similar to those seen in Morocco, and it grew to become one of the most advanced and refined cities in the world, with a remarkable level of freedom of religious and artistic expression completely out of keeping with most of the western world at the time, and estimates of the population come the turn of the second millennium range all the way up to a million people, a practically unthinkable number at the time. The Fitna, an Andalucian Muslim civil war, broke out with rebellion in Córdoba, and the Berbers sailed from Morocco across the Straits of Gibraltar and sacked the city in 1013. A short lived Taifa followed before the Almoravids captured the city late in the 11th Century, but they themselves were revolted against 30 years later; eventually warring factions of Muslim Spain turned to the Castilians for assistance against one another even as the reconquista gathered pace, sealing their own fate to a large degree. Córdoba fell to the forces of Ferdinand III in 1236 (on 29 June according to Christian sources, and 30 June to Muslim), and it has remained Spanish since. Its iconic mosque’s centre was destroyed and converted into a cathedral, yet retaining the ornate arches and outer walls, and its unique preservation of Andalusian Muslim architecture within Catholic mores has been part of why it has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, along with many other Muslim era buildings of the city, such as the Judería (the old Jewish quarter), the Baños Califales, and the Madinat al-Zahra (Medina Azahara) district.



No longer the centre of its own world, Córdoba floundered for many centuries and shrunk down under Spanish control, only recovering any of its former glory when it was attached to the Spanish railroad system in the late 19th Century. Despite all of its rich cultural tradition, other than a few flamenco dancers, the main son of the city to stand out to me was Gabi Delgado López, whose family left Spain for Germany due to oppositional activity in the Franco era, and who went on to front controversial electro act D.A.F.. Only kidding, Paco Peña is obviously far more high profile (to say nothing of Roman statesman, poet, philosopher and dramatist Seneca), but I did want to post the Der Mussolini performance video.

We cross the finishing line for the first time 22km from home, and have a traditional circuit around the city including the Alto de San Jerónimo to finish. This is more or less the easiest version, other than the same circuit in the opposite direction, with us not ascending up past the actual Alto de San Jerónimo as we so often do in the real race even when the summit is called the Alto de San Jerónimo, or they give the points at the summit of that climb but continue to climb onward to another summit. The ascent corresponds to the first 5,3km of this profile, while the descent corresponds to the first 7km of this one. I posted a gallery of Córdoba stages in the Vuelta a España in the last 20 years here. The circuit that we have has most in common with the 2014 stage’s first of two circuits around the city, as most of the others have climbed up to San Jerónimo via the route I climb, but then continued to ascend along the rest of the route of the Las Ermitas route, with the flat and slight uphill and mini-repechos similar to the La Forestal climb I showed earlier.


Monastério de San Jerónimo de Córdoba

The good news about these stages is that they can lead to a wide array of outcomes. Just look at the outcomes of the various stages along similar lines in the Vuelta in recent years:

2000: Óscar Freire wins a full bunch sprint
2002: Pablo Lastras wins solo, ahead of a duo of Luís Pérez Rodríguez and Fabian Jeker, around 20 seconds ahead of a group of 35 (there was also a TT in the city the following day)
2003: David Millar wins solo, a group including Óscar Sevilla, Unai Osa and Michael Rasmussen gains a few seconds over a 50-strong group
2005: Leonardo Bertagnolli wins from a sprint of the 7-man remains of the breakaway, Hushovd leads the bunch in 44 seconds later
2006: Paolo Bettini wins a bunch sprint
2008: Tom Boonen wins a bunch sprint
2009: a 13-man break falls to pieces on the first of two ascents of Las Ermitas via San Jerónimo. Lars Boom wins solo by well over a minute, and the bunch rolls in 25 minutes later
2011: Liquigas drill the descent from the Alto del 14% with Pablo Lastras the only non-Liquigas interloper in a group of 5 that gains 17 seconds. Peter Sagan wins his first ever Grand Tour stage and Valerio Agnoli accidentally steals bonus seconds from his own team leader
2014: John Degenkolb wins a sprint of a reduced bunch
2021: Magnus Cort Nielsen wins a sprint of an even more reduced bunch

Given where we are in the race, only on stage 4 here, I am thinking that the reduced bunch is likely the most probably outcome here, as the Vuelta does tend to be the preserve of somewhat more durable sprinters, so teams are more likely to have the likes of Matteo Trentin and Michael Matthews sprinting here than the likes of Cees Bol and Pascal Ackermann, and those guys are more likely to make it over the climb to contest the finish, so more likely to push their domestiques to try to make it a sprint. But, they might not get much help from GC teams, who will have their rouleurs’ eyes primed on the stages ahead, so we might see some riders prepping for the Worlds getting some breakaway plans together.
 
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I know they're doing a sprint stage that finishes on the Champs for the 2024 Paris Olympics. In an different universe I'd love to see an Olympic stage race that starts in the Velodrome of Roubaix and finishes up Montmartre. The road up there is pretty tight but the race would be so thinned out by that point it wouldn't matter. Basically a Paris-Roubaix in reverse that finishes with a nasty kicker of a climb.
The way to do it...

View: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJYOMFayruw


Maybe something like this?

 
Stage 5: Pozoblanco - Don Benito, 172km





GPM:
Alto de Torozo (cat.3) 2,7km @ 6,1%
Alto de Magacela (cat.3) 1,1km @ 10,8%

Now we’re really heading off the beaten track, into a seldom-travelled wilderness of Vuelta routes. Southern Extremadura is one of the most sparsely populated provinces of Spain as a whole, and if you overlaid every Vuelta route in history over each other on a map of Spain, large parts of this far off outpost would be untouched by a single one. In fact, 2021’s stage from Belmez to Villanueva de la Serena, which runs fairly close to my stage here, even though this particular stage design dates back to 2018 believe it or not, is the closest that we’ve come to covering this kind of terrain (plus the fact I’d already designed this stage before the 2021 Vuelta route was announced was why I criticised it, as I had scouted certain possibilities in the area which the real life race neglected to take).

Before we get there, however, we’re starting off in the outreach of the Provincia de Córdoba, in the town of Pozoblanco, or “white well”, a town of 17.000 which was founded as a refuge when Pedroche was hit by the bubonic plague during the Black Death. It is home to the novelist Rafael Peñas Cruz, once teacher of Daniel Radcliffe, and hosts an annual rally on the international calendar, but has never hosted the Vuelta a España before. For once, there’s no wider meaning behind my choice of host town - it’s just conveniently located, everywhere else that was of a reasonable enough size made the stage either too long - around 220-230km which doesn’t fit with the flow of the race (there are a few very long stages later) - or too short - around 130-140km which is more like a Spanish amateur race and although given the likely dry heat of this part of Spain in late August/early September some riders may like that, endurance is still supposed to be a key factor and, you know, the Vuelta takes place in August and September in Spain, heat is kind of going to be a thing.



This is a stage which is built for rouleurs, and although it’s classified as a sprint stage, it may well not be one for the sprinters, because we’re going to experiment a bit with something that the Vuelta hasn’t ever really used, but has succeeded in other races, including the nearby Volta a Portugal, and that’s to take a leaf out of the Italian book and give it a bit of sterrato. The recent Tour de France Féminin showed that western Europe frequently does not have gravel roads of the nature that is best suited to racing, but while much of Spain would appear to follow suit in that respect, there are some parts of Extremadura which offer up excellent possibilities, with very fine and compressed gravel that is more akin to that which we see raced in the Giro and the long distance unsealed roads that can be seen in other countries with harsh, sunny climates such as Australia and South Africa. I have a total of 46,9km of sterrato (yes, you read that correctly) in my stage, so the riders will probably be in many ways glad that this is a very dry part of the country in terms of it ending up like a wet Roubaix or the glory of 2010 Montalcino… but simultaneously this is going to be an absolute dustbowl.

The first landmark we pass, while still in Andalucía, is the ruins of the Castillo de Miramontes in Santa Eufemia, a small town in the Sierra Morena which allows us to take an uncategorised ascent toward the ruins, before we cross the Rio Zújar into Extremadura. These are extremely sparsely populated areas, and we do not pass another settlement for the 12,6km of tarmac that remain before we hang a left onto our first stretch of unpaved road. This route also includes a categorised climb - 2,7km at 6,1% across the Sierra de Torozo; sadly it shares its name with a mountain in the Sierra de Gredos, so pictures of the correct mountain are hard to find. I did find this one, though:



Tarmac reappears around 3km after the summit, but the descent is all false flat and with no technical corners at all, so not anything that will be an issue, thankfully. 6km after the tarmac returns we pass through Cabeza del Buey, which at over 5.000 is one of the largest urban areas we will see in the first half of the stage, and hosts the first intermediate sprint of the day.



A few kilometres later, we pass through Almorchón, where the roads to Castuera fork into two. The left hand road passes through a couple of hilltop towns along a low ridge that creates a similar visual effect to Puertollano, a city whose name refers to a col and a plateau, but instead has neither, simply that it sits on a flatland from which two hills protrude that give it the visual impression of a col; the right hand road heads to the Santuário de Nuestra Señora de Belén. And then, after that, it starts to follow along the side of the railway, and then it heads away from it.

And all through this, it is an unpaved, exotic far-off road which gives us no fewer than TWENTY straight kilometres of fine sterrato for the riders to endure. This will be truly punishing, not because the sterrato is especially individually challenging, but because it just never, ever seems to end.



Even after the finish of the longest stretch of sterrato, we are 69km from home. Riders will be thankful for a chance to dust themselves off and grab a musette in the feed zone at Castuera, home of conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. But their joy will be short-lived, because I have chosen to take a more off-the-beaten-path route between Castuera and our next staging post, Quintana de la Serena, which includes a further 5,2 kilometres of sterrato from 62 to 57km from the line. Quintana de la Serena, a granite-producing town home to around 6.000 people, comes at 48km from the line and is actually separated from its own train station by around 8 kilometres. When we arrive at the train station, we turn left and begin a further stretch of unpaved roads, a 7,8km stretch which finishes at 34 kilometres from the stripe, but nevertheless is our penultimate stretch of unpaved roads; yes, that’s quite the way out for a stage of this nature, but with the expanses of unpaved routes being as long as they are, I feel that this ought to be enough to have thinned the bunch out enough. And as an added incentive, shortly afterward (28km from the finish), we pass through the city of Campanário, home of romantic era poet Vicenta García Miranda, where there are bonus seconds available in a second intermediate sprint.

We then have a twisty, but tarmacked, section that takes us past a major tourist site for the region, or at least the few tourists that make their way to this obscure and hidden away part of western Spain, the Yacimiento Protostórico de La Mata, a Tartessian settlement which was excavated in 1930 and is notable for its large number of artefacts from the Orientalization period. This then leads us to the day’s Murito (because this would be the third straight day without a Murito, and Javier Guillén would cry, so I’ve compromised with him - I’ve included one, but it isn’t the finish), the cat.3 steep ramp through the town of Magacela, known for its prehistoric steles.


Approaching Magacela. You can see the steepness of the roads through the town

APM forum poster Pedalier2 posted this picture of the suffering in Magacela all the way back in 2008, but it remains an unknown to pro racing to this day. However, it does appear in the Circuito Guadiana amateur race, highlights of the 2022 edition of which can be found here (caution: features uncensored Vigo-Rias Baixas kits).Gleb Syritsa of Russia took the win in the most recent edition, but past winners who’ve gone on to become pros of some note include Rafa Valls in 2008, Vicente García de Mateos in 2010 and 2011, Rubén Fernández in 2012, Gonzalo Serrano in 2017 and Mauricio Moreira in 2020. The official race twitter posted the profile of the climb as well as confirming that, in addition to being 1,1km at 10,8%, the climb maxes out at 20% - pretty considerable indeed. The summit is just inside 15km from the line, as we don’t go by the main route that is used in the Circuito Guadiana to return to town. That is because we have a better plan, a more direct route, which runs parallel between the village of La Haba and our destination of Don Benito and also includes, you know… some more unpaved roads.


Final stretch of sterrato, from 8,5km to 3,9km from the finish, looking back at the Magacela massif

Yes, we finish with the sterrato with only 4km remaining, but this last stretch is absolutely ramrod straight, so no technical challenges at all other than, you know, being on sterrato, and the idea here being that the GC types will have needed to get into the mix by surviving the earlier sections, but then with the punchy climb finishing 15km from home, they can think about distancing opposition and then holding an advantage into this final sterrato section that could create some serious gaps for the final run-in to Don Benito.



Don Benito, our finishing town today, is a city of 37.000 which makes it one of the largest non-provincial capital cities in Extremadura, which was founded when refugees from nearby - and now abandoned - Don Llorente escaped from rising flood waters of the Rio Guadiana. As a result it is a more modern city in its birth than most of what we have seen so far, being established only in the 15th Century. It is also just to the east of the small town of Medellín - from which the obviously much larger Colombian city took its name - and on the plains separating the two, the Battle of Medellín took place, a key conflict during the Peninsular War that saw the French troops under Claude Victor rout Gregorio de la Cuesta’s Spanish forces. The Spanish forces had far more infantrymen than their French counterparts, but lacked cavalry, and so when the Spanish cavalry were forced to retreat, their infantrymen, until this time having great success, were left isolated and when French reinforcements arrived they were resoundingly defeated. The city’s most famous inhabitant today would be Pedro Porro, a right-sided wide player (able to play full back, wing back or winger) currently at Sporting Clube de Portugal and who has managed a solitary cap for Spain - though he has plenty of time to add to that seeing as he’s still in his early 20s.

The city has only sparingly hosted the Vuelta, as with more or less all of Extremadura, although it was the stage start for the 2021 stage to Pico Villuercas, a rare excursion for the Vuelta into this oft-maligned and forgotten province. Before that we would be going back all the way to 2006 for the last time a pro race featured in the town, that being one of the pro-am editions of the Vuelta a Extremadura, although as mentioned before the Circuito Guadiana does centre around the city.

This stage should hopefully force some more balanced team selections, and could render any result from a GC men’s truce through to absolute carnage from the perspective of the overall. The battle for the stage could also be absolutely chaotic as well, of course, seeing as many riders like to use the Vuelta to train themselves up and prepare for the World Championships, so depending on the course of this particular year, almost anything could be possible - including nothing at all.

Here’s hoping we don’t have the péloton from the 2022 Giro d’Italia to risk that latter potential outcome...
 
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