Race Design Thread

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Vaujany having the tradition it has, however, makes it definitely a location that should be visited. Like Monte Serra, Limoux or San Domenico, it's one of the few locations which has a great tradition primarily within women's cycling, not as women's cycling history being appended to men's cycling's history (as is the case with e.g. Madonna del Ghisallo, which has been used as an MTF in the Giro Donne a number of times, but had decades of cycling heritage before that).

Stage 13: Logroño - Jacá (Fuerte Rapitán), 231km





GPM:
Alto de Lerga (cat.3) 4,0km @ 4,5%
Alto de los Cuatro Caminos (cat.3) 6,3km @ 5,2%
Alto de San Juan de la Peña (cat.2) 12,3km @ 4,5%
Fuerte Rapitán (cat.3) 3,3km @ 8,2%

The second Friday of the race sees the péloton take on a marathon hilly stage as we transition from La Rioja, through Navarra and into Aragón ready for the penultimate weekend’s showdown. This is therefore a stage that may not do too much on its own, but its value will be seen in the coming days. This is a long, long day in the saddle which should be well over 5 hours in the saddle for the bunch, plus a bunch of uncategorised climbing.

We have another short transfer today, probably for the best for the riders given the long day ahead, as we start the stage in Logroño, the capital of the La Rioja region and pretty much the focal point for trade in the area’s most famous export, its wine. On many pilgrimage and trade routes, Logroño has been a trader’s hub for centuries and is currently home to some 200.000 people. Its name is believed to have derived from a Celtic word to mean a ford or pasing place, believed to have been because this was a popular crossing point for the river Ebro. During Roman times it was known as Vareia and so the reversion to a Celtic nomenclature is unusual and therefore has been the source of some debate. The Roman name remains in that of Varea, an outlying village which is part of the Logroño municipality. Loyal to the kings of Castile, it was granted city status as a thanks for its support in the 16th Century, and has remained a central location for trade and transit ever since.



This position as a trading centre along with its close proximity to the Basque Country - in fact the part of Álava south of the Montes Vasco is known as Rioja Alavesa - has meant that it has some ties to the region, even within its most protected identifiers, the Basque loyalist sports teams - Rubén Díaz de Cerio riding for Euskaltel, and Athletic Bilbao’s academy offshoot in Oión, close to the border with La Rioja, resulted in a number of Logroño-born players appearing for Los Leones de San Mamés, due to meeting the criteria of having been part of Basque academies and undertaken their footballing development in the region. Although the entry requirements for the Oión facility were tightened in order to more accurately reflect the team’s philosophy, some Riojan kids found their way all the way up to La Liga, with Santiago Ezquerro chief among them with over 200 appearances; David López (not to be confused with ex-Euskaltel cyclist David López, whose compliance to the self-imposed restrictions of his own Basque team were rather more robust), José Mari and Borja Viguera are among the other jacareros to suit up for Athletic Club. Similarly, Logroño is a hotbed of pelota vasca, with a number of leading stars of recent generations in the regional sport beloved in País Vasco hailing from the province, many of whom in recent years under the influence of the timeless, ageless champion Augusto Ibáñez Sacristán, better known by his pelota nom de guerre, Titin III, who kept playing at the highest level until almost 50 and whose visage dominates the rear wall at Logroño’s central frontón. The flip side of the “Oión loophole” is that there are also many athletes who are born in Logroño as it is the most local hospital to them, but are in fact from Álava, such as the footballer Javier Zubillaga; the most well known cyclist from the city in the current world is Sheyla Gutiérrez, who likewise came up through the Basque cycling system and has settled at Movistar, although her greatest successes came at Cylance, where she won Le Samyn des Dames and a stage of the Giro Rosa in 2017.

Logroño is also a common host of the Vuelta, being a provincial capital and close at hand to the race’s Basque homelands during the El Correo-El Pueblo Vasco days. It was introduced to the race in 1941, with Délio Rodríguez winning in the city, before being seen again in 1960 (won by Jesús Galdeano), 1962 (Ernesto Bono), 1966 (Gerben Karstens), 1967 (Rolf Wolfshohl), 1976 (Gerben Karstens again), 1978 (Bernard Hinault) and 1979 (Frans van Vlierberghe). Under Unipublic it would frequently be the closest the Basque fans would get to the race, and so would be a common sight too, appearing in 1980 (Eulalio García), 1982 (Ángel Camarillo), 1983 (Eric Vanderaerden), 1985 (Ángel Camarillo again) and 1986 (Alfonso Gutiérrez). The entry into the race’s fashion of Valdezcaray and Cruz de la Demanda in the late 80s meant Logroño was relegated to stage start duty in 1988, 1990 (this was a historical curio, as the Vuelta being the first GT in those days meant that Uwe Raab’s stage wins here predate Olaf Ludwig in the Tour; Raab won the stage from Logroño to Pamplona as the second of his three wins as he became the first rider to win a GT stage representing the DDR), 1996 (Nicola Minali), 2001 (Igor González de Galdeano) and 2005 (Alessandro Petacchi), also hosting a finish in 1995 (also won by Minali) and 2007 (Óscar Freier). In recent years we have seen an execrable flat circuit race in 2012 and 2014 (both won by John Degenkolb), an ITT in 2017 won by Chris Froome, and a stage start for the Moncalvillo MTF in 2020.

Here, we’re back on stage start duty, and we start almost immediately by traversing the Ebro and heading into Navarra, in which we will spend much of the stage. We avoid a lot of the somewhat tempting sterrato around southern Navarra, instead riders will be thankful to learn that much of this first 80km is pretty much flat or at most rolling, although there is a short and steep uncategorised ramp into the pretty hilltop town of Lerín; this served as a hilltop finish in the 2006 edition of the Vuelta al País Vasco with Samuel Sánchez outsprinting Davide Rebellin and Alberto Contador. This leads us in to our first categorised climb, and it’s not very threatening, although it is longer than that would suggest as there’s a good amount of uphill required to get into San Martín de Unx in the first place - although none of it especially steep.

We next have an uncategorised climb - 1,3km @ 5,7% - over the Alto de Javier, before passing through the town of the same name. It only has a population of a little over a hundred today, but I have put the intermediate sprint here for historical purposes, as this is the home of the Castillo de Javier, a 10th Century castle which was a stronghold of the Kingdom of Navarre after its capture in the 12th Century, and later became the birthplace of 16th Century theologian and missionary San Francisco Javier. The town’s name was actually a bastardisation attempting to Romanise the local dialectal version of the Basque compound word “etxebarria”, or “new house”; this has then been back-borrowed into Basque itself. The old Spanish form current at the time was “Xavier”, the version that has become current is “Javier” and the Basque form is “Xabier”. The veneration of San Francisco Javier in Spain and France is what bequeaths us Xavier, Javier and all of its associated forms as a given name, in fact. The family had defended the castle against Spanish incursion for many years and therefore it was partially destroyed during Francisco’s childhood, but it has since been restored.



Javier is our last port of call in Navarra before we enter Aragón, opening up with a cat.3 ascent from Undués de Lerda to the Puerto de los Cuatro Caminos, a fairly unthreatening ascent, but it is long and sustained enough to merit categorisation, especially considering I have declined to categorise the Alto de Bagüés immediately afterward. Although there is only the two cat.3 climbs in the first 180km of this stage, there is a lot of up and down and plenty of low gradient false flat and repechos to make this one something of a struggle once we get down to business. Once we reach Puente de la Reina de Jacá, we briefly enter the valley of the Aragon river, which gives the province its name, and is home to Jacá, our nominal stage host today. Before we get there, however, we sweep to the right to head up on the most difficult climb of the day, the long drag with a sting in its tail that is the ascent to the Monastério de San Juan de la Peña.





Much like the better-known-to-cycling-enthusiasts Covadonga, the Real Monastério de San Juan de la Peña is carved in part into the enormous rock face that overhangs the building complex. The original monastery was built in 920AD, joined the Benedictine order around a century later, and became one of the most important Aragonese monasteries for several centuries. It was badly damaged in a fire in 1675, whereupon a new monastery building was added. Both constructions are now national monuments, so this is a good stop off point for the Património Cultural crew. It also gives its name to the Crónica Pinatense, a chronicle of the history of Aragón written by the monks at the behest of Pedro IV.

The overall statistics of the climb are not that imposing - averaging only four and a half percent - but this is somewhat misleading as it starts with false flat and incorporates around a kilometre and a half of descent; the last 7,8km averaging 5,8%, the first 5km of that averaging 6,6%; the last 800m of the ascent proper average some 10,3% to give it that final little additional kick of a challenge and earn that cat.2 status. 32km still remain at the summit, so it may be a good springboard if the GC men decide to let the break have 20 minutes up the road, like the Córdoba stage in 2009 or the Dantxarinea stage in 2016, but for the GC men, they are likely to leave it until the last 3km to have their battle, which is fair enough given what is coming in the ensuing stages.

There’s no more flat to worry about either if a rider does want to make a move, even if there’s plenty of false flat, descending, digs and repechos. The descent certainly isn’t steep and then we have the climb to the Puerto de Oroel from Bernués, which is more of an annoyance than anything else, averaging a meagre 1,7%, but with many an irritating false flat section, before its descent begins 13km from the line. This is at a steady 6km at 5%, and takes us to our (very) late second intermediate sprint, in the city of Jacá.





An ancient fort town on the Aragón river, the Kingdom of Aragón has its formative development around the city of Jacá, so despite its meagre population of 13.000, it has an important role in Spanish history for that reason. The current fortifications are largely medieval, as is the cathedral, but the most dramatic part of its military imagery, its magnificent five-point star citadel, is much more recent, dating to the 16th Century. It was also the site of an uprising in 1930 which demanded the abolition of the Spanish crown and was one of the seeds of what would later become the Spanish Civil War.

In the latter Franco era and beyond, Jacá has been a city transformed seasonally from a hidden away, peaceful valley town to a bustling winter sport city, used as the main access point for the ski resorts of Astún and Formigal’s various arms such as Anayet and Sarrios, as well as the Nordic centre at Candanchú - Spain’s largest such centre, and the only IBU-accredited biathlon venue in the country - Canfranc-Estación and the spas of Baños de Panticosa. Massive development in the city took place to convert it to a modern resort town, in order to attempt to compete with the resorts of the French Pyrenees and the rapidly-growing Catalan resorts. Jacá has been at the forefront of trying to establish itself as the self-proclaimed winter capital of Spain, and has a high level ice rink as well as the neighbouring ski resorts. This focus led it to win the rights to host the Winter Universiade back in 1981, and it successfully stepped in as host of the event again in 1995. The optimism surrounding these events led it to perhaps overstretch its capabilities in bidding for the Winter Olympics, which by this point were long since extending beyond this type of small resort town hosting. The bids were, of course, unsuccessful, and Jacá has now - either alone or paired with another city such as Zaragoza or Barcelona - bid unsuccessfully on the Olympics four times, in 1998, 2002, 2010 and 2014, and is supposedly preparing a new bid for 2030. In the meantime, however, they have had to settle for the consolation prize of the European Youth Olympic Festival, from which a few successful figures have come - Ilka Stuhec and Bernadette Schild took first and second in the women’s Giant Slalom, future Olympic silver medallist Tim Tscharnke and Sebastian Eisenlauer won golds for Germany in the men’s 10km free and 7,5km classic respectively, Marthe Kristoffersen won silver in the 5km classic and gold in the 7,5km free in the women’s cross-country, while in the biathlon Benjamin Weger won bronze in the 10km individual and silver in the 7,5km sprint, while Germany locked out the podium in the women’s Individual with future World Cup race winner and World and Olympic medallist Miriam Gössner and future World Champion relay specialist Maren Hammerschmidt being beaten out by Anne Domeinski, whose career never managed to get to the same heights. The presence of the rink also means that Jacá has been a historic power in the embryonic sport of ice hockey in Spain, and most Spanish players to have managed to get to a wider crowd - Iván Gracia playing in Major Junior in Canada for Spokane, Juan Muñoz signing for KalPa in the Finnish Liiga and Ander Alcaine in the French Ligue Magnus - have come from CH Jacá. It has also hosted pro cycling, of course, with the 1991 Tour de France rocking up into town with Charly Mottet winning.

We finish off, however, with a little sting in the tail to make sure that the GC guys can’t just soft pedal the day and nullify the effects of the 230km stage the day before they get into the mountains, and it’s in the form of the final, nasty ramp up to Fuerte Rapitán. This climb has only been seen in pro racing the once, and it was one of the 21 hilltop finishes in the 2012 edition (an exaggeration, but honestly not that much of one). It’s not the toughest puncheur finish - in fact the maximum gradient is only about 11% - but it is all high tempo stuff until the last 300m which average over 10%. Back in 2012, Sky set their train into full operation as it was still pretty early in the race and Froome had yet to drop time to the Spanish trio, and he was at probably the best he would be all race on the stage, as he would start losing time for good at Canolich two days later. As it was, he dropped Contador and Valverde after the train did its thing and rid the bunch of the pretenders, but Joaquím Rodríguez remained glued to his wheel, and then when they got into the last 300m and they reached the steepest ramps, Purito did his thing, and Stemgazer had no answer.



My expectations for this one are that the breakaway will take it, and probably with around 10 minutes’ advantage. They will know that the stage is being handed to them, and start attacking each other on San Juan de la Peña, and then the final climb will be either Mano a Mano or survival from a small group. We’ll probably be seeing some specialist ATVs and baroudeurs in the break, the likes of Matej Mohorič, Omar Fraile, Jesús Herrada and Diego Ulissi as well as some local favourite escape artists like a Cristián Rodríguez, Fernando Barceló or Ángel Madrazo, the usual surprise artist or two who hit super form in a Vuelta like Ben King or Tomasz Marczyński a couple of years back, and maybe a couple of strong climbers who have dropped out of the GC mix or aren’t really contesting it like Marc Soler, Michael Woods or Wout Poels. Oh, and Guillaume Martin, of course. Then, a few minutes later, the GC men will arrive, and set tempo before battling out over a few seconds at the very end. Their time will come.

 
Not quite, but not a million miles off!

Stage 14: Sabiñánigo - Station de Ski Mourtis (FR), 197km





GPM:
Alto de Petralba (cat.3) 7,8km @ 4,6%
Puerto de Bielsa (cat.1) 13,0km @ 6,0%
Col d’Azet (cat.1) 10,7km @ 7,4%
Alto de Balestas (Peyragudes)(cat.1) 9,8km @ 7,1%
Station de Ski Mourtis (cat.E) 11,0km @ 8,7%

As we head into the penultimate weekend, it’s something which you mightn’t have expected, since I don’t think I’ve done this, at least not in this fashion, in any of my Vueltas to date, and that’s an honest to god diversion into the land of the maillot jaune, the neighbour state to the north, that’s right, a visit to France for La Vuelta. Obviously Spain’s geographic location means it has fewer neighbours to utilise than the other GTs; Spain has land borders with five nations, but two of these are contentious; the land border with Morocco is not likely to be crossed by La Vuelta any time soon - I’ve suggested a Moroccan overseas start, but that certainly wouldn’t entail hopping the border into Ceuta and Melilla - and if they do include either of those two exclaves as Guillén has been keen to, then they probably can’t go to Morocco afterward for several years at best; and the border with the United Kingdom over Gibraltar has been similarly contentious - although relations have improved, and there was even an abortive attempt in the Ruta del Sol in 2010 to include a stage on Our Rock, however the Llanitos withdrew funding at the end of the day and a replacement time trial in Málaga was organised in its stead. Which just leaves Portugal, which has only on rare occasions hosted the Vuelta, and then the majority of the overseas trips for the race have been to France or Andorra up in the Pyrenees, where we’re now setting up camp.

Sabiñánigo, a city of just under 10.000 people, was originally a Roman outpost, but in its modern form is attested back to the 11th Century. As the capital of the Alto Gállego comarca it is a hub of activity for this part of the Pyrenees, as well as a centre from which cycling in the area spreads. It’s also, as well as a frequent historical host of cycling, a location which is common in recent times since the town of Biescas in the Alto Gállego comarca is the hometown of Fernando Escartín, the former Kelme climber known for his elegant and graceful climbing style [citation needed] and one of the prime movers and shakers in Vuelta stage design in recent years. Other cyclists born in Sabiñánigo include the former Androni Giocattoli and Caja Rural man Francisco Javier Moreno, and the Movistar domestique Jorge Arcas. It’s also the start and finish point of the Quebrantahuesos, one of Spains’ best known and most popular sportives, which takes in the Col de Somport, Marie-Blanque, Pourtalet and Hoz de Jaca climbs. From 1969 to 2001 it hosted its own one-day race, originally Zaragoza-Sabiñánigo but from 1992 onwards just the Clásica de Sabiñánigo, which took in the climbs of the area. Winners of the race include Txomin Perurena, Agustín Tamames, Miguel María Lasa, Pedro Delgado, Íñaki Gastón, Álvaro Pino, Fernando Escartín, Armand de las Cuevas and Igor González de Galdeano. Pino’s win in 1989 was particularly unusual in that there was a tunnel on the route which was considered potentially dangerous in the light of poor weather conditions ahead of the race; Pino in a solo break was the only rider to have passed the tunnel when conditions on the day worsened and the péloton refused to race on through the tunnel, leaving Pino to take the win as the only classified finisher.

Elsewise, Sabiñánigo has been a frequent host of transitional stages across the Pyrenees in the Vuelta, and has in recent memory been seen in 2008 (won by Greg van Avermaet from the break) and 2020 (won by Tim Wellens likewise) as a stage finish, and as stage start for another flat stage in 2008 (won by Sébastien Hinault) and, most notably, in 2016 when it was the start of the most shocking stage of the race, when Contador attacked on an early descent and Movistar got race leader Nairo Quintana ahead of a split that was caused by the ever-opportunist Valverde allowing a gap to form in front of him; while a bit of early pressure was the plan, Sky’s support team completely disintegrated leaving Chris Froome isolated, and all of a sudden there was a breakaway with two of the best climbers of their respective generations in it, and Quintana let his domestiques in the group do their thing before riding on the front all the way up the final climb to Formigal; Gianluca Brambilla would eventually win the stage but his work is more or less forgotten in the long run as he was opportunistically holding the wheel of Quintana who was extracting maximum GC benefit which would ultimately prove crucial to his second Grand Tour win.



The opening climb of the day, the Alto de Petralba, is not an especially threatening one; it’s up to a tunnel and has a steepest kilometre of only 6%, as shown on the profile. It has been memorable at least, as part of that epic 2016 stage, where it was also the first climb of the day, but as you see from the stage profile it was a bit further into the day then; we forgo the deceptively tricky loop around Sabiñánigo at the start of the stage which caused all of the carnage that day. It has since turned up a couple of times, but only from this side in 2020's stage 6, a late replacement for the planned stage into France, due to coronavirus-related restrictions.

After this, there is a long, long consolidation period through the Ara and Cinca valleys, including the first intermediate sprint at Escalona, and also passing Hospital, the base of the Tella climb which is an under appreciated cat.1 climb well off the beaten track. No chance to take that on now however - would only be possible as an MTF - as we are steaming towards our second climb of the day, which takes us into France. We pass via the Monte Perdido national park; PRC actually did a whole investigation into this area, but this largely focused on using the gradual ascent up to Parador de Bielsa as an Aprica-like finish after climbing largely in France.


Parque Nacional de Ordesa y Monte Perdido

As PRC only approached the area from the north, they didn’t show a profile of the climb, which is characterised by a long tunnel at the upper end. This type of lengthy tunnel is often eschewed by races and with the paucity of viable hosts close enough on the Spanish side of the border and the infrequency with which the Vuelta has headed into this part of France it has never been raced (last time was 2013, and after the Peyragudes MTF they returned to Spain for the Formigal stage), but the Vuelta has recently included a couple in prominent stages, such as the Túnel de Vielha in 2008 or while descending from Port d’Envalira in 2013. As such, and especially as we’re climbing here, I think we’re fine. It’s not like this is at the decisive end of the stage either. This is the profile to the tunnel, and this is the overall profile; I have categorised the last 13km which gives us a total ascended of 780m, a nice round 6,0%.

Now we’re in France, of course, we’re on familiar territory; the end of the descend is Saint-Lary-Soulan which also serves as the base of the Col de Portet, Pla d’Adet and Piau-Engaly climbs of Tour de France lore (the latter only being seen the once, but scene of an epic victory for Fernando Escartín of course) as well as also hosting occasional finishes in its own right, such as 2001 with Armstrong. Ordinarily the Tour would arrive here from the east, so in the opposite direction to us, meaning we are therefore taking the road less travelled - but still travelled enough - in respect of the following two climbs. First up, of course, is the Col d’Azet, which from this side is 10,7km @ 7,4%. It was introduced to Le Tour in 1997 and has been seen ten times, largely from the east, but this western side has been seen very recently indeed - in fact, in 2022, in this stage which also showcases a bit more of the stage. The stop-off between the two climbs is in Loudenvielle, another common stage host for the Tour, site of one of the most disgraceful sights in Tour de France history, that is to say, when uncut and uncensored, on worldwide television, at a time when children may have been watching, the organisers deemed it suitable to broadcast high definition footage of Ilnur Zakarin attempting to descend the Peyresourde.


Loudenvielle and Lac-Génos

Next up, we’re going for a little bit of pseudo-innovation (that isn’t really innovation at all), which is that we’re climbing not to the Col de Peyresourde, but to the Montée de Peyragudes, as this has a higher summit and some steeper ramps. However, as the only times that Peyragudes has been raced (in the Tour, the Vuelta or the Route du Sud), they have either approached from the west, as we do here, stopping at the ski station or altiport, or have approached from the east, and therefore a full profile of the climb from the west all the way to the road summit was not available. altimetrias.net have produced a full profile for the climb as done by the 2022 Tour de France, but it finishes at 1585m, where we have the summit a full 60m higher.



As a result, I had to map this in Cronoescalada, MMR add a slight twist by having their profile of the eastern side go over the overall summit then end at the station after a short descent which helped, as you can see here, but after mapping individually I got 9,8km at 7,1% and, bearing in mind it’s not the finish and really, this trio of climbs in the middle of the stage likely go to the break and are more about softening the legs for the final climb here, I felt that was detailed enough for the time being.

This then means we can descend down through the Montée de Peyragudes climb seen in the 2021 Tour, and into probably the most well known Tour host of this part of the Pyrenees, Bagnères-de-Luchon, often just known as Luchon. This spa town was founded in Roman times, after a soldier with a skin ailment from the nearby Lugdunum Convenarum town discovered the thermal properties of the baths, and after this Tiberius ordered the digging of three pools and developed a spa on the site accordingly. It became a stopping point on the Camino del Santiago and the Hospice de France was developed close to the border by the Knights Hospitallers. For centuries it was a hidden gem, known more for healing and frequented in times of need by the likes of Guy de Maupassant and Gustave Flaubert, but royalty would also visit to partake in the healing and restorative properties of the baths; the arrival of the railroad turned it into an upmarket and upscale retreat for the elites, but its history was sealed in the early 20th Century by two things. Firstly, the arrival for the first time of the Tour de France, which found it an excellent staging post for accessing the mountains, and secondly, the construction of ski resorts at Superbagnères, Les Agudes and Peyragudes nearby. Bagnères-de-Luchon has gone on to become one of the most common stage hosts in the history of the Tour de France, especially among areas in the mountains, owing to its proximity to favourite climbs like the Coll de Portillón, the Col de Peyresourde, the Col de Menté, the mountaintop finish at Superbagnères and in recent years, the Port de Balès and Peyragudes have been added to the collection.



Strangely, however, no famous cyclists call Luchon their hometown; the Alpine skiing Lafforgue family are the only major sportspeople to live here. From a cycling perspective it is, however, to the Pyrenees what Briançon is to the French Alps, Cortina d’Ampezzo is to the Dolomiti region, or Oudenaarde is to the Vlaamse Ardennen - a centre which hosts races and sportives continually and is at the heart of the region’s cycling heritage. It dates its inclusion in the Tour all the way back to 1910, the end of one mountain stage and the start of that stage which caused Octave Lapize - who would win both stages - to brand the organisers “assassins”. It has become a regular stop-off (in fact, from 1910 through to World War II it was included in every single edition) and winners in Bagnères-de-Luchon include Philippe Thys, Firmin Lambot, Jean Alavoine, Ottavio Bottecchia, Nicolas Frantz, Alfredo Binda, Antonin Magne, Jean Robic, Hugo Koblet, Federico Bahamontes, Raymond Poulidor, Fernando Manzaneque, José Manuel Fuente, Eddy Merckx, Luís Ocaña, Robert Millar, Thomas Voeckler, Mick Rogers, Chris Froome and Julian Alaphilippe.

Today, however, no finish at Luchon. Instead we’re going to head up the valley for a bit and more or less negate the value of the climbs we just did from a racing perspective, because they’re basically going to go to the break. This is the first of three back to back mountain stages, so we aren’t likely to see attacks from distance here; instead it’s more likely to go to the final mountain, and in time honoured fashion, in those circumstances, what you logically need is a climb steep or otherwise tough enough that it is going to create gaps on its own (e.g., a climb averaging 7 to 7,5% or so isn’t automatically going to be steep enough to create gaps, but if it’s Agnello, Mont Ventoux or Stelvio from Prato, you know it is going to be enough because those climbs are so long, or so steep near the top, or so high altitude, or all three). This is a stage that is kind of bittersweet for me, though. This is a finish I’d been eying up since all the way back in about 2012, and while this particular Vuelta design has had its framework in place since mid to late 2020 but has had tweaks and amendments since, this particular stage design dates back to 2019. And in the intervening period, real life bicycle racing has discovered the finish at the Station de Ski Mourtis, which has me ambivalent. On the plus side, it shows that the finish is in fact viable for a professional bike race - it’s a small ski station and potentially would not be able to accommodate the Tour, but the Route d’Occitanie included it in 2021 - and shows ambition to find new and more challenging ascents in this otherwise saturated area of the world; but on the minus side - and it is only a minor gripe - of course, you have the problem that I’ve been pre-empted by the real world.


Station de Ski Mourtis

The Station de Ski Mourtis isn’t exactly a new innovation, besides; it’s only a short ascent above the well-trodden and well-known Col de Menté. However where we are innovating is that we’re climbing it from the west. When it was climbed in the Route d’Occitanie, it was from the eastern side, more commonly seen in racing when climbing Menté too, even though it is the easier side of the ascent. Spaniards dominated the stage, with 10 of the top 16 on the day being from Spain, including all of the top 4 finishers that day, António Pedrero, Jesús Herrada, Óscar Rodríguez and his namesake Cristián.


The overall climb from the side that we are climbing is 11km at 8,7%. Cyclingcols includes a flat 200m run in for reasons unbeknownst, though they seem to like including false flat before climbs to a lot of profiles. This puts it into a similar category to Flumserberg, which it is slightly tougher than (10km at 9%), or Collada de la Gallina, which it shares a lot of similarities with. The extension from the Col de Menté to the ski station is 1,5km at 7,5% and the last 300m are false flat so it eases up, otherwise this one is consistently above 9% almost all the way. This also enables us to add a bit of history to the stage, of course. The Col de Menté was added to the race in 1966, but the western side was not climbed until 1998. There have been 20 ascents the climb in the history of the Tour de France, two of which (1979 and 1995) were actually to the Col de Lagues, a pass which is actually within the ski resort and slightly higher than Menté itself but below the summit of the ski station road; this was erroneously labelled as “Col de Menté-Le Mourtis” at the time. Menté west has only been ascended the once, and is one of the hardest ever cat.1 climbs at Le Tour. But at the same time, it is this side of the climb that has the most iconic moment in Tour history to take place at the col.

The year is 1971, and it is a miserable, rainy day on stage 14 of the Tour. The Spaniard of Mont-de-Marsan, Luís Ocaña, has unleashed his exhibition on the Orcières-Merlette stage three days ago, and has a lead of over 7 minutes in the General Classification. His domestic rival José Manuel Fuente is up the road, but he is no GC threat. Mud is running across the road and Ocaña, raised in southern France after being born in the Provincia de Cuenca, is not especially comfortable in these conditions. Eddy Merckx, being raised on the Belgian spring classics, senses opportunity to recover some of that lost time, and attacks the descent. Ocaña is desperately taking risks he never normally would to keep up. Merckx is taking risks beyond what is sensible to try to win back that time and distance his rival before they get onto the flat stretch which will suit him better than the Spaniard. The men’s version of Marianne Vos has, however, overstretched himself in this weather and hits a retaining wall, causing him to crash out. He curses himself, but though he doesn’t know it yet, he has just won himself the Tour de France. Ocaña, chasing desperately, is unable to avoid crashing himself as he attempts to avoid the stricken Belgian, but Merckx is able to recover and get back on the bike. Ocaña is struggling with his cleats and is unable to get back up and running again before Joop Zoetemelk, chasing full gas after being dropped by the top 2 on GC and unsighted, barrels into him. Zoetemelk would be able to dust himself off and, with the help of Aimar, van Impe and López Carril, bridge the gap to the Cannibal, and eventually end up finishing second on GC. Ocaña’s Tour, however, is over; he is airlifted to hospital and although he would eventually win the Tour in Merckx’s absence in 1973, the moment where he had the greatest on the ropes is lost forever. A monument to Ocaña was erected at the site of the crash in his memory after his suicide in 1994.



The Col de Menté is also associated with the Lapébie family of cyclists; Roger, who won the Tour de France in 1937, and his brother Guy who won two Olympic golds, in the Team Pursuit and the Team Time Trial, as well as two Tour de France stages, settled in the area, and Guy opened up a restaurant at the summit of the Col. Both men had sons who would go on to be cyclists; Roger’s son Christian had a brief cup of coffee with the top level in 1960, while Guy’s son Serge - much younger - would go on to ride as a domestique for Ocaña at Bic in the early 70s before bouncing between teams into the mid-70s; his most notable victory was the GP Saint-Raphaël in 1972, an early season one-day race . Serge would manage the restaurant after retiring from cycling, but was killed in a car accident in 1991 at the age of 43; a monument in his memory is placed at the pass. While historically this will be somewhat overshadowed by the race for the mountains points or any action taking place, being 1500m from the finish might give Serge a chance to get some honouring by the race as well.

Either way, at 11km at approaching 9%, this is going to be a hard, hard mountaintop finish and there should be some solid gaps created.
 
What French MTFs have been 'spent' in your Vueltas so far? I knew Luz Ardiden wouldn't be an option, but I'm unsure of the status of Superbagnères.

EDIT: And just how much do two sides of a climb need to differ to allow for two MTFs (I'm thinking here mainly of Luz Ardiden)?
 
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OK, I lied when I said my next design would be a Dauphiné Libéré.
When I was designing my Tour Complet de France, I was looking for hilly regions in the northern half of France I could use to spice up the first week of it. There's of course the Ardennes and Vosges we all know, and I made use of the Vosges. But when I was examining the regions between the Vosges and the center of France, I stumbled upon a nice hilly region between Dijon and Montbard.
I didn't include it in my Tour, because I already had enough hard stages, but I thought this area would fit well as the focal point of a hilly one day race. So, I designed one. Since the race takes place in the departement Côte d'Or, I named it GP Côte d'Or, out of lack of inspiration. It will be a 230km long "semi-classic", a bit like the GP Ouest France in Plouay (length-wise, it is much harder). The difficulty of the hills is somewhere in between those of the AGR and LBL.
The race starts in Beaune, the so-called capital of Burgundy wines. Then in a more or less straight line to Semur-en-Auxois, where the finishline is crossed for a first time after 75km. The race continues north, going through Montbard and passing the abbaye de Fontenay.
After 128km the first climb makes its appearance and in a span of 90km 12 more wil follow.
The last 15km or so will be easier again, just like LBL untill the very early 1990's. The punchy climbers, if they want to take advantage of the possibilities they are offered, should attack from far enough, and they can completely obliterate the field.

GP Côte d'Or: Beaune - Semur-en-Auxois: 232km

Map:


Profile:


Climbs:
Côte de Pouillenay: km130; 2km @ 5.6%
Côte de Hauteroche: km139.5; 1.5km @ 8.3%
Côte de Tour Marmont: km143.5; 1.7km @ 9.4%
Côte de Corpoyer les Moines: km147; 1.3km @ 9.1%
Côte de Frôlois: km152; 2.4km @ 5.8%
Côte de Thenissey: km157.5; 2.8km @ 5.8%
Côte de Jailly-les-Moulins: km166; 2.4km @ 5.6%
Côte de Verrey-sous-Salmaise: km177; 3km @ 4.8%
Côte de Ville-en-Auxois: km181; 1.3km @ 10.5%
Côte de Saint-Hélier: km188.5; 1.5km @ 7.7%
Côte d'Avosnes: km194; 0.9km @ 10.7%
Côte de Posanges: km209; 1.2km @ 9.5%
Côte d'Arnay-sous-Vitteaux: km218; 1.8km @ 6.8%
@rghysens, do you still have the track of this race? I'm exploring good Grand Depart options in the area from Lyon to Germany and found your race most interesting.
 
Actually, netserk, Luz Ardiden is still an option - it was in a Tour that had the Grand Départ in Bilbao that I used that (on stage 4, with then a very long run until the next mountains, with the second weekend including dirt roads in Brétagne) rather than a Vuelta. I believe Superbagnères is the only previously off-limits French MTF for my Vueltas as while I've schlepped into France a bit it's tended to be either in stages returning to Spain or finishing in Andorra.

At the moment I'm undecided on how different a side should be, I think I would probably argue that the two sides of it are different enough seeing as 2/3 the climb would be different, only the last 4km being shared. I've been in two minds about whether I can count the side of Naranco through El Violeo, but decided against it as more than half the climb would be shared with a side already used - so probably will use that as a rule of thumb until I get desperate. A different summit is fine, but if over half (if it's the second half - still undecided on the Sierra Nevada options where we could use the same first half and a different second half, since I've had a stage using the full A-395 side) the ascent is the same as the version previously climbed, it's off-limits. Or at least the part we think of as that climb, so that this would exclude trying to pretend that Aitana or La Pandera are multi-sided climbs, since all the important climbing on those ascents comes after the pass.

Stage 15: Montréjeau (FR) - Pla de Beret, 118km





GPM:
Port de Balès (cat.E) 19,3km @ 6,2%
Coll de Portillón (cat.1) 8,8km @ 7,5%
Mirador d’Arres (cat.1) 7,5km @ 8,2%
Puerto de Beret (cat.1) 20,2km @ 4,4%

Yes, it’s - a few years after the fad has died down at least a little bit - my attempt at managing something in the short mountain stage bandwagon. Actually I guess I’ve posted a fair few short mountain stages, but they’ve largely been in races where those are more typical or realistic, like my Latin American or Asian races where the races on average are shorter in general. This is in one of my Vuelta routes!!! This stage is also very old, as I tried to get a feel for what worked about the short mountain stages, so this is a bit out of my wheelhouse in terms of typical design, but with my self-imposed repetition rule on MTFs, Pla de Beret is a fairly high profile summit which hosts cycling with reasonable frequency but where the climb itself is not very challenging at all, so I felt this was a way to try to wring something interesting out of it.

The stage start in Montréjeau doesn’t really have any special significance of symbolism, it was just a matter of choosing an urban area in the locale large enough to host the race, without just starting in Bagnères-de-Luchon and doing a loop at the start of the stage - although that would be equally reasonable especially for a real life race, and possibly more realistic, I didn’t want to use the same roads twice in a row (there will be a bit of that coming up that was less avoidable so I didn’t want to have too much of it in short order) and Saint-Gaudens was the other potential logical host in the area; both it and Lannemezan which I also considered bumped the stage length up to 130km or so, at which point it kind of ceases to be the kind of mini-stages that I was trying to replicate, and becomes ‘just’ a short mountain stage. Attested from the 13th Century, Montréjeau’s main claim to fame is as the site of one of the last royalist rebellions during the French Revolution, when in the summer of 1799 rebels from the Haute-Garonne threatened advances on Toulouse. It is perhaps most distinguished for two rugby players, Gérard Martinez and Serge Gabernet, who were both part of the Stade Toulousain team that won several titles in the 70s and 80s and played on numerous occasions for France, Martinez even captaining the side on two occasions. It has hosted the Route du Sud on a few occasions in the 2000s, as the finish of an ITT won by Mick Rogers in 2003, then as the start of four stages - an ITT won by Didier Rous in 2005, and mountain stages in 2003, 2004 and 2005; a mountaintop finish at Port de Balès (at this point not all of it was paved) in 2003 won by David Moncoutié, a stage to Loudenvielle in 2004 won by Thomas Voeckler, and a stage to Naut Aran across the border in 2005 (really, this was a Pla de Beret finish) won by Patrice Halgand.



We will start with a short flat stretch before heading directly to the Port de Balès, the next hors-catégorie climb of the race, after only a few minutes’ riding through false flat. This high summit is a relatively recent addition to racing - because not all of it was paved until fairly modern times and the infrastructure at the summit was insufficient for the Tour (not to mention that the likely logical host for such a stage - Luchon - was at the bottom of the easier side of the climb so would be less likely to pay for a stage that would approach it from the north), for the same reason as Serre Chevalier paid for the 2011 Galibier stage, not Valloire), the 2003 Route du Sud stage mentioned above was the first time it was used at all for racing. A 2006 MTT in the same race was won by Przemysław Niemiec, shortly before he signed his inexplicably long contract with Miche that prevented him reaching the top pro level until into his 30s, and then it was announced for the 2007 Tour, with funding approved to fully pave up to Tour standards both sides of the climb. It was introduced in this stage with it backing directly into Peyresourde before a descent finish in Loudenvielle; Kim Kirchen was first across the summit, Vino won the stage before being disqualified, the battle from the break was hotly contested, and Rasmussen and Contador went bananas behind, and it was deemed a success.

Since then, the Port de Balès has made up for lost time and then some. It took a much more central role in the 2010 Luchon stage won by Thomas Voeckler solo, and the ever-combative Frenchman also won the summit of the climb when it was reprised in 2012, though eventually he would drift back in the pack and Alejandro Valverde would win the stage in Peyragudes. This Balès-Peyresourde-Peyragudes combo would also be used a year later in the Vuelta, with a very un-Guillén-like 230km+ mountain stage over several passes which was won from the break by Alexandre Geniez, the last man surviving from it; André Cardoso, now back in Portugal after his suspension and hitting peak Volta age in his late 30s, won the summit of Port de Balès. 2014 saw a similar Tour stage to 2010 descending into Luchon from Balès, and Mick Rogers capped his hilarious year of reinventing himself as a super mountain stage hunter with the victory. 2017 saw the Peyragudes finish from 2012 and 2013 cloned, with Romain Bardet winning the stage, and 2020 was the last time the pass was seen in Le Tour, Nans Peters being first over the summit in the Loudenvielle stage which bore hallmarks of 2007’s original introduction of the climb. The climb has also been seen many a time in the Route du Sud, as a final climb for a descent into Luchon in 2008 (won by Niemiec), 2009 (won by Christophe Riblon), 2011 (won by Jurgen van Goolen) and 2013 (won by Thomas Voeckler in a reprise of his 2010 Tour triumph). It also played this role in 2015 when the race started to attract a much stronger field, seeing Alberto Contador drop Nairo Quintana on the descent of the Port de Balès while 21-year-old Neo-pro Pierre Latour, who had been in the break, hung on to finish 3rd in such illustrious company to win the hearts and minds. It was the lead-in climb in the Hospice de France stage in 2019 (won by Iván Sosa ahead of Alejandro Valverde and Óscar Rodríguez finished 4th. What Movistar would give for that kind of result now!) and the first climb of the day in the Beyrède MTF in 2020 won by Egan Bernal.


Port de Balès. Image credit AllThingsride.com

What I’m saying, I guess, is that while fifteen years ago this was an undiscovered gem of the Pyrenées, now it’s very much a known quantity. It’s easier to not overdo things with a mountain pass than it is with a climb that can be only used as a summit finish; indeed this is largely what saves it from the Planche des Belles Filles treatment, because it can be used in a variety of ways. It has always, however, been used from its northern side, as I am using it here, for this is by far the toughest and most difficult side of the ascent. Overall it totals 19,3km at 6,2% with the final 12km averaging 7,6%. Today I am using it in a rarer role - it’s far from the focal point of the stage, in fact it’s the hardest climb of the day but it’s the very first and is 85km from the finish. With this being the micro-stage, don’t rule out there being any action, but it’s likely to be more about setting up later attacks at this point, with key GC fighting teams putting men in the break, counter-moves, and similar, in case anybody feels like “doing an Heras” (I know, the cool kids credit Contador with it nowadays, but this stage profile is more like the stage Heras did it on. Plus Andy Schleck deserves a bit of a shout out for doing it on a true queen stage before Contador did it on a seemingly unthreatening stage, too).

After we join the Peyresourde road just above the town, turn downhill and then pass through Bagnères-de-Luchon, which hosts one of the metas volantes for the second successive day, we devisate. Where we headed north yesterday, we cross over to head west to east, and that entails taking on the Coll de Portillón, a famous border crossing pass which has been used so many times it’s hard to keep track of. It’s actually probably one of the easiest ‘cat.1’ climbs out there - borderline between cat.1 and cat.2 from its harder, French side, and realistically a cat.2 from its eastern, Spanish/Catalan side. With the last 4km averaging over 9% and some significant inconsistencies, I’ve just about accepted this one as cat.1. Portillón has been crested 20 times by the Tour and twice by the Vuelta since its introduction in 1957, as well as a few times by the Volta a Catalunya when it included summit finishes at Superbagnères. Although predominantly used in French racing, the border climb nature means we have often seen the Spaniards showing prominently and the list of those riders who have taken the summit in the lead is dominated by Spanish escaladores; the overall list includes Raymond Poulidor, Fernando Manzaneque, José Manuel Fuente (it was the last climb of the day in the stage when Ocaña crashed out descending the Menté), Luís Ocaña, Txomin Perurena, Tony Rominger, Laurent Jalabert, Richard Virenque, Joaquím Rodríguez and Adam Yates. Portillón has been probably the main victim of the ‘discovery’ of Port de Balès, as historically many times the Tour would enter into Spain north of Bossòst after descending Menté, then climb over Portillón into Luchon to either finish, ascend to Superbagnères, or continue on to Peyresourde and onward for stage hosts like Loudenvielle, Saint-Lary-Soulan, Pla d’Adet or Piau-Engaly. As a result it has been seen far less often lately, only popping up twice in the time since the Port de Balès has been introduced, in 2014's Pla d’Adet stage and in an unexpected reprise of its old role in 2018, in a stage won by Julian Alaphilippe. Both times were from the easier eastern side. My stage takes it on from the harder side, which is almost never seen. It crests at 55km from the line and I am hopeful that if this short stage format is still paying dividends and we got a super-sized breakaway making it hard to control, we could see the first meaningful action here.



We then descend back into Spain, into the popular Val d’Aran resort region via the town of Bossòst. Part of the path of the Garonne, the Val d’Aran, despite its location being well away from the territory presently claimed by the Basques, derives its name from an archaic Basque word for a valley, and it has its own culture and identiy, helped by its isolated location from much of the rest of Spain - ‘Aranese’ is a dialect of Occitan rather than Catalan, and until the opening of the Port de la Bonaigua in 1924 it was almost inaccessible; the Túnel de Vielha being completed in 1948 (ostensibly to keep an eye on the area, seeing as anti-Franco rebels exiled to France had attempted an uprising through the valley in 1944) massively improved accessibility, Bossòst is a small village/micro-town of just over 1100 inhabitants, but it swells in tourist season; its relative inaccessibility until the opening of the Túnel means that its football team in fact has played in the French league system since the 1920s, with the N-230 border crossing at Pònt deth Rei being far more readily usable than the Port de la Bonaigua for much of football season. It did have a brief time of appearing in bike racing, hosting the start of a 1991 Vuelta stage to Cerler, which was won by former Soviet climber Ivan Ivanov, the day after the cancelled Pla de Beret stage. As Andorra came into vogue for the race, however, so the Val d’Aran became a more infrequent stop-off and the area was kind of forgotten other than for transiting through to reach French Pyrenean climbs. I’m doing some reclamation though.

I can’t really claim any credit for it, of course - the ‘innovation’ here is the inclusion of the Mirador d’Arrès climb which PRC unearthed and included as part of an article about the options in the Val d’Aran all the way back in 2009, under the tag “more than just Beret”. In fact, you’ll see a stage very similar (and harder) than my one there. They also investigated a few other ascents, but most of those would either require considerable work to include, or are summit finishes only with limited space (Saut deth Pish, for example); the Mirador d’Arrès climb however is perfectly reasonable in my opinion.


Ramacabici group, an informal club of Catalan climb mapping and profiling enthusiasts, on the Mirador d’Arrès climb



Yes, again it’s a fairly generous cat.1 classification here; however, take the first and last 500m off and you’re left with 6,5km at 8,8% - close to what I gave cat.1 for at Cruz de Linares, and harder than the likes of Planche des Belles Filles. Being up above 9% almost constantly for much of the climb - Raül Massabé in his mapping of the climb found no fewer than 18 separate ramps of 12% or higher - will also be taxing, and with this cresting at 39km from home but with a completely different style of climbing to what we will see for the rest of the day, this is the best chance to get rid of domestiques and force riders to chase, so I am hopeful that this would see serious action even if Portillón did not.

The descent from this climb is stepped and tricky, but once it’s complete, it’s just interminable uphill drags from here on in. 8km into this we arrive in Vielha, the capital of the Val d’Aran, for our second intermediate sprint (bonus seconds - another reason to try to entice early attacks). Vielha has typically hosted the Vuelta as the start of stages following a mountaintop finish at Pla de Beret (spoiler alert!) - such as in 2003, the race characterised almost entirely by its 5% tempo grinders and Isidro Nozal’s fear of showering, when the Cauterets and Pla de Beret stages were followed by a mountain stage from Vielha to Port d’Envalira in Andorra, or in 2008, when a transitional stage through the Túnel de Vielha took riders into Aragón (this being the stage to Sabiñánigo won by Greg van Avermaet mentioned previously). That stage was also notable because Egoi Martínez got into the break and threatened to take the maillot oro, however because Levi Leipheimer was in the jersey and Caisse d’Épargne wanted to try to foster some disquiet in Astana between the American and Contador, they chased to prevent Euskaltel from getting the jersey, leading the Basque team to respond in kind by helping Astana distance Valverde when he was caught behind a split after dropping back to get a rain jacket in a Cantabrian transitional stage a few days later. This pattern continued in 2016 in the Tour de France, when Pla de Beret last hosted a mountaintop finish; the ensuing stage was a mountain stage entirely outside of France, heading through the Val d’Aran and into the rest of Catalunya before ascending up into Andorra to finish at Arcalis (what is it with Vielha and uninspiring mountaintops?) - and the city was most recently seen in racing in 2018’s Volta a Catalunya, in a medium mountain stage which used the Túnel de Vielha as its final climb (!) and was won by Jarlinson Pantano.





From here commences the interminable uphill drag up to the Pla de Beret, a plateau at 1860m which forms the main logistical centre of the Baqueira Beret ski resort which has grown to become Spain’s largest. Opened in 1964 in the Vall d’Àneu, an offshoot of the Val d’Aran, the resort includes slopes up on the shoulders of Pic d’Aneto and also hosts cross-country skiing in the plateau basin. Its isolated location to the Vuelta’s stomping grounds and the proximity of better-established venues for the Tour meant it took until the 1990s for it to use cycling as a means of self-advertising, but it has become an established host since. It was initially planned to be introduced to the Vuelta in 1991, but in what turned out to potentially settle the race, it had to be cancelled due to inclement weather. Melcior Mauri had been struggling in his home region of Catalunya, and losing time in the mountains, but with the stage annulment he could recuperate a bit and he rode without issue in the Cordillera Cantabrica to hold on to the win. Much like the 2014 Val Martello stage was a replica of the cancelled 2013 stage, the following year saw a do-over, with CLAS-Cajastur’s Jon Unzaga winning the stage. Moving the Vuelta back to September meant that the weather ceased to be an issue for the area, and so Pla de Beret has cropped up several times since. Alex Zülle won a rare non-Jalabert stage in 1995, Daniele Nardello won in 1999, and Joaquím Rodríguez won in 2003 before the climb made its Tour de France debut in 2006. Vuelta stages (not in 2003 as they were returning from France so that looked fairly similar to the 2006 stage) typically came over Port de la Bonaigua so just included the last part of the climb, but the Tour used the side that we are using here, with the long and gradual climb appended to a lot of tougher ones earlier, as shown here. In 2008 they went over Bonaigua once more, and Igor Antón was the only man to stay with Contador and Valverde’s accelerations, but more crucially David Moncoutié, who has been in the breakaway, held on to take the stage. Team owner Éric Boyer had said to him that, frustrated with the mercurial climber’s inconsistency, he was on thin ice and was likely not to be renewed if he didn’t show anything at the Vuelta, and this stage win also set Moncoutié up to take the KOM jersey, which then led to him scoring a low end top 10 and holding the jersey to Madrid, catalysing that late career run of stage hunting and GPM collecting.


Ascent to Pla de Beret

The climb is not a difficult one, and that’s kind of the reason for the choice; this is a long, low gradient grinder that eventually gives way to a final 6,5km at 6,1% after passing through Baqueira village, which is the only part which is really tough enough to make much of a difference if all the favourites are together. But it is also a very long climb, hence how it totals out at over 20 kilometres in length; well, at least because I’ve put the mountains points at the Puerto de Beret and then allowed the 2km down from the high point of the road which is at around 1900m down to the parking area for the ski station to be separated from the climb from a rating perspective.


Car parking area at summit of the paved road



Given we’re approaching from the west, I’d say that the 2003 and 2006 stages are the only representative ones for what to expect. In the 2003 Vuelta, the break accounted for the top 8 positions on the day, then we had four riders at +3’31, ten at +3’51 and eight at either +4’30 or +4’40. In 2006, Menchov won from a group of 3 with a further duo at +17”, then apart from Boogerd the next group was at +1’31. This is obviously a long time removed and I think we’re more likely to see the groupings like in the 2003 Vuelta typically here - but that’s why I’ve tried to capture some of that short stage seeming gold dust that periodically surfaces, in the hope that I can take what would be a fairly tame MTF and turn it into something that works.
 
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@rghysens, do you still have the track of this race? I'm exploring good Grand Depart options in the area from Lyon to Germany and found your race most interesting.
I looked for it on the older tracing tools I used, but didnn't find it. It's basically the area between Montbard and Sombernon. There are three more or less parallel roads D9, D10 and D905 that run in valleys, separated by steep hill ridges. Whatever road you take perpendicular to the aforementioned main roads will be a steep wall.
 
Stage 16: Vielha - Andorra-Grandvalira-El Tarter, 214km





GPM:
Port de la Bonaigua (cat.1) 19,3km @ 5,2%
Port del Cantò (cat.1) 19,3km @ 5,4%
Collada de la Gallina (cat.E) 11,8km @ 8,4%
Collada de Beixalis (cat.1) 11,7km @ 6,7%
Coll d’Ordino (cat.1) 9,8km @ 6,9%

So, stage 16 is the etapa reina, 210km+ with five climbs of cat.1 or above and a total of 72km of categorised climbing to be done, plus a fair bit of uncategorised climbing too. This may not be anything new and shocking to the riders, but it should definitely be a tough day’s racing after two consecutive mountain stages for sure.

The riders will be glad, at least, to get a short trip back to the hotel after yesterday’s stage, with the following stage starting just down the road in Vielha. As mentioned, Vielha tends to host stages after Pla de Beret has an MTF, and this is no different. I’ve already discussed the town in yesterday’s stage so not much new to add, except to point out that it is unusual in that its official name is in Occitan due to the Aranese dialect taking precedence in the area; the name in Catalan - and in Spanish - is Viella.



The first part of the stage will be very familiar to the riders - it’s exactly the same as in the preceding stage, starting a little way up the climb but it’s long and uphill at low levels, gradually getting tougher. But after we pass through Baqueira, things change. Where yesterday we turned left and headed up to the ski resort, today we’re heading up the famous Port de la Bonaigua, until 1948 the only way for Spaniards to access the Val d’Aran. Because of the presence of the neutral zone I’ve chosen to categorise the climb from just after Casaril, giving me just under 20km at just over 5% with the final 10km averaging 6,4%. There are dozens of lacets and turns on this long, winding ascent, and even more on the descent.

While Pla de Beret may have only been introduced in the 90s, the Port de la Bonaigua has been around a lot longer. The Tour was the first to take on the slopes, in a 210km stage from La Seu d’Urgell to Pla d’Adet which took much of this stage’s route in the opposite direction before a multi-climb finish once they re-entered France over Portillón. Txomin Perurena was first to the summit of Bonaigua, but Raymond Poulidor won the stage. The Vuelta first arrived in 1980, in a stage which was very much the same only stopping in Vielha, so this was the last climb of the day. Juan Fernández won the climb and Enrique Martín Heredia the stage. The same finish was used three years later in that iconic edition of the race, with Marino Lejarreta taking his first on-the-road stage win at his home race - despite being the defending champion, since of course he only acquired the 1982 Vuelta and the Navacerrada stage after the fact. It was in 1992 when it started to be paired with Pla de Beret, Martin Farfán the first over the summit that year, but the following year the Tour was on it like a car bonnet, serving up a similar Pla d’Adet stage to 210km, but with Tony Rominger and Zenon Jaskuła going all out to try to depose Indurain. Zülle soloed away over it before Pla de Beret in 1995, before we finally saw the side that we are climbing here in 2003, in a stage which bears some striking similarities to mine - at least to begin with, I’m going to up the difficulty once we hit Andorra, believe you me. Since then, it has been a French playground, with David Moncoutié, Nicolas Edet and Thibaut Pinot winning the last three KOMs on the climb, the last of which being in the 2016 Tour in a stage which, once again, bears a striking resemblance.


The 2003 Vuelta didn’t half love it some tempo grinding at 5%


The 2016 Tour gives us a bit more to think about

Scenery of the Port de la Bonaigua

So yes, it’s one of those stages where the climbing begins right from the start, and then there’s a long and winding descent into Esterri d’Aneu. At this point, though, we get the biggest respite that the riders will get all day, 30km of slightly downhill false flat towards Sort. This small town of 2.100 people, whose name translates as ‘fortune’, is a one-time host of the Vuelta, in one of the only occasions when a stage following a Pla de Beret MTF didn’t begin in Vielha. That stage was to Ordino-Arcalis, and again there are some similarities to this stage. Except I wasn’t going to finish my queen stage at frickin’ ARCALIS. I’d rather watch a compilation of The Best Mountain Group Rides With Sepp Kuss Not Leading. Sort is also known as the birthplace of José Mir Rocafort, better known by his stage name of Fassman, a prominent illusionist, magician and hypnotist who went on to perform all over the world, and it also serves as the base of the second climb of the day, the Port del Cantò.

The Port del Cantò is an incredibly well-known climb, mainly as it is one of the main transversal routes of the Catalan Pyrenées, so crop up almost every time a race heads through these parts. Like the Port de la Bonaigua, it was first introduced to pro racing in the 1974 Tour and crested first by Perurena; it has since gone on to 14 appearances in La Vuelta and three in Le Tour, as well as a near annual appearance in the Volta a Catalunya when the race accesses Andorra, or Port-Ainé, Super-Espot, Pla de Beret or similar. It’s a climb every rider in the bunch should know well as a result; it isn’t an especially hard climb, being as this is the harder side and is 19,3km at 5,4%; the descent is long and multi-stepped, including the steepest section - 6km at 7,8% - but also large amounts of flat, false flat and easy tempo climbing. And it’s on wide, well-surfaced highway roads. As a result, this is going to be a mid-stage consolidation period most likely, as a large break gathers its forces, and, being so far from the finish, nobody is going to be foolhardy enough to do anything serious in the GC with the options left on the table later in the stage. Cantò is a climb which is more about accumulation than anything else, and also because, you know, it’s one of the most common transversal roads in the area and taking any other road that is actually passable for a race would entail a long detour in order to take on an easier climb, so why bother?



So, after the descent, we turn northwards and head into La Seu d’Urgell for the first intermediate sprint. So far, so 2003 Vuelta / 2016 Tour, right? Sure, absolutely. La Seu d’Urgell is the gateway town to Andorra, home to 12.000 people and the capital of the Alt-Urgell comarca. Its name translates to the ‘seat’ of Urgell, a pre-Roman toponym relating to the confluence of rivers in the locality. Being a mountain town, it is perhaps no surprise that many of its famous sons and daughters are sportspeople, and the proximity to Andorra has had a beneficial, mutually beneficial relationship for many of its inhabitants; the proximity of three cross-country ski resorts, Sant Joan de l’Erm, Lles de Cerdanya and, over the border, La Rabassa, has meant that two sons of La Seu d’Urgell have competed in multiple Olympics in the Nordic discipline, Jordi Ribó and Carlos Vicente, while the presence of a hospital close to the Andorran border means a few prominent Andorrans were born here, including the 800m runner Pol Moya, the author and essayist Albert Villaró and the poet Teresa Colom Pich, who is the current director of the Fundació Ramon Llull, a linguistic institute dedicated to the promotion and support of the Catalan language. In the years leading up to Barcelona1992, it was chosen to host the canoe and kayak events and a dedicated white water venue was set up in the town. This has since hosted the Canoe Slalom World Championships on three occasions, each a decade apart, in 1999, 2009 and 2019. In recent years this has reflected in the people coming out of the town - C1 canoeist Nuria Villarrubla García, who has won two golds, two silver and three bronze for Spain at European Championships and two silvers and a bronze at the World Championships, and K1 specialist Mònica Dòria Villarrubla, who has won a rare World Championships medal in any sport for Andorra, at the 2022 championships. Andorra also helped fund the development of the La Seu d’Urgell airport to increase its capacity and turn it from a general aviation airport to a commercial one, now technically an international airport as it offers flights to locations in Spain and France and has two Andorran airlines that have moved in, the short-lived Air Andorra, and the still-active Andorra Airlines. The short runway however limits the types of planes that are able to use the airport, so it remains off-grid for most major airlines.

La Seu d’Urgell, as mentioned before, also crops up in cycling, such as in the 1974 Tour de France when Eddy Merckx won in the town. The move of Andorra to sponsor and support more cycling has meant it is more frequently passed through than stopped in, but the Volta a Catalunya frequently visits. Typically it is a stage start, following a mountain stage, e.g. to Port-Ainé or into Andorra (especially in the 90s), but occasionally it does host a stage finish, most recently in 2008 (Cyril Dessel winning solo) and 2010 (Xavier Tondó and Joaquím Rodríguez escaping as a duo, dropping Óscar Pereiro and then Luís León Sánchez getting stuck in a hopeless chasse-patate; the two Catalans then did a deal with one another, Tondó getting the stage win and Rodríguez getting the leader’s jersey, the two then coming 1st and 2nd overall).



So as I mentioned, Spain has five countries with which it shares a land border, and two of those are not practical to cross - entering Morocco from Ceuta and Melilla when they contest the sovereignty of those two exclaves would be politically difficult, and while relations with Gibraltar are less strained than they once were, crossing an active runway during a World Tour level bike race is probably inadvisable. Which leaves three borders to cross, and we’ve already crossed two of them, so let’s make it a hat trick and enter Andorra, shall we?

The micro state of Andorra loves to host bike racing. After all, it’s kind of ideal for it on paper. Almost all of it is mountainous, and it is full of ski resorts with good level of infrastructure. It’s a tax haven meaning there’s a good amount of wealth stashed there and so good ability to pay for the hosting rights, and a lot of mountain options. There are only two roads into the country from outside, the southern false flat road through the Valira valley from La Seu d’Urgell, and the road from France which goes up and over the 2400m+ Port d’Envalira (or through the Envalira tunnel now, but that is only entered once you’re already in Andorra) for added mountain fun. Well, there is a third road, but accessing it from Os de Civís in a race is almost certainly never going to happen since that Spanish village is only accessible by road from Andorra anyway (the other side is unpaved and a long way from being passable) and the population is barely 100, so, yea. So, anyway, the last 85km or so of my stage are going to be in Andorra.



The biggest problem that bike racing has long had in Andorra has been a limited number of climbs which are usable as passes. For most of the time that bike racing has been going to Andorra, the only passes available were Envalira (which for any race coming from the north you kind of had to use in order to access it), the Coll d’Ordino/Collet de Montaup double summit, the much smaller La Comella, and the Alt de La Rabassa, which is below the actual summit of that climb and also entails using a small stretch of the same road in both ascent and descent, so was less common. As a result, typically mountain stages in Andorra would focus on mountaintop finishes at the ski resorts, and with a couple of climbs in the stage that people got to get used to. Occasionally, especially back in the day, Andorra-la-Vella would host, but since the mountaintop finish became en vogue, the Andorrans just don’t let go (pun intended) of the summit finish concept. I’ve listed here all of the major stages into Andorra, with their main Andorran climbs (I know Puymorens is not in Andorra, but because it is in effect continuous with that side of Envalira and a significantly different climb from climbing Envalira from Ax-les-Thermes or from within Andorra, I have listed it):

1964 Tour de France - descent finish in Andorra-la-Vella after Puymorens and Envalira
1965 Vuelta a España - descent finish in Andorra-la-Vella after Puymorens and Envalira
1967 Vuelta a España - descent finish in Andorra-la-Vella after Puymorens and Envalira
1985 Vuelta a España - descent finish in Andorra-la-Vella after La Comella
1985 Vuelta a España - MTT at Pal
1987 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Grau-Roig (a Grandvalira station on the way from Canillo to the Port d’Envalira), Unipuerto
1988 Vuelta a España - transitional stage to Andorra la Vella, multiple climbs but none near finish
1991 Vuelta a España - “flat” stage to Andorra la Vella

This marks the end of Andorra hosting in the city and a clear move toward the ski stations as Envalira ceases to be a decisive climb on its own, and Andorra turns into a home of mountaintop finishes alone:

1993 Tour de France - mountaintop finish at Pal after Puymorens, Envalira and Ordino
1994 Tour de France - mountaintop finish at Arcalis after La Comella and Ordino
1997 Tour de France - mountaintop finish at Arcalis after Envalira and Ordino
1998 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Pal after La Comella and Ordino
1999 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Arcalis after La Rabassa and Ordino
2000 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Arcalis after La Rabassa and Ordino
2001 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Pal after Puymorens, Envalira and Ordino
2001 Vuelta a España - MTT at Arcalis
2003 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Port d’Envalira, Unipuerto in Andorra at least
2005 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Arcalis after Ordino
2007 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Arcalis, Unipuerto in Andorra
2008 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at La Rabassa after a previous climb of La Rabassa
2009 Tour de France - mountaintop finish at Arcalis, Unipuerto
2010 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Pal, Unipuerto

Things have really looked up in recent years, however, and weirdly enough the main guy we have to thank for that is Joaquím Rodríguez. The Vuelta in 2012 searching out ever steeper garage ramps meant that with the Andorrans having paved a large part of the Collada de la Gallina, and the success of this stage gave the impetus that was then required to complete the paving of this much-hoped-for pass for spectacle. Purito was then for some reason encouraged to design a stage around Andorra, and this led to the Andorrans then paving the Collada de Beixalis, which the puncheur extraordinaire had looked to include, and adding not one but two strong, and pretty steep, passes to their repertoire and opening up far more possibilities within the country. Stages since then, as a result, have become far more varied… well, not that varied because they’ve all used at least one of the new passes, but, still, the stages have been less predictable as the bunch gets used to the climbs, and them being steeper rather than the tempo climbs that tend to predominate in Andorra has increased variety in how the stages are raced, at least. This also (along with the state hosting a stage on day 3 of the 2017 Vuelta meaning it would not be advisable that they go for a mountaintop finish) enabled them to bring back descent finishes as an option. 2019 saw the use of the gravel road linking Llac d’Engolasters to the Els Cortals road, a previously unheralded mountaintop finish only seen during the Volta a Catalunya, and suddenly there are a wealth of options in this previously completely saturated and predictable valley.

2012 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Canolich after La Comella
2013 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Canolich after Envalira, Ordino and La Comella
2015 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Els Cortals after Beixalis, Ordino, La Rabassa, La Gallina and La Comella
2016 Tour de France - mountaintop finish at Arcalis after La Comella and Beixalis
2017 Vuelta a España - descent finish in Andorra-la-Vella after La Rabassa and La Comella
2018 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at La Rabassa, Unipuerto
2018 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Canolich after 2x La Comella, 2x Beixalis and Ordino
2019 Vuelta a España - mountaintop finish at Els Cortals after Ordino, La Gallina, La Comella and Engolasters
2021 Tour de France - descent finish in Andorra-la-Vella after Puymorens, Envalira and Beixalis. Stage sadly annulled due to the sport being brought into disrepute.

I have used Andorra very little in my Vuelta routes; largely as there are plenty of less used climbs and new discoveries to use elsewhere in Spain itself, but also because of having largely looked at this area early on in my Vuelta design odyssey, when many of these passes had yet to be fully paved. I had a mountaintop finish at Els Cortals all the way back in my second Vuelta route, and a descent finish in Andorra la Vella and a MTT to Arcalis in my seventh. This stage follows along similar lines to the descent finish stage, but with some new changes and concepts.

Therefore, while my stage bears a striking resemblance to the 2003 Port d’Envalira stage up until this point, here I move away from this toward climbing options that the 2003 Vuelta not only didn’t take, but simply couldn’t take. I have taken the Collada de la Gallina, introduced in part in that 2012 mountaintop finish at Canolich, and then included in full only twice, in 2015 and 2019. It is, however, the toughest pass in Andorra. Both sides are much of a muchness, but I have gone for the side which ascends via the Santuari de Canolich; this is actually therefore going to mean that we do a loop-de-loop and will return to Sant Julià de Lorià at the bottom of the descent, but it’s not going to make any difference, much like the 1999, 2000, 2015 and 2017 stages included a doubling back in La Rabassa. Plus that involved riding the same small stretch of road in both directions, this is the same as doing a circuit, so it won’t be a problem. And to be honest, the main reason was that I used the other side when I proposed an Andorra descent finish stage previously. Cresting 65km from home, it’s a bit early to go, but there’s a rest day coming and this is the third straight mountain stage - and the last true mountain stage too, as I’m going with a somewhat less challenging final week to make riders work to gain and lose time - so you never know. The Vuelta doesn’t tend to that often have this kind of super queen stage - but recent multi-climb Andorran stages in the Vuelta like that 2015 stage of Purito’s design, and the 2018 finale, have been very entertaining. It’s also a completely different style of climbing to Bonaigua and Cantò, so a rider who seemed comfortable earlier might find that the legs aren’t responding as they hoped - and if a rider starts to suffer here, it’s a long, long way to go and a lot of time could be lost.



After descending this (sadly it does mean a less technical descent than in my previous stage through here, but we can weather that) pass, we then rejoin the main valley road from Sant Julià de Lorià along the Valira river, and head through to Andorra-la-Vella for our second intermediate sprint. There’s no La Comella this time (I could have added it but I think it would just make the chances of any attacks on La Gallina even smaller), instead we head straight for the most recently added true pass to the repertoire of Andorra, the Collada de Beixalis. From its eastern side, it has a very steep stretch; it’s not necessarily the toughest, and where you categorise it from affects how steep it appears; as you can see from the full profile all the way from Escaldes-Escany its strength is being inconsistent, and including some ramps that are far steeper than we often see in Andorra. It crests 33km from the finish and is the best platform for attacking on the stage in my opinion - and if you don’t believe me, just ask Sepp Kuss, who lives in Andorra and deems this climb to be steep enough to be worth his time, which is quite something bearing in mind that Andorran climbs are not renowned for being super steep and Sepp Kuss is not renowned for caring about gradual climbs.


The recently-paved Collada de Beixalis, sweeping up from Encamp

Here, however, we deviate from the template, because we’re not finishing with the hard climb, nor are we going for a mountaintop finish; instead we descend into La Massana, home of the Andorran round of the Mountain Bike World Cup and of the 2015 World Championships, where something unique in the history of the sport took place, as Pauline Ferrand-Prévot achieved an unprecedented treble, being simultaneously World Champion in Road, Cyclo-cross and Mountain Bike simultaneously. And then we turn towards Ordino, but while this mountain town usually serves as host to the Arcalis MTF, this time the final climb is perhaps the least notorious of all Andorran climbs, the Coll d’Ordino.

The Coll d’Ordino is not the least notorious because of being the easiest; it’s harder than La Comella and a few of the smaller, non-raced summits. It’s also harder than the hardest comparable stretches of some of the easier MTF options, like Port d’Envalira west or Pal. It’s just… the most easy to overlook. Take a look at that list of Andorra mountain stages I posted above - the Coll d’Ordino (or its sister summit Collet de Montaup, depending on where they chose to give the mountain points at) has featured in 12 / 21 stages since the beginning of the MTF era; it was 8 out of the first 9, but it has fallen somewhat off the map since the more selective and different options have become available, whereas before it was the largest col passable on both sides where the whole climb was entirely within Andorra. But nobody ever talks about the Coll d’Ordino. Ever. It’s just a completely vanilla climb; just under 10km at just under 7%, largely fairly consistent and with a maximum gradient of 12%.





I mean, it’s pretty scenic, with all those hairpins draped across the hillside. But its strength as far as I was concerned here was, in fact, its very blandness - no cyclist has ever lived in fear of the Coll d’Ordino. No cyclist has ever dreaded the following day’s mountain stage because the Coll d’Ordino was on the menu. While early kings of this particular mountain include Oliverio Rincón, José María Jiménez and Carlos Sastre, recent times have seen it go to the break and be crested by the likes of Jesús Herrada and Mikel Bizkarra. So it is almost certain not to prevent any attacking on the earlier ascents by its aura. And so we are more likely to have small groups and Mano a Mano racing by the time we get onto it; and then we have the added benefit of the toughest gradients being at the bottom of the climb, which crests at just 14km from the line. It is a climb which reverts back to those earlier in the stage, suiting a different type of climber from that which is best suited to the Collada de la Gallina and the Collada de Beixalis.

Plus, of course, it’s not a viable summit finish, so we have to descend once more. And the descent is very technical, sweeping back and forth across the mountainside until we reach Canillo. But even then it isn’t over, because we’re not finishing in Canillo, but instead just under 5km up the road in the ski station of El Tarter, part of the Grandvalira group of resorts that paid for the 1987 MTF at Grau-Roig and the 2003 MTF at Port d’Envalira, as well as administering Pas de la Casa and the Soldeu resort, which despite generally being perceived as a more family-friendly and forgiving resort than many in Andorra, has hosted the Alpine Skiing World Cup a few times since its introduction in 2012. Marlies Schild won a Slalom and Tessa Worley a Giant Slalom as the Women’s World Cup came into town, but a second Giant Slalom was cancelled - it was already to replace a previous cancelled event from Courchevel and would eventually take place in Ofterschwang a month later. The women returned in 2016 for a Super-G won by Federica Brignone and a Combined won by Marie-Michèle Gagnon, and then the men arrived in town for the first time in 2019 for the World Cup Finals; Dominik Paris won both speed events and the French dominated the technical disciplines, with Alexis Pinturault winning the Giant Slalom and Clément Noël the Slalom. For the women, the two technical events were won unsurprisingly by Mikaela Shiffrin, while Mirjam Puchner won the Downhill and Viktoria Rebensburg the Super-G. El Tarter and Soldeu are basically one continuous resort, and so there is plenty of scope for interest in hosting, especially if they win the right to hold a World Championships, similar to how Antholz-Anterselva hosted the Giro to promote the biathlon World Championships taking place there the following winter.


Soldeu-El Tarter ski station, El Tarter car parks and resort town area

El Tarter being just under 5km up the road from Canillo means climbing part of that endless tempo drag to Port d’Envalira from Andorra, of course, but that only amounts to the section from km17 to km12 in this profile - really nothing to write home about, averaging about 3,5% and with a maximum of 8%. But riders should be all alone by now, and if they’re not it’s their own fault.
 
Reactions: Max Rockatansky
The new passes also make Pal far better as a finish. To exemplify with a purely Andorran stage: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/40769194

I'd think that side of the full Gallina ascent is most likely to be used in the Vuelta in a design where they do it 1½ times in the end, as I think that's the only edge it has over climbing the pass from the other side.

[EDIT]
Well, there is a third road, but accessing it from Os de Civís in a race is almost certainly never going to happen since that Spanish village is only accessible by road from Andorra anyway (the other side is unpaved and a long way from being passable) and the population is barely 100, so, yea.
Port de Cabus could be another crossing in the future, but I don't think it's likely.
 
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Stage 17: Andorra-la-Vella - Caspe, 237km





GPM:
Alto de Mequinenza (cat.3) 2,8km @ 6,8%

Week three begins in the kind of way that Adam Hansen would protest: it’s a flat stage, but, it’s the longest stage of the race. In my defence, however, it’s within the UCI’s maximum stage length so no special dispensation would be required, so the veteran Australian can’t complain. Funny to break the record for most consecutive Grand Tours completed, but then become well known for not wanting to ride a long stage because it looked a bit rainy. Mind you, his ironman streak was a bit of a gimmick by that point anyhow, he was frequently cooked especially late season and with an incident such as that on the books, it ended up feeling a bit hollow as a record, being a bit like Keith Yandle’s ironman streak in the ice hockey, where he was being given butter-soft deployment and avoiding contact for the purpose of maintaining his streak, and once he had outlived his usefulness to his team, he was traded on condition that he wouldn’t be healthy scratched - no matter how bad his performances got - so that he could have a shot at the record.

Straightforward start, though, in more or less time-honoured fashion: we finished and had the rest day in Andorra, so we’re setting off from the capital of the landlocked principality to start the first stage thereafter. This has been standard practice for the day after an Andorra stage - especially mountaintop finishes - since time immemorial, so if that means a somewhat longer stage then so be it. I had a short stage on stage 15, so this is my comeback. The riders can get a short mountain stage… but in trade-off they have to do 220km+ stages including some mountain ones and I will push the UCI’s stage length mandate just for fun too. Andorra la Vella has a population of just over 20.000 but its urban area doubles that; it is famous as a duty free tax haven popular for shopping - as tourists provide Andorra with 80% of its GDP, this is economically crucial to the small state. Maybe some retail therapy to recover on the rest day?



Just as we have seen a couple of times already in this Vuelta, the first part of the stage is to retrace our steps from yesterday, this time in the reverse direction, sauntering downhill into La Seu d’Urgell via the same road we took to enter Andorra on stage 16. At Adrall, however, we head straight on rather than turning right to continue up to the Port del Cantò, and so here commenceth the stage proper, so to speak. This is a long transitional stage through Catalunya which takes us all the way through the Provincia de Lleida and back into Aragón, so we have a long way to go; the first part of the stage largely follows the valley of El Segre, the river that runs north to south through western Catalunya and through towns like Coll de Nargó and Oliana, along a road which goes from two-lane mountain road to wide open highway, especially as we pass the mega project of the Pantá de Oliana, the reservoir and dam of the El Segre river at Oliana.



We also then have our first ascent of the day, the uncategorised ascent of the Alto de Guardiola; this is not categorised but looks harder than it is on the profile due to the length of the stage - it tallies in at 2,8km at 5,2%. It is then swiftly followed by the first intermediate sprint at Ponts. Here, we finally (for the riders at least) say goodbye to the Pyrenees, and are back out onto the plateaus of the Iberian peninsula. Save for a little bit of false flat before Cubells, essentially the next 100km are flat to imperceptibly downhill as we descend around 350m of altitude in that time at an eye-wateringly steep 0,35%. This takes in a few significant towns, such as Balaguer, capital of the Noguera comarca, and where Franco’s forces first crossed into Catalunya. It is also the birthplace of football manager Roberto Martínez, a relatively low level footballer who spent most of his career in lower league teams in England before embarking on a managerial career, again largely in the English league system before taking on the job of managing the Belgian national side.

We cross the Segre at Balaguer, in the opposite direction to the Francoist forces, and then hug its western bank as we follow down to Lleida, capital of the westernmost province of Catalunya (in fact it is sometimes called ‘Ponent’, or ‘the West’, in Catalan), which hosts the second intermediate sprint. I covered Lleida fairly recently in my Volta a Catalunya route, so will link you to that stage rather than detain you further - that stage is here. It dates back to Roman Ilerda and is known as Lérida in Castilian. Interestingly, it hosts a Latin American film festival, but its largest immigrant communities are not Latin American but instead Romanian and North African. It is home to the track cyclist Sergi Escobar, who won a World Championship in the Individual Pursuit in 2004 and two Olympic bronzes the same year in both the Individual and Team Pursuits. He then converted to the road at age 30 with Illes Balears but largely then stayed with smaller teams, notably winning the Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid in 2006and the Cinturón Ciclista a Mallorca in 2002.



Catalunya gives way to a return to Aragón shortly afterwards, as the Segre and Cinca converge at La Granja d’Escarp, and then both drain into the Ebro at Mequinenza. Our one categorised climb of the day comes as we climb out of the basin of the Ebro here; the Alto de Mequinenza is however a pretty inconsequential climb at this stage of the race; although it seems close to home due to the length of the stage, it’s still over 40km out and it’s only 2,8km at 6,8% - not enough that anybody should feel concerned by it.

That last 40km is not especially challenging - if at all. It is a very sparsely populated area in Bajo Aragón, returning from the hillside to the Ebro valley and then heading along it as far as the city of Caspe, which is our finishing town for the day. With around 10.000 inhabitants it is one of the larger population centres of the lowlands of eastern Aragón and was granted city status by Queen Isabela II in the 19th Century. It seems to be one of the youngest populated areas in Aragón, with theories about erosion from the Ebro destroying mineral deposits and making the soil harder to till. This has led to fanciful folk etymologies about its name (suggesting that original inhabitants came from the Caspian Sea, for example), along with a theory around the Proto Indo-European reconstructed root [kas] meaning ‘oak’, but most likely given the relatively late settlement of the area into what we would recognise as towns and villages (cave paintings and remains in the area date back millennia and are included as part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is that it is derived from Andalusian Arabic during the Moorish era, with the name being related to casbah, and this would hold some weight as with the Ebro area forming the northern border of al-Andalus, the town would likely need to have been fortified. There are, however, a number of former Roman settlements in the area, notably Trabia, and these etymologies are considered derived from pre-Roman sources, so the origins of the name of Caspe remain contested.

Following the Reconquista, the area became famous for its glassware as what had been a weakness was turned into a strength, as the difficulty of farming the soil gave way to the ease of obtaining high quality sand to manufacture glass. It remained one of the few locations where Muslims and Christians peaceably coexisted many centuries after the Reconquista, but in the age of kingdoms in Europe, its location became a significant weakness and it has been ravaged by several wars, including the Franco-Catalan War, the Wars of the Spanish Succession, the occupation by Napoleonic troops, the Carlist Wars, and the Spanish Civil War, which it held particular significance in as the Statute of Caspe, a non-ratified declaration of Aragonese Autonomy, was drafted in the city, and it became the hub of a separatist anarchist council in 1936 as well.



Although best known as the birthplace of Saint Indalecio, Caspe’s most relevant modern inhabitant for us would be Abel Mustieles, a four time World Champion in Mountain Bike Trials, and cross country mountain biking predominates in the area. Its only recent road cycling history as a host (it was passed through by the Vuelta in 2012) was in 2018, when the first edition of the reborn Vuelta a Aragón elected to have its first stage finish here. They approached from the southwest whereas we arrive from the northeast, but the same finish, an uphill grind from the banks of the Ebro up to the Castillo de Caspe, is included. It was a categorised climb in the Vuelta a Aragón, as you can see from the profile and map but it totals in at around 2km at 3% - really not enough to stop the sprint, and that was indeed how it turned out, with Ion Aberasturi triumphing for Euskadi-Murias ahead of Carlos Barbero. I’ve copied that run-in, obviously there will be a stronger sprinting field in an actual Grand Tour, but this is still likely to be a sprinter’s stage. It’s probably the last one, so they’d better make it count.
 
Stage 18: Andorra de Aragón - Teruel, 182km





GPM:
Alto de San Cristóbal (cat.2) 6,9km @ 8,4%
Alto de Villarroya (cat.3) 7,7km @ 4,9%
Puerto de Fortanete (Tarrascón de Peñacerrada)(cat.2) 6,5km @ 7,3%
Puerto de Cabigordo (cat.3) 8,0km @ 3,1%

We continue into week 3 with a transitional stage which is probably going to be one for the breakaway, with some medium mountain terrain but a gentle run-in. This one has a lot of accumulated climbing, but it really isn’t one that is going to be a big GC stage. This is one which harks back to something like Ávila in 2009 or Ciudad Rodrigo in 1999 as precedents.

The stage start is in Andorra for the second consecutive day, but this time it’s Andorra de Aragón, not the principality of Andorra. This Andorra is southwest of yesterday’s finishing town of Caspe and is home to over 7.000 people but is still smaller than the micro-state’s capital city, and is attested from the middle of the 12th Century. It has a mining heritage thanks to the discovery of bituminous coal in the vicinity, but much like Velilla del Río Carrión in stage 11, its historic power plant cooling towers are in the process of destruction as the area transitions more towards sustainable energy. Its most recent cycling heritage is as the start of stage 1 of the 2019 Vuelta a Aragón, when this stage to Calatayud was won by Justin Jules.



This is the first of two stages through one of Spain’s most neglected areas, the Provincia de Teruel. I’ve talked before about how this region has actually been so ignored by developments and the tourist industry that it has launched a campaign to encourage more attention, development and indeed tourism in the area under the slogan ¡Teruel Existe!, or “Teruel exists!” But if the tourist department of the local governments of the Teruel area want to encourage people to come to Teruel and its vicinity, then they need to show people what they have to offer them, and this is where the Vuelta comes in. After all, one of the great features of a bike race is its ability to cover enormous amounts of territory, but touching every village or town it goes through. The helicam can pick up various local tourist attractions and points of interest, and then the TV can caption it and the commentators can discuss it. People have long talked about how the Tour’s boring flat stages can often be enlivened just by the chance to look at some nice châteaus and vineyards, so this is kind of a stage in that vein. We also get to view a bit of the Sistema Ibérico, a pretty underused mountain system in the Vuelta.

There’s a lot of uncategorised ascending in the early parts of the stage. The toughest part of this is the Collado Frío, also known as the Alto de los Degollaos, which is mostly false flat but with a couple of steeper kilometres. 5,6km @ 3,5% is the overall statistic for the climb, so this is very much a climb to just be some climbing in the legs for later. Descending the much tougher side of this takes us to the Río Guadalope, then we head up the Río Pitarque, and take on one of the most hidden away tough climbs in Spain - the Alto de San Cristóbal. Its stats (6,9km at 8,4% but with the opening false flat it’s 8,9km @ 6,9%) are typically those of a cat.2 and are sometimes beefed up by traceurs to a cat.1 but realistically especially here as the first climb of the day it’s a category 2. Due to its steeper ramps (the final 2,9km average over 11%) I’ve been looking for a route that will enable me to use it in a prominent and major role in a race, but the problem is the lack of convenient localities nearby; Aliaga (pop. 358) is the biggest location within the vicinity enough for a stage finishing there to enable the climb to see potentially significant action. I thought that seemingly unlikely, so here is San Cristóbal as an early stage kicker. It’s hidden away, but it is nevertheless a beauty.



We take that two stepped descent into Aliaga for the next part of the stage, a 20km stretch of uphill false flat beginning with - in Aliaga itself - a meta volante. This false flat then gives way to the Puerto de Villarroya, another cat.3 which is pretty long but without threatening slopes, with the maximum being 8%. This climb has been seen once in the Vuelta, in 2005, in the transitional 7th stage from Teruel to Vinarós. The descent of this takes us directly to Fortanete, which leads us to the second cat.2 ascent of the day, cresting at 70km from home, the Alto de Fortanete which can also be known as the Alto del Tarrascón, or Tarrascón de Peñacerrada, a clear second category ascent toughened up by 2km at over 10% in the middle of the ascent.



This climb has cropped up a few times in traceur ideas, most commonly as an attempt to shake up stages to the Valdelinares ski station and make them a bit less predictable by climbing from the other side, a good example being this PRC suggestion. However, the road into Valdelinares from this side is not as wide or as good condition as the main road which is usually taken and the fact that this side entails crossing the road to the Puerto de Valdelinares (which is to the north of and lower in altitude than the Estación de Esquí) gives another option. APM user Elbauti showcased this all the way back in 2008, climbing the Fortanete side before descending through the Puerto de Valdelinares around to the base of San Rafael and then doing the usual San Rafael-Valdelinares double that has characterised stages to the ski station historically - which looks like this. For me, though, finishing at Valdelinares from the conventional side has already been covered off in an earlier Vuelta, and finishing from the north would leave me with another sub-130km stage and an unnecessary additional mountaintop finish which averages less than 4%, so I’ve decided instead to continue onwards from Valdelinares; this profile showcases the full Valdelinares ascent from Fortanete including the climb we’re doing, the frustrating, inconsistent “flat” to the Puerto de Valdelinares, then the short descent and gradual climb up to the ski station. We do the first 16km of this profile, over the double summit, and then then join the TE-V-3 on which we travel northwest (the profile includes a short descent on the southeast side between the Puerto - where we join the road as there is a junction there - and the base of the final ascent) for a long and very unthreatening, gradual descent through Allepuz. From Allepuz to Monteagudo del Castillo is an uncategorised climb - 4,3km at 3,6% overall, but there’s 2,5km at 4,8% in the middle, so not to be totally underestimated - then there is the second intermediate sprint in Cedrillas, a small town known for its castle ruins.



My expectation is that this stage will go to the breakaway and we’ll have 20-25 riders, most likely all half an hour or more down on GC, in said breakaway. The king of the mountains, if in the Virenque method, will be here, or if somebody is capable of winning it back from a GC guy in the Virenque method they will be here. The lesser climbers among them will be keen to maybe try to use that uncategorised climb or even the sprint as a platform to attack, as the stage hunting will begin in earnest here. However, of course, these riders will need to have got over some solid climbs to get here at the head of the field. It’s also a nice pre-Worlds tune-up for the baroudeur. The kind of riders I’m thinking we will see contesting the stage win here are the likes of Matej Mohorič, Álex Aranburu, Diego Ulissi, Tony Gallopin, Thomas de Gendt and maybe some guys who’ve lost time on the GC due to bad form. Meanwhile they will also have to give us some action later on as they will want to get rid of some of the riders with strong sprints who can contest these types of stages, such as Michael Matthews, Matteo Trentin and, depending on the GC position and whether he needs to be looking out for teammates or not, Ethan Hayter.

The best chance to do so is on the Puerto de Cabigordo, the last categorised climb of the stage, which crests 21km from the line. That’s a bit of a misnomer though, since it’s another of those double summits meaning that the last 3,5km of the climb are practically flat with just a small kicker to the high point on the road. That said, after maybe the Cuesta de las Doblas all the way back on stage 3, this is probably the easiest categorised climb of the whole race, being as the ‘hard part’ is only 3,5km at 5,5% which is very consistent and maxes out at 8%. As I say, I really doubt anybody in the main pack is going to try to do something here, but from a smaller group consisting primarily of stagehunters, this relatively benign ascent is likely to be their best opportunity to make a difference. The climb has appeared three times in the Vuelta, after its introduction in a transitional stage in 1999 from Valencia to Teruel, along similar lines to my stage here. This was the start of Frank Vandenbroucke’s 1999 Vuelta exhibition in the final week, serving as the world’s greatest week three agitant, not being close enough to effect a Santi Pérez comeback but serving as a willing ally for anybody challenging and just disrupting any group he was in due to his insanely strong legs that week. He would win the stage, but sadly it is rather overshadowed by the Ávila show a few days later so coverage is hard to come by. On other occasions the climb has been seen it has been the other side which has been used, first in 2005’s Teruel - Vinarós stage mentioned earlier, the summit again taken by Eladio Jiménez, and as a warmup climb in the 2014 Valdelinares stage won by Winner Anacona, where Jérôme Cousin took the climb from the break.

The descent of this harder side of the climb - it is multi stepped and totals 18km at just under 4% - accounts for the vast majority of the remainder of the stage, before a loop around the provincial capital of Teruel. As mentioned in previous Vueltas, Teruel is the smallest provincial capital in Spain, and the relatively underdeveloped nature of this part of the country has led to the area trying to drive investment and interest in the oft-forgotten area with the slogan ¡Teruel Existe!. Again, I’ve written a bit about Teruel before, as this is its fourth appearance in my fictitious Vueltas, so I’ll quote myself:

We begin in the city of Teruel, Spain's smallest provincial capital with just 35.000 inhabitants to Soria's 40.000. Aragón is not a region of large cities; Huesca is also one of the country's smallest provincial capitals, though we are headed toward the more significantly-sized regional capital, Zaragoza. There are a few unusual features about Teruel due to its comparatively isolated location; it is the only mainland provincial capital that is not directly linked to Madrid by rail (the Canarias capitals can be reached by plane, which Teruel can't, but Ceuta and Melilla do not have direct links to Madrid either), and the sparse population of this corner of the peninsula, isolated from the coastal affluence in Comunidad Valenciana and southern Catalunya by the Sistema Ibérico, coupled with the rugged terrain in that area and the difficult transport links to central Spain, led to the Tourist board of the region launching a desperate bid to boost tourism in the area under the slogan ¡Teruel existe! ("Teruel exists").

But that's not to say that Teruel does not have plenty to offer the tourist; after all, it's a leading part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that is the Mudéjar Architecture of Aragón. As a result there is all manner of spectacular moorish scenery, with buildings and stairways in that style preserved perfectly because it's higher up in the mountains than many of the other Islamic architecture of the al-Andalus era down in the Andalucian pueblos blancos. Even the Catholic architecture of the city is built in the Mudéjar style, so it remains a relatively uniform city aesthetically which helps in keeping with the beauty of it, with towers and church spires of the late middle ages all perfectly thematically aligned with the 12th Century old town. Much of it was damaged in the Civil War, with a year-long battle around the city taking place which saw casualties totalling four times the city's current population. And in those nearby mountains there are some impressive dinosaur bones.
Not that we'll be seeing much of them, as we're staying on the meseta, on a stage that gradually tilts its way down toward sea level, so may well be a chance to challenge the stage speed record, what with the stage featuring no climbs at all and with a stage finish some 800m lower than the start. If the weather doesn't play ball, however, this is going to be one of "those" Vuelta stages. Teruel typically hosts stages of that kind, on those rare occasions that the Vuelta remembers that, like the slogan, Teruel exists. The race hasn't been back since it was the start town of a flat stage in 2005 won by Max van Heeswijk, and the last time it hosted a stage finish was 1999, when an intermediate stage headed over small climbs inland from Valencia, and saw Frank Vandenbroucke outdo Jon Odriozola in a two-up sprint from the breakaway, four minutes ahead of the remainder of their break group and 12 minutes ahead of the péloton.
With the recent rejuvenation of the Vuelta a Aragón, however, Teruel has returned to cycling for the first time in over a decade this season, with the start of the Caspe stage of the reborn race, a stage which was won by Jon Aberasturi for the Euskadi-Murias team.

Mudéjar architecture of Teruel

In my fictitious Vueltas, it has appeared three times previously, first in the very first, as the start of a transitional stage to Cuenca, then in two further stages as the stage start of flat stages. In the second appearance however it was also the finish of a previous stage which has the Collado de La Matanza before descending in to the finish.

In the real life race, the area has been used more sparingly, with this underdeveloped region being often ignored, or only passed through as the Vuelta historically used to link the coastal resort towns for much of its early length before the mountains of the north, so these inland provinces were somewhat hidden from view. This was especially the case during the period of rapid development in the country, when the race’s television coverage was more interested in showcasing the development of Spain with added artistic shots of cycling than showing the action on the bike; as a result passing through sparsely populated, underdeveloped and impoverished regions was counter to both the interests of the race organisers and the television directors and sponsors. The preference for transitional stages from Catalunya (common in the early days, with the coastal resorts, the prominence of Barcelona and the success of cycling in the area, with the Escalada a Montjuïch and the popularity of Pérez-Francés) across to the race’s Basque-Navarrese heartlands was always to go through the Zaragoza area, so it was not until 1973 that the Vuelta a España learnt that ¡Teruel Existe!, when Gerben Karstens won a sprint here in a stage from Cuenca as the race worked its way to the coast from Albacete. It wouldn’t reappear until 1983, again in an early transitional stage from Cuenca, with Eric Vanderaerden triumphant. The introduction of the Aramón ski resorts to the race took Teruel off the agenda for a while, but then paid dividends; at first the resort they were trying to promote was Cerler, up in the Pyrenees, so all Aragonese stages were up there for most of the 90s, but once they started to push their Sistema Ibérico resorts, principally Valdelinares but also Javalambre, Teruel started to come back into consideration. This started with the 1999 Vandenbroucke stage mentioned above, and of course then saw the stage start in 2005 after Heras’ win at Valdelinares, but then even in 2019 when the stage was being paid for by the regional council of Teruel, they started the stage after the Javalambre Observatory finish at Mora de Rubielos to promote its beautiful castle and as it is in the same comarca as Javalambre, instead of in the provincial centre.

The city is now starting to find itself listed in tourist brochures however, and attract some attention as being among the unearthed gems of Spain off the beaten track, hidden from the view of those who typically look for resort towns with beaches and sun as their goal, such as the German summer migration to Mallorca or the British summer pseudo-colonies in Málaga and Benidorm, but also unheralded by the adventure tourist seeking the Pyrenees or the Cordillera Cantábrica or the culture vulture hunting out the likes of Toledo, Ávila and Salamanca on their tourist trail. It is, however, a beautiful city and area which is in the process of rapid development and has aqueducts to rival any Spanish city not named Segovia, city walls ascending up into the mountains, and some of the best Islamic-style architecture preserved anywhere, including the pueblos blancos of the south. So a final week stage finish, going through multiple scenic villages and then with copious time to focus on the city’s art and architecture while we wait for the bunch to finish after the break reaches the line would suit them plenty. I have put the finish just after Puente Nuevo, passing under the aqueduct at just 200m from the line and actually on the finishing straight, so it’s going to be an absolutely gorgeous finish. Teruel is an underappreciated gem of cultural Spain, and it deserves a bit more love.


Puente Nuevo, in the final kilometre


The road we take in the background on the right, last 200m slightly uphill along the walls in the background
 
Stage 19: Albarracín - Espacio Nórdico La Muela de San Juan, 146km





GPM:
Puerto de Villarrosario (Collado de La Mata)(cat.3) 4,6km @ 6,7%
Alto de Juan Ranas (cat.3) 3,3km @ 7,6%
Collado de la Canada (Alto de Belvalle)(cat.2) 7,3km @ 6,1%
Puerto del Cubillo (cat.2) 9,0km @ 4,0%
Puerto del Portillo (cat.3) 2,9km @ 7,7%
Espacio Nórdico La Muela de San Juan (cat.3) 4,7km @ 5,7%

This relatively short stage on the final Friday of the race is the last opportunity for the climbers - but it’s far from handed to them on a silver platter. They’re going to have to work to make something out of what they have on the menu today - but then the Vuelta has often done well out of tamer final weeks forcing riders to get creative, and it’s not like I haven’t given the escaladores enough to work with, what with the steep MTFs at Redondal and Mourtis, multiple steep climbs in the Oviedo stage, smaller summits at the Santuário del Brezo and Fuerte Rapitán, and multi-climb stages in the Pyrenees. Yes, it’s more akin to an older style Vuelta with a good amount of TT mileage and not just making every mountain stage a super steep MTF, but then, this means they will hopefully have raced those mountain stages more aggressively and created more action as a result. And these types of less threatening week 3 stages, often with easy or unchallenging summits, have given us great spectacles like Fuente Dé in 2012, Formigal 2016 and Cercedilla in 2015.

Located at a meander in the Guadalaviar, Albarracín has a low population but is a popular tourist spot for those limited numbers that make it to the Provincia de Teruel. It is a ludicrously scenic small town with some of the best Mudéjar architecture in the region; the town was named for the Berber dynasty which ruled over this area prior to the Almoravid conquest in the early 12th Century; they were known as al-Banu Razin, which has been reflected as Albarracín following the Reconquista. It briefly held its own lordship between the partition of the Berber Taifa of Albarracín and its absorption into Aragón. The beauty of the preserved architecture and city walls saw it raised to the status of Monumento Nacional in 1961, and it is on the tentative list for inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With the Sierra de Albarracín range within the Sistema Ibérico rising out of the urban area immediately, and with some sheer vertical faces, the area has become popular with rock-climbers, who constitute the majority of the adventure tourists in the region. It is known - albeit not as well as Cuenca - for its casas colgantes, and is now becoming renowned as one of the most beautiful places in the country. I have at times tried to do something with Albarracín - the town has a number of narrow, cobbled roads, many of which run uphill - but unfortunately creating a circuit to make the most of this is difficult as there’s only the one main road through, and it isn’t wide enough to do a circuit using both sides. An ITT may have been possible but I had other plans.





Instead, we are going to have an all out medium mountain stage through the Sierra de Albarracín, going through climbs of which all bar one are completely new to the Vuelta - and that one climb which isn’t has only been seen twice, and never in any significant manner. We start the stage by following the Guadalaviar upstream as far as Tramacastilla, where we have a short and uncategorised climb of 1,9km at 5,4% up to Noguera de Albarracín. There are two climbs which ascend from here, the better known but very gradual Puerto de Orihuela and the less well known Puerto de Villarrosario, also known as Collado de La Mata, which is our choice, because it is steeper (of course!). It is a cat.3 climb, 4,6km at 6,7% but it does have a steepest kilometre at just under 9% and a maximum of 12%, so there is the possibility to do something with this and form a strong break, or for some of the GC men who might have plans, find a way to get a couple of helpers up the road here.

We descend through Bronchales into Orihuela del Tremedal, which is where we rejoin the road from the Puerto de Orihuela. This means we take a slightly longer route, but a significantly better route for cycling up (for the record, this is the profile of that route). Both for pros and for casual cyclists - this is a fairly little travelled area anyway, but the Orihuela road is shorter and easier so is taken by the majority of the vehicular traffic in the area. The next 30km are about the flattest part of the stage, with downhill false flat into Orihuela del Tremedal, then uphill false flat which gives way to a pretty nondescript ascent of 3km at 3,7% then around 15km of downhill false flat before we head toward the next run of climbs. This starts with the climb to the village of Juan Ranas from nearby to Checa; this area is known for its mountain biking, as a result it’s hard to find a correct profile as there are a number of different climbs in the Checa vicinity which have profiles available online - but almost all of them are offroad singletracks. Fortunately I found a map of a route taken online which shows the climb properly, and this confirms the climb to be 3,3km at 7,6% - available here. Descending from here takes us to El Vado, an Área Recreativa as part of the Parque Natural del Alto Tajo, famous for the scenic Cascada El Molino, the first of a few beautiful waterfalls which will augment the helicam footage of the racing today.



This then leads us to the hardest climb of the day, to Belvalle, also known as Collado de la Canada, at 66km from the line. This is a cat.2 ascent, I have seen one suggestion that includes it from APM which gave it cat.1, but I think that’s a reach even for Unipublic. It’s only 7,3km at 6,1%, however that is at least a misnomer given the double-summit and the inconsistency of the climb, with gradients up to 14%, 2km at 9,5% in the middle and its descent and then final 300m ramp at 8,3% hiding things slightly. It’s 6,3km at 7% to the first summit, but it’s a climb somewhat like Campa Dosango back in stage 9, a really tough climb to get into a rhythm on. Given how far it is from the finish, it’s going to take a daring rider to make a move here, but it isn’t going to be unheard of, since there’s so little flat terrain from here on in. If the right selection is made, or a GC leader’s team disintegrates and you’re left with a situation like Formigal 2016 where a small group is up there but the two GC threats have got domestiques with them, then this could see some interesting action.





Now that we have crossed provincial lines into Castilla-la Mancha and are headed through the Serranía de Cuenca, the next stretch of the stage is a downhill false flat from the summit of Belvalle that leads to a long run of undulating, constant up and down but no categorised climbs. At 57km from the line there is the hardest one of these, 1,9km at 5,1% - yes, so there’s two uncategorised climbs here that are harder than the stage 3 categorised climb, but back then it was to give the break something, here it’s to kind of disguise the challenges. Also just after the 100km mark there is a 900m at 7% ramp, which comes just after our next scenic waypoint, an intermediate sprint by the car park and entrance to the Monumento Natural del Nacimiento del Río Cuervo. This natural park is a wondrous, unspoilt area of greenery in the mountain surrounding the idyllic mountain spring that serves as the source of, hence the name, the Cuervo (“Raven”) river. With a large number of brooks and streams on high all draining into the spring from a height, it gives the impression of a symphony of small waterfalls combining to form the effect of a larger one. It’s pretty stunning and is one of the most popular day trips away from the city of Cuenca.



About 5km after that small ramp that follows the entrance to the Río Cuervo natural park, we have a short descent of 3,5km at 5% which is the most sustained rest period the riders have had for some time. This takes us in to Tragacete, another of the scenic villages of the Parque Natural Serranía de Cuenca, and another host of a scenic waterfall, this time the Cascada del Molino de la Chorrera. At just over 30km from the line we turn left, exiting the CM-2106 and joining the CM-2119, which leads back into Aragón and becomes the A-1704 once crossing the border. This also entails taking on our next climbs, the Puerto del Cubillo and the Puerto del Portillo, which back into each other directly and will be the best platform to try to gain time on the stage.

The Puerto del Cubillo is first up, and its cat.2 status is well earned. The 9km at 4% statistic it has is something of a misnomer, however, as this is very much one of those oddities of Spanish geography and nomenclature, as the actual puerto is three kilometres after the actual high point of the road; the high point of the road is the Sierra del Valdeminguete and is 6km at 6,4%, although that in and of itself is a misnomer due to the last 500m being more or less flat; before that the previous 3km are averaging 8% so will be the best place to attack. As a result this stretch comes at 25-26km from the line, but the mountains points are not given until later. This replicates the same kind of oddity as seen in, say, where the Volta a Catalunya gives the points for La Molina in stages like this, or when the Vuelta al País Vasco placed the GPM at Ixua after climbing the concreted side of Usartza-Arrate. This climb - the only one of today’s climbs to have been seen - appeared in the 1973 stage to Teruel, and then in the 2005 Valdelinares stage, but both times it was a long, long way from home and so the racing there was not relevant. They look to have actually given the points at the high point in the road in that 2005 stage, but the Vuelta profiles of that era were known for being a bit misleading and the summit was crested before they came on air, so it’s hard to confirm.

This ‘summit’ sees us transfer back from Cuenca to Teruel province, and is followed almost immediately by the Puerto del Portillo. There is a fork in the road just a kilometre after the Puerto del Cubillo where we meet the Río Tajo, and continuing on to the right on the road we are on takes us back to Albarracín, while turning left takes us up to the Puerto del Portillo. It then continues to descend at low gradient for a little while before ascending at the Fuente de Las Lirias. This is a short ascent but it swiftly steepens, with the last 2km averaging over 9% and with four stretches in excess of 12%. Cresting just 14km from home, this is a good place to go for stagehunters, or for those not requiring quite enough time to merit a blast from distance.


The antepenultimate and penultimate climbs of the stage, back to back



The descent from the Puerto del Portillo matches up to this profile, we go as far as the marked junction (noted by ‘cruce’) from the summit, so right to left on that profile. You can see from 39x28's full page on the climb that the pictures show this to be perfectly reasonably paved and smooth, so perfectly safe for racing - just that racing doesn’t come here because it’s off the beaten path. This also includes me putting the final intermediate sprint of the race in the small village of Guadalaviar, which serves as the gateway to the Montes Universales, a small range focused around a ridge within the Sistema Central that sits between the Sierra de Albarracín and the Serranía de Cuenca; because of the sparse population of the area it is part of the Sierra de Albarracín comarca, but it is geographically distinct. This means that the bonus seconds are given out (yes, bonus seconds for intermediate sprints, that’s another part of the plan to try to incentivise moves) after that 500m at 4,4% uphill ramp that you can see on that profile (as a descent), before we head towards La Muela de San Juan, the second highest point in the range at 1830m and close to the source of the Tagus.

This means that the final summit finish of the Vuelta is a cat.3 summit in a very small ski station in the Sistema Central - not the most conventional choice, I know, but I think this should be good for racing. On the shoulders of the peak of La Muela de San Juan is the small town of Griegos, at 1600m and known as one of the coldest places outside of the Pyrenees in Spain, often seeing cold spells of several days with temperatures in double digits below freezing. Griegos has seen progressive population decline to the point where it achieved a bit of press in 2021 for offering free home and work to try to stimulate the local economy. One of its main points of interest is that while it is somewhat away from the beaten track, this municipality is home to the main cross-country ski station of the Aragonese part of the Sistema Central, the Espacio Nórdico de La Muela de San Juan. It’s a relatively small concern when compared to the Alpine stations at Valdelinares and Javalambre, or the Pyrenean Nordic stations like Candanchú and Linza, but it is a scenic little station which has a reasonably-sized parking area and a small number of resort amenities including a hire centre and a restaurant; on the small side for hosting a race of the size of the Vuelta perhaps, but more space than there is at places like Abantos, Ancáres and Velefique and seeing as my stages are likely being paid for by the provincial government of Teruel and that Griegos is trying to stimulate interest and investment, I don’t see this as impractical as promoting the local area with a stage like this which showcases the abundance of natural beauty and picturesque towns and villages would surely be ideal for such purposes.




View down to Griegos from the Espacio Nórdico


APM members scouting the climb

So, the ultimate question of course is, what’s the climb like? Well, it’s not a super decisive one, but it offers opportunities. This is why it cannot be relied on alone to make a difference in the stage, but if there are small gaps it can be used to at least do something with. The most important factor will be after we leave the road through Griegos - the TE-V-9032 which would eventually take us back to the Puerto de Orihuela, joining that road just below the summit and giving us the option of turning back toward Noguera, which we went through right at the start of the stage, or onward over the summit to Orihuela del Tremedal - and turn onto the narrower road up to the ski station; at this point the gradient ramps up to the steepest it will get, and we have a lengthy stretch of gradients up to and above 16% that will be the most decisive part of this climb itself.



We join the climb at the junction to Guadalaviar around two and a half kilometres into that profile. I haven’t categorised anything until we get to the 4km mark, however, before it starts to ramp up into Griegos. Into the village itself it’s about 1,2km at 6%, then it flattens out for just under a kilometre before we turn onto the summit road, where things ramp up significantly, with the next kilometre being at an average of 10%, before it flattens down to a final 1,5km at 6% once more. I got the climb details from APM forum user Mikmik44, or Miguel, an Aragonese poster who brought this climb to traceurs’ attention back in 2008; the profile was mapped by Alberto Mora, or “Almoralto”, another user. There is another profile from Altimetrias, mapped by Josemi Ochoa, which you can see here, showing that this includes a steeper ramp toward the finish in the last 200m, where it gets up to 12% once more. This video shows a rider descending the climb so you are able to see this is well paved, in good condition, and completely viable for racing. And there’s also a continuation of the road which is on sterrato, in case the race is a success and they want to go the Super-Planche des Belles Filles route.

The GC climbers have got no choice but to make this one count, because it’s their final chance. There’s two more days, but the climbers have to make this one count - it’s all cat.2 and cat.3 ascents, but there’s plenty of inconsistencies in steepness, and they’re also almost completely unknown climbs that have never been seen in the Vuelta - and I can’t see that they’ve ever been used in any other pro race, even when the Trofeo Luís Ocaña was held around Priego. In fact as there are limited numbers of amateur races in this area too, I wouldn’t bet against some of these climbs being unknown to racing at all. So even if they might not be the most imposing climbs out there, there’s a good chance we can see some action here, even if the best climber already has the jersey and it’s just from the break (although depending on the time gaps, maybe he will still need some time).

 
Stage 20: Cuenca - Cuenca, 33,2km (ITT)





GPM:
None

Yep, we’re working our way back across toward Madrid as the race comes to an end, and we’re going for a penultimate day ITT. This is very much out of vogue these days, sure, but given the part of the country we’re working our way through, a time trial would be the most logical penultimate day stage in order to keep things important and GC relevant. Now, for a while, the end of race ITT would be on the very last day, such as in the early 2000s when Ángel Casero in 2001 and Aitor González in 2002 both won the Vuelta on the final day, and 2004 when Santi Pérez tried but failed to do likewise. This in recent years has only cropped up in 2014 and 2021, and coincidentally (or rather not) this corresponds to the last two times the Vuelta has not finished in Madrid. Usually the final time trial in the Vuelta happens in the middle of week 3, but there was a time when it was stage 20. 1999 had a tough ITT on stage 20 between El Tiemblo and Ávila, over 46km including the long and gradual Puerto de Paramera, with Jan Ullrich putting on a Miguel Indurain show to win by nearly 3 minutes. 2003 saw a penultimate day cronoescalada to Alto de Abantos, which of course saw Roberto Heras finally succeed in breaking Isidro Nozal’s early advantage, Heras winning the stage and Nozal losing nearly two and a half minutes. 2005 saw the reinstatement of the penultimate day ITT, from Guadalajara to Alcalá de Henares, with Rubén Plaza setting what was for several years the fastest long TT in GT history, while for the next few years penultimate stage ITTs would take place in Rivas-Vaciamadrid in 2006 (won by Vino in the leader’s jersey), Collado Villalba in 2007 (won by Samuel Sánchez) and Toledo in 2009 (won by David Millar), plus another cronoescalada in 2008, this time to Navacerrada, which was won by Levi Leipheimer. In 2010, however, the Bola del Mundo MTF was introduced, and having a bona fide HC finale so close to Madrid ensured a prompt return, as well as the hype of returning to the Basque region in 2011, and then with developments in the Tour as well and ASO having their 49% stake in Unipublic, the trend moved towards mountain stages on day 20 rather than time trials.

The stage that I have planned here is co-opted wholesale from one of those previous Vueltas, but it isn’t a final ITT, but a mid-race TT that I have opted for. A few times we have seen the race get pretty close to Madrid early on but then travel away with transfers (such as in 2008 when they travelled up from Granada to Toledo then transferred to the Pyrenees) or looping away, such in in the edition I am harking back to, which is 2006, when on stage 14, on the penultimate weekend, the race saw a medium-long individual time trial around the scenic city of Cuenca. The day after the stage that gave a certain Danish forum user their username.


Cuenca is a provincial capital which is not that far from Madrid, and is also close by to yesterday’s stage town, so this works out well. Home to 55.000 people, the city dates its origins back to the early Islamic era in the Iberian peninsula, due to the strategic location on a hilltop overlooking two defendable gorges, and a castle and city walls were constructed in 714. The castle was called Kunka - it is believed this may have been derived from the Latin ‘conca’ meaning ‘river basin’, adapted to Andalusian Arabic phonology, and it became a textile manufacturing centre in the northern parts of the Cordoban Caliphate. When the Caliphate broke apart, it fell under the jurisdiction of first the Taifa al-Tulaytulah (Toledo), then Castilla y León (an agreement was signed in Cuenca whereby the Taifa conceded some forts and towns in exchange for military assistance from the Christians), then the Taifa al-Ishbiliyah (Sevilla), before being offered back to the Christians in a similar exchange in 1093 due to the looming threat of Almoravid conquest. Nevertheless this only delayed the inevitable, with the latter taking over fifteen years later. It split from the Almoravids in the 1140s but was captured by the Almohads in 1172, before Alfonso VIII of Castile successfully conquered the city in 1177 and granted it a fuero in order to defend it from reconquest. A Catholic diocese was shortly set up, and then it was granted city status during the 13th Century as the Muslim era on the Iberian peninsula came to an end.

Cuenca lost its economic power in the early 19th Century, due to a combination of the Napoleonic Wars and being forbidden from trading in textiles by Carlos IV in order to prevent the city undercutting the royal fabric houses. No, really. This decline was continued with the impact of the Carlist Wars and the Civil War, and early in the Franco era it, like many of the plains cities of the interior, saw heavy emigration to more prosperous and resource-rich coastal regions as well as overseas (such as Luís Ocaña’s family, who left Priego, a small town in the Cuenca province, for Mont-de-Marsan). Improved transport infrastructure has meant, however, that the city has benefited from day-tripping Madrileños and its historic old town has become an attraction in its own right, characterised by its legendary casas colgantes, built on the precipice of the sheer vertical cliff faces of the Júcar and Huécar gorges, with balconies hanging over the drop. Many houses in this style have been built in Cuenca, but only a small number remain, which are a major tourist attraction in their own right.





The Castillo de Cuenca, its traditional hub as far as bike racing is concerned, is not actually a castle so to speak, but the remains of the old Arab fortress. Many of the roads leading up to the ‘castle’ however are lightly cobbled and on a relatively steep uphill, so this has made it an attractive and frequently used finale in cycling history, with most stages that take place in Cuenca either finishing at the top of the hill (as in the 2007 national championships, won by Joaquím Rodríguez) or after descending from it (as in the 2006 Vuelta stage won by Samuel Sánchez). This ascent shows as the first 2km of this profile of the climb up to the repetidor San Cristóbal which overlooks the city.



2007 national championship road race finish

We shouldn’t totally focus on the 2km of uphill of course, this is a 33 kilometre time trial, so the rouleurs have plenty of chance to get their groove on and get into the rhythm.

As mentioned, this is an absolutely faithful recreation of the 2006 stage 14 ITT, which was won by David Millar by a fraction of a second over Fabian Cancellara. Aleksandr Vinokourov took a few seconds back on then-race-leader Alejandro Valverde as his quest to wrest control of the race gathered pace; he would eventually capture the jersey on the descent into Granada from Monachil and then he and Kashechkin would provide a comedy show for the ages on Sierra de la Pandera. We start at the bridge over the Júcar outside the Parque de los Moralejos, before turning off of the main road and passing Estádio de la Fuensanta, the small, open-topped stadium of local Segunda División B outfit UB Conquense, the pride of the city. We then head northwards on a vaguely uphill trajectory on the CM-2110, which is the less interesting part of the stage scenery-wise, through regular Manchego scenery. After around 5km uphill false flat (only around 2%) the road sweeps rightward and descends back down at similarly low gradients, easing into the Júcar basin at the almost deserted town of Embid.



The next 10km are pan flat and they are incredibly scenic as the riders head through the Júcar gorge, a natural marvel that is somewhat underappreciated for its backdrop. Helicam footage here should be really good.


The road cutting its way through the Hoz del Río Júcar


Returning to Cuenca along the banks of the river

At the 20km mark, we turn back into the city and take the climb that is profiled above, following the same route as the 2007 national championship road race up through the town and up to the castle. We then head out of town for a few kilometres passing the Acueducto de Cuenca before, at the 25km mark at the Hotel Cueva del Fraile, we turn back toward the city via first the Arroyo de la Cueva del Fraile and then the Huécar gorge, for a gradual downhill for the next 7km back into the city, which will take us in through the back route and under the Casas Colgantes.


Descending back into town through the Hoz del Huécar

The last couple of kilometres are flat, however, as we descend into town then head from the old town, up on the hill, into the more grid-constructed new town on the plains below, finish at the Polideportivo as they did in 2006.

This time trial should offer a little bit of everything. The first 10km are almost all just pure straight line speed, partly uphill and partly downhill but not at anything steep enough to disrupt the rhythm. The route through the Júcar canyon has sweeping corners but nothing technical, and this is pure power. Then you have 2km of punchy uphill - but on cobbles - and then the next stretch of the race is extremely technical, with twisty corners, so testing acceleration and bike handling, and of course providing high quality scenery throughout. There is a fairly high amount of time trial mileage in this race - over 90km - and not a huge amount of summit finish action, so the riders will have needed to make things count before this.

But… it isn’t quite over yet.
 
Reactions: QueenStagiaire
Stage 21: Madrid - Madrid, 177km





GPM:
Pico del Águila (cat.3) 3,0km @ 5,2%
Pico del Águila (cat.3) 3,0km @ 5,2%
Pico del Águila (cat.3) 3,0km @ 5,2%
Pico del Águila (cat.3) 3,0km @ 5,2%
Pico del Águila (cat.3) 3,0km @ 5,2%

Yes - it’s a real departure of a final day stage, with a creative and unusual option taken to create a competitive final day but still retain the traditional finish on the Paseo del Prado. This is actually the oldest stage in the race and a really old stage idea… the actual completed stage was uploaded to Cronoescalada in September 2017, but that was the 4th or 5th version of the stage, the original version dates back to about 2013, and was inspired by the Olympic Road Race in London in 2012; because Madrid at the time was one of the potential bidders for the 2024 Olympics, this was my idea for using a similar format to that in London to create an interesting finale - and then it became a consideration for a Vuelta finale that would shake up the norms. Usually I’ve stuck to the conventional finish on the tri-star circuit in Madrid, but sometimes I’ve tried to shake things up. A couple of Vueltas have finished in other fashions; one used an ITT into Madrid in the style of the early 2000s; one used a modified version of the existing circuit to add a short ramp of a hill to try to introduce a new element to the race (and also to make the women’s race a bit more interesting as at the time it was a one day race on the finishing circuit); another - the fifth, possibly my favourite - finished with the 2005 World Championships circuit; plus two editions have finished outside of Madrid entirely, both finishing with time trials in the same fashion as the Vuelta’s two finishes in Santiago de Compostela in recent years, one in Barcelona and one in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. So here I add another concept to the repertoire, ending in the traditional spot, but not in a way where the riders will complete circuits à la traditional parade stages - instead they will start and finish in the same place, but will travel out to a circuit, then return via the same roads they left on, in order to take on some more obstacles, but still have that classic city centre finale.


Traditional Madrid stage in the Vuelta


2012 Olympic Road Race course

The problem was, most of the climbs that we are familiar with from racing in the Comunidad de Madrid are to the north and west of the province; while back in the days of Julián Berrendero and Délio Rodríguez Barros final stages into Madrid would go over Navacerrada or León from places like Segovia, that’s a long abandoned route plan. I found that places like San Lorenzo de El Escorial were just too far away to even create the possibility of action. So I started scouting out those hills between Aránjuez and Madrid to see if there was anything that could be done. And pleasingly, thanks largely to Montero at 39x28 Altimetrias,there was.

But to get there, we must leave Madrid first, so we will set out from the Paseo del Prado on a somewhat extended neutral zone with kilometre zero taking place in the Moratalaz part of town, home of the only Mormon temple in Spain. We essentially head out of town on the M-823, at least as far as Rivas-Vaciamadrid, where we have a brief detour. Rivas hosted the stage 20 ITT in the 2006 Vuelta, and also the start of the final day’s parade stage in 2007 and 2009, but here I’m taking a brief detour for the purposes of later, as we exchange a gradual downhill sauntering for an actual descent, which will be important later as this - 1,6km at 4,2% with 700m at 6% in the middle - will become the last (albeit uncategorised) climb of the Vuelta. We then pass through Mejorada del Campo with its unfinished self-built labour-of-love cathedral created by former monk Don Justo Gallego and made largely out of recycled, found or salvaged materials, his life’s work left sadly unfinished by his death in 2021 at the age of 96. This is followed by Velilla de San António and then Arganda del Rey, a former home of the Spanish kings in the 11th Century and now one of the most impoverished towns in the country, thanks to some unfinished and unpublicised underhand deals and secret projects arranged by the council, linked to the Gürtel case, a scandal involving Partido Popular politicians evading taxes and laundering money as well as hiding projects where large enrichment enticements were offered to companies led by friends and colleagues of prominent PP politicians. I have a bit of a looping around of Arganda del Rey to do, again to do with the potential for some ramps and repechos here later on in the stage.

From Arganda, however, we have a stepped climb up to the Pico del Águila, where we enter our main circuit for the day, built around Morata de Tajuña and this small climb, and which will be the arena for the final chances of anybody making or breaking time in the Vuelta. Morata de Tajuña has come into the news in recent times because of plans to construct a new F1/MotoGP circuit there to replace the now obsolescent Jarama track on the outskirts of Madrid, but that project is still a long way from happening at time of writing.


Detail of the circuit

The interesting thing about the Pico del Águila that made this the perfect choice for my stage is that while there is only the one northern side of the climb, there are two from the south. That and that the summit is a slightly elevated plateau, which enables me to use the summit while ‘not-using-the-summit’ so to speak. Neither side looks particularly dangerous from the statistics - both are 3km at 5,2% - but one side offers significantly better opportunity to make a gap, thanks to a kilometre at 9,8% and a maximum of 13%, so, yes, I’ve gone for climbing that one, and descending the other.


Climbing the first profile, descending the second. Both converge at the 3km mark, so this is where the GPM will be

Now, the fact of the matter is, we’re still quite some way away from the finish even when we’re done with these circuits. The circuit is 15,75km in length, and so the summits of the five ascents of Pico del Águila come at 117, 101, 85, 69 and finally 54 kilometres from the finish. But, you know, it’s stage 21. There’s a strong likelihood that this is settled enough that all we do here is drop the sprinters (especially as many are likely to have gone home by this point) and no GC action can take place - but that’s not in and of itself bad because obviously we have the possibility for classics style racing in a final GT stage… and we all know that time can be won and lost in the classics on terrain that, in a typical GT stage, would not impact racing. So this could go one of many ways.

Leaving the circuit at 54km remaining means that we start to retrace our steps from earlier, in the opposite direction, starting with the descent of the Pico del Águila back to Arganda del Rey. There is a double-climb here, first around a kilometre at 4% (500m at 6%) on Calle Ciprés, and then 1,1km at 5,7% on Ronda del Sur - this entails us descending one side of a dual carriageway, circling around the roundabout at the bottom, and climbing up the other side of said dual carriageway, so if gaps are very small then the groups on the road can keep an eye on one another. This climb is 43km from home but also features the intermediate sprint at its summit, which balances out the classification as well as offering some bonus seconds if anybody fancies committing to a move.


Hospital del Sureste, near the base of the climb. We will descend and ascend the road shown

We then retrace our steps around the twisty, roundabout-filled route across Arganda del Rey before making a beeline for Velilla San António and Mejorada del Campo once again, before we have our uphill grind into Rivas-Vaciamadrid and its 1,6km at 4,2%; this is at 21km from the finish and is the final climb of the race. From here it’s just a charge through the Madrileño suburbs and then on to the centre of the city to finish in our traditional spot.

This therefore takes us through the Parque Forestal de Valdebernardo and Moratalaz where km0 was, before passing through the Barrio de Estrella, known for its well-to-do high-rises and then around the outsides of Parque del Buen Retiro, Madrid’s best known urban green space.



This large park, often just known as El Retiro, used to be palatial grounds for the Spanish royal family, close to the Puerta de Alcalá on Plaza Independencia, which traditionally lies a block to the east of the Madrid circuit used in the Vuelta, but for my route we pass it. El Retiro was originally built as part of a monasterial complex in the 16th Century, then it was extended twice by 1620 and it became what is now perceived as the last great work of the Spanish renaissance, with the architecture of its complex, its layout, fountains and greenery, and it was a centre of Habsburg life in the 17th Century. The palace to which it was appended was destroyed during the Peninsular Wars, and in the late 19th Century it became more commonly used as an exhibition or fair ground. In 2021 it was inducted as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an accolade it holds as part of a shared heritage with the Paseo del Prado, which traditionally hosts the Vuelta’s finishing line since Unipublic restored the Madrid finish, and which will again assume that role here.



The Paseo del Prado is the Spanish equivalent of the Champs Elysées, which is why it is used as a finish for the Vuelta, but it is also I suppose the nearest thing to an equivalent of the Mall in London, which served as the finish for the 2012 Olympic Road Race that I used to inspire this stage design. The Mall has Buckingham Palace at one end, and Trafalgar Square at the other, which is home to many embassies, museums and galleries, and the Paseo del Prado matches up to this, housing the so-called Triángulo del Arte, the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, three major art museums/galleries which run along the road; it also houses the CaixaForum, a centre for visual arts. The traditional circuit - which we join shortly after the start of the traditional circuit, so we don’t have any circuits per se, but we do almost a full lap of the usual circuit - loops between three junctions on the Paseo del Prado, each with an iconic monument; the northern end has the Monumento a Cristóbal Colón (next to the archaeological museum and the Fernán Gómez cultural centre), the southern end has the Fountain of Neptune, and in the middle - at the finishing line and in front of which the traditional finishing podium takes place - Plaza Cibeles and its palace.



The third arm of the circuit is up on to Gran Vía, which also includes the Edificio Metrópolis and the Circulo de Bellas Artes. However… you all know the final circuit. We’re doing the usual final circuit for the last 5km or so, and so I’m not expecting that there is going to be too much action late on here, but if we totally break the bunch apart on the late parts of the circuit, and if there are small gaps that cause people to take risks as it’s an unexpected last day battle, we are going to see the potential for some classics type action - especially bearing in mind there is some bragging rights ahead of the World Championships that historically follow the Vuelta closely. Or it could be a straight up flat stage that ends in a sprint - but the thing with that is, the worst case scenario is something akin to what we have now; the best case scenario is absolute carnage. We might never see that, but at least the possibility is there.

Let’s see what the bunch has for us here.
 
Pyrénées-Atlantiques Classic (1.1)





Interactive Map

A fictional French one-day race that with its mountainous route and locality would fit well close to La Route d'Occitanie (Route du Sud), but given that the early summer French calender is already filled to the brim, it would instead be held between Tour de l'Ain and Bretagne Classic (so its date this year would have been 21 August). I know it's too long given its categorisation, so to begin with it would have to start from Mauléon-Licharre, but the goal is this distance. The main climbs are well-known, and they are the backbone of this parcours meant to favour climbers, so the sparse climbs in the run-in to Pau have a supporting role. The finish-line is the usual at Place Verdun; the approach is the most direct, with a double-corner near the line, but no more awkward than those of Siena in Strade Bianche.
 
Tour de France Femmes avec Samu

Stage 8: Moirans - Lyon, 136 km


Sorry for the long delay, but now I’m finally ready to finish off my Tour de France Femmes.

When the Tour visited Lyon in 2020, the then newly elected mayor, Grégory Doucet of the local Green Party, declared, that he didn’t want the race to return to the city before it had a) reduced its carbon footprint and b) created a women’s Tour de France. Well one out of the two is good enough for me, and perhaps the ASO will take further steps to fix the other issue for next year to avoid protestors and negative press.

Since both LS and JV Fan had multiple longer climbs in the final stage of their races, I decided to do something different in mine, although there is a cat. 1 climb in the beginning of my stage. It originally started in Grenoble, but since I already have two stages longer than 150 km, I though it was a bit excessive to have another one, so I cut about 20 km which were mostly flat anyway.

When the riders have crossed the Col de Chatain, the course turn into more of an Amstel Gold Race/Flèche Wallonne kind of thing with multiple shorter, but at times quite steep climbs. I know there are lot of these kind of races throughout the season, and it would perhaps have been a better idea to have had a stage like this earlier in the race. On the other hand, there can be early action on this stage, and it definitely won’t be all about the final climb. And many riders will feel they might have a chance to win this stage, if the GC favourites hesitate a bit.

The fact that it comes after a week of racing could also make things interesting. I doubt the GC is really close at this point, so hopefully some teams and riders will ride aggressively from the start, because they won't be able to move up just from taking bonus seconds at the end of the stage.

The Côte de l'Etang Bertache and some kilometres before and after it was sused in this year's TdF stage Saint-Étienne. The finish line in Lyon is situated close to the football stadium, which was also the case when the Tour visited the city in 2003 and 2013.







Only the hardest part of it will be climbed










Only the first 800 meters will be climbed




Strava profile of Montée de la Côte: https://www.strava.com/segments/5366363




 
Maybe a bit of an odd question, but does anyone here know how accurate Cronoescalada is when it comes to roads being paved outside of Europe, specifically in China?
Cronoescalada is now pretty decent in China, because OSM is much more reliable than Google there. It's more reliable in the more populated areas. It can be a bit obsolete though with many superprojects and infrastructural development work going on. Pleko and google fu might be required for areas of lower population density.
 
Cronoescalada is now pretty decent in China, because OSM is much more reliable than Google there. It's more reliable in the more populated areas. It can be a bit obsolete though with many superprojects and infrastructural development work going on. Pleko and google fu might be required for areas of lower population density.
Thanks for the info. I've been messing around with Yunnan as a region a bit, there's some serious altitude and long climbs there.
 
Tour de France Femmes avec Samu summary

8 stages (one ITT and 7 road stages with one MTF), approx. 891 km, 31 categorised climbs (including one HC).

I don't think this route is neither too unrealistic nor too hard for the current peloton, though a mountain stage on day two probably isn't likely to feature after what we've just seen in the Vuelta Challenge. And sure, a peak Van Vleuten would still be able to win this race by minutes, but unless you have 8 flat stages, that will pretty much always be a possibility. And there are definitely also stages that suit other riders than her.

I've tried to limit the transfers to between 60 and 90 minutes at most, but in a perfect race I feel it should be less than that.

Lorena Wiebes would have multiple chances to win stages in this race, but she'll have to work for it. Marianne Vos wold be the favourite for the greem jersey, but she'll have to be at her best as well to be in contention.

I have an idea for 9 stage TDFF, that I might starting working on soon. It will be more experimental and less realisti, but hopefully still contain some designs that could be interesting for ASO in the future.

Stage 1: Strasbourg - Colmar, 103 km


Stage 2: Colmar - Cornimont, 127 km


Stage 3: Lure - Dole-Mont Roland, 156 km


Stage 4: Lons-Le Saunier - Belley, 153 km


Stage 5: Saint-Alban-de-Montbel, 16.7 km ITT


Stage 6: Chambéry - Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, 112 km


Stage 7: Valloire - Vaujany, 86 km


Stage 8: Moirans - Lyon, 136 km
 
Giro d'Italia, version 5

My fifth version of the Giro d'Italia. I've also created a sixth and kind of "ultimate" version which I will post later this fall. That version was actually created before this one, but I will anyway post this one first since it's a bit easier and more standard than the version I've now called v6.

First library posts of my first four versions. Version 1 and 4 is actually about 50 % the same. The first is a version without the Dolomites and the latter a version without both the Alps and the Dolomites and which finishes in Rome with a San Pellegrino in Alpe-Abetone and a Montalcino sterrato stage as the third and second last stage.

Giro d'Italia, v1
Giro d'Italia, v2
Giro d'Italia, v3
Giro d'Italia, v4

The idea for version 5 started out with a consideration of how to custom design a GT/Giro for a certain type of rider, in this case a diesel engine like Ganna. If Ganna (or a similar ryder type) showed some promise for GTs, would then RCS custom design a Giro for him, and how would that look like? A lot ITT of course, long and perhaps not to steep MTFs like Terminillo, Pratonevoso, the easier sides of Monte Grappa, and a couple of big mountain stages in the Dolomites and Aosta without using the steepest climbs. That would have meant no Mortirolo, Finestre, Zoncolan, Stelvio, Giau, Fedaia, etc.

After starting the design process, I came to the conclusion that it would be to boring to create a Giro like that, and adjusted the agenda. The route still have elements from initial design with a fair amount of ITT and long/tough stages without the steepest climbs, but I've also made the route a bit more varied. It will contain enough elements that could have attracted a rider like Remco and also something fitting other types of GC riders. And it can be considered as fairly realistic with many stages ending in classic cycling locations.

So to get tings started:

Stage 1: Foggia - San Giovanni Rotondo, 222 km

We start in the southeastern corner in Italy, on the plains in Puglia. Stage 1 is a bit untypical in that regard that it is fairly long for a first stage, and that it isn't neither a stage for the sprinters nor has a punchy and short uphill finish. From the start in Foggia, they move northeast and start the first climb after about 35 km, which passes through the stage finish in San Giovanni Rotondo after 43 km. But there is still a long way to the finish. After continuing the climb for a few kms, they pass the hilly, southwestern part of the Gargano peninsula, before descending to the northern shores to the Adriatic.

The peloton reaches the sea after about 90 km, and continue to do a clockwise loop around the peninsula for the next 100 km or so. Along the way they will have some very scencic views towards the Adriatic. After about 190 km, they are on the southern shores of the peninsula and start the climb to the town of Monte Sant Angelo. This could have been the stage finish, but instead they continue to the west back to San Giovanni Rotondo for another 20 km. The last part is mostly flat with a couple of gentle "bumps". The climb to Monte Sant Angelo would certainly split the peloton and make it highly unlikely with a mass sprint. The most likely scenario is a reduced peloton with many attacks the last 20 km towards the stage finish.

Climbs:
43 km: San Giovanni Rotondo, 8,1 km,6 %
150 km: Santa Tecla, 5,6 km, 6,1 %
198 km: Monte Sant Angelo: 11 km, 5,8 %

Map:


Profile:

 
Stage 2: San Severo - Campobasso, 157 km

The stage starts in San Severo, just north of the stage finish the day before. From the start they move north/northwest towards the coast and follows the shoreline almost to Termoli, before turning south. The last half of the stage is a bit more hilly, but without any to difficult are categorized climbs. A breakway will certainly form, but it should be possible for the well-rested and not reduced sprinter teams to keep things under control and make sure this ends up in a mass sprint in Campobasso.

Map:


Profile:

 
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