2021 Vuelta a España Preview: The Vuelta of the Cathedrals, yes the cathedrals of mountain climbing pain! The organisers of the Spanish tour have searched out more stunning climbs for this year’s edition, Ed Hood has run an eye over the ‘recorrido’ to give us his Vuelta first look.
Burgos start for la Vuelta’21
This edition is the ‘La Vuelta de las Catedrales’. The organisers’ blurb tells us; “The Spanish grand tour’s 76th edition will take off in front of the Burgos Cathedral on the 14th of August and will take place entirely within Spanish territory up until the very last stage, that will conclude in the Santiago Cathedral on the 5th of September.”
Bar El PEZ in Burgos
PEZ knows both towns, my amigo Davie and I were strolling through Burgos one day, taking in the sights, an old guy ambled up to us; “you are tourists, yes?” We confirmed his suspicions and without prompting, he was off and running; “This was a Fascist town you know, it still is, see those cathedral steps over there? Goering stood on those steps back in the Civil War, Burgos was the base for the Condor Legion, the Germans who fought here for Franco.”
The old fella was quite correct; the planes which flew the infamous mission to bomb the ancient Basque capital of Guernica – a day of infamy immortalised by Picasso in his painting of that name – flew from Burgos.
Now that I’ve blown my invite from the Burgos Tourist Board to the Stage One time trial which constitutes the first eight kilometres [a prologue has to be less than eight kilometres] of the 3336.1 kilometres of the 2021 Vuelta, let’s go the other end of the race and Santiago de Compostella.
Contador in front of Santiago de Compostella cathedral
The final – and possibly decisive 33.7 kilometres of the race are against the watch and the organisers will be, ‘hoping for a Pogacar’ late drama. My memories of beautiful Compostella are less controversial; we stayed in a lovely old pension over-looking the mossy façade of the cathedral which is the conclusion of The Camino de Santiago, known in English as the ‘Way of Saint James,’ a network of pilgrims’ ways, marked by the sign of the seashell, leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the Galician cathedral; tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried there.
Bar O Gato Negro seafood
It may be a city of particular religious significance but it’s also a party town, if you make it to the final contrarreloj then be sure to try, Bar O Gato Negro which was founded in 1920, it’s in a jumping, narrow alley not far from the cathedral and a ‘real deal’ of a bar.
Señor Covid permitting, of course.
Top and tailed by time tests outside cathedrals but what else is on the agenda? Well, 45 categorised climbs, with three ‘mega’ ascents, two of them finishing atop mountains in the last week. ‘But I’m a sprinter?’ There are four days for you, amigo – maybe more if you’re lucky?
Maybe four days for the sprinters in 2021
The race just about everything Spain has to offer; apart from religious shrines there’s heat, history, beaches, rocky coastlines, plains and of course – them mountains. We pick our stages which for one reason or another, we think will be, ‘interesting’. The route is unusual for modern Vuelta in that it takes in most of the land mass of the nation, except for Catalonia and the North East Mediterranean coast.
Stage Two heads south but Stage Three then goes north back towards the Bay of Biscay and the first altitude finish of the race on the fresh Picon Blanco. The first selection coming very early, a Vuelta trademark.
Stage 3 – The first selection
Sprint finish in Albacete Vuelta’14
There’s a transfer back south for Stage Four to Molina de Aragon with Stage Five continuing the trek south to Albacete, scene of bitter battles in 1936 at the start of the Civil War.
Alto finish to stage6
Stage Six take the race to the Mediterranean coast and PEZ editor Alastair Hamilton territory. If the word ‘Alto’ is in the name of the finish then Alto de la Montaña de Cullera just north of Gandia is one to make the sprinters wince, with ‘alto’ and ‘montaña’ in the same breath.
Pogačar winning in Cullera in the Volta a la Valenciana’20
Stages Seven and Eight continue the march south along the Med coast before Stage Nine to the ‘renowned’ as the organisers would have it, Alto de Velefique which will be the toughest day of the race thus far.
Stage 9 – Renowned
Stage Nine is in Murcia, which is Valverde Heartland; he’ll be out to pull off an ‘exploit’ – let’s hope Mas can fill his boots once the, ‘Green Bullet’ fires his last shot. The rest day will be most welcome.
Valverde at home in Murcia
Stage 10 and they continue to track the Med. coast to Rincon de la Victoria before Stage 11 heads north west into the interior and Valdepenas de Jaen where it’s a ‘Flèche Wallone finish.’
Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba
Stage 12 takes in another World Heritage place of worship, the Mosque–Cathedral of Córdoba, built by the Moors during their centuries in Spain but converted to a Christian place of worship during the ‘Reconquista,’ literally the ‘re-conquest’ when Christian forces ousted the occupying Moors.
Stage 14 – One of the toughest
Stage 13 continues the trek north, tracking the Portuguese border whilst Stage 14 is one of the toughest of the race and if the Velefique didn’t shuffle the pack fully then the Pico Villuercas certainly shall. The organisers tells us it’s; ‘an extremely tough unprecedented La Vuelta climb that stands out for its spectacular nature.’ Gruppetto!
Stages 14 and 15
Stage 15 continues north to El Barraco, birthplace of Tour de France winner, Carlos Sastre and the late, erratic but brilliant on his day, Jose Maria Jimenez. Rest in peace, sir.
Jiminez in Vuelta yellow (now red)
The rest day sees a big transfer north to the Bay of Biscay with Stage 16 a loop back round to the coast the appetiser for two monstrous days.
Mythical – Stage 17 to Covadonga
Stage 17 is the stuff of legend, finishing at the Lagos de Covadonga – I wouldn’t be a proud Scotsman if I didn’t record that Robert Millar won that stage in 1986. Respect.
Robert Millar in 1986
Covadonga was the scene of the first battle where Christians triumphed over The Moors in the ‘Reconquista.’ The Christian leader, Pelagius took his men into the cave at the base of the climb the night before the battle to pray and ask for a ‘sign.’ It is said the Virgin manifested herself in the cave – now a place of pilgrimage – and the next day the battle was won; if you pick up on places with ‘aura’ your skin will prickle here.
Stage 18 – Not for the sprinters!
Altu d’El Gamoniteiru
Stage 18 continues with another description that doesn’t make good reading if you ain’t super-skinny; ‘a brand-new mountain pass expected to go down in history: the Altu d’El Gamoniteiru,’ complete with sections of concrete paving. To the sprinters we say; ‘vaya con Dios.’
Stage 20 – Gacian ups-and-downs
Stage 19 slices south across Galicia before Stage 20 and what could be another critical stage which heads back north, parallel to the coast; with steep ascents and cross winds ripping in off the Bay of Biscay this, ‘Ardennes in Galicia’ stage could be just as crucial as the final timed part of the pilgrimage to Compostella.
An interesting and diverse route – we like it a lot.