After the routes for the 2020 Tour de France and 2020 Giro d'Italia were revealed in October, it's now time for the supposed runt of the Grand Tour litter to flash its eyelids at fans ahead of the forthcoming season. So often cast as the last chance saloon of the big stage races, the Vuelta offers a typically demanding parcours in 2020 but one which will suit riders of all shapes, sized and specialities in the overall quest for red.
Let's now look at the main talking points from the race, which will run, a little earlier than usual, from Friday 14th August until Sunday 6th September.
Dutch gran partida
For only the fourth time in history, but the second time in the past decade, the race will start abroad. Three years after the French gran partida in Nimes and 11 years after venturing even further north to Assen, the Vuelta returns to the Netherlands for three stages.
The race kicks off, as per usual, with a 23.3km team time trial in Utrecht ahead of two largely flat road stages ideally suited to the sprinters. The Stage 3 finish in Breda passes close to the De Klinge, the hometown of the Vuelta's first ever winner, the Belgian Gustaaf Deloor, on the 85th anniversary of the inaugural edition.
North by Northwest
The Dutch start sets the tone for the most northerly edition of La Vuelta since 2012, with the entire race completely bypassing the southern and eastern parts of the country – most notably the cycling hotbeds of Catalunya and Andalusia, which are wholly snubbed.
Once on Spanish soil, Stage 4 begins in the border town of Irun in the Basque Country. Over the next three weeks the peloton will pass through the regions of Navarra, Soria, Zaragoza, Huesca, Alava, La Rioja, Burgos, Palencia, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia ahead of the Madrid finale – via a brief foray into France and two stages in Portugal.
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Eight summit finishes
When it comes to the Vuelta, everyone knows that it is all about the mountains. And with eight summit finishes, the organisers have not disappointed.
The first comes on Stage 4 as the race tackles one of the most renowned climbs in the Basque Country, the Arrate, which so often plays host to the queen stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
The last summit finish comes on the race's penultimate day, on the demanding, technical and exposed slopes of La Covatilla west of Madrid. It will be the sixth visit to the climb where Ben King won in 2018 and Dan Martin triumphed in 2011.
The six summit finishes in between come at La Laguna Negra de Vinuesa (Stage 6), the Col du Tourmalet (Stage 9), the Alto de Moncalvillo (Stage 11), the Alto de la Farrapona (Stage 14), the Alto de l'Angliru (Stage 15) and the climax to the ITT on the Mirador de Ezaro (Stage 16).
While the Tourmalet has been used as a stage finish before in the Tour de France, this will be the first time a Vuelta stage concludes on its legendary slopes. Earlier in the race, in Stage 6, the riders will do battle on a climb making its first appearance in the race – the Cat.1 ascent of Laguna Negra de Vinuesa (18km at 3.6% but pushing double digits in the final click). Also featuring for the first time is the finale to Stage 11, the Cat.1 Alto de Moncalvillo (14.5km at 6.5%) and the penultimate climb of the peniultimate stage, the Cat.2 Alto de la Garganta (18km at 4.9%).
Tourmalet vs Angliru in the regal stakes
When it comes to crowning this route, two stages really stand out. The short but sharp 135.6km Stage 9 into France includes the Cat.1 Portalet and the HC ascent of the Aubisque, with its descent broken up by the unclassified Soulor – all ahead of the final showdown on the Tourmalet.
Then there's the other headliner – the Stage 15 rendez-vous on the staggeringly steep Angliru, which also crams in four categorised climbs ahead of the final double-digit ramp widely considered to be the hardest in Spain, where Chris Froome so memorably jostled with Juan Jose Cobo in 2011.
But there's a third candidate that should not be overlooked when it comes to naming the queen stage: the day before the Angliru, the riders will tackle four consecutive Cat.1 climbs – including the final rise to La Farrapona. If not a queen, then it's certainly a jack.
'The Contador Weekend'
Yes, indeed, the back-to-back Asturian stages are very much seeping in Alberto Contador nostalgia, the retired Spaniard being the only rider to have won both on the Alto de la Farrapona (where he secured his 2014 overall win ahead of Froome) and the Angliru (where El Pistolero pulled the trigger with his final win as a pro in 2017, nine years after his victory there brought the Spaniard the first of his three Vuelta wins).
It's a double whammy of Asturian arduousness that will not only commemorate Contador but perhaps write a new glorious chapter for his successor, whomever that may be.
Three rest days
After the Angliru comes the third and final rest day of the race, with the riders travelling from the Netherlands to the Basque Country on the first Monday of the race ahead of the second rest day one week later following the Tourmalet. Three days off means a rare Friday start for the Vuelta in 2020.
Just the one ITT – and a hard one, to boot
All 33.5km of individual time trial kilometres come in the one race against the clock, but this is far from a course that suits the chrono specialists. The first 30-odd kilometres of Stage 16 may be largely flat, but the final 1.8km will see the riders rise 265m on an average gradient of 14.6% to the Ezaro dam. With the gradient pushing 28% we may see most GC contenders opting for a bike change, which will further add to the drama.
Only one stage above 200km
Unlike the 2020 Giro d'Italia, which boasts 10 stages in excess of 200km, this Vuelta, like the Tour, has just one chapter above the 200km mark. But an interesting development has also seen a proliferation of stages which end on the flat but include a testing climb and a fast descent near the finish.
Four stages (5, 8, 10 and 17) all have a classified climb immediately preceding the finish. The pick of the bunch could well be the first – Stage 5 – which could play host to the first major GC shake-up with the Cat.1 Alto de San Miguel de Aralar peaking with 17km remaining ahead of a fast and frantic descent to Lekunberri, which comes in a series of challenging steps ideally suited to an ambush.
Rare Portuguese passage
Two flat stages in Portugal precedes the final fireworks and should keep the door open for the sprinters ahead of Madrid. It will be the first time the Vuelta has crossed the border into Spain's westerly neighbour since 1997. Following stages in the Netherlands and France, this will make the 2020 race the most international edition of La Vuelta according to race director Javier Guillen.
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No complaints for the sprinters
With three flat stages in the final four days – including the final day's procession into Madrid – the sprinters will have a real incentive to battle over all the hills. In fact, a further four more flat finishes – including those two stages in the Netherlands – will increase the chances of a sprinter donning the green jersey on the final podium for the first time since John Degenkolb in 2014.
Decisive showdown on La Covatilla
The eighth and final summit showdown of the 2020 race takes place on the exposed slopes of La Covatilla (19.9km at 5.8%). While Stage 20 doesn't look like a rib-tickler on paper, its succession of peaks – five categorised climbs ahead of the finale for 4,000m of climbing – and almost entire absence of flat roads over 175.8km could see the battle for red come down to the wire, especially after a tough preceding three weeks.
It remains to be seen if Primoz Roglic, the reigning champion, will defend his crown. But the Vuelta's position in the calendar usually equates to a star-studded start-list, even if a lot inevitably depends on how the cookie crumbles during the Giro and Tour. Regardless of the Slovenian's decision, the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Miguel Angel Lopez, Romain Bardet and Steven Kruijswijk should all be present at the start in Utrecht.
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