A talented climber in the 1990s, and with two podium finishes in the Vuelta a España and a third place in the 1999 Tour de France, after retiring in 2002 Spain’s Fernando Escartín started work with Unipublic co-designing the Vuelta’s race routes.
With the 2022 Vuelta a España race route published this week, Escartín gave Cycling News his full behind-the-scenes insight into five of its key stages.
Stage 1 – Utrecht to Utrecht, TTT, 23km: a blast from the past
Come next September it’ll be three years since any Grand Tour last held a team time trial, the most recent being the Vuelta a España back in September 2019. But fortunately the Vuelta 2022 continues to maintain the tradition of TTTs, a speciality much liked by fans and regrettably lacking both from the Giro d’Italia since Orica-GreenEdge won at Sanremo in 2015, and the Tour de France since Jumbo-Visma took an important victory on home soil in July 2019.
So the opportunity to witness a full scale Grand Tour TTT is definitely not one to miss – and particularly when the Vuelta’s TTT could have an important impact on the overall, right from the gun.
That’s because the 2022 opening TTT is nearly twice as long as the 2019 Vuelta’s 13-kilometre circuit in Torrevieja and as Escartín says, “that makes a big difference.”
“OK, there won’t be huge gaps between the strongest teams. However, say a top favourite turns up with a weak squad to back them, they can easily lose a minute or more on such a relatively long course.”
Furthermore, as the third Grand Tour of the year and with the end of the season almost in sight, it can be a struggle for teams to find a full line-up of riders who are in form, too – and a team time trial so early in the race will ruthlessly expose any such weaknesses.
It barely matters, in fact, that the Utrecht course is completely flat, Escartin says, with virtually no technical sections and a low risk of strong winds to blast squads apart. In a Vuelta TTT, the risk of a team falling apart steepens far more sharply with each equivalent kilometre than in, say, the Giro or Tour. All of which will virtually guarantee a hugely interesting and potentially significant opening chapter to the Vuelta.
Stage 10 – Elche to Alicante, ITT, 31.1km: A potential game changer
During the 2022 Vuelta presentation, Enric Mas (Movistar) told Cycling News that he thought the organisers’ decision to place the race’s one individual time trial mid-way through the event represented a major game changer. And Escartín agrees, 100 per cent.
“For one thing the TT comes straight after a rest day and for some riders that juxtaposition represents a real problem,” Escartín points out. “So that will automatically make it more interesting.”
“On top of that” – and unlike the last very hilly TT in the Vuelta in the Alicante region, back in 2016 when Chris Froome won in Calpe – “our TT consists of a pretty long effort on flat roads, which will make the climbers suffer. However, by putting the TT in the middle of the Vuelta, the climbers will have plenty of chances in the mountains that come afterwards to recoup their losses.”
As Escartín points out, it is getting harder and harder for climbers to make a difference in the mountain stages, with gaps normally between 15 and 30 seconds, “if you don’t have a terrible day.” So that also renders the ITT more important.
As for how big those gaps could be in Alicante, Escartín calculates that “between the top TT specialist among the GC favourites, the differences probably won’t be more than 15 or 30 seconds. But for a climber, over 30 kilometres you can lose 90 seconds to a Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) or a Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) kind of rider really easily. And that’s at a minimum.”
The route itself is almost completely flat, he explains, with good roads throughout, and it’s only in Alicante itself, where there are a series of bends and roundabouts that it gets more technical.
“The rest is simple. But the second half is all on exposed roads and we do go alongside the coast towards Alicante too. So there could well be a lot of wind so that would favor the more powerfully built riders even more.”
Could the Vuelta GC end up being completely decided, though, by such a demanding course? That was the case in 2019, the last time there was a mid-race TT, where Roglič pulverized the entire field. Escartin admits it’s possible, but adds that “there are a lot of mountains afterwards, ” and hopefully, therefore, the GC battle would continue for much longer, rather than the TT killing off the race’s GC interest too soon.
Stage 15: Martos to Sierra Nevada, 148.1km: Hitting the Heights
“There’s been a lot of stuff on social media claiming there’s no really hard mountain stage in the 2022 Vuelta,” Escartín says. “But I think people are seriously underestimating the damage Sierra Nevada could do.”
For one thing, as Escartín points out, there’s the arduous build up to the race’s first ascent to the Sierra Nevada in four years to consider. Stage 12 of the Vuelta from Salobreña to the Peñas Blancas summit finish kicks off with what could be a high-speed dash along the Mediterranean coast and crosswinds could well have a major effect there. As if that was not enough, Peñas Blancas is a ferociously long 20-kilometre ascent, four kilometres more than in 2013, when it was last used, in what are potentially baking hot temperatures given the area. And then stage 14, just 24 hours before Sierra Nevada, finishes on one of Andalucia’s toughest single climbs, La Pandera in Jaén, with long stretches of the climb containing double digit gradients and a very narrow, rough road to the former military base at the summit.
All this comes before Sierra Nevada itself, on a day which packs more than 4,000 metres of vertical climbing into just 148 kilometres. The monster climb tackled in 2017, “this year we’ve switched things around and it’s got a lot of tough moments. Firstly there’s the Alto del Purche, a very difficult first category climb. Then we drop down on the shortest route possible to the foot of Hazallanas” – by far the hardest ascent possible of the various up to Sierra Nevada.
“Finally rather than go up the usual road to the ski station,” which rises steadily, but which is smooth and broad almost all the way, “we’re going up the old back road to the top, which is shorter, but far harder, and it should see much bigger differences emerge when someone attacks.”
Factor in the 35 degree heat (and 40 degrees in the valleys) that usually predominates in Andalucia at that time of year, the previous two tough mountain stages in three days and that Sierra Nevada is the one Hors Categorie ascent and the one time the race goes higher than 2,000 metres above sea level, where altitude becomes a real factor, and the potential for a major mountain battle, perhaps the biggest of the entire Vuelta, is very high indeed.
Stage 18 – Trujillo to El Piornal, 190km
Assuming Alejandro Valverde takes part in the 2022 Vuelta (and that’s virtually a given), the Spanish veteran will be among the very few riders in the current peloton who was also around when the Vuelta last tackled the first category climb of El Piornal. That was back in 2004 and again in 2006 , both times en route to the Covatilla summit finish. However, apart from Valverde even fewer riders, probably, could have put El Piornal on a map before this week’s Vuelta presentation.
That’s essentially because El Piornal is situated in one of the most remote areas of western Spain in the border region of Extremadura, an area the Vuelta rarely visits, with last year being a big exception to that unwritten rule. The Piornal. being such an unfamiliar climb, Escartín argues, could well help turn the eighth of the Vuelta’s nine summit finishes into one of the race’s key days.
“It’s not steep, but it’s relentless,” Escartín says. “There are at least three different ways of going up it and this year we’re doing all of them, including the same side the Vuelta went up in 2004, past the monastery of Yuste. Coming late in the Vuelta, when riders are tired, it’d be easy to get caught out,” particularly on a day where there’s a lot of undulating terrain throughout. “The final climb isn’t so steep, but it’s 15 kilometres long and after all we’ve had before, it’s sure to catch somebody out.”
Stage 20 – Navacerrada, 175.5km
In one sense it’s hard to understand why the Sierras of Madrid have produced big surprises in the Vuelta a España GC. None of the climbs in the area are particularly long or steep, almost all of them are exceptionally well surfaced and broad A-roads and as one local amateur (who understandably is not willing to be named) who has ascended them countless times tells Cycling News “if you tackle them one by one, they’re all pretty bland and disappointingly short.”
But that, according to Escartín, is to fail to appreciate one key factor – that the climbs are packed together, making for no room for recovery. Plus, given they’re almost always part of the third week of racing, “riders have nothing to lose, they know they’re on the point of finishing of the race. So they like to go flat out just to see what happens.”
“The Sierras of Madrid have become a stage where something always happens,” Escartín says, “Do you remember in 2015 when [Fabio] Aru managed to drop [race leader Tom] Dumoulin and win the Vuelta? That was because he attacked on the Morcuera, two climbs out, just like we’ve got on this year on stage 20, and in 2015 Astana had played their hand brilliantly, by placing riders up the road ahead for Aru to bridge across and use to gain more time on Dumoulin.”
Dumoulin has switched squads since then, of course, and Escartín, “It would be very hard to beat a team as strong as Jumbo-Visma on a stage like that. But if the leader’s team isn’t that strong, and you send riders ahead, the Sierras easily becomes a stage where a lot can happen. Because the climbs are so close together, the stage doesn’t just test a leader: it tests a team as well. It’s going to make for a fascinating final day of full-on racing in a Vuelta which perhaps doesn’t have too many of the big-name climbs like in other years, but where there are plenty of opportunities, right from that tough first week through the Basque Country, Cantabria and Asturias through to Madrid.”