What's Cool In Road Cycling

Vuelta: Key Stages

– By Gordan Cameron –
This year’s Vuelta is 3,144 km long, and contains no fewer than 10 mountainous stages. 4 summit finishes will define the race, but the individual time trials on stages 10 and 21, the last day, will be crucially important. And in case you thought the organizers were being too harsh, there are 2 rest days.

Last year’s race was a similar affair, and the outcome was only decided in the final day’s time trial, when Angel Casero took enough seconds from Oscar Sevilla to snatch the overall title without having won a stage.

In 2002, things kick off with a team time trial and should offer an opportunity for ONCE and US Postal to take time from Banesto and Kelme. If all goes to plan, the leader’s jersey may not change hands until stage 5, which sees a beastly summit finish at Sierra Nevada.

8 flat stages mean that guys like Erik Zabel will have opportunities to make their sponsors happy with some sprint finishes. However, such are the weather conditions that sometimes afflict Spain that ferocious winds can catch out a large number of riders and cause the field to split spectacularly. All contenders will have to be paying attention on these days, as even the most innocuous-looking race profile contains hidden dangers.

One of the most feared climbs in Europe lies in wait for the competitors on stage 15: Alto de l’Angliru. The riders hate it, most are terrified, but it is guaranteed to explode the race. No less a rider than Santiago Botero describes it as “very, very hard” – that’s a man who won 2 stages in the Tour de France this summer.

Pavel Tonkov was on for a win there last year, until the rather suspect intervention of a motorbike helped Jose-Maria Jimenez catch and pass him in the closing kilometres. Sadly, a season long bout of depression has ruled Jimenez out of the race he did so much to enliven last year when he won 3 stages, and the King of the Mountains and Points prizes.

Another big day out in the hills sees the racers heading up to La Covatillas Ski station on stage 18. This is in the backyard of US Postal’s Roberto Heras who will hope to be still in contention by then.

The last few stages take what will be a tired peloton towards the final time trial, into the centre of Madrid. If things pan out, we can hope for a race as exciting and evenly matched as last year.

It should be enthralling, and our own correspondent Alasdair Hamilton will be following the race daily. Stay tuned for his exclusive reports.

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