La Vuelta 2023 will start on 26th August in Catalunya, a region which has not featured in the recent years of the race. The route is full of hard mountain stages that include steep climbs such as the Alto de l’Angliru, Col du Tourmalet, Javalambre, Arnisal, Xorret de Cati, Bejes and Cruz de Linares. With only 39 kilometres of time-trial this should be a race for strong climbers who can perform well after fatigue on steep gradients as some mountain stages will feature many climbing metres before the final climb. The third week will be much more difficult compared to the 2022 final stages, which should hopefully create tension right to the end of the race.
Stage 1 TTT
Once again a team trial has been chosen to start off the Vuelta and award the first red jersey, much to the dismay of Movistar and joy of teams like INEOS and Jumbo-Visma. Barcelona is one of the largest cities to host the depart of a Grand Tour in recent years and this ‘urban’ time trial, as described by the race organisers, features many corners where crucial seconds might be gained or lost.
The first road stage but not made for pure sprinters like Tim Merlier and Sam Bennett who are on the provisional start list. There is more than 2500 metres of climbing and the last 5 kilometres include two hills with some sharp pinches. The stage finishes in Barcelona close to the Olympic Stadium with an uphill finish which might be made for Mads Pedersen, Danny van Poppel, Biniam Girmay type sprinters who can climb well and win on 4-6% uphill finishes.
As usual in La Vuelta, in the first week there is already a climbing day. Stage 3 finishes in Andorra with the Arinsal climb (6.9 km, 8.2%) but the first two-thirds of the stage is flat or shallow gradients where a strong breakaway might be able to build an advantage. With 3486 metres of climbing the fatigue in the climbers’ legs should be significant to make some gaps on the final climb.
The perfect launching spot should be 2-3 kilometres before the finish which includes a 9.5% section. The strongest GC climbers like Primož Roglič, Enric Mas and Juan Ayuso could obtain significant time gaps of around 30 seconds on this 20 minute w/kg test.
Stage 4 presents another real chance for a breakaway win. The stage goes downhill from Andorra to the coastal city of Tarragona. Breakaway specialists with a fast kick should be perfect for this stage, like Magnus Cort or Michael Matthews.
A very similar profile to stage 4 with 2384 metres of climbing and two climbs in the last third of the stage. This is another possible chance for a breakaway but the climbs are easier than stage 4, so sprinter teams might be more willing and capable to pull for the win, especially if they have missed out the day before and considering that there are not many chances for pure sprinters in this Vuelta.
The second climbing test for GC riders, Stage 6 finishes up Observatorio Astrofísico de Javalambre (7.35km, 9.52%). The climb was used in La Vuelta 2019, with Miguel Angel Lopez setting a fast time of 22:39 with an estimated 6,54ᵉw/kg beating a strong field including Roglič, Valverde, Pogačar, Kuss and Quintana. Despite the moderate stage beforehand, the climb is steep enough to make big gaps in the GC group with Evenepoel taking significant time on an easier finish in the Vuelta last year on Pico Jano and Lopez gaining 54 seconds on Quintana in 2019.
One of the rare pure sprinter stages with almost 1000 metres of climbing. Tim Merlier and Sam Bennett can finally be certain to battle for a stage win.
Stage 8 starts in Denia and goes straight to Vall d’Ebo, one of the most famous climbs in Alicante region regularly used by Tadej Pogačar (who owns the Strava KOM), Lotto-Soudal, EOLO-Kometa and countless other teams and riders as a testing climb.
The final climb will be Xorret de Cati (3.4 km, 12.4%), a super steep and hard climb which has been used in La Vuelta multiple times. The record is owned by Eladio Jimenez who climbed it in 12 minutes and 42 seconds in the 2000 edition of La Vuelta, pushing an estimated 7,22ᵉw/kg. The final three kilometres go downhill but 3608 climbing metres and Xorret de Cati definitely will do big damage to the GC group.
Almost definitely a breakaway stage with an uphill finish that is not steep enough to merit a team controlling the stage all day, with no big changes to the GC group expected.
Stage 10 ITT
The only individual time-trial of La Vuelta, featuring 24.8 kilometres with 112 metres of climbing. It should suit huge time-trialists like Ganna, Bissegger and Kung, with specialists such as Van Aert and Evenepoel not expected to attend.
Another unipuerto stage made for a breakaway win just like on stage 9. The final climb of La Luguna Negra (8.3 km, 5.8%) should not be hard enough to make a difference between the best GC riders.
The climb includes two longer segments with 8.5%+ gradients. The final 1.3 kilometres is the steepest but still should not be enough to make significant gaps.
Another sprint stage for pure sprinters, finishing in the city of Zaragoza with no categorised climbs.
After a few sleepy road stages to open up the second week, Stage 13 comes crashing into the rider’s consciousness with three huge French mountain passes – Col d’Aubisque (16.6 km, 7.0%), Col de Spandelles (10.4 km, 8.1%) and Col du Tourmalet (18.8km, 7.4%).
Both Col d’Aubisque and Col de Spandelles were included in the 2022 Tour de France stage 18 which finished up Hautacam. Pogačar tested Vingegaard with hard attacks on Spandelles and then later, after not being able to drop the Dane on the climb, the Slovenian tested both their limits on the technical Spandelles descent, crashing himself.
The Tourmalet from the other direction is also included in the men’s and women’s Tour de France in 2023. It is a 50 minute consistently steep climb and should produce big changes in the GC. Thibaut Pinot in the 2019 Tour climbed Tourmalet in 51:10 minutes, beating Kruijswijk, Alaphilippe, Buchmann and Bernal by a few seconds.
Although this stage is only 135.8 kilometres long, it includes a whopping 4282 climbing metres – 31,53 metres climbed per kilometre. The mountain passes before Tourmalet should do some damage although the 19 kilometre false flat valley between the end of Spandelles descent and the start of Tourmalet might preclude any early attacks. Regardless, the accumulated fatigue might cause some GC favourites to crack on Tourmalet and lose minutes.
Another climbing day but the Puerto de Belague uphill finish (9.4 km, 6.3%) is not as hard a finish as the gruelling Tourmalet. On this stage it is the penultimate climb that is the hardest, with the Col d’Erroymendi averaging 9.1% gradient for 10.3 km – perhaps leading to early attacks.
If the GC group is still together on the final climb, the final kilometres averaging below 5%,may discourage attacks even after such a hard day. A satellite rider in the final kilometres might be useful but do not expect huge GC action on this day.
Stage 15 will almost certainly be a breakaway win, particularly coming after two of the hardest stages in the entire race. The final 40 kilometres include two ascents of Puerto de Zuarrarrate (6.5 km, 5.1%), which will decide the winner of a stage or instead serve to thin out the break for a small group sprint in Lekunberri.
Yet another simple stage with a w/kg test to finish up the nasty Bejes climb (4.7km, 8.7%). At only 119.4 kilometres in length this stage should be finished in less than three hours.
The average gradient of the final climb might be misleading as there is a 6-7% steep middle section, while the final part if the hardest one with gradients reaching over 10%. If the stage is clearly going to the breakaway (with the accompanying bonus seconds) then the GC riders might want to save legs for the following stage’s finish which is much more difficult.
One of the hardest climbs in all of professional cycling will be featured on stage 17. Altu de l’Angliru has been used many times in La Vuelta and has produced iconic moments, such as Chris Horner’s defeat of Vincenzo Nibali in 2013.
The final part of Angliru is what makes it extremely difficult. 6,3 kilometres of 13,95% gradient is most cyclists’ worst nightmare. It will be almost impossible to beat Roberto Heras record time of 41 minutes, with the Spaniard doing an estimated 6,57ᵉw/kg for 41 min in 2000, one of the greatest pure climbing performances of the last twenty years. Hugh Carthy set a strong time in the 2020 Vuelta with 42:40 min, in cooler November conditions. Anything below 42:30 min this year would be exceptional and would surely lead to huge time gains on GC.
There are no easy days between stage 13 and 18, with another hard day in the saddle that could decide the GC. The 4624 metres of climbing and steep gradients, coming right after the Angliru stage, will be very hard.
The stage ends with Cruz de Linares (8.3 km, 8.5%). It is a perfect climb to gain time as the first part of it is very steep with an average gradient of 10% in the starting four kilometres. Satellite riders might be very useful after the steep gradients to gain time over opposition who are dropped and isolated.
There might be only a few sprinters left at this moment after multiple hard mountain days for over a week. A token offering to merit the pain of the Angliru for sprinters.
This is an attempt to create chaos on stage 20 by the organisers, which has been successful in the past. In 2021 the medium mountain stage design worked as INEOS Grenadiers had the team power to pace hard on the climbs, some of which were steeper than in 2023. Despite many hills, maybe 4-6% gradients are too easy to make big splits in the GC group and there is a chance this stage might be boring from a GC perspective like stage 20 in 2022. Without a strong team which is interested in blowing up everything there should not be fireworks.
Another reason for sprinters to continue after stage 12 as there are two flat days in the final week.
A very mountainous course with few time trial kilometres is catered towards the climbers, such as Enric Mas and Jonas Vingegaard. Frequent 10 to 15 minute w/kg tests at the end of moderate stages are also common in this parcours, which should suit the punchier GC riders like Ayuso and Roglic, the latter of whom has thrived on such stages for years.