Preview: Your stage-by-stage breakdown of the 2021 Vuelta a España course

The final Grand Tour of the season is upon us. Here's what you need to know about all 21 stages.

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It feels like the Tour de France only just finished, and yet here we are, on the eve of the 2021 Vuelta a España. The 76th edition of the Spanish Grand Tour kicks off on Saturday August 14 and runs through to Sunday September 5.

After last year’s truncated, 18-stage edition (thanks COVID!), the Vuelta returns to a full 21 stages in 2021. The race is bookended by individual time trials and includes eight flat stages, four hilly stages, and seven mountain stages.

The race starts in Burgos in the country’s north, then heads south east before swinging south west and then back up towards the centre of Spain. By the final week the riders will be back in the mountainous north before finishing in the north west corner of the country.

Without further ado, here’s your stage-by-stage breakdown of the 2021 Vuelta a Espańa route, perfect if you’re simply watching the race, or if you’re joining the CyclingTips fantasy competition (which you certainly should).

Stage 1: Burgos to Burgos ITT (7.1 km) | Saturday August 14

A short individual time trial to decide the first leader of the race. The first 2.5 km are basically all uphill (a Cat 3 climb) but not terribly steep. There’s a descent of about 1 km and then it’s flat for the last 3.5 km to the finish. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but this is not a super technical course. It’s a short stage too so don’t expect massive time gaps.

Who’s it for: TT specialists.

Stage 2: Guzmán to Burgos (166.7 km) | Sunday August 15

This should be a relatively straightforward sprint stage with very little climbing for the riders to worry about.

Who’s it for: Sprinters.

Stage 3: Santo Domingo de Silos to Picón Blanco (202.8 km) | Monday August 16

In modern Vuelta style, the riders face a proper uphill finish in the opening days of the race. This is a mostly flat day before the stage-ending first-category climb of the Picón Blanco (7.6 km at 9.3%), which reaches 18% at its steepest. This climb has been used in the Vuelta a Burgos every year since 2017, but this is its first appearance in the Vuelta.

This is a tough stage just days into the race.

Who’s it for: Probably GC men, but maybe the breakaway. For context, the stage 3 uphill in 2020 went to the GC men; in 2019 and 2018 the early uphill finish was won by a breakaway.

Stage 4: El Burgo de Osma to Molina de Aragón (163.9 km) | Tuesday August 17 

Likely to be a day for the sprinters, but it’s not a normal sprint finish. After a pretty easy day, the last kilometre of stage 4 is uphill. It’s not super-steep (around 5% or so), but it will shed some riders. Still, this should end in a reduced bunch sprint.

Who’s it for: Lighter sprinters / puncheurs.

Stage 5: Tarancón to Albacete (184.4 km) | Wednesday August 18

A very flat day’s racing with an equally flat finish. This should be another bunch sprint but the race’s technical director, Fernando Escartín, suggests this stage won’t be as simple as the profile might suggest. “The main danger may be the wind,” he said. “The area where the stage takes place is very open and strong gusts of wind may complicate the day’s racing.” Here’s hoping!

Who’s it for: Sprinters

Stage 6: Requena to Alto de la Montaña de Cullera (158.3 km) | Thursday August 19

This is a pretty unusual stage profile. The first 75 km trends downhill – from 677 metres to sea level – and then the profile is almost dead flat as the peloton rides alongside the Balearic Sea on Spain’s east coast. Well, it’s flat until the final 1.9 km. That last 1.9 km takes the riders up to the Cullera Castle at an average gradient of 9.4%. It should be an interesting finale.

Who’s it for: The puncheurs, or possibly even the GC men if they fancy it.

Stage 7: Gandia to Balcon de Alicante (152 km) | Friday August 20

Escartín describes this as the race’s “first true mountain stage”. In all there are six categorised climbs: two Cat 3s, two Cat 2s, and two Cat 1s. It’s a tough day in Valencia that starts with almost 10 km of climbing and ends with 8.4 km at 6.2%.

Who’s it for: The breakaway. Expect a break to form on the early climb and to go the distance.

Stage 8: Santa Pola to La Manga del Mar Menor (173.7 km) | Saturday August 21

Another stage for the sprinters – that’s four in the first ‘week’. This should end in a bunch sprint, but it can get windy along the coast here so crosswinds could play a role.

Who’s it for: Sprinters.

Stage 9: Puerto Lumbreras to Alto de Velefique (188 km) | Sunday August 22

In the words of Fernando Escartín, this is a “very tough, pure mountain stage” with almost 4,500 metres of climbing. The first half isn’t too hard – there’s just one Cat 2 climb that averages 3.8% – but the second half is a different story.

The Alto Collado Venta Luisa is a 29 km-long monster (that averages 4.4% but has a flat section in the middle). That’s followed by a smaller Cat 3 (7.1 km at 3.9%) and then there’s the race’s first HC climb: the 13.2 km ascent to Alto de Velefique which averages 6.4%. This will be a tough day’s racing ahead of the first rest day.

Who’s it for: Probably the GC men, but possibly the breakaway.

Stage 10: Roquetas de Mar to Rincón de la Victoria (189 km) | Tuesday August 24

After a rest day the Vuelta resumes with a mostly flat, relatively easy stage alongside the Alboran Sea in southern Spain. I say “mostly flat” but there is a 10.9 km climb (average 4.9%) that peaks 15 km from the finish line, with bonus seconds available at the top. From there it’s all downhill to the finish.

Who’s it for: This one is hard to predict. It could be a stage for the early breakaway or the winner could punch away from peloton on that late climb. Perhaps the most likely outcome though is a sprint from a small group of strong climbers.

Stage 11: Antequera to Valdepeñas de Jaén (133.6 km) | Wednesday August 25

A lumpy day in the provinces of Málaga, Córdoba, and Jaén in southern Spain. The only categorised climb, though, is the Cat 2 Puerto de Locubín which is 8.8 km at 5% and peaks 8 km from the finish.

Of that last 8 km, 5.5 km or so is downhill, then the last 2.5 km of the stage is uphill. It’s steep too – the final kilometre has slopes of over 20%.

Who’s it for: This feels like a day for the breakaway. Look for the break to splinter on the Puerto de Locubín.

Stage 12: Jaén to Córdoba (175 km) | Thursday August 26

The first two thirds of the stage are relatively easy, but the final third is not. From 62 km to go, there are two climbs virtually back to back. The Alto de San Jerónimo is 13 km at 3.3% and peaks at 49 km to go, and then there’s the “Alto del 14%” – 7.2 km at 5.6% which tops out at 19 km to go. From there, it’s downhill and then flat to the line.

Who’s it for: Escartín predicts this stage will end in a sprint finish. That’s certainly a possibility (albeit from a reduced bunch). Don’t be surprised if this is a day for the breakaway though.

Stage 13: Belmez to Villanueva de la Serena (203.7 km) | Friday August 27

One of the last sprint stages of the race. There are no classified climbs to speak of. The biggest challenge may be the weather – it tends to get hot in the Extremadura region.

Who’s it for: Sprinters.

Stage 14: Don Benito to Pico Villuercas (165.7 km) | Saturday August 28

As with a bunch of other stages, the first half of stage 14 is easy enough, and then it ramps up in the back half.

There’s a Cat 3 climb (7.7 km at 5.2%), a very steep Cat 1 (2.8 km at 14%, including two ramps of 20%), some lumps and bumps, and then a proper uphill finish to Pico Villuercas (14.5 km at 6.2%). Fun fact: the last climb is the road they came down after climbing the very steep Cat 1.

Who’s it for: The GC men.

Stage 15: Navalmoral de la Mata to El Barraco(197.5 km) | Sunday August 29

The final stage before the second rest day is another tough one in the mountains. There are four climbs on the menu, including two Cat 1s. Those four climbs in order are:

  • Alto de la Centenera (Cat 1): 15.1 km at 5.5%, peaks 112 km to go
  • Puerto de Pedro Bernardo (Cat 2): 9 km at 4.2%, 83 km to go
  • Puerto de Mijares (Cat 1): 20.4 km at 5.4%, 38 km to go
  • Puerto San Juan de Nava (Cat 3): 8.6 km at 3.8%, 5.4 km to go

From the top of that final climb it’s downhill then flat to the finish.

Who’s it for: The GC men again. A sprint from a small group of the favourites?

Stage 16: Laredo to Santa Cruz de Bezana (180 km) | Tuesday August 31

The first day of the final week is likely to be the race’s final sprint stage. There’s one Cat 3 climb partway through this coastal stage, but that shouldn’t stop this from being a bunch gallop.

Who’s it for: Sprinters.

Stage 17: Unquera to Lagos de Covadonga (185.8 km) | Wednesday September 1

The profile for this stage looks like a zoomed-in photo of a chainring. There’s an early Cat 3 climb (5.3 km at 4.7%), then two ascents of La Collada Llomena (7.6 km at 9.3%), which top out at 98 and 56 km to go. There are bonus seconds available after the second of those ascents.

There’s a long downhill from there and then it’s into the final, stage-ending, HC climb, to Lagos de Covadonga (12.5 km at 6.9%). The climb is tougher than that average gradient would suggest – it’s up and down at the end with some steep sections.

Who’s it for: The breakaway might take stage honours, but this will be important for the GC regardless.

Stage 18: Salas to Altu d’El Gamoniteiru (162.6 km) | Thursday September 2

Held in the mountainous north west of Spain, this is almost certainly the hardest stage of the Vuelta. There are two Cat 1s as an appetiser: the Puertu de San Llaurienzu (9.9 km at 8.6%) and the Altu de la Cobertoria (7.9 km at 8.6%). The Cat 2 Altu la Segá o del Cordal peaks 22 km from the finish line (12.2 km at 3.8%), and then it’s into a true monster: the Alto d’el Gamoniteiru. This stage-ending climb is 14.6 km long at an average of 9.8% with most of the climb rising at more than 10%.

This is a brutal finish to an incredibly tough day.

Who’s it for: GC men (but keep an eye on the back of the field – expect riders to miss the time cut on this stage).

Stage 19: Tapia to Montforte de Lemos (191.2 km) | Friday September 3

A lumpy, mid-mountain stage that seems like a great day for the breakaway after the brutality of the previous stage. Then again, it could also be a bunch sprint of some form, depending on which sprinters are still in the race, and if the peloton feels inclined to keep the break on a tight leash. There are three early climbs but nothing of note after that.

Who’s it for: Possibly the breakaway, possibly a reduced bunch.

Stage 20: Sanxenxo to Mos. Castro de Herville (202.2 km) | Saturday September 4

An intriguing final road stage. This isn’t a big mountain stage but rather what Escartín calls a “mini Classic”. After an easy start, the second half is all up and down. There are five “short but tough mountain passes” for the riders to conquer, including the Alto Castro de Herville (9.7 km at 4.8%) which concludes the stage. This is a stage reminiscent of Il Lombardia and it should make for some interesting racing.

Who’s it for: Probably a breakaway.

Stage 21: Padrón to Santiago de Compostela ITT (33.8 km) | Sunday September 5

The Vuelta finishes with a reasonably long and lumpy individual time trial. There are two uphill drags on the menu, neither of which are particularly steep, but this will be a tough little stage regardless. Hopefully the GC is close enough that this final stage will be exciting!

Who’s it for: TT specialists and GC contenders.

Must-watch stages

Can’t watch every stage of the Vuelta? Here are eight stages we’d recommend you prioritise:

  • Stage 3: The first uphill finish.
  • Stage 7: Lots of up and down and an uphill finish.
  • Stage 9: A big uphill finish and 4,500 m of climbing.
  • Stage 14: A tough uphill finish.
  • Stage 17: A sawtooth stage.
  • Stage 18: The hardest of the race with a brutal uphill finish.
  • Stage 20: A mini-Classic.
  • Stage 21: If the GC is close, the final TT could be worth a watch.

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