ONE of the world’s toughest cycling races starts in Barcelona on Saturday, August 26. Expect 22 international teams, 21 race stages . . . and three weeks of spectacular aerial footage of great destinations for an autumn break.
As cycling fans and anyone who has seen the Netflix smash hit Tour de France documentary will attest, road race cycling is a high adrenaline, high stakes mix of Machiavellian tactics, intense pain, loyalty, rivalry and endurance.
The Vuelta a España is the third and final of the season’s classics after Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. Team Jumbo-Visma riders Jonas Vingegaard and Primož Rogli? won those, and they are joint favourites to win the Vuelta and take the 2023 set.
Among the riders hoping to beat them are the Welsh veteran Geraint Thomas, and two Spanish riders: Enric Mas from Mallorca (Movistar) and Juan Ayuso from Barcelona (UAE Team Emirates).
So that’s the sporting excitement.
But with stages ranging in length from 120-210 km, if you watch the race coverage online or on TV, you’ll find there’s plenty of time along the way for your attention to drift to the scenery shot by helicopters that follow the pack every inch of the way.
Essentially, the Vuelta is a nail-biting race that’s also a three-week travel show, highlighting the most spectacular driving routes in Spain.
From Barcelona, the race includes several stages close to the east coast (going as far as Cartagena) before torturing the riders in the Pyrenees, continuing through the Basque Country, Asturias and the Cantabrian mountains, and ending in Madrid.
If you live in the parched south of Spain, you’ll find the northern stages through lush green valleys, particularly alluring. So enjoy one of the most exciting annual sporting events in Spain and get inspiration for a road trip of your own.
Here’s a selection of the destinations that will be featured in the Vuelta a España 2023.
Stage 2, August 27
IRONICALLY the first stop on our tour is not in Spain but Andorra, an independent principality in the Pyrenees mountains. Known for its precipitous ski slopes, it’s a training ground for competitive cyclists. They arrive here on Sunday for a gruelling double climb finish up Coll d’Ordino (1980m) and Arinsal.
The 20 official routes designed by the tourist board also include flat ones along the verdant valley bottoms for pain-free exploration on two wheels.
The advantage of a road race is that it’s a preview of the scenic drives available. Follow the cyclists to the capital Andorra la Vella, nestled in mountains, with a dense old quarter, Barri Antic and a shopping zone packed with boutiques for the wealthy.
JAVALAMBRE ASTROPHYSICAL OBSERVATORY, ARAGON
Stage 6, August 31
THE facilities are located on the Pico del Buitre 1957m in Teruel. Being remote is its main advantage: minimal light pollution makes this is one of the best places in the world to observe space and map dark energy, and this is one of the Starlight Foundation designated tourist destinations,
The Balneario de Manzanera El Paraíso is a designated Hotel Starlight surrounded by rivers and woods, more than 1000m up, and just 20 km from the observatory. Thermal facilites will come in handy if you’re planning on cycling through these high altitude sierras.
As an added bonus to darkness, the area is also famous for hams and sausages and, above all, black truffle, and dotted with lots of medieval castles, including the huge Mora de Rubielos.
DENIA, COSTA BLANCA
Stage 8, September 2
A BUSTLING Mediterranean port and tourist destination, Dénia mixes and matches centuries of history dating back to Roman days with fortress and ancient city walls, and a reputation for great food (especially the famed red prawns).
Tourist attention is focused on the good beaches, but wild nature and spectacular views are found in the Montgo Natural Park, which is cross-crossed by hiking and cycling trails.
The cyclists leave Denia on this stage for the mountainous interior of Costa Blanca, proving how easy it would be to combine a beach and mountain holiday (especially if you’re driving not relying on pedal power).
Stage 12, September 7
THIS is the day when all Vuelta viewers will be asking why they’ve never been to Zaragoza. The capital of Aragon, and located on the river Ebro, this is a truly monumental city. Packed full of Islamic and Gothic architecture, the star of the show is the 11th century Moorish palace, Aljaferia castle, now the seat of parliament. It’s also a great base for day trips exploring spectacular destinations in all directions.
The riders will be approaching from Olvega to the west, but southwest, there’s the Monasterio de Piedra in a park trails while crossing waterfalls, lakes, streams and caves.
Loarre Castle 100 km to the north is one of the best-preserved Romanesque fortress in Europe, while Belchite Viejo, a ghost town southeast, is the eerie scene of a major battle in the Spanish Civil War. Also nearby, there’s Aguarales de Valpalmas, a strange landscape covered in what look like giant termite nests, geological formations, caused by water erosion in clay soil.
HUESCA LA MAGIA, ARAGON
Stage 13, September 8
THE first of the really gruelling Aragonese Pyrenees, high snowy peaks, forests, rivers, lakes, and medieval villages. Like Ansó valleys like something in the Swiss Alps. Weirdly, home also to Los Monegros, the largest desert in Europe,
The classic cycling route they follow is from Formigal to Col du Tourmalet, but you can also take the gentler Orwell Route, through well-preserved and restored trenches and defences from the Spanish Civil War.
LIENCRES TO BEJES, NORTH COAST
Stage 16, September 12
TREAT this as a visual plan for the perfect beach break. The cyclists take a 120km route though some of the most picturesque coastal towns on the north coast, passing through Santillana del Mar, Comillas, San Vicente de la Barquera, before a big explosive climb to Bejes.
RIBADESELLA TO ALTU DE L’ANGLIRU, ASTURIAS
Stage 13, September 13
A GORGEOUS beach enclave made rich by shipbuilding. Set at the mouth of the Sella, it’s a fishing port divided in two, that gives the sensation of being surrounded by water. The east side is the old part of the city, with no shortage of hotels with views and good fish restaurants. On the west side, there’s the prehistoric Tito Bustillo cave with its treasure of cave art.
If you are inspired to not only to drive the route but get out your bike – good luck. The final steep climb, the Alto de L’Angliru (7 km at 13%) is one of the most demanding climbs in professional road bicycle racing.
MANZANARES EL REAL
Stage 20, September 16
UNLIKELY as it seems, it’s easy to escape Madrid for quiet sierras, forests and snowy peaks. This stage starts from Manzanares el Real, a natural playground less than 60 km from the city, on the edge of the Sierra de Guadarrama National Park. The 208 km course passes through nearby Guadarrama then makes a big circle (encompassing 10 peaks) , returning via San Lorenzo de El Escorial with its magnificent monastery (the train from Atocha station in Madrid takes one hour).
You may well also catch glimpses of Castillo de los Mendoza, an imposing presence on the rocky peaks of La Pedriza, and see the large lake, Santillana.
Dotted with simple hermitages, fortified castles and the remnants of Roman roads, the park is, above all, vast and wild. Details of bracing hiking routes are available from the La Pedriza Visitor Centre.