Think of the Vuelta a España route, and the first thing that springs to mind are mountains. The race has carved a niche for itself as the most climber-friendly of the Grand Tours, with steep uphill finishes — sometimes even on stages that are otherwise flat — have become its trademark. The climbs may not always be as long or as spectacular as the Alpine landmarks the Giro and the Tour include, but they are just as decisive, which is why climbers with punchy accelerations like Primož Roglič, Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Roberto Heras enjoy so much success here over the years.
In this sense, the 2023 route is about as quintessential a Vuelta route as you can imagine. In total there are nine summit finishes, five of which are ranked category one, and two hors category: the legendary Col du Tourmalet and the fan-favourite Alto de L'Angliru.
By contrast there are only two stages against the clock, the first a 15km team time trial in Barcelona for the Gran Partida, the last a 25km individual time trial. Like this year’s Tour de France, it will be a Grand Tour for the climbing GC specialists rather than the time trialists.
Such an emphasis on climbing is also something of a reversion to the norm after a few editions that mixed things up a little. The Pyrenees had not been visited at all since 2019, but are back with a vengeance this year with a total of three vicious stages held there, while multiple brutal mountain stages have been included toward the end of the race after an unusually undemanding final week last year.
There are very few opportunities for the sprinters, with the organisers describing only four stages as being ‘flat’. And sprinters won't be the only riders who it’ll be hard to persuade to compete; with the World Championships taking place before rather than after the race this year, puncheurs who would usually use the Vuelta as preparation for a crack at the rainbow jersey won't have that incentive.
Even more so than usual therefore, this Vuelta will be a feast for the climbers, with little on offer for anyone else.
Vuelta a España 2023 stages
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE ONE: BARCELONA > BARCELONA, 14.6KM TTT
The famous roads of Barcelona will host the start of the Vuelta for what will be, like last year’s opener, a team time trial, but this time of the significantly shorter and less decisive length of 14.6km
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE TWO: MATARÓ > BARCELONA, 181KM
A long category two climb in the first climb makes this a nasty start to the peloton’s procession around Spain, but the subsequent roads are flat enough for the sprinters’ teams to force a bunch finish by Barcelona’s Olympic stadium.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE THREE: SÚRIA > ARINSAL, 159KM
There’s no time for GC favourites to ease themselves into the race, with the first mountain stage on just the third day. It’s a hard one, too, with back-to-back category one climbs at the end of the stage across the border in Andorra.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE FOUR: ANDORRA LA VELLA > TARRAGONA, 183KM
Yesterday’s detour into the Pyrenees is only a brief one as the race heads south, but a couple of category three climbs in the final 60km prevents stage four from being a sure-thing for the sprinters.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE FIVE: MORELLA > BURRIANA, 186KM
Another stage finely balanced between sprinters and escapists, a category two climb 54km from the finish and a rolling start might swing this in favour of the latter.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE SIX: LA VALL D’UIXÓ > OBSERVATORIO ASTROFÍSICO DE JAVALAMBRE, 181KM
The steep slopes of the category one Javalambre observatory tower were enough to force gaps between the favourites and see Miguel Ángel López take the red jersey when it was last climbed in 2019, and should have a similar effect as the finishing climb today.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE SEVEN: UTIEL > OLIVA, 189KM
At long last, as the end of the first week approaches, the sprinters can enjoy a stage that should culminate in a bunch sprint without any complications — but could crosswinds from the Balearic coast have an influence?
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE EIGHT: DÉNIA > XORRET DE CATÍ, 165KM
Arguably the toughest stage of the first week, the constant undulations in Alicante means the race will already likely be at breaking point even before the 20% slopes of the final category one test of Xorret de Catí.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE NINE: CARTAGENA > CARAVACA DE LA CRUZ, 181KM
The first week of the Vuelta comes to an end with the the southernmost stage of the race, ending with the modest but still tricky category two ascent of Alto Caravaca de la Cruz.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 10: VALLADOLID > VALLADOLID, 25KM ITT
This flat stage to and from Valladolid (following a long transfer north during the rest day) is the only individual time trial of the race, and, at 25km long, there isn’t an awful lot of road for the specialists to gain much time.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 11: LERMA > LA LAGUNA NEGRA, 163KM
There’s only one climb on the menu today, but it’s tough enough for a real GC tussle — as was the case in 2020, when Dan Martin rode away with Primož Roglič and Richard Carapaz to take victory here.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 12: ÓLVEGA > ZARAGOZA, 165KM
This is a rare Vuelta stage that doesn’t feature a single categorised climb, but the expected straightforward bunch sprint could still be complicated if the wind blows in the exposed roads of Zaragoza.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 13: FORMIGAL > COL DU TOURMALET, 135KM
The first of two back-to-back monstrous stages in the Pyrenees, this one features not one but two legendary ‘Circle of the Death’ mountains across the French border, tackling the Col d’Aubisque, and finishing on the Col du Tourmalet.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 14: SAUVETERRE-DE-BÉARN > LARRA-BELAGUA, 162KM
None of the four mountains in store for stage 14 are as famous as yesterday’s, but the Col Hourcére and Puerto de Larrau have both been deemed hard enough to be labelled especial category, ensuring another huge GC battle should take place on the new finishing climb of Puerto de Belagua.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 15: PAMPLONA > LEKUNBERRI, 157KM
The hilly terrain of the greater Basque Country and three category three climbs appears ideal territory for a breakaway to get clear of what will be a tired peloton, longing for the respite of tomorrow’s rest day.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 16: LIENCRES PLAYA > BEJES, 120KM
The riders get to ease themselves back into racing following the rest day with what is the shortest stage of the race (excluding the Madrid finale), and entirely flat until a steep, 5km sting in the tail.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 17: RIBADESELLA/RIBESEYA > ALTO DE L’ANGLIRU, 123KM
Considered by many to be the hardest climb in Europe, every one of the notorious horrible Alto de L'Angliru’s previous eight Vuelta appearances have been memorable, and this occasion shouldn’t be any less of a spectacle, or any less important in the GC race.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 18: POLA DE ALLANDE > LA CRUZ DE LINARES, 179KM
The unknown category one Cruz de Linares will be the last mountain top finish of the race, and could produce a late twist in the GC race among riders at breaking point following four climbs earlier in the stage.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 19: LA BAÑEZA > ÍSCAR, 177KM
An oasis of calm in a brutal final week, this pan flat stage is a bone thrown to whichever sprinters have braved it this deep into the race.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 20: MANZANARES EL REAL > GUADARRAMA, 208KM
This isn’t the usual mountainous penultimate stage, and there aren’t any climbs ranked higher than category three, but make no mistake: it’s a brute, and could change the outcome of the race. With no less than ten climbs in total spread across 208km (making it the longest stage of the race), chaos could ensue.
VUELTA A ESPAÑA 2023 - STAGE 21: HIPÓDROMO DE LA ZARZUELA > MADRID, 101KM
After yesterday’s unorthodox stage, a return to normality, as riders reach Madrid for the familiar circuit stage finale and bunch sprint.
Cover image by Getty Images