When the starting claxon sounds for this year’s Vuelta a España, cyclists will be riding under the shadows of an ancient Roman landmark.
As race starts go, they don’t come much more spectacular — the iconic ampitheater stands proudly in the center of the French city of Nîmes amidst the buzz of people and traffic.
But that’s not the only reason the race start for the 2017 edition is unique. For just the the third time in its 82-year history, the Vuelta will start outside Spanish borders.
“We’re trying to innovate,” Vuelta race director Javier Guillen told CNN Sport. “In this case, we are starting by the arena of Nîmes, a Roman monument, which is going to be very spectacular.
“This is what we are trying to do year by year — to present something new to the fans.”
Same tour, different challenge
It will be a new challenge for cyclists, too. The first stage will see riders compete in a team time trial setting off from the Maison Carrée — the Roman temple at the city’s center.
“The Nîmes time trial will be very technical,” Fernando Escartín, a former Spanish pro cyclist, told the Vuelta website.
“The teams will have to ride through the streets in the old part of the city, right through the heart of historical buildings.
“The key will lie in being completely in sync from the very beginning, maintaining a very high speed and making sure that each and every rider does his job well in each section of the stage.”
Moving the Vuelta outside Spain is a relatively recent idea. In 1999, the race began in Lisbon, while in 2009 the start point moved north to the Dutch city of Assen, not reaching Spain until the fifth stage.
The Vuelta is playing catch-up with cycling’s other Grand Tours. The Tour de France — cycling’s most prestigious competition — first started on foreign soil in 1954, and has since visited the likes of Luxemburg, Belgium, Switzerland, the UK, and Ireland. It started in Germany for this year’s race.
The Giro d’Italia, meanwhile, will become the first Grand Tour to start outside Europe when it heads to Jerusalem next year.
The toughest Vuelta ever?
The Vuelta has developed a reputation for housing brutal hills, taking in some of the steepest and most dramatic climbs in the Pyrenees, and this year’s race is no exception
“The difference this year is that the mountain stages are little bit longer and more difficult than other years,” says Guillen. “It could make more difference between the favorites.
“To me, cycling is meant to be epic. We work on discovering the cols (mountains) for cycling, cols that we can say hey, this is truly hard, this is very tough, this is a real challenge for the riders.”
This year’s edition includes climbs in Cantabria, a coastal region in the north of Spain, and the Sierra Nevada, one of the tour’s most iconic stages with 2,800 meters of incline, the steepest of which reaches gradients of 22%.
It’s hardly surprising so few cyclists have conquered the Vuelta and the Tour de France in the same year, the two races falling just weeks apart.
Touted as the pre-race favorite Chris Froome is bidding to be the first man to do so in 22 years.
“For sure, I think he can do it,” says Guillen.
“Last year, he was fighting till the end. I’m sure that he could do it. It’s a great challenge for him, it’s been a long time since anyone won the double of the Tour de France and the Vuelta.”
Three runner-up spots at the Vuelta have so far denied Froome, who won his fourth Tour de France title earlier this year, the chance to win the race’s red jersey.
He’ll have another shot at history when he mounts his saddle in Nîmes for the start of this year’s race.