A typically climb-heavy parcours awaits riders at the 2018 Vuelta a Espana after organisers Unipublic revealed a route packing in nine summit finishes and two time trials.

The back-loaded route is particularly laden with huge climbs, including an excursion into Andorra to close out the mountain stages of the race.

They are balanced by those two tests against the clock – eight kilometres in Malaga on the opening day, Saturday August 25, and 32.7km from Santillana del Mar to Torrelavega on the first stage after the final rest day.

Vuelta a Espana 2018, route, pic - Unipublic

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Vuelta a Espana 2018, route, pic - Unipublic

Among the mountain-top finishes are Lagos de Covadonga – widely considered the second-toughest climb in Spain behind the Angliru (which does not return to the route in 2018) – and the Andorran double whammy of Naturlandia and the Coll de la Gallina.

Of the summit finishes, three – La Alfaguaura, Les Praeres and Balcon de Bizkaia – are new to the Vuelta a Espana, meanwhile.

- Sixteen of the toughest climbs in pro cycling -

Finally, there are three summit finishes packed into four days in the final week – sandwiched by the 32.7km time trial and the processional final stage in Madrid.

It is those three stages, therefore, where the 73rd Vuelta a Espana will be decided, but where else could the race be won or lost? We’ve picked out six key stages below…

Vuelta a Espana 2018: six key stages

Stage four – Velez Malaga to Sierra de la Alfaguara, 162km

The climbing at the Vuelta a Espana starts as early as the second stage when, after the opening eight kilometre time trial in Malaga, the race heads from Marbella to the uphill finish of the Alto de la Mesa.

Vuelta fans will also not have to wait long for the first mountain-top finish either, meanwhile – with a new Vuelta climb, La Alfaguara, concluding stage four.

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage four profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage four profile (Pic: Unipublic)

The peloton will leave behind the Malaga province, departing via Nerja for the category-one climb of the Puerto de la Cabra where the first selection will be formed.

From there, it is largely downhill to Santa Fe and Granada – via one unclassified ramp – before La Alfaguara: a 12.4km climb, with an average gradient of 5.6 per cent which masks the 20 per cent pitches which must be negotiated on the way.

Stage nine – Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla, 195km

La Alfaguara and the Puerto de la Cabra are two of 17 first-category climbs on the Vuelta a Espana 2018 route, but things ramp up a few notches on stage nine, the final stage before the first rest day.

There is no real respite throughout the first week, with every stage featuring some form of climbing and a lumpy route – breakaway riders should find plenty to entice them, and look out for some late GC attacks too.

But the first week finishes with a real sting in its tail – the Alto de la Covatilla, which is one of two hors categorie climbs on the route.

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage nine profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage nine profile (Pic: Unipublic)

The climbing starts early, with the first-category ascent of the Puerto del Pico peaking at 49km into the 195km stage, before the Puerto de Pena Negra halfway through.

A lull in proceedings follows, but only until the race for position for the foot of La Covatilla commences.

Peaking at 1,962m up, this will be the fifth time the climb has featured at the Vuelta and the first since Dan Martin’s stage win in 2011.

The full 19.7km ascent features an average gradient of 5.6 per cent, but the real tricky bits come towards the summit – a four-kilometre stretch where the gradient rarely drops below double digits, and a penultimate kilometre at just a fraction less than ten per cent average gradient. Expect fireworks to close out the first week.

Stage 14 – Cistierna to Les Praeres de Nava, 167km

Another new climb, Les Praeres, concludes the 14th stage of the 2018 Vuelta a Espana, after a lumpy 167km which will really test the GC men.

Two of the four intermediate climbs are graded category-one – La Colladona and La Mozqueta – but the real test will come at the end with the five-kilometre slog up Les Praeres.

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 14 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 14 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

The preceding climb, the Falla de Los Lobos, packs a punch considering its category-three status, averaging 8.2 per cent over 4.3km, but Les Praeres ramps things up further.

Despite its short length, the GC men will have to toil up the 13.5 per cent average gradient on a climb which gets tougher as you approach the summit.

The steepest ramps get closer to a one-in-four gradient, just before the finish line, and it’s the sort of climb where big time gains could be made over relatively small distances.

Stage 15 – Ribera del Arriba to Lagos de Covadonga, 185.5km

The 2018 Vuelta a Espana route really makes the peloton earn their rest days, with the second week concluding – as the first did – with a hors categorie climb.

While La Covatilla has been off the route for a few years now, the Lagos de Covadonga is a Vuelta icon having featured 20 times since its 1983 debut.

Robert Millar is among the former winners on the picturesque stage, set against the stunning backdrop of the two glacial Lakes of Covadonga, while Nairo Quintana was victorious on his way to overall victory in 2016.

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 15 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 15 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

It’s a beautiful ascent, but the scenery will be the last thing on the riders’ minds as they battle with the inconsistent gradient – not least because they will already have tackled the category-one Mirador del Fito ascent en route.

An average gradient of 7.2 per cent over 12.2km is the raw statistic, but with a few false flats and even two descents it’s easy to see how it is misleading.

Several pitches boast double-digit gradients, while the last 200m ramp up fiercely at 17.5 per cent, to strain every sinew from the leading GC men.

Stage 19 – Lleida to Andorra Naturlandia, 157km

While the start of the final week – the technical 32.7km time trial between Santillana del Mar and Torrelavega will be pivotal, there are three mountain stages in the next four days to give the climbers plenty of opportunity to claw it back.

The most interesting of those are the Andorran double header which concludes the race, starting with stage 19 to Naturlandia.

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 19 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 19 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Pro cyclists who have set up base in Andorra will be well-versed with the Coll de la Rabassa, as indeed will Vuelta fans thanks to its previous appearances in the race.

The Pyrenean giant peaks at 2,015m up and welcomes riders with some fierce gradients on the lower slopes – it’s well into double figures to start with, before levelling out as you approach the nature park.

From there, it’s more consistent and hangs around the six-seven per cent mark with switchbacks galore for some great TV shots – and plenty of suffering with the red jersey on the line.

Stage 20 – Andorra Escaldes-Engordany to Coll de la Gallina, 105.8km

Short and laden with climbs, these sort of stages are becoming more and more commonplace in the Grand Tours these days and the Vuelta a Espana ramps it up by packing the climbs into the pivotal stage.

With just 105.8km to cover, there will not be a single moment for the red jersey and his rivals to switch off – but with six climbs in all expect plenty of attacking.

The Coll de la Comella comes first, before three category-one ascents – Beixalis, Ordino and Beixalis again from the other side.

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 20 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

Vuelta a Espana, 2018, stage 20 profile (Pic: Unipublic)

The Coll de la Comella, again from the other side, is tackled again after 84km, before the descent to the foot of the Coll de la Gallina.

So what of the final climb? Well Joaquim Rodriguez, who trained in Andorra throughout his career, calls it the single toughest ascent in Andorra – and believes organisers have been generous to put the finish line at 1,580m rather than further up the climb.

Nevertheless, the inconsistent gradient will be difficult to find a rhythm on, with relentlessly steep pitches at several turns.

These continue right up until the finish line – by which point they are on the part of the climb well into double-digit gradients, with a late, stinging 18 per cent pitch to negotiate just before the finish line.

Vuelta a Espana 2018: route

Saturday August 25 – stage one: Malaga, 8km individual time trial

Sunday August 26 – stage two: Marbella to Caminito del Rey, 164km

Monday August 27 – stage three: Mijas to Alhaurin de la Torre, 182.5km

Tuesday August 28 – stage four: Velez-Malaga to Sierra de la Alfaguara, 162km

Wednesday August 29 – stage five: Granada to Roquetas de Mar, 188km

Thursday August 30 – stage six: Huercal-Overa to San Javier. Mar Menor, 153km

Friday August 31 – stage seven: Puerto Lumbreras to Pozo Alcon, 182km

Saturday September 1 – stage eight: Linares to Almaden, 195.5km

Sunday September 2 – stage nine: Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla, 195km

Monday September 3: rest day one

Tuesday September 4 – stage ten: Salmanca to Bermillo de Sayago, 172.5km

Wednesday September 5 – stage 11: Mombuey to Ribeira Sacra, 209km

Thursday September 6 – stage 12: Mondonedo to Faro de Estaca de Bares, 177.5km

Friday September 7 – stage 13: Candas. Carreno to La Camperona, 175.5km

Saturday September 8 – stage 14: Cistierna to Les Praeres, 167km

Sunday September 9 – stage 15: Ribera de Arriba to Lagos de Covadonga, 185.5km

Monday September 10: rest day two

Tuesday September 11 – stage 16: Santillana del Mar to Torrelavega, 32.8km individual time trial

Wednesday September 12 – stage 17: Getxo to Balcon de Bizkaia, 166.5km

Thursday September 13 – stage 18: Ejea de los Caballeros to Lleida, 180.5km

Friday September 14 – stage 19: Lleida to Andorra Naturlandia (AND), 157km

Saturday September 15 – stage 20: Escaldes-Engordany (AND) to Coll de la Gallina (AND), 106km

Sunday September 16 – stage 21: Alcorcon to Madrid, 112.5km