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05.09.2015 @ 16:10 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After two days in survival mode, it is time for the GC riders to find out who’s going to win the Vuelta a Espana. With the final week being relatively easy, the climbers will have to make a difference in the three big mountain stages that usually come in the penultimate weekend and even tough tomorrow’s stage is the easiest of the triptych, it offers them a big chance to gain time on Tom Dumoulin before we get to the time trial.

 

The course

The Vuelta a Espana organizers have introduced a tradition that sees them host three consecutive mountain stages in the penultimate weekend of the race, very often in the Asturian mountains. This will be the case in 2015 as well and the three days in Cantabira and Asturias form the most important block of racing that will go a long way in determining the overall classification ahead of the final week which is not overly tough. As it is often the case, the first two stages are the easiest while the hardest challenge comes at the end of the trio.

 

Stage 14 is the first of the difficulties. It is not a big day of climbing with constant ascents but it includes two big climbs in the second half and even though the final ascent is not very hard, it will be a difficult challenge at the end of two weeks of tough racing. At 215km, it is an unusually long affair that brings the riders from Vitoria in the Basque Country to the summit finish on the Alto Campoo in Fuente del Chivo.

 

Massive crowds are likely to send the riders off when they briefly head into the Basque Country for the start of the stage but they won’t be challenged by the many steep climbs that characterize the region. Instead, they will start on the flat plateau around Vitoria-Gasteiz and follow almost completely flat roads as they head to the west. There are a few small kickers along the way before the roads gradually start to ascend, culminating at the top of the category 3 Puerto Estacas de Trueba (11km, 2.9%).

 

The summit is located at the 118km mark and leads to a descent down from the plateau. Then it is straight onto the steep category 1 Puerto del Escudo (11.5km, 6.4%, max. 15%) which leads onto another plateau. The first part of the climb is almost completely flat but then the hostilities start as the gradient stays almost constantly above 10% for 4km before it levels out for the final 1.5km.

 

The summit comes 56.5km from the finish. Having reached the plateau, the riders will tackle flat roads for most of the time, with the intermediate sprint coming 28.7km from the finish. Just a few kilometres later, they hit the bottom of the category 1 Alto Campoo (18km, 5.5%) that leads to the finish. It is a relatively easy climb with a gradient of 4-6% for most of the time, with a few 8% sections along the way. It gets slightly harder in the final 3km when the gradient reaches 6-9%, with the steepest part coming at the flamme rouge where the gradient reaches 11% for 300m. Then it is 8.9% for the next 500m as the riders tackle series of hairpin bends. The final of those comes 200m from the line from where the gradient is just 1.9%.

 

The final climb has never been used in the Vuelta before but it has often been used in the hilly Spanish Circuito Montanes. Interestingly, Fabio Duarte won the stage when the finish was last used in 2010 and he is still in this race.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

Asturias and Cantabria are known for their rainy conditions and very often the riders have had bad weather in this area. That won’t be the case for the first stage in the mountain triptych as tomorrow is forecasted to be a sunny day with a only a few clouds. The maximum temperature at the bottom of the final climb – 850m above sea level – will be a pleasant 20 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a northerly direction which means that the riders will have a crosswind almost all day, with a bit of headwind along the way. They will turn into a tailwind for the Puerto del Escudo and then it will be a crosswind when they get back onto flat roads. There will be a combination of cross- and headwind on the final climb.

 

The favourites

The GC riders have had two days of survival but it today’s stage was definitely not easy. The first 90 minutes were full gas and with two GC riders in the break, Astana could never slow much down. This means that there will be lot of tired legs as we go into the three mountain stages in the penultimate weekend that has very often decided the race.

 

Apart from the time trial, the final week doesn’t offer many chances to create big differences in the overall standings so these three stages are where the climbers have to make the difference. They may get an opportunity in stage 20 too but with a downhill finish, they cannot rely too much on that stage. Tom Dumoulin is looming as a big GC threat and with Chris Froome out of the race, the Dutchman is in a class of his own when it comes to time trialling. This means that no one can allow themselves to take it easy and the climbers have to test the Dutchman everywhere to check whether he is on a bad day. After all, it is untested territory for him to go for GC in a three-week race and recovery is definitely an issue.

 

It is no new invention for the Vuelta to have three consecutive mountain stages at this point of the race. In fact that has been the case for several years and they have often played a massive role in the overall classification. However, besides being the scene of some great GC battles, they have usually been a happy hunting ground for attackers. The final stage in the triptych has usually been the hardest and the big teams have all been keen to save energy for the toughest stage. This means that strong breakaways have usually won the first two stages. Last year Ryder Hesjedal and Przemyslaw Niemiec took escape victories and in 2013, Daniele Ratto, Alexandre Geniez and Warren Barguil made sure that all three stages were taken by attackers. In 2012, the final two stages were won from breaks while only the first one was decided by the favourites.

 

This indicates that there is a very good chance for a breakaway to make it to the finish in tomorrow’s stage and several factors support that suggestion. First of all, it is a very long stage so it requires quite a bit of energy to chase the break. Secondly, it is the easiest stage of the trio and so the final stages offer much better opportunities for the climbers to make a difference. Finally, they all want to save energy for the upcoming battles.

 

On the other hand, riders like Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez still need to gain time if they want to win the race. Of course they can do so regardless of the breakaway but the bonus seconds would be a nice addition to the actual gains. However, that can’t change the fact that the less steep gradients on the relatively easy final climb make the finale less suited to the two pure climbers who have a much better chance in stages 15 and 16. In fact, this kind of regular climb should be very good for Dumoulin.

 

Hence, we expect this stage to be won from a breakaway and this should make it another war in the beginning. Today it took nearly 90 minutes of very fast riding for the break to be formed and tomorrow it is likely to be more of the same. However, there will be fewer riders part of the action as the tough finale means that the number of riders that can actually win the stage is a lot smaller.

 

When the break has taken off, it will be left to Astana to set the pace and keep the situation under control. With Nairo Quintana suffering from illness and Alejandro Valverde having an injured shoulder, Movistar are unlikely to do anything. Astana are down to seven riders so they will probably focus on keeping something in reserve. There is a chance that Katusha will do some work but the next stages are better for Rodriguez so they are likely to save their energy. The final team that could potentially initiate a chase is Tinkoff-Saxo as they have lots of confidence in an in-form Majka. However, they only have seven riders and so have to gauge their efforts very carefully.

 

The category 1 climb is pretty hard and this will be a good place to make the race tough for Dumoulin. We expect Astana to use their strong team of climbers to make an initial selection at this point and this should make the race rather selective and could potentially go a long way to bring the break back. Nonetheless, we expect the winner to come from the group.

 

With a flat start, it is always difficult to predict who is going to make it into the break. At this point of a grand tour, freshness is extremely important and so the same riders are often part of the moves. However, a flat start means that it is a bit more of a lottery and there is no guarantee that the break will have many strong climbers. Few would have predicted Bert-Jan Lindeman to win the first mountain stage and we could again get a break that has no top climbers.

 

Lotto Soudal are still searching for a stage win in this race and they have some strong climbers that can attack in the next few mountain stages. Their GC rider is Bart De Clercq who has done nothing to hide that he hopes to join a break to gain some time in the overall standings. The Belgian is probably riding better than ever as he proved with his second place in the Tour de Pologne and he was riding really well in the early part of this race where he defended himself really well in the explosive finishes that didn’t suit him.

 

Unfortunately, he has been suffering from back problems after the race hit the longer climbs which are his preferred terrain. However, he seems to be getting better and there is little doubt that he will go on the attack in tomorrow’s stage. He is an excellent climber and is perfectly suited to this long, regular ascent. He could maybe even get a teammate as support in the break. An in-form De Clercq is our favourite to win the stage.

 

Trek have already won two stages in this race and there is no reason that they can’t make the hattrick. They have three strong climbers in their team but the in-form rider seems to be Riccardo Zoidl. The Austrian has earned constant praise from his sports directors and is clearly in excellent condition. He is a very good climber and seems to finally be on the verge of confirming his huge potential. More importantly, he is very strong on the flats and this should put him in a perfect position to join the break.

 

Movistar are mainly here for the GC but history shows that they are always on the attack in the mountain stages. There is little doubt that they will try to join the early break in tomorrow’s stage too as they want tactical options later in the stage. Very often their attacker has been given the chance to go for the stage win and this could open the door for an in-form Giovanni Visconti to go for another grand tour stage win. The Italian has been among the best in the first mountain stages and he has won grand tour stages from long-distance breaks in the past. He crashed a few days ago by seems to have recovered well.

 

Colombia haven’t had much success yet. They were aiming for the mountains jersey but have now skipped that goal. Instead, they aim for a stage win and their best card is Rodolfo Torres. The Colombian has had a fantastic 2015 season where he has proved that he can match the best on the climbs. He was ill earlier in this race and so dropped out of GC contention but a 13th place in the queen stage proves that he is back on form. The main challenge will be to join the early break in a stage that has a flat start but if he makes it, he will be hard to beat on the final climb.

 

Joe Dombrowski won the Tour of Utah just a few weeks before the start of this race and this made him a hot prospect for his debut grand tour. However, he dropped out of GC contention immediately and so has had to set new goals. He now wants to win a stage and tried to join the break in the queen stage. He never managed to do so as he crashed early in the stage but he showed good condition by staying with the best for a long time on the climbs. The flat start is not good for him but if he makes it into the break, he will be one of the strongest on the final climb.

 

If it comes down to a battle between the GC riders, Fabio Aru is obviously the big favourite. The Italian has been the best in the first two mountain stages and he seems to be in a class of his own at the moment. The final climb is not overly selective and with a bit of headwind, it will be harder for him to make a difference but he has a very strong team to make things hard. Mikel Landa is back to his best and in fact it was only the Italian who managed to go faster than the Basque on the final climb in Andorra. It is no surprise if the Astana pair will turn out to be the strongest and this time there is doubt that it will be GC rider that will be given the chance to take the win.

 

Joaquim Rodriguez was unable to keep up with Aru in Andorra but he may have a better chance in this stage. Tomorrow it will be less about endurance and this may favour the Spaniard over the Italian. Rodriguez has had a tough year and he is evidently no longer the rider he once was. However, with most of the Tour contenders suffering from fatigue, he is one of the best in this race. With a headwind on the final climb which is not too steep, he may be able to hold onto Aru and he is faster than the Italian in a sprint.

 

We have been very impressed by Mikel Nieve for a few weeks. He was already very strong in the Tour de Pologne whose course didn’t suit him at all and he defended himself very well on the short climbs in the first week. Hence, it was no surprise that he was one of the best as soon as we hit the longer climbs. He is not a real podium contender as he can’t time trial and so he won’t be too heavily watched if he attacks in the finale.

 

Alejandro Valverde has been hampered a lot by his shoulder injury but he is reportedly getting better. It is hard to say whether his below-par performances have been due to the health issues or fatigue after the Tour de France. He is clearly not riding as well as Rodriguez and Aru on the climbs but as this climb is not too hard he may be able to keep up with them. If that’s the case, he will of course be the best in a sprint.

 

We were very surprised by Daniel Moreno’s performance in the queen stage. The Katusha lieutenant has never been a man for the long climbs and he has been below his usual level for more than a year, including in the first week of this race. Reportedly, he has been ill and this explains why he was suddenly riding at a high level last Wednesday. Katusha may have two cards to play in tomorrow’s finale and while everybody will be looking at Rodriguez, Moreno could get some freedom. Furthermore, he is very fast in an uphill sprint and will be hard to beat if he can hang onto the best.

 

Like last year Rafal Majka has come out of his first grand tour in excellent condition and he is an obvious podium candidate. The Pole was clearly one of the best in the queen stage and shows no signs of slowing down. He claimed to have a bad day in stage 9 where he was still among the best and this speaks volumes about his good condition. He has the right aggressive spirit to attack in the finale but as he is a podium contender, he may not get much freedom.

 

Finally, we will point to a few more breakaway candidates. Sky are leading the teams classification so they definitely want to have a rider in the break. They have several good candidates who can all win this stage. Sergio Henao and Nicolas Roche used a lot of energy in today’s stage so tomorrow it could be a chance for Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas and Ian Boswell who are all climbing well enough to win this stage.

 

Fabrice Jeandesboz and Stephane Rossetto are both in GC contention but are not regarded as big dangers. Hence, they are likely to get some freedom if they join the break. They are both great climbers and if they can make the right move, they will have cards to play. George Bennett is also riding extremely well and he will be keen to make up for the disappointment from the queen stage where he was in the right break but burnt his matches too early. Frank Schleck is clearly riding well and after he crashed out of GC contention, his main goal will be to win a stage from a break. Finally, Jurgen Van den Broeck is here to prepare for the World TT Championships but he has done nothing to hide that he will go full gas in a few stages. Tomorrow could be one of those days.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Bart De Clercq (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Riccardo Zoidl (breakaway), Giocanni Visconti (breakaway)

Outsiders: Rodolfo Torres (breakaway), Joe Dombrowski (breakaway), Fabio Aru, Joaquim Rodriguez

Jokers: Mikel Nieve, Alejandro Valverde, Daniel Moreno, Rafal Majka

Breakaway jokers: Ian Boswell, Geraint Thomas, Vasil Kiryienka, Fabrice Jeandesboz, Stephane Rossetto, George Bennett, Frank Schleck, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Matteo Montaguti

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