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06.09.2015 @ 16:02 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

As expected, Alto Campoo was not hard enough to make major differences between the best riders in the Vuelta a Espana but it still gave important answers. Fabio Aru was not his usual superior self and instead it was a resurgent and recovered Nairo Quintana who gained confidence and must be looking forward to tomorrow’s much harder summit finish on Alto de Sotres.

 

The course

The first stage in the decisive triptych of mountain stages failed to do much damage due to a relatively easy finishing climb but there will be a much better chance for the climbers to gain time in the middle leg. Like the previous stage, stage 15 is not a day of big climbing with multiple big ascents but it finishes at the top of Alto de Sotres whose final section is tough and includes some very steep parts.

 

The stage is a typical Asturian mountain stage as most of it takes place in relatively flat terrain along the coast before the riders head into the mountains for the finale. At 175.8km, it is a shorter than the previous stage and brings the riders from the coastal city of Comillas to a mountaintop finish on Alto de Sotres. The first part consists of a completely flat westerly run along the coastal road for 70km until the riders reach the city of Ribadesella. Here they head inlands to go up a small uncategorized climb and descend to another flat section that leads to the bottom of the category 2 Alto del Torno (10.1km, 3.2%). One can easily get fooled by the numbers as the climb includes two descents and so is a lot steeper than the average gradient suggests.

 

The summit comes 60.7km from the finish and from here the riders will descend to the coastal road which they will follow for a few kilometres in the opposite direction compared to earlier in the stage. With 44km to go, they will contest the intermediate sprint and then they will head inland to approach the final climb. First they will go up an uncategorized ascent that summits 28.8km from the finish and then they will descend to the bottom of the category 1 Alto de Sotres. It is 12.7km long and averages 7.9% but like mange Spanish climbs it is highly irregular. The first four kilometres are tough with gradients of 9-11% for most of the time and then there’s a flat section after 6km. The next part is pretty easy but then the hostilities start with 3km to go. A tough section averaging 13.33% kicks things off and from there the gradient doesn’t drop below the 10% mark, with the final kilometre averaging 13.12%. Most of the final climb follows a long, relatively straight road until the riders take a few turns with 2.5.km to go. Then it’s a relatively straight road until another hairpin bend with 700m to go. The road bends slightly to the right with 200m to go.

 

The final climb has never been used in the Vuelta before and has not hosted a finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

Asturias is known for its rainy weather but this year the region will welcome the riders with great sunshine. Tomorrow will be a sunny day with almost no risk of rain and the maximum temperature at the bottom of the final climb will be a pleasant 21 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from an easterly direction which means that the riders will have a tailwind in the first part along the coast. Close to the feed zone, they will turn into a cross-headwind which they will face on the first climb. Then it’s a headwind as they get back to the coast before there’s a short crosswind section. From there it is mainly a headwind or a cross-headwind in the final. On the final climb, there will first be a crosswind and then a headwind between the 2.5km and 0.7km to go marks. In the finale, it will be a crosswind from the right.

 

The favourites

The time differences on Alto Campoo were minimal. Everybody knew that this was the easiest of the three decisive mountain stages and with two much bigger battles to come, the key riders preferred to save both themselves and their teams for the harder stages. The fight only really started with a few kilometres to go and on these mellow gradients, it was always going to be difficult to create any major differences.

 

However, the climb still gave a few indications. Most remarkably, Nairo Quintana seems to have recovered well from his illness. There was always a solid chance that he would be a contender in the final week if he could make it through the last few days, but it was still remarkable to see him return to form so quickly. Yesterday he was dropped on an early climb but today he was able to drop all the GC riders. It is no surprise that he was significantly more confident after the stage and even though he seems to have shelved his winning ambitions, he still has his eyes on the podium and a stage win.

 

At the same time, Fabio Aru was not able to drop his rivals in the way he had done in Andorra. Quintana never gave him an inch and most of the main contenders managed to rejoin him. In fact, he admits that he was on the verge of cracking in the final kilometre but he dug deep to limit his losses to Joaquim Rodriguez to just a single second. However, it is important to remember that Aru had been riding on the front for several kilometres on a climb that was not very steep so he still looked like the strongest rider in the race.

 

Finally, there seems to be chinks in Tom Dumoulin’s armoury. The Dutchman looked strong on the lower slopes of the climb but when Aru took off, he was in difficulty. He was unable to do much chase work and had to rely on others to limit his losses. That must be a cause for concern as the less regular and steeper climbs on stages 15 and 16 will be much harder for him.

 

The stage also proved what we had already predicted yesterday: no one was going to use their team to bring the break back. Most of the squads knew that so it was a very fast and frantic start to the stage. It took more than an hour for the break to get formed and as soon as the elastic had snapped, it was clear that they were going to stay away.

 

Stage 16 is likely to be one for the favourites as it is the final summit finish of the race and comes one day before a rest day and two days before the time trial, meaning that the domestiques will have two easier days. Hence, the teams can allow themselves to use a lot more energy to control that stage. Hence, everybody knows that tomorrow is the best chance for them to win a stage before we get to the rest day and so we should see another very aggressive start. The riders will have a tailwind along the coast so it will be extremely fast until the break finally gets clear. With another flat start, it is going to be a bit of a lottery to make it but at this point freshness plays a crucial role. It is definitely not a coincidence that three of the riders in today’s break were already on the attack yesterday and De Marchi, Rojas and Puccio had even been in the first bigger group to get clear earlier in the stage.

 

When the break has gone clear, Astana will hit the front but they are very unlikely to do too much chase work. Of course Fabio Aru wants to win a stage and he only has two real opportunities left. However, the team is down to seven riders and their main goal is the overall win. They will probably go all in on the harder stage 16 and leave it to other teams to bring the break back tomorrow.

 

It seems like Movistar have the key to this stage. Nairo Quintana is back in contention but he needs to make up a lot of time if he wants to finish on the podium. At the same time, he is still in search of a stage win and the bonus seconds would also come in handy. Alejandro Valverde is clearly not at his best level and even though they have already won a stage, Movistar will have had a failed Vuelta if Quintana doesn’t move up significantly or take a big stage win in the mountains. They can’t really allow themselves to gamble everything on stage 15 so we expect them to bring it back together. The terrain is not too hard and they have a strong team for the flats and easier climbs so they have the firepower to control the stage.

 

Katusha may also lend them a hand. Like Quintana, Rodriguez is also left with just two opportunities. He was never going to chase the win in today’s stage as the final climb didn’t suit him but the steeper gradients on Alto de Sotres are tailor-made for him. Hence, two teams are likely to have an interest in controlling the stage so if the group is again a relatively small one, we expect it to be a day for the GC riders.

 

The coastal sections could be dangerous due to the wind but with either a light tail- or headwind, it won’t be too stressful. The first climb comes too early and can only be used to make things a bit harder. The same goes for the uncategorized ascent and so it will all come down to the final climb.

 

It will be interesting to see how the main contenders approach the climb. Today Fabio Aru admitted that he had probably been a bit too confident so he will probably wait a bit longer and save his attack for the final three kilometres which are very steep. Instead, he will probably use his very strong team to ride tempo on the front. However, Quintana is in desperate search of massive time gains. He is still more than two minutes behind Dumoulin in the overall standings and with the TT coming up, he needs to have an advantage of at least two minutes if he wants to keep the Dutchman at bay. Hence, we won’t be surprised if he opens the battle right from the lower slopes. If he does, big time gaps can occur.

 

In fact, the Colombian is our favourite to win the stage. With Froome out of the race, there is no doubt that he is the best climber in the race. He was on the verge of withdrawal in the queen stage and it speaks volumes of his ability to suffer that he actually defended himself pretty well in that stage. The situation is pretty similar to the one we had in last year’s Giro where he bounced back from illness to take the overall win.

 

Quintana claims not to be fully recovered yet but he will only get better from now on. Today he rode pretty defensively and allowed Aru to set the pace for most of the stage but with a boosted confidence, he is now ready to go on the attack. If he attacks on the lower slopes, Aru may prefer not to react as he has a comfortable lead over the Colombian. As the strongest climber is not an immediate danger, Quintana must be the favourite to win the stage.

 

There is no doubt that Fabio Aru will do his utmost to win the stage. The Italian has won a stage in his three latest grand tours and even though his main goal is the overall win, he knows that a grand tour victory is always a bit less valued if the winner hasn’t taken a single victory along the way. Until now he has been the best climber in the race and today he was probably the strongest too as he rode on the front for most of the final climb. Tomorrow’s steeper climb suits him a lot better and it will be easier for him to make a difference. Furthermore, he has a very strong team at his side and he can rely on Mikel Landa and Diego Rosa to keep Quintana under control if the Colombian attacks from afar. Until now he has come up short but tomorrow might be the day when Aru finally takes the win.

 

There is no doubt that Joaquim Rodriguez has been suffering in the first two big mountain stages but he has still managed to do really well. Today’s climb didn’t suit him at all and he should be much more comfortable on a shorter, steeper and less regular climb. Furthermore, the fact that there is less climbing earlier in the stage should be an advantage as he is less of a diesel engine than Aru and Quintana. He is by far the punchiest of the podium contenders so if he can stay in contention until the final 500m, he won’t be easy to beat.

 

We have been very impressed by Mikel Nieve throughout the entire race. Today he again did really well on a climb that didn’t suit him. He took a lot of initiative in the chase group but missed the explosiveness to go with the best. Tomorrow’s climb is long and steep so it will be more about the legs than punchiness. That should suit the Basque who is also no big rival for the podium contenders as he is a horrible time triallist. This could give him the freedom to take a stage win.

 

To be honest, we expected Esteban Chaves to crack at some point but he is not showing any sign of fatigue yet. In fact, he rode extremely well in today’s stage and he seems to be very mature. He gauges his effort very carefully and openly admits that he plans to have a defensive approach until he maybe sees an opening to go for a stage win. This kind of steep climb should suit him very well and as he is a poor time triallist, no one is too concerned by him. This could allow him to take his third stage win in the race.

 

Finally, Domenico Pozzovivo is hitting the form that we had expected him to have right from the start of this race. Today he bounced back with a solid ride and even though he was clearly on his limit in the finale, he was among the best. He is a lot fresher than his rivals and will be much more comfortable on the steeper gradients. In fact, tomorrow’s climb suits him down to the ground as he usually suffers a bit on the very long climbs. He has lost plenty of time on GC so he won’t be too heavily marked.

 

Daniel Moreno was extremely strong in the queen stage but had a much harder time today. That was no surprise as the climb didn’t suit him. He has never been a rider for the very long climbs and needs shorter, steeper and less regular climbs to do well. That’s what he will get tomorrow and he has proved that the form is there after he bounced back from illness earlier in the race.

 

Rafal Majka has again confirmed that he is one of the best climbers in the field. Today he did well on a climb that didn’t suit him and he should be much more comfortable on tomorrow’s climb. He may not look quite as strong as he did earlier in the race but he is still riding well. The main problem is that he is a relatively good time triallist and strongly in podium contention which means that he won’t get much freedom.

 

As said, we expect that the stage will be decided by the favourites but if Movistar and Katusha decide to save their energy for Monday, the break has a chance, especially if it is a big group. Hence, we will end our preview by naming a few riders who can win the stage from a breakaway.

 

The flat start means that it will be hard for the pure climbers to join the break. That was evident in today’s stage so it might be better for riders who are strong on the flats and good climbers. Nicolas Roche, Vasil Kiryienka, Giovanni Visconti, Bart De Clercq, Maxime Monfort, Ruben Plaza, Jose Goncalves, Geraint Thomas, Jerome Coppel and Riccardo Zoidl fit the bill perfectly and they have all proved to be in good condition. The same goes for Nelson Oliveira who is obviously in outstanding form. He had an easier day today and will be ready to attack tomorrow. Usually, the final climb should be too steep for him but at the moment he seems to be unstoppable.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nairo Quintana

Other winner candidates: Fabio Aru, Joaquim Rodriguez

Outsiders: Mikel Nieve, Esteban Chaves, Domenico Pozzovivo, Daniel Moreno, Rafal Majka,

Breakaway jokers: Nicolas Roche, Vasil Kiryienka, Giovanni Visconti, Bart De Clercq, Maxime Monfort, Ruben Plaza, Jose Goncalves, Geraint Thomas, Jerome Coppel, Riccardo Zoidl, Ian Boswell, Nelson Oliveira

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