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As soon as the Vattenfall Cyclassics has finished, you can follow the first uphill finish on

Photo: Movistar Team






23.08.2015 @ 16:10 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

BMC confirmed their status as the best TTT team in the world by winning a very strange opening team time trial but for most of the riders the race starts tomorrow. There will be no easy introduction as the riders head straight into the hills for the first uphill finish which is tailor-made for the puncheurs.


The course

It has become a bit of a tradition that the first road stage of the Giro and the Tour is for the sprinters. Sometimes the puncheurs have been given their chance but the first road stage is never one for the GC riders.


The Vuelta has always been different. The Spanish geography means that it is possible to find tough climbs in almost every part of the country and very often the organizers have preferred to have a first uphill finish very early in the race to create an initial selection and create less stress in the bunch. In 2013, the riders already tackled a summit finish on the Alto Do Monte Groba on the second day of the race and one year earlier it was the famous Arrate climb in the Basque Country that made the first selection already on the third day.


This year the first summit finish comes on the second day, meaning that the sprinters will have to wait a bit longer to get their chance to shine. It is hard to describe the category 3 climb to Caminito del Rey as a mountain that will create big differences but it will require the GC riders to be on their toes right from the beginning. Time gaps will occur in this finale and with bonus seconds on offer it will allow the punchy climbers to gain time already on their first real day of racing.


At just 158.7km, it is a typically short Vuelta stage that brings the riders from Alhaurin de la Torre to Caminito del Rey. The starting city is close to the sea and from there the riders head east along typically lumpy Spanish roads that have no major climbs. After 30km of racing, they will turn north to approach the finishing city in a slightly hillier part of the country. However, the roads are still flat.


At the 52km mark, the riders get to the city of ZAlea where they will start a lap of a 46km circuit. It is a mainly flat route that brings the riders along rolling roads. They will pass close by the finishing city before they reach the northernmost point of the course. Here they will turn around to head back south ad encounter their first climbing in this year’s race. The category 3 Alto de Ardales (5km, 4.4%) will offer the first KOM points 45.7km from the finish and then the riders will descend to the starting point of the circuit.


The riders will now do the first part of the circuit again and will contest the intermediate sprint in Alora with 19.7km to go. However, with 4.7km to go, they will leave the circuit to head to the finish in Caminito del Rey. The finish line comes at the top of a category 3 climb that is 4.7km long and averages 6.5%. The numbers are deceptive as the start is relatively easy but with 3.5km to go, the gradients reach double-digit number for more than a kilometre, with a maximum of 13%. Then it is nearly flat for another kilometre before the road kicks up with around 7% in the final kilometre. The climb follow a winding road until it gets to two hairpin turns inside the final kilometre, with the final turn leading onto the 200m finishing straight.


Caminito del Rey has not hosted the finish of a major bike race in recent years and never been used for a Vuelta stage before.





The weather

The Andalusian heat has always been one of the hardest challenges in the Vuelta a Espana. At this time of the year, it is impossible to avoid the heat in this part of Spain but at the moment things are not too bad. Having left the sea, the riders will of course have higher temperatures on Sunday which will be another day with lots of sunshine but a maximum of 31 degrees is not too bad In August.


There will be a light wind from a northeasterly direction which means that the riders will have a headwind in the first part and then hit a crosswind section before a tailwind leads on the circuit where there will mainly be a crosswind. There will be a cross-tailwind for most of the climb until the riders turn into a headwind after the first hairpin turn with 700m to go. There will be a tailwind on the finishing straight.


The favourites

It was a strange experience to watch the opening Vuelta a Espana team time trial. Less than half of the teams were going full gas while safety was the priority for all the main GC teams. Being the reigning world champions, BMC felt obliged to give it a try despite not being the favourites and their efforts paid off. Peter Velits will wear red in the first real stage of the race after the team confirmed that they are currently the best team time triallists in the world.


For most of the riders the race will start tomorrow and it will be a tough start that will give important answers right from the beginning. There has rarely been a chance to ease into the Vuelta a Espana. While strong teams can often be enough to get one safely through the first week of the Tour de France, there are always tough summit finishes in the first part of the Vuelta. The major mountains are always postponed to later in the race but the many puncheur finales that characterize the Spanish race usually have their impact right from the first week.


This year it will be no different as the first of those tricky finishes come already on the second day. The final climb is not one to make big gaps but the steep section in the middle is hard enough to open small gaps. In the end, the time gains from this stage are unlikely to decide the stage but it will probably be a shock to the system for many riders and some of them may have to forget about their GC ambitions right from the beginning.


The first road stages of a grand tour are usually pretty nervous and very controlled, mostly because they are suited to sprinters. This year it is different and so it will be left to the GC riders to bring the early break. They are usually a lot more conservative as their main goals are not stage wins and they have to make sure that they have energy for every stage throughout the entire week. This means that it is less obvious who’s going to bring the break back.


Peter Velits will be wearing the red jersey but as everybody is equal on time, he is not really leading the race. Hence, BMC can’t really expect to do anything to defend their position as they really have nothing to defend. This will create some confusion and an opening road stage can always be a bit tricky as everybody will be looking at each other and it is unclear who is going to take the responsibility. In the past that has led to surprises in openers but that has rarely happened in a grand tour. However, it could be a bit of a chess game in the early part of the stage.


However, the course is obviously tailor-made for Alejandro Valverde who is very hard to beat in this kind of finish. With bonus seconds on offer, it would be obvious for Movistar to try to set their Spanish captain up for an early win and important time gains for the GC. At the same time, Valverde never needs a few days to get going again which could be different from some of the riders coming from the Tour. It could be a good chance for them to check if they could gain some time on Chris Froome before the Brit gets back into racing mode. However, recent history suggests that the team is unwilling to do too much work. Movistar have had a tendency to ride pretty conservative in the grand tours and that has cost Valverde quite a few stage wins in the three-week races.


On the other hand, the first part of the stage is relatively easy. At this point in a grand tour, most are keen on saving energy for later so we can expect the break to be formed almost straight from the gun. With an uphill finish, not even the mountains jersey looms as a possible reward so we will probably see a relatively small break get clear without too much fight, with riders from teams like Caja Rural, MTN-Qhubeka, Europcar, Colombia, FDJ, IAM and LottoNL-Jumbo likely to be part of the action. With mostly flat terrain, it should be relatively easy to bring that group back. Katusha and Cannondale-Garmin will also have their eyes on this stage so there should be enough power to bring the break back.


There are bonus seconds on offer just 19.7km from the finish. Last year Froome proved that he did not miss any chance to pick up some extra seconds so if the break has already been brought back at that point and he can move to the front without too much effort, it could be a goal. However, the sprint could also be a target for the sprinters who have no chance in the uphill finale and so don’t need to hold anything back.


For this kind of short climbs, positioning is extremely important and so it will be a big fight in the run-in to the climb. Everybody wants to hit the ascent in a good position so that will automatically mean that the break will lose lots of time if they are still clear at that point. Hence, it is most likely that we will get a battle on the final climb.


It will be interesting to see what will happen on the ascent. There is no doubt that Valverde is the big favourite if it comes down to a sprint but it won’t be easy to control things. Movistar don’t have a very strong team of climbers and will probably have to look to other teams to bring back the late attacks. Katusha will be keen to make it hard and they have a reasonably strong team. However, it won’t be impossible for someone to anticipate the puncheurs and ride away with a surprise victory.


Much will depend on how Sky approach the climb. Chris Froome usually wants a relatively stable, hard tempo and his team is one of the strongest in the race. If they decide to go hard right from the bottom, it is most likely that the punchy climbers will battle it in the end and they have the potential to make it pretty selective. Astana could also try to make things hard but this finale doesn’t really suit them so their approach will probably be either aggressive or about following wheels.


The steepest section comes at the midpoint of the climb and this is where the difference has to be made. Joaquim Rodriguez knows that the final part is probably not steep enough for him to beat Valverde so Katusha could use Daniel Moreno to go full gas at this point. However, that will make them vulnerable in the flatter section as it will be much harder to control.


The most likely outcome is that we will get a sprint for the puncheurs in the final kilometre which averages 7%. With two hairpin turns, it will be pretty technical so positioning is very important. A combination of good legs, punchy sprinting skills and ability to stay near the front is likely to decide this stage.


That makes Alejandro Valverde the obvious winner pick. In a 7% uphill sprint, no one is usually able to beat the Spaniard. Furthermore, he is a great technical rider and knows how to position himself and stay near the front. A rider like Joaquim Rodriguez may be stronger than him on the really steep climbs but in this kind of finish he is in a class of his own.


Unlike many others, Valverde is always riding consistently and while there is reason to question the condition of many GC riders, it is almost guaranteed that Valverde will be ready right from the start. The main challenge for him will be to control things and prevent anyone from attacking which could be a challenge with his team which is not very strong for this kind of finale. However, if it comes down to a sprint, it will be very hard for anyone to beat Valverde.


One rider that could potentially do so is Daniel Martin. The Irishman has developed into one of the vest best riders for the hilly classics and he is very strong in this kind of uphill sprint. He obviously prefers it to be steeper but he can do well in this kind of finale too. Last year he was second in the easier uphill sprint in Arcos de la Frontera and this harder climb should suit him better.


Martin won’t necessarily wait for a sprint. This year he was second in the Tour stage to Tour de Bretagne by making an attack when the road flattened out with 1km to go. If everybody is at their limit after the steepest section, it would be no surprise to see him make a similar move and then he will be hard to catch.


There are two main question marks for Martin. First of all his condition is obviously a bit of a question mark as he hasn’t raced since San Sebastian. However, he was strong in that race and seems to have come out strongly from the Tour. He is going for GC in this race which indicates that he is riding at a good level. The second issue is positioning which has often been costly for him. However, this climb is relatively long and so should be more selective, making it easier for Martin to get to the front.


Joaquim Rodriguez likes punchy finales like this one. However, he prefers the finales to be a lot steeper as the steepest gradients are where he really excels. The hardest part is definitely suited to Rodriguez but the final kilometre is easier. Furthermore, he has not had his usual spark in 2015 which has indicated that Father Age is finally catching up with him.


However, he still managed to win the Mur de Huy stage in the Tour and with Daniel Moreno at his side, he has one of the best lead-out men for this kind of finish. If the Katusha pair can make their usual acceleration in the finale, it won’t be impossible for Rodriguez to win.


Chris Froome may be mostly known for his skills on the long climbs but he is actually pretty strong in these punchy finales. In the Tour de France, he would probably have beaten Rodriguez in Huy if he had not allowed Tony Gallopin to take the Spaniard’s wheel. This finale is a bit easier and so less suited to Froome. Furthermore, he is probably not in the condition that he showed in the Tour which is probably necessary for him to win this kind of stage. Much will depend on his form but if he is close to 100%, you can never rule him out.


In fact, it may be another Sky rider that takes the win. Sergio Henao is one of the best riders for these puncheur finishes as he recently proved when he won the hardest stage in the Tour de Pologne. He is obviously in very good condition and may be given the chance in this stage. His job is mainly to support Froome but the best way to do is maybe to take the bonus seconds away from Valverde and Rodriguez. He is not as fast as Valverde though and would have preferred a harder finale. Like Martin, it would be no surprise if he goes on the attack.


A big outsider is Peter Sagan. The final climb is likely to be a bit too hard for him, especially as his form is very uncertain. The team has played down expectations a bit as he hasn’t raced since the Tour. On the other hand, he is clearly in a much better place than he was at this time 12 months ago where he was riding worse than ever before. His main challenge will be to survive the steepest part and then he will have a chance to recover. The final kilometre is not too hard for him but the main question is whether the steep section will have taken the sting out of his legs.


Daniel Moreno is another expert in these uphill sprints but his main goal is obviously to support Rodriguez. He is unlikely to get his own chance but it is not impossible that he will get the nod. He is faster than his captain and so this slightly easier finale could be more suited to him. In 2013, both were also at the start and back then Moreno was unstoppable in these finales. Since then he has never reached the same level and his season has been very disappointing. On the other hand, he showed good condition by winning the queen stage of the Vuelta a Burgos so it may be time for him to turn things around.


Esteban Chaves is back in the Vuelta after last year’s failed GC campaign and he is again riding for GC in this race. He is mostly known for his skills in the high mountains but he is actually pretty punchy too. Last year he was among the best in the punchy finales at the Tour of Beijing where he ended on the podium. He has prepared specifically for this race in his native Colombia and there is little doubt that he will be strong in the early part of the race.


Another Ardennes specialist in this race is Jelle Vanendert. The Belgian has been one of the best riders in the hilly one-day races. He may not have had the best results this year but that was more due to bad luck than actual form. He finished second in the Amstel Gold Race when the race finished at the top of the Cauberg and he has been close to the podium in Fleche Wallonne so he obviously likes these finishes. He is not as explosive as Valverde and so his best chance will be to exploit a lull in the peloton by going on the attack after the steep section. His form was not very good in the Tour of Denmark though so it remains to be seen where he is


Etixx-QuickStep don’t have their stars in this race and this could open the door for some of the domestiques to go for the win. Gianluca Brambilla has not had much success since he joined the team as he has mostly been working for his leaders but now he will be given the chance to chase success in a finale that actually suits him pretty well. He is fast in an uphill sprint and as he missed the Giro due to broken collarbone, he will be a lot fresher than most. He was riding solidly in Poland and if he has improved he should be able to do well here.


The same goes for his teammate Pieter Serry who actually has a decent punch in an uphill sprint. The Ardennes specialist is mostly working for his teammates but has been in the top 10 in both San Sebastian and Il Lombardia so he knows how to handle a stage like this one. He crashed out of the Giro but is now back in form as he showed in Wallonie and the Czech Cycling Tour.


Fabio Aru is known as a pure climber but he is actually pretty punchy too. In the Giro he proved on a number of occasions that he is strong in uphill sprints. However, he doesn’t have the speed to beat the lies of Valverde, Rodriguez and Martin so to win the stage he will probably have to attack. As he will be heavily marked, that won’t be easy so the podium may be the maximum result for him.


Julien Simon is mainly here to work for Daniel Navarro and Nacer Bouhanni but he could be allowed to take his chance in the puncheur finales too. After a couple of disappointing years, he found his best legs in 2014. He has not been at the same level in 2015 but he still rode solidly in the Tour. He hasn’t raced since the Tour so his condition is a question mark. He is unlikely to win the stage but he could deliver a pleasant surprise.


When he turned professional, Fabio Duarte was very strong in these finishes but the Colombian has not been at his best since the 2014 Giro. In fact the Colombia team have publicly criticized their biggest names who has failed to live up to expectations. However, he showed growing condition in Burgos and since he has been selected for the race, he must be better than he has been until now. Last year he managed to get into a good form for his big objective and if he has again timed things well, this is a stage for him.


Natnael Berhane will be proud to show his Eritrean champion’s jersey in this stage. After a couple of disappointing seasons, he has been back on form in 2015, most recently in the Tour of Utah where he was among the best climbers and showed a decent punch by mixing it up in the sprint finishes. He is not riding for GC in this race but will be keen to take his chance in the stages that suit him. This is one of them and he can do well both in a sprint and by attacking in the finale.


Caja Rural will grab every opportunity to go on the attack and will be no surprise to see Amets Txurruka take off on the final climb. However, their best chance to come away with a result is probably to have Pello Bilbao try his hand in the sprint. The Spaniard is pretty strong in these finales as he proved when he won a stage in the Tour of Turkey. The main question is his form as he was not riding very well in recent weeks.


Samuel Sanchez has tons of experience. In the past, he would have been able to do really well in these stages but he no longer has the kick that he once had. Hence, he is unlikely to win a sprint finish but he will be ready to grab an unexpected chance to attack.


On paper this would be a perfect stage for Simon Gerrans. However, the Australian is just coming abck from injury and his team have admitted that he will have a tough first week. Hence, this stage probably comes too early for him so it will be a surprise if he can mix it up with the best.


For late attacks, look out for riders like Rodolfo Torres, Bart De Clercq, Frank Schleck, Daniel Navarro, Darwin Atapuma and Domenico Pozzovivo who could use the lack of domestiques to take off in the less steep part before the flamme rouge and hold the peloton off.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Alejandro Valverde

Other winner candidates: Daniel Martin, Joaquim Rodriguez

Outsiders: Chris Froome, Sergio Henao, Peter Sagan, Daniel Moreno, Esteban Chaves

Jokers: Jelle Vanenedert, Gianluca Brambilla, Pieter Serry, Fabio Aru, Julien Simon, Fabio Duarte, Natnael Berhane, Pello Bilbao, Samuel Sanchez, Simon Gerrans, Paolo Tiralongo, Amets Txurruka, Tom Dumoulin



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