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29.08.2015 @ 15:38 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The first big battle in the mountains was more a case of finding out who’s not at 100% than revealing a clear favourite for the race and we won’t be much wiser at the end of tomorrow’s stage. While the GC riders head into survival mode and try to recover for Sunday’s big test, a combination of strong sprinters and attackers have red-circled stage 8 to Murcia as one of their best chances in the race.

 

The course

After seven days in Andalucia, it is time to leave the province and head to Alejandro Valverde’s home city of Murcia. The city has regularly hosted a stage finish and it seems that the organizers have found a preferred formula for the finale. Like in previous editions of this stage, the race will be decided on a circuit that includes the category 3 Alto de la Cresta del Gallo which has always created some exciting racing.

 

The stage brings the riders over 182.5km from Puebla de Don Fabrique to Murcia. The starting city is located in the area close to yesterday’s finish at high altitude and so the first 111km are almost all descending as the riders continue their easterly journey. The start takes place at 1230m of altitude and the riders reach the city of Acrhena at 115m above sea level just after they have passed the 100km mark.

 

From there, they will continue in a southeasterly direction along flat roads to the city of Murcia which they will reach after 133km of racing where they will contest the intermediate sprint a bit earlier than usual. Then they will travel to the southern outskirts of the city where they will hit an 18.7km circuit with the category 3 Alto de la Cresta del Gallo (4.2km, 7.5%). The first kilometre of the ascent average 7% while the next averages 5.3%. The third kilometre is the hardest at 9.5% and has peaks of 12%. The steep section with double-digit gradients ends after 3.4km of climbing and then the road is almost flat until it kicks up with 12% in the final 100m.

 

 The circuit is made up of the climb, its descent and a short flat section. First they will do a full lap of the circuit and they will reach the top for the first time with 36km to go. Then they will do almost another full lap to crest the summit for a second time just 17.3km from the finish. The descent is very tricky and can be used to create differences.

 

Having finished the descent, they will head along completely flat roads back to the finish in Murcia. The finale is uncomplicated as they will mainly follow a big road before taking a left-hand turn with 2.2km to go. Then it’s a right-hand turn with 900m to go that leads onto the flat finishing straight.

 

The finale with the Alto del la Cresta del Gallo was used in both 2010 and 2009 but back then they only did the climb once. In 2010, it came down to a reduced bunch sprint where Thor Hushovd beat Daniele Bennati and Grega Bole while a breakaway decided the stage in 2009. Simon Gerrans, Ryder Hesjedal, Jakob Fuglsang and Alexandre Vinokourov dropped their companions on the climb and it was the Australian who took his only Vuelta stage victory in the four-rider sprint. In 2002, there was no late climb and it was Mario Cipollini who came out on top in a bunch sprint while Tomas Konecny took a breakaway win one year earlier. In 1999, Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano won the prologue here

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

After another very hot day, the riders will leave Andalusia but that doesn’t mean that the heat will get any less sweltering.  In fact, Saturday will be another sunny day with a maximum temperature in Murcia of no less than 34 degrees.

 

It will be a bit windier than it has been in recent days as there will be a moderate wind blowing from an easterly direction and it will pick up a bit as the day goes on. This means that it will be a long day in the headwind until the riders get to Murcia. On the circuit, there will first be a cross-headwind and then a tailwind on the climb an on the descent. Then there’s a short headwind section while it will be a crosswind on the way back to Murcia. There will be a headwind from the 2200m to go mark until the riders turn into a crosswind with 900m to go.

 

The favourites

Like so often before, the first mountain stage did not reveal who’s going to win the Vuelta a Espana. Chris Froome has made it a tradition to crush his rivals in the first mountain test but otherwise the first big summit finish is more a case of elimination than producing winning rides. That was definitely the case in today’s stage where only Fabio Aru was strong enough to make a minimal difference. The rest of the favourites marked each other closely and finished in the same time.

 

However, the stage revealed who’s not at 100%. Most notably, Chris Froome was unable to confirm the solid signs he had shown in the first uphill finishes and was a surprise loser on the Alto de Capileira. With a long time trial and many mountains still to come, it is too early to rule the Brit out but it requires a bit of a turnaround for him to win the race. After all he is unlikely to get any fresher as the race goes on but we will be a lot wiser when the riders have finished Wednesday’s mammoth test in Andorra. Tejay van Garderen was another big loser and it is interesting that the strong time triallists were the ones to lose ground. Apart from Tom Dumoulin who is unlikely to remain an overall contender, Alejandro Valverde was the best time triallist in the main group and his confidence must have received a massive boost by today’s results.

 

The riders will now get a chance to lick their wounds or analyse the situation as tomorrow will be a completely different story. The next big test comes on Sunday’s wall and so the GC riders hope for a recovery ride on the roads to Murcia. However, they are unlikely to get an easy day in the saddle as this is a stage that has been marked out by lots of riders. The finale with the Alto de la Creste del Gallo has been used twice before and the stage has both been won by a strong sprinter and a breakaway. This shows which kind of scenarios can come into play.

 

Giant-Alpecin have done nothing to hide that they will be riding for a sprint finish but at the same time, lots of riders will have their eyes on the breakaway. This means that we should have a frantic opening phase and on the descending roads, the speeds will be high. The headwind will slow thing down a bit but as long as the attacking continues, there will be no chance to recover for the tired GC contenders.

 

It will probably take a long time for the break to be formed and we could easily ride for more than an hour before the elastic snaps. Then Orica-GreenEDGE will take control but they have no interest in catching the break as their main goal is now an in-form Esteban Chaves – even if the stage could be good for Simon Gerrans. However, Giant-Alpecin will probably hit the front pretty early and they will do their utmost to get a sprint finish.

 

Until now Tinkoff-Saxo have done an awful lot of work so it remains to be seen whether they will lend a hand to the chase. Rafal Majka is looking good so they also need to save some energy for later. On the other hand, stage 9 will come down to the legs on the short wall so Majka won’t need much team support in that stage. Hence, it should be possible for Tinkoff-Saxo to contribute to the chase too. Finally, it will be no surprise if Cofidis will also come to the fore. Much depends on Nacer Bouhanni’s recovery but the Frenchman doesn’t have an awful lot of opportunities in this race and he has often proved that he is not afraid of asking his team to work even in stages that may be too hard for him. Furthermore, some of the teams that have missed the break may also do some work so the most likely scenario is that the break will be caught. However, a strong group can definitely make it so a sprint finish is not a foregone conclusion.

 

It will be very interesting to see what happens on the climb. Peter Sagan is the best climber of the fast finishers and it will be a big mistake if Tinkoff-Saxo don’t use strong climbers like Sergio Paulinho, Pawel Poljanski and Jesper Hansen to do some serious damage. The very steep middle section will be hard for many sprinters and the peloton will explode if they go full gas in the hardest part. The tailwind will only make it even harder for the fast guys.

 

Close to the top, we should see a big fight between the GC teams as the descent is very difficult and it would be no surprise to see Sky take control to make sure that Froome enters the descent in a leading position. Furthermore, some teams may even apply some pressure on the descent and we could easily see some splits in the downhill section. If some of the main contenders lose ground, it will be a frantic finale and a big pursuit on the flat roads back to Murcia. That could be bad news for some of the sprinters who may have drifted to the rear end on the climb and so may be dropped on the descent.

 

In the end, we will put our money on a reduced bunch sprint. Usually, Peter Sagan is not as fast as John Degenkolb in a flat sprint but this year the Slovakian has been sprinting better than usual. He was close to the best in the Tour and in this race he has already beaten Degenkolb once. He is clearly in outstanding condition and there is no chance that he will get dropped on the climb. In fact, he could even benefit from the descent to make a difference.

 

The long power sprint is better suited to Degenkolb who usually has the benefit of a better lead-out. However, the balance could be tipped tomorrow. Even if Koen De Kort is a solid climber, the ascent could be too hard for him and Zico Waeytens won’t be there either. It may also be too hard for Luka Mezgec who usually climbs very well. Much will depend on how Daniele Bennati makes it over the climb. The Italian has overcome this climb in the past and is usually a great climber. If he is there to lead Sagan out, he should have the upper hand while Degenkolb may be left with Tom Dumoulin as the only rider with the speed to set him up for the sprint. Sagan also has a fast rider like Jay McCarthy at his side. If he ends up with the best team to support him, he should be strong enough to beat Degenkolb and so he is our favourite.

 

However, it will be a close fight. The stage has Degenkolb written all over it as the German is usually very hard to beat in a sprint after a hard race. If he is climbing like he did 12 months ago, he will easily survive this kind of climb and he should even benefit from a selective race that makes the peloton smaller. Very often he has had a bit of trouble in the fight for position but it will be less of an issue in a reduced bunch. He loves this kind of power sprint so Sagan has to be at his very best to beat him.

 

We are curious to see how Nacer Bouhanni handles the climb. The Frenchman is a much better climber than most think. However, he prefers short, steep climbs over long ascents and this climb may be a bit too long for him. If Tinkoff-Saxo go full gas, he will have to be at 100% to make it over the climb twice and that’s unlikely to be the case as he is still recovering from his crashes. That was evident in the uphill sprint two days ago as he was unusually far back in the final turn and never got the chance to sprint. However, if he makes it to the top with the best, he has the speed to beat Degenkolb and Sagan.

 

Simon Gerrans has used the first week to get back up into the racing rhythm after he crashed out of the Tour and he is constantly getting better. He is aiming for a stage win in the final part of the race and there is little doubt that he has his eyes on tomorrow’s stage as he won in this finale in 2009. However, Orica-GreenEDGE are now mainly focused on Chaves so his ambitions may have to take a back seat. Nonetheless, there is little doubt that he will try to do the sprint. He has won this kind of reduced bunch sprints several times in the past, even beating Sagan in the 2013 Tour de France. Much will depend of his lead-out though. Daryl Impey can make a huge difference as he did in Corsica two years ago but the South African is not yet at 100%. However, if Impey and Gerrans both make it over the climb, they have proved that they can win this kind of stage with their fast Australian.

 

There aren’t many sprinter that will be able to survive the climb but Kristian Sbaragli is one of them. The Italian is a very good climber and he is riding at a very high level in this race. He has already finished sixth in the first two sprints and he has been positioning himself very well. He should be strong enough to make it over the climbs and even though it will be hard for him to beat the faster sprinters, he could potentially deliver a surprise.

 

Trek have two sprinters in this race: Danny van Poppel and Jasper Stuyven. The former is suffering a lot and won’t make it to the top with the best. Things are different for the Belgian who is riding very well at the moment. He felt like an amateur not to deliver when he was given the chance in the uphill sprint on stage 5 but now he has his chance to make amends. He should be able to survive the climb and should be one of the fastest in the group that sprints for the win.

 

Originally Jose Joaquin Rojas said that he would not be allowed to do his own sprints in this race as it was all about Valverde and Quintana. Nonetheless, he was given the green light to sprint in stage 5 where he took a fine fifth place. With a smaller field, things are likely to be less stressful in the finale and so he may again be given his chance. One of his big problems is usually a lack of team support but that will be less important in a smaller field.

 

Like Rojas, Alejandro Valverde is riding on home soil. The Spaniard is fast in a sprint from a reduced peloton and has won this kind of sprints in the past. He would love to win on home soil but may also be willing to lend a hand to his teammate. On the other hand, he needs the bonus seconds so if he sees a chance, he will go for it.

 

Matteo Pelucchi is out of the race and so Vicente Reynes is now the IAM sprinter. The Italian was never going to make it to the finish with the best in this stage so this one has always been one for the Spaniard. He is not a pure sprinter but he is climbing very well and has a good turn of speed at the end of this kind of stage. Last year he was second in a similar stage and he would love to repeat that performance.

 

On paper, this should be a good stage for Carlos Barbero as the Caja Rural sprinter is usually a very good climber. However, he doesn’t seem to be at his best after he was unable to do the uphill sprint in stage 5 which was tailor-made for him. Furthermore, he usually doesn’t have the speed to win a flat sprint but he is definitely capable of a top result

 

Jempy Drucker is no pure sprinter as he is more of a classics rider. Despite a lack of team support, he has already finished fourth twice in this race and he now hopes to make it into the top 3. On paper, the climbs I a bit too hard for him but it won’t be impossible for him to make it.

 

Caleb Ewan looms as a joker. The Australian proved his impressive speed in stage 5 and usually he survives smaller climbs pretty well. However, this one is probably a bit too hard for him and we will be pretty surprised if he makes it. However, if he does, he is obviously one of the fastest.

 

Kevin Reza joined FDJ to get his chance to do reduced bunch sprints so this stage is tailor-made for him. However, the Frenchman doesn’t seem to be at 100% so we doubt that he is climbing well enough to make it. On paper he should be able to make it so there is a chance that he could find himself in the top 5.

 

Colombia have two fast riders in Leonardo Duque and Miguel Rubiano. They have both been given their chance in the bunch sprints and both should be able to survive the climb. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that Duque is at his best so Rubiano may be the best card. None of them are fast enough to win but they are definitely capable of top 10 results.

 

As said, a breakaway has a decent chance in this stage but it requires a strong group. With this kind of easy start, it is always a bit of a lottery to make it into the right break and with a flat finale, it requires some luck to finish it off too. However, the strongest riders will be able to make a difference on the climb and a strong descender and rouleur will be able to maintain a small advantage to the finish.

 

Sylvain Chavanel stans out as an obvious pick for this stage. The Frenchman seems to be riding well at the moment after a disappointing season. He is strong on the flats, climbs well, is an excellent descender and has a fast sprint and so he has all what it takes to win this stage.

 

Jose Goncalves is another obvious candidate for the win. The Portuguese had an outstanding Volta a Portugal where he proved his strength in uphill sprints. He has shown good conditions in the puncheur finales in this race and will be eager to join the break. He is strong on the flats, a good climber and fast in a sprint.

 

Thomas De Gendt and Tosh van der Sande are two solid candidates for Lotto Soudal. The Belgian is a master in hitting the right breakaway and is brutally strong in this terrain but he has the disadvantage of not being very fast in a sprint. Things are different for van der Sande who has the speed to finish it off and is riding really well.

 

Other good candidates include Pello Bilbao, Romain Hardy, Julien Simonn, Pieter Serry, Olivier Le Gac, Davide Villella, Alex Howes, Moreno Moser and Yukiya Arashiro who all have the combination of a good sprint and good climbing legs, and Stephen Cummings and Ruben Plaza are always dangerous in this kind of stage too.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Peter Sagan

Other winner candidates: John Degenkolb, Nacer Bouhanni

Outsiders: Simon Gerrans, Kristian Sbaragli, Jasper Stuyven, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Vicente Reynes, Alejandro Valverde

Jokers: Carlos Barbero, Jempy Drucker, Caleb Ewan, Kevin Reza, Leonardo Duque, Miguel Rubiano, Tosh van der Sande

Breakaway candidates: Sylvain Chavanel, Jose Goncalves, Thomas De Gendt, Tosh van der Sande, Pello Bilbao, Romain Hardy, Julien Simonn, Pieter Serry, Olivier Le Gac, Davide Villella, Alex Howes, Moreno Moser, Yukiya Arashiro, Stephen Cummings, Ruben Plaza, Nelson Oliveira

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