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Will Carlos Betancur win his first stage race since the 2014 Paris-Nice at the Vuelta a Asturias?

Photo: Gomez Sport / Luis Ángel Gómez

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29.04.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Most of the Spanish stage races have either been cancelled or shortened to one-day races but a few of the many regional tours have managed to survive. One of them is the Vuelta a Asturias which is held in one of the most mountainous regions of Spain and has a long history but unfortunately the tough economic climate has taken its toll and nowadays it is just a three-day race and largely a Spanish affair without any major international teams

 

In the last century, the Spanish calendar was loaded with stage races in the spring, making it possible to spend almost the entire first part of the season racing on the Iberian Peninsula. However, the economic crisis has taken its toll and nowadays there are barely any races left.

 

In the 1990s, almost every region had its own tour but most of them have been cancelled, shortened or reduced to one-day races. Even the WorldTour races Volta a Catalunya and Vuelta al Pais Vasco have been close to extinction but luckily both have managed to survive. Things have been more difficult for the smaller races. Vuelta a Murcia and Vuelta a la Rioja are now one-day races, Vuelta a Castilla y Leon is held over just three days and the list of races that have disappeared completely is long.

 

One of the races that have managed to survive is the Vuelta a Asturias but the race is no longer what it once was. First held in 1925, it is one of the oldest races in Spain which is no big surprise as Asturias is a great region for cycling due to its mountainous terrain. After its first four years, it was only held in 1947 and 1950 until it was back on the calendar for five consecutive years from 1953 and 1957, with Federico Bahamontes winning twice.

 

However, it wasn’t until 1968 that the race became a regular fixture on the Spanish calendar and after several years as a predominantly Spanish affair, it became a big international event. The race flourished in the 90s when riders like Piotr Ugromov, Alex Zülle, Erik Breukink, Miguel Indurain, Laurent Jalabert and Joseba Beloki all took the win but then the fight for survival slowly started. During the 2000s, the level of the field gradually deteriorated and it again became a race mostly for Spanish riders.

 

The really hard times started when the economic crisis hit Spain and since then the race has been battling for survival. In the past, it was held in conjunction with the one-day race Subida al Naranco which made for a great week of racing in Asturias. That race disappeared in 2011 when it was incorporated as a stage in the Vuelta a Asturias and one year later, the five-day race was shortened to just three days. The low came in 2014 when the race was cancelled at a very untimely point for Nairo Quintana who planned to use the race as his final test for the Giro. Luckily, the organizers managed to get it back on the calendar for 2015, albeit only in a shortened two-day version, but things are now looking a bit brighter as it will again be held over three days in 2016.

 

However, the race is still not what it once was. Like most other Spanish races, it is still mainly an affair for the Spanish teams that are joined by continental teams, mainly from Portugal and Colombia. The TV coverage is long gone and the race does no longer get much international attention. Furthermore, the biggest riders often skip the race but it has developed into a great testing ground for talented stage racers in the Movistar team and riders vying for a spot on the Giro d’Italia roster for the Spanish squad.

 

Last year Igor Anton earned his place in the Italian grand tour by taking the overall victory, beating defending champion Amets Txurruka into second place.

 

The course

There’s barely a single metre of flat in Asturias and the race has always been one for the climbers who find plenty of terrain for their liking. This will again be the case in 2016 but there will only be one day in the high mountains. The first stage will feature a big mountaintop finish that is likely to decide the overall standings but there will be a chance to change things on the final day when a steep climb late in the stage can be used as launch pad for attacks. The sprinters will have their say in stage 2 where mostly flat terrain will allow the strongest of the fast finishers to battle it out.

 

Stage 1

There will be no chance to ease into the race as the riders will face the most important stage already on the first day. The course will bring them over 152,5km from Oviedo to a summit finish on the climb of El Acebo near Cangas del Narcea. After a flat start, the riders will tackle the category 3 climb of Alto de Avieras (9km, 3.8%), the category 2 climb of Alto de la Espna (8km, 5.3%) and the category 3 climb of Alto de Piedratecha (3km, 4%) at the midpoint before they get back into flatter terrain. The race will come to an exciting conclusion on the category 1 climb of Alto del Acebo which averages 8.1% over 9.5km.

 

Alto del Acebo is a very steep climb that leaves no room for recovery and so this stage is one for the real climbers. The race is likely to be pretty controlled and then the mountain goats will have their final battle on the steep slopes in the finale. With the final two stages being relatively flat, the winner of the stage is very likely to win the race overall.

 

 

 

 

Stage 2

There are never any flat stages in Asturias and the organizers always include climbs late in the stages which means that there is never any room for the pure sprinters. However, the strong sprinters can have their say and they are likely to get a chance on stage 2.

 

The course stage brings the riders over 186.7km from Cangas del Narcea to La Pola L. Lena. After a flat start, the riders will tackle three category 3 climbs in the middle part of the race before they get back into flatter terrain. In the end, they will do two laps of a 23km circuit with the category 3 Alto de Garabanzo (5.3km, 2.6%) which is more of a gradual uphill section than a real climb. The top comes with 15.2km to go and from there a short descent leads to a flat section. The final kilometres are very slightly uphill.

 

The climbs in this are all relatively easy and the climb on the circuit will be no major challenge for the sprinters that are here. Hence, the stage is likely to come down to a bunch sprint. The wind rarely plays a role in Asturias but the GC riders have to be attentive to potential dangers.

 

 

Stage 3

The GC is likely to have stayed unchanged in stage 2 but the final stage presents an opportunity to turn things around. Most of the short 121.5km stage that will bring the riders from Bueno to Oviedo, is a relatively easy affair. The first half is littered with four category 3 climbs but then things get significantly easier in the second half where the terrain is predominantly flat. However, the sprinters will be left disappointed as the stage has a nasty sting in its tail. The category 2 El Violeo (3.6km, 8.2%) summits just 7.3km from the finish and from there it is downhill until the riders get to the flat final 3km.

 

El Violeo is a very tough climb that can be used as a chance to change the GC on the final day. It is shorter than the Alto el Acebo so it is better suited to punchy riders who may have the upper hand in this stage. There is a chance that the GC will be changed as it is possible for a lone rider or a very small group to ride away here. However, the stage can also be won from a breakaway as there is no obvious favourite for this kind of stage and there will be big time gaps on GC.

 

 

The favourites

As it is the case in most of the many Spanish stage races that have gone from being major international events to being a largely Spanish affair, the Vuelta a Asturias is likely to be completely dominated by Movistar. That was recently the case in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon where they won all three stages and the overall and even though they don’t have a big leader like Alejandro Valverde here, they still have a formidable team for a mountains race like this.

 

Movistar is the only WorldTour team in the race and the only pro continental teams are Roth and Caja Rural. Roth won’t have much to say on this kind of course but Caja Rural will be the only real challengers for the dominant Movistar team. That was the case in Castilla y Leon where Pello Bilbao and David Arroyo tried to match Valverde and here it will again be left to the Spanish team to try to beat their big brother.

 

The race is likely to be largely decided in the opening stage. Stage 2 should be one for a reduced bunch sprint but stage 3 could also come into play as the final climb is a difficult one where it will be possible to make a difference. While the first one is best suited to the real climbers, the punchy riders should find stage 3 to their liking. However, it is a race that will be won by the best climber. There are bonus seconds in every stage but with a brutal mountain stage on the first day, they are unlikely to be important. The weather has often played a role in Asturias but as sunny conditions are on the menu, it won’t influence the race too much.

 

Movistar have two leaders for this race. Daniel Moreno and Carlos Betancur both arrive in Spain on the back of a solid Ardennes campaign and it seems that the Spanish team can decide which of the two riders is going to take the win. It would be no surprise if those two riders ride away in stage 1 and then they can freely chose who’s going to win. However, Caja Rural will be there with a strong team so there will definitely be a race. This means that the strongest of the pair will probably take the win.

 

It’s hard to say who’s the best at the moment. Moreno looked very strong at Amstel Gold Race but he wasn’t very good in Fleche Wallonne and Liege. The Spaniard can be pretty inconsistent but this year he hasn’t shown much sign of form.

 

Things are different for Betancur. The Colombian had his usual slow start to the year and was clearly overweight when he arrived in Europe. However, it is testament to his huge talent that he barely had to race to get into condition. He won a stage already in Castilla y Leon and since then he has just become better and better. He crowned it all with a fantastic ride in support of Valverde in Liege.

 

In fact, Betancur has been riding so well that the team has made the decision to change his schedule. The plan was to do Romandie this week and then take a break to prepare for the Tour. Now he will ride in Asturias to get ready for the Giro as he is reportedly a late inclusion in Valverde’s support team. We expect him to be even better than he was in Liege and he seems to finally be getting closer to his 2013 and 2014 level. If that’s the case, he will be unrivalled in this race and so he is our favourite.

 

Daniel Moreno will be his biggest rival. The Spaniard is very inconsistent but at last year’s Il Lombardia he showed that he still has what it takes to be up there in the biggest races. He hasn’t shown the same kind of form in 2016 though and he is often suffering from allergy problems in the spring. Nonetheless, he was still riding well in the Ardennes so it is definitely not impossible that he will be strong enough to win this race.

 

Caja Rural are here with Sergio Pardilla. The Spaniard is slowly getting back to his best form after his bad crash at last year’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco. He was the only challenger for Movistar in Klasika Primavera and recently he also did a good Giro del Trentino. He should be even better here and he should find the long climb in stage 1 to his liking. He will be ready to challenge Movistar.

 

Hugh Carthy is a second option for Caja Rural. The Brit was riding so extremely well in Catalonia where he was a surprise top 10 finisher and he was aiming high for the Giro del Trentino. Unfortunately, he crashed in that race and so he was never a contender. It remains to be seen how he has recovered but if he is back at 100%, he will probably be the big rival for Movistar.

 

If someone has a chance to upset the two big favourite teams, it is probably Federico Figueiredo. The 22-year-old is having a bit of a breakthrough season as he was 10th in GP Miguel Indurain and 6th in the Castilla y Leon queen stage. It won’t be easy to beat the best here but he should definitely be one of the strongest on the climbs.

 

The small Boyaca team from Colombia are here with former Caja Rural rider Heiner Parra. The Colombian climber never achieved any great results as a pro rider but he showed flashes of his potential. He was in the top 10 in the Castilla y Leon queen stage and seems to be riding well at the moment.

 

Euskadi have two solid climbers in Mikel Bizakarra and Garikoitz Bravo who both did very well on the climbs in Castilla y Leon. Especially Bravo has done very well in hard Spanish races and should be up there on this mountainous course.

 

Finally, Jose Herrada, Javier Moreno and Marc Soler deserve a mention. They are likely to support Betancur and Moreno but they are all among the best climbers here. They may be given a chance to go for a personal result and they have the skills to do really well. Especially Herrada should be strong in this mountainous race for pure climbers.

 

***** Carlos Betancur

**** Daniel Moreno, Sergio Pardilla

*** Hugh Carthy, Federico Figueiredo, Heinier Parra

** Mikel Bizkarra, Garikoitz Bravo, Jose Herrada

* Javier Moreno, Marc Soler, Angel Madrazo, Fabricio Ferrari, Eduard Prades, Igor Merino, Hernan Parra, Victor Etxeberria, Hernando Bohorquez, Alexander Vdovin

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