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Will Nairo Quintana ride himself back into red by conquering the mythical climb to Lagos De Covadonga?

Photo: Sirotti

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28.08.2016 @ 19:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

If there’s a climb that deserves the status as the most iconic mountain in the Vuelta a Espana, it had to be the ascent to Lagos De Covadonga in Asturias. After four uphill finishes on steep walls and gentle climbs, the GC riders face their first big test on a real mountain when 10 days of consecutive racing will be brought to an end in a big battle that will go a long way in shaping the final overall classification.

 

The course

After two tough summit finishes, the four-stage series of key stages will continue with another legendary stage. In recent years, the climb to Lagos de Covadonga has developed a reputation as maybe the most iconic mountain of the race as it is one of the few summit finishes that regularly features in the race. After a one-year absence, it will make a welcome return in the 2016 edition where it will be the scene of another big battle between the overall contenders. Coming at the end of a 10-stage block without any rest days and as the third consecutive uphill finish, the mountain will definitely take its toll and give a much clearer picture about who’s going to win the race.

 

At 188.7km, the stage between Lugonas and Lagos de Covadonga is one of the longest of the race and it follows the classic formula of a stage that finishes at the top of the legendary mountain. During the first 31.1km, the riders will finalize their journey to the northern coast of the Iberian Peninsula as they follow mainly descending roads to the city of Gijon. From here, they will follow the coastal road in a westerly direction for most of the day. It is definitely not flat as there are several small climbs along the way.

 

After 142km of racing, the rides will head inland to tackle the category 1 climb of Alto del Mirador del Fito which averages 7.8% over 6.2km. The average gradient is deceptive as the first kilometre is very easy. From there, the gradient stays around 11% for most of the time until it levels out for the final kilometre. This is where Miguel Indurain famously stepped off the bike at the 1996 Vuelta a Espana before announcing his retirement a few months later.

 

The top comes with 40.5km to go and from here, the riders will descend back to the coast before they again turn inland along flat roads. The intermediate sprint comes with 21.7km to go and moments later, the riders will hit the final HC climb. Lagos de Covadonga averages 7.2% over 12.2km but as it was the case for the previous climb, the numbers are deceptive. During the first 7km, the gradient is between 9% and 13% for most of the time. However, the climb then gets a bit easier and the final 5km consist of a mix of two descents and some steep ramps. The final ramp ends with around 2km to go and then it’s slightly uphill until the riders get to a descent just before the flamme rouge. It ends with 300m to go where the riders will hit the final steep ramp that leads to the finish. It’s a winding road for the final 500m, with a final sharp turn coming 200m from the line.

 

Lagos De Covadonga was last visited in 2014 when Przemyslaw Niemiec emerged as the strongest from a breakaway. The Pole just held off the GC riders as he arrived with a 5-second advantage over Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez. Race leader Alberto Contador lost another five seconds while Chris Froome recovered from a bad start to limit his losses to Contador to just 7 seconds. In 2012 Antonio Piedra emerged won from a breakaway while Alberto Contador made repeated attempts to distance Joaquim Rodriguez but failed to do so. In 2010 Carlos Barredo won from a breakaway while Vincenzo Nibali lost a bit of ground to key rival Ezequiel Mosquera in the finale. In 2007, the stage was the first big mountain stage of the race and it was Vladimir Efimkin who was a surprise survivor from a long breakaway and took both the stage win and the leader’s jersey. The other three winners in this millennium are Eladio Jimenez, Juan Miguel Mercado and Andrei Zintchenko who won in 2005, 2001 and 2000 respectively.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

The riders have very often had rainy conditions for the Lagos De Covadonga climb but this year it is likely to stay dry. There will be sun at the beginning but gradually it will get cloudier and there will be a 20% of a shower throughout the stage. The maximum temperature will be 21 degrees.

 

There will be a light wind from a northeasterly direction. This means that the rider will have headwind in the beginning and a cross-headwind on the coastal road. There will be a headwind on the first climb and a tailwind and a cross-tailwind in the run in to the final climb. Here it will mainly be a cross-tailwind but it will be a cross-headwind in the final 2km. 

 

The favourites

“If Etixx-QuickStep are smart, they will try to send David de la Cruz in the break. As said, Movistar won’t do much to keep the red jersey and so De La Cruz could very well find himself in red if he can join the right break. The Spaniard is constantly getting better and better and in this race he has reached a whole new level. He will probably be the best climber if he joins the right break.”

 

That’s what we wrote yesterday and apparently the Etixx management had made the same analysis. With a  tough start to today’s stage, the early break was always going to be big and strong and so Movistar would burn up their team if they wanted to defend the jersey. It seemed that they were giving it a try as they kept the break within a reasonable distance but they were not going to spend too much energy. Rory Sutherland and Imanol Erviti did all the work and they only used the rest of the team in the finale. It was a half-hearted attempt and they were not overly concerned with the loss of the jersey.

 

For Etixx-QuickStep, it’s a massive achievement. The team grabbed a similar opportunity in the Vuelta when Gianluca Brambilla made a similar coup on the Tuscan gravel roads and we are probably likely to see similar things more often in the future. With the increased media pressure and the importance of marginal gains, the race favourites want to stay out of the leader’s jersey and away from the media scrum for as long as possible and this opens the door for the outsiders to enjoy a spell in the lead. Today it was De La Cruz who grabbed the opportunity, Brambilla did it in the Giro and in the Tour it was Greg Van Avermaet who enjoyed some time in the spotlight.

 

However, De la Cruz’s spell in red will only last for one day. He has a very slim lead over Quintana and it will be impossible for him to defend it on stage 10. Lagos de Covadonga is one of the hardest climbs of the entire race and is joined by Col d’Aubisque and Alto de Aitana as the only real mountaintop finishes. The other finishing climbs are either gentle climb like today’s ascent of Alto de Naranco or short, steep walls like Mirador del Ezaro and La Camperona. Hence, tomorrow’s stage is one of the big opportunities for the real climbers to make a difference.

 

Lagos de Covadonga is an iconic climb in Spain and everybody would love to win here. However, history shows that it has often been a day for a breakaway and due to its position in the middle of a tough block of mountaintop finishes, it could very well be the case again this time. On the other hand, the first part of the stage is not overly hard and the riders will have a rest day on Tuesday. This means that they may be willing to spend a bit more energy in an attempt to chase down the break and go for the stage win.

 

This also makes stage 10 much more open than the last two stages. We never had much doubt that stages 8 and 9 would be for breakaways but tomorrow it’s 50-50. Everything will depend on Movistar and Tinkoff. Chris Froome has made it clear that he just wants to get to the time trial as fresh as possible and he took a beating yesterday. There is no reason for him to take any unnecessary risks and provide Nairo Quintana with the opportunity to pick up 10 bonus seconds so Sky will take a back seat. After his poor showing on stage 8, Esteban Chaves won’t go for a stage win either so it will all depend on Contador and Quintana.

 

Movistar are very often reluctant to go for stage wins in the first weeks of a grand tour and are very cautious when it comes to spending energy. However, Quintana needs a lot of time before the time trial and this is one of his two biggest chances to win a stage (the second one is the Aubisque stage) and the 10 bonus seconds could be valuable at the end of the race. At the same time, Lagos de Covadonga is a mythical ascent so there is little doubt that he would love to conquer it. As the early part of the stage is not too had and as they will definitely try to make things hard on the Alto de Fito in any case, it could be the day when Movistar decide to go for a win.

 

Alberto Contador may also fancy his chances. The Spaniard felt surprisingly good on stage 8 and this has boosted his confidence significantly. Of course he will be uncertain about how his body recovers but he is not riding for the podium. He is here to win the race and this is one of the best stages for a pure climber like Contador. He is already far behind so he needs to pick up seconds whenever it’s possible. The bonus seconds could be valuable so it’s definitely not impossible that Tinkoff will go for the stage win.

 

In any case, it will be another fast start with numerous attacks as everybody knows that a break has a good chance. However, like in stage 8, it is an easy start so it requires a lot of luck to get into the right break. The pure climbers will be disadvantaged and so it’s again a lottery for them to make it. Like in stage 8, the break could very well be made up of riders like Gatis Smukulis, Scott Thwaites and Zico Waeytens that have no chance to finish it off in a tough stage like this one.

 

When the break has been formed, Etixx-QuickStep will take control. However, they won’t defend the jersey anyway so they won’t do too much work. The coastal road can be windy and this will create come nervousness but there won’t be enough wind to split the field. Hence, everything will depend on whether Movistar or Tinkoff take control. As said, it’s 50-50 but we gamble on Movistar to do so.

 

On the first climb, Movistar will probably create a big selection. They have the best team here and Quintana wants to gain more time. He needs the race to be as hard as possible so we can expect the Spaniards to whittle the peloton down here. However, there’s a long flat section in between the climbs so there will be no attacks from the contenders.

 

In the end, it will come down to a battle on the final climb. The first 10km are very hard and this is where the difference has to be made. Luckily it’s a cross-tailwind so it should be possible to create some gaps. However, if things are still together on the short descent with 2km to go, the time gaps will be very small and it will be more for explosive riders like Alejandro Valverde who can steal a few seconds by sprinting up the ramps in the finale.

 

As we expect Movistar to bring the break back, we will put our money on Nairo Quintana. The Colombian was clearly the best climber on stage 8 and this longer climbs suits him much better. In general, he has been climbing better than ever this year and it seems that he was right when he wrote his poor performance in the Tour down to illness. He usually recovers better than Chris Froome and has the advantage of not having done the Olympics. He is showing no signs of fatigue yet and he should again be the best here.

 

Quintana will find the steep first part to his liking and the gradients are definitely hard enough for him to make a difference. However, he is not fast in a sprint so if he fails to get a gap before the descent he won’t win the stage. Furthermore, he is not as powerful as Froome in this part so he needs to build a buffer in the first 10km. At the moment, he is probably strong enough to do so and so he is out favourite to win.

 

Yesterday it looked like Chris Froome got carried away a bit. His pre-race plan was to time trial his way to the top and his plan has always been to ride defensively all the way to the TT. However, he must have felt good halfway up the climb and this prompted him to change his tactic. In the end, he paid the price and there is little doubt that he regrets his decision. The Brit rarely makes any tactical mistakes but this one was certainly one of them.

 

Tomorrow he is likely to race more defensively. If he can maintain status quo until the TT, he will probably win the race so he has no real reason to attack. On Lagos de Covadonga, he will probably follow wheels and everybody knows that he is the best climber in the world. Without making any mistakes, he could be strong enough to follow Quintana. He expects to grow during the race and so he should get stronger and stronger. It remains to be seen whether fatigue will set in but until now he is not showing any signs of tiredness. He is faster than Quintana in a sprint so if the pair arrives together, he will win the stage.

 

Alejandro Valverde is not able to follow the best climbers but he is not far off the mark. While the first 10km are hard for him, the final 2km are tailor-made for his explosive skills. If the likes of Quintana and Froome can’t get rid of each other, we will probably have a regrouping in the end. Valverde will definitely be there and if they can keep things together, no one is going to beat him in the final 2km.

 

Alberto Contador claimed that his poor showing in stage 3 was due to hydration issues and it seems that he was right. He bounced back from injury with a great ride yesterday and he will be motivated to do even better here. The longer climb suits him a lot better and he will be keen to go on the attack. We doubt that he will be strong enough to drop Quintana and Froome but he could benefit from the tactical game. He has lost a bit of time so the two big favourites will mainly watch each other and this could open the door for Contador.

In Burgos, Sergio Pardilla won the queen stage by exploiting the tactical battle. He tried to do so again yesterday and even though his mission failed, he showed that he is climbing better than ever. He has fully recovered from his horror crash at last year’s Pais Vasco and he should be up there again tomorrow. He has had success by anticipating the favourites and he will definitely try to do so again. If Contador, Froome and Quintana watch each other, look out for Pardilla to repeat his move from Burgos.

 

Leopold König will have similar plans. The Czech is one of the freshest riders here as he missed most of the season due to a knee injury and he is also one of the best climbers. He did well on Le Camperona which didn’t really suit him and he should be much more comfortable here. Froome would be happy to send his teammate on the attack to put Movistar under pressure and König is strong enough to finish it off.

 

If a breakaway makes it, keep an eye on Tejay van Garderen. The American is here to go for stage wins and is hoping to improve his form for the second half of the race. He looked very strong in the team time trial and now he has 10 days of racing under his belt. He has done a lot of work for his team and seems to be in decent condition. On paper, he is one of the best climbers here and compared to many other climbers, he has a much better chance to hit the right beak.

 

We were a bit surprised that Omar Fraile missed the break in today’s stage. However, he did a very strong attack on the final and so again showed that his form is excellent. He is usually a master in hitting the right break, also in stages with a relatively flat start like this. His strong performance in stage 6 shows that he is maybe even better than last year and he will be good enough to finish it off.

 

Katusha already have a stage win but they are not done yet. Alberto Losada and Egor Silin have both been climbing very well in this race. Losada crashed out in stage 6 and Silin has been up there with the very best on the climbs. Silin also tried his hand on the final climb in today’s stage. Both have the form to win this stage.

 

We already pointed to Ben Hermans as a potential winner of today’s stage but he didn’t make it into the break. However, the Belgian is one of the strongest riders here and BMC may eye an outside chance to reclaim the red jersey with their classics specialist. He looked very strong when he attacked in the finale of stage 5 and his excellent performance in Burgos shows that he has improved his climbing a lot. Usually, this climb would be a bit too long for him but based on his ride in the warm-up race that may no longer be the case.

 

Astana missed out in today’s stage but they haven’t given up yet. Tomorrow it could be a day for Andrey Zeits who gets a rare chance to go for personal glory in this race. He has already been on the attack twice and he was very good in the Olympics. He is an excellent climber and strong in the flat early section too. The longer climber in the finale suits him better than the easy climb in stage 4 so this time he may actually finish it off.

 

Finally, we will point to the Caja Rural youngsters Hugh Carthy and Jaime Roson. Both are among the most exciting climbing talents and they are perfectly suited to the tough final climb. They have both been taking it easy in most of the stages even though Roson gave it a go in the break on stage 4. In the last few days, they have shown that their form is good and they don’t seem to be fatigued in their grand tour debut. With a flat start, the challenge will be to hit the break but if they make it, they could very well be the best climbers in the break.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nairo Quintana

Other winner candidates: Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde

Outsiders: Alberto Contador, Sergio Pardilla, Leopold König

Jokers: Tejay van Garderen, Omar Fraile, Egor Silin, Alberto Losada, Ben Hermans, Andrey Zeits, Hugh Carthy, Jaime Roson (all from a breakaway)

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