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Will Robert Gesink complete his remarkable comeback by winning on the famous Pena Cabarga?

Photo: Sirotti






30.08.2016 @ 18:43 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The day after a rest day is always tricky and many will be worried with the prospect of having to climb one of the race’s steepest climbs on their first day back in action. After a three-year absence, the steep wall of Peña Cabarga makes a welcome return and will be the scene of another big GC battle. Chris Froome took his first grand tour stage win here five years ago and would love to repeat the performance but it is an in-form Nairo Quintana who has the best chance to deal his rivals another blow as he continues to build his advantage before the time trial.


The course

The series of four summit finishes in Castilla y Leon, Asturias and Cantabria will be brought to an end with one of the new climbs that has already turned into a classic. The wall of Peña Cabarga was first used in 2010 and since then it has already been used another two times. As the scene of Chris Froome’s first grand tour stage win, the climb is dear to the Brit’s heart and he would love to take a second win here before the GC riders head into survival mode for a few days.


The 168.6km stage starts in the coastal city of Colunga where the riders will take off from Museo Jurasico. From here, they will follow the coastal road almost all day, travelling in a westerly direction. This means that it’s a pretty flat stage and apart from the small climbs that always characterize such a stretch, there aren’t any many challenges.


After 121.7km of racing, the riders will contest the intermediate sprint and then they will briefly head inland before they return to the coast for the final time. It won’t change the flat terrain though and as the riders again leave the coast, the roads will still be flat.


It all comes to a very abrupt end in the finale when the riders hit the bottom of the category 1 climb of Pena Cabarga. It averages 9.8% over 5.6km but in reality it is much steeper. The gradient doesn’t really drop below the 10% mark during the first 3km and the climb even kicks off at 18%. Then there is a flat section of 500m before the riders get to the final ramp. In the final 2km, theu will constantly face double-digit gradients, with the final kilometre staying at around 10% for most of the time. The first part of the climb follows a relatively straight road but in the final 2km, there are some hairpin bends and some sharp turns. The final sharp turn comes with 800m to go and then the road gradually bends to the left in the final 300m.


Pena Cabarga made its debut in 2010 when Igor Anton famously crashed out in the hectic run-in to the climb while wearing the red jersey. Joaquim Rodriguez dealt his rivals a major blow by putting 20 seconds into Vincenzo Nibali and 22 seconds to Ezequiel Mosquera. One year later Chris Froome took his first grand tour stage win after a memorable battle with Juan Jose Cobo whom he narrowly edged out in a close sprint. The climb was last used in 2013 when Vasil Kiryienka emerged as the strongest from a breakaway while Chris Horner won the GC battle, putting 20 seconds into Rodriguez and 25 seconds into race leader Nibali.






The weather

After some cloudy days, the riders will be back in the sun on stage 11. Wednesday is forecasted to be sunny with a pleasant maximum temperature of degrees and there is no chance of rain.


There will be a light wind form a northerly direction which means that there will be a crosswind all day. In the finale, the rides will turn into a tailwind and a cross-tailwind for the climb. In the final 2.5km, it will mainly be a crosswind, with a short headwind section at the flamme rouge.


The favourites

As expected, Lagos de Covadonga created the biggest time gaps yet after a hugely spectacular show that was very reminiscent of what we experienced when the race was last used in 2014. Back then, Chris Froome was dropped early on but gradually dragged himself back into contention by time trialling his way to the top of the climb. Key rivals Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador failed to cooperate and missed an opportunity to gain significant time on the Brit.


Yesterday it was the same scenario but this time Froome did much better. He is obviously in much better form than he was two years ago when he had just returned from injury and this time he was pretty close to matching Nairo Quintana. As we already wrote in our analysis of stage 8, Froome got carried away on La Camperona where he failed to follow his pre-race strategy and went on the attack much earlier than planned. He paid for the effort and learned the lesson. Yesterday he delivered a masterpiece in how to gauge your effort and this way of riding is becoming his trademark in the Vuelta. At 100% of his form, he can follow the move like he does in the Tour but in Spain he rides differently. It’s pretty spectacular to see an athlete ride in two so markedly different ways and shows what an intelligent rider Froome is.


However, there is no doubt that Nairo Quintana is the strongest rider in the race. The Colombian did everything perfectly and he and Contador didn’t make the mistake of 2014 not to cooperate. In the end, he turned out to be in a class of his own and rode to a much deserved first stage win in the Vuelta.


The question is whether the hierarchy will be the same in the final two weeks. History shows that Quintana recovers better than Froome and the Colombian is usually at his best in the third week of a grand tour. For this race, he even has the benefit of more freshness as he didn’t do the Olympics. However, the Vuelta is a different story than the Tour as the level of fatigue is much higher and Quintana wasn’t exactly flying in the final week last year when he first completed two grand tours in the same year. Furthermore, Froome’s build-up to the Vuelta is vastly different from his meticulous Tour preparation. In France, he always comes in with all guns blazing but in this race he actually hopes to get better as the race progresses. Until now things suggest that he could be right.


Quintana now has an advantage of almost a minute but that’s not enough before the time trial. It is hard to know how much he needs to feel safe. He has improved his time trialling a lot but the flat course for stage 19 doesn’t do him many favours. However, it is important to remember that he did one of the best TTs of his career on a very similar course at last year’s Vuelta and only lost 1.33 to Tom Dumoulin who is an ever better time triallist to Froome. He says that he needs three minutes before stage 19 to feel safe but based on his performance 12 months ago, much less should be enough.


However, Quintana has to grab every opportunity to increase his advantage, especially at a point where he is clearly the strongest rider in the race. He will get his first chance in tomorrow’s stage to Peña Cabarga and based on what we have seen so far, he should be able to gain more time on his rivals.


The climb is dear to Froome’s heart and there is little doubt that the Brit would love to win there again. However, the priority must be the overall win and at the moment, Froome can’t take any risks. This means that he will probably again approach the climb like he did in stage 10 and so he will just go into TT mode instead of following the attacks and going all out for a stage win. Secondly, he can’t take any risks when it comes to the bonus seconds. At the moment, Quintana is the best rider in the race so it would be best for Froome if the break takes away the bonus seconds. Hence, Sky won’t do anything to bring the break back.


This means that everything will depend on Movistar. Quintana will be the obvious favourite if it comes down to a battle between the GC riders. However, the team will have to control the race for most of the rest of the race and they have already spent a lot of energy. Thursday and Friday offer some hard stages where there will be lots of attacks and the team has to be fully ready for Saturday’s queen stage which is Quintana’s best chance to gain more time. Hence, we doubt that they will do the effort to control this stage. Tinkoff won’t do anything either and Orica-BikeExchange will also ride defensively. This means that we will put our money on a breakaway.


Of course everybody knows that a break has a very good chance so it should be another very aggressive start. Yesterday it took a very long time for the break to be formed and it should be the same in this stage. Unfortunately, it’s a flat start so it’s a lottery to get into the right break and this makes it much more difficult to predict the stage winner. As we saw in stage 8, this kind of stage can often lead to a breakaway with no really strong climbers.


When the break has gone clear, Movistar will spend the day on the front. With a crosswind all day, it could be quite a nervous stage but the wind is not very strong. It will create some tension but we don’t expect anyone to try to create echelons. It’s not impossible that Tinkoff will give it a try – after all they have to try everything – but the wind won’t be strong enough to make a difference. Then it will be up to Movistar to decide whether they want to catch the break. We doubt that they will but it’s not impossible as the relatively flat profile means that they can do so without spending too much energy.


With a breakaway win on the cards, we will put our money on Robert Gesink. Honestly, we didn’t have great expectations for the Dutchman in the first two weeks of the race as he is coming back from injury and a severe concussion sustained at the Tour de Suisse. He didn’t have any big expectations for himself either. However, he surprised himself with a marvelous ride to Lagos de Covadonga and if it hadn’t been for an outstanding Quintana, he would have won the stage. He had already shown signs of improvement a few days earlier but he was competitive for a stage win much earlier than expected.


Gesink will only get stronger from now on and as a GC rider, he has a remarkable ability to recover. Of course the crash gives some uncertainty as one of his problems has been fatigues and a lack of ability to train for several days in a row. However, he has been riding progressively better until now and he must be very motivated to try again after his great performance yesterday. The flat start for him is not ideal but LottoNL-Jumbo will do everything to get their star climbers into the break. If they can fulfill that mission, the Dutchman will be the big favourite. The shorter climb doesn’t suit him excellently but we still doubt that anyone will be able to beat Gesink on such a tough ascent.


Tejay van Garderen is here to win a stage but he hasn’t managed to hit the right break yet. He has been partly slowed down by Atapuma’s red jersey but now he has had a few days to recover from his huge workload in the first week. He has always expected to be ready to go for a stage win in the second half as he hopes to build form and he hasn’t looked too bad even though he has taken it easy on numerous stages. Unlike many other climbers, he is very strong on the flats so he will have a better chance to join the right break. If he makes it, he should be one of the best climbers.


Mathias Frank is another GC rider who is here for stage wins instead of the overall standings. He has already been on the attack twice and has proved to be in solid form. He is not at his best yet but just like van Garderen and Gesink, we can expect him to get better and better as he is coming back from illness. When he was last in the break, the final climb was not hard enough for him to make a difference but tomorrow Peña Cabarga gives him a much better chance to show his strength. The challenge will be to hit the break as he should be one of the best climbers if he makes it.


If it comes down to a GC battle, it is hard to look beyond Nairo Quintana. Until now, he has been in a class of his own. Peña Cabarga doesn’t suit him as well as Lagos de Covadonga but he was also the best on the short Le Camperona which is pretty similar to tomorrow’s challenge. Regardless of the fate of the escapees, he will definitely try to gain more time on his rivals and everything suggests that he will be able to do so.


The only rider who can realistically challenge Quintana, is Chris Froome. As said, the Brit expects to grow throughout the race and until now he has been progressing nicely. On Lagos De Covadonga, he actually did the final part of the climb faster than Quintana so he doesn’t need to progress much to be able to match the Colombian. He is better suited to this kind of climb than the Movistar leader and as he is faster in a sprint, he just needs to keep up with his rival to win the stage.


We have already pointed to Egor Silin numerous times and we will do so again. The Russian has been riding extremely well, probably better than ever. He finally managed to hit the break yesterday and was one of the last riders to be caught by the GC riders. Tomorrow’s shorter climb suits him even better so if he can join the right break, he won’t be easy to beat.


Pierre Rolland is getting stronger and stronger. Yesterday he was markedly better than when he was first in the break on stage 4. Tomorrow he will definitely try again and his diesel engine should continue its progress. He has always been very good at hitting the right break even though the flat start is not ideal for him. The final climb doesn’t really suit him but he could very well be the best climber in the break.


In a GC battle, Froome and Quintana are the only real winner candidates so the rest of our picks will be attackers. Andrey Zeits is one of the obvious candidates. He has already been in the break twice but he has come up short on both occasions. However, he seems to be getting better and better and we have been impressed with his climbing in the last few stages. In this race he has a rare chance to go for personal glory and the Olympics showed just how strong he can be.


We have been very impressed by Romain Hardy in this race. The Cofidis rider is known as a puncheur but in this race he has been up there with the best on the longer climbs too. As expected he suffered a bit more on the first big mountain in the race but this may now be a blessing in disguise as he is no longer a GC threat. Tomorrow’s shorter climb suits him much better and if he can continue like he has done until now, he should be one of the best if he makes it into the right group.


Katusha also have Matvey Mamykin who is one of the most talented neo-pros. Until now he has not managed to join the right break but it is only a matter of time before he succeeds. He actually seems to be getting stronger and stronger and this bodes well for his grand tour future. He should find the steep climb to his liking.


Like Mamykin, Odd-Christian Eiking is making his grand tour debut here but he hasn’t shown much until now. However, he has been riding really well in the last two stages and his form seems to be growing. He is not a real climber but this relatively short ascent should suit his puncheur qualities. If he gets into the right break, he may be able to deliver a surprise.


Larry Warbasse is in search for a new contract and he has been riding very well until now. His performance on Le Camperona was really impressive and in the past he has often done pretty well on short, steep climbs. Hence, this stage should suit him really well, especially as he is also strong on the flats. If he can ride like he did last Saturday, he may very well continue IAM’s momentum by winning the stage.


Finally, we will again point to Hugh Carthy. The Brit is such a talented climber that he has to show himself at some point. He has mostly been taking it easy but he tested himself on La Camperona and Alto del Naranco where he did pretty well. The flat start is definitely not ideal for him and there is some uncertainty due to his crash yesterday but if he can overcome those obstacles, he should be able to make a difference on such a steep climb.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Robert Gesink (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Tejay van Garderen, Mathias Frank (both from a breakaway)

Outsiders: Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome, Egor Silin (breakaway), Pierre Rolland (breakaway)

Jokers: Andrey Zeits, Romain Hardy, Matvey Mamykin, Odd-Christian EikingLarry Warbasse, Hugh Carthy (all from a breakaway)



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