Chris Froome proved that his form is on the rise and that he will be hard to beat in this year’s Vuelta a Espana in what was almost an identical copy of the stage he won four years ago on the Peña Cabarga climb. He and Nairo Quintana now hope for two easier days before the expected resumption of their battle on Saturday’s queen stage and while they recover from four tough summit finishes, the attackers will be ready to give it a go when the Vuelta makes a welcome return to the Basque Country after a four-year absence in Thursday’s stage 12.
The Basque Country is the most cycling-mad region in Spain but unfortunately the political chaos surrounding the region’s status means that it has had a tainted relationship with Vuelta a Espana. The strong independency movement doesn’t want to be associated with a Spanish national tour and due to the fear of political protests, the race didn’t visit the region for 33 years until it finally returned in 2011. After a very popular home win in Bilbao for local hero Igor Anton, the race returned in 2012 and this year it is time to come back after a three-year absence when the race again reaches Bilbao for a lumpy stage on the 12th day of racing.
The 193.2km stage is one of the longest of the race and will bring the riders from Los Corrales de Buelna to Bilbao. Almost all day, the riders will be travelling in an easterly direction close to the coast but they will stay sufficiently far from the coast to pass through the hard terrain that has made the Basque Country famous in most of the cycling world. The first 4km are all uphill and then the riders will descend to a flat section before they get to the hardest climb of the stage. The category 1 Puerto de Las Alisas averages 6% over 10km and is a regular climb that has a maximum of 8.5%. Then the riders will descend to another flat stretch that leads to the category 3 Alto La Escrita (6.4km, 4.5%). From there, the peloton will descend and follow flat roads to the coast and then head to the finish in Bilbao.
The riders will reach Bilbao with 59.8km to go and then the rest of the stage is made up of two laps of a 28.5km circuit on the southeastern outskirts of the city. A flat section leads to the category 2 Alto El Vivero (4.2km, 8.5%) whose top comes with 12.9km to go. From there the riders will descend to the final 5km which are flat. They will follow a slightly winding road with some sweeping turns for the final 5km until they turn right in a roundabout with 650m to go. They will contest the first intermediate sprint at the finish line at the end of the first lap.
It’s the same circuit that was used when the race last visited Bilbao in 2011. Back then, Igor Anton and Marzio Bruseghin battled it out in a memorable battle on the Alto del Vivero, with the Basque coming out on top. The GC riders attacked each other on the climb as Chris Froome tried to unseat Juan Jose Cobo but the favourites arrived together 1.33 behind the leader. Bilbao last hosted a major bike race in 2015 when Michael Matthews won a reduced bunch sprint on the first stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco after a very controversial and dramatic finale. A big crash almost ended the careers of Peter Stetina and Sergio Pardilla when they rode straight into some metal poles. Before then, it was used for a stage in the 2000 Euskal Bizikleta where Marco Serpellini beat Jose Vicente Garcia Acosta in a two-rider sprint.
The Basque Country is famously known for its wet conditions but tomorrow the challenge will be the heat. Thursday is forecasted to be sunny with a maximum temperature of 28 degrees and there is no chance of rain.
It will be a bit windier than it has been in recent days as there will be a moderate wind from a northeasterly direction. This means that the riders will have a cross-headwind almost all day. On the circuit, it will be a crosswind almost all the time. There will be a cross-tailwind on the finishing straight.
It is very rare to have the same feeling of déjà vu as we had in today’s stage. In 2011, Chris Froome tried to make up time on the race leader on the Peña Cabarga and the Brit and Juan Jose Cobo continued to attack each other before Froome beat the race leader in a two-rider sprint. Fast forward five years, it was an identical scenario in today’s stage. Again Froome tried to take back some time and both he and race leader Quintana tried to attack each other. In the end, they sprinted for the win and Froome again showed that he is pretty fast at the line by beating the rider in the red jersey.
The result proves that Froome was right in his analysis when he suggested that he would improve throughout the race. Some questioned whether he would be able to hang on at the end of a long season but based on his performance in the last few stages, it seems that his form is growing. It’s still up for debate whether he will be able to keep it going all the way to the end but with today’s performance he moves back into pole position.
Even though the three minutes he has been talking about is probably exaggerated, Quintana needs more than 54 seconds before the time trial and at the moment it seems that it will be hard to take back much time. After all, Froome has almost matched Quintana in the last two summit finishes. On Lagos De Covadonga, he lost a lot of time on the lower slopes but he actually did the second half much faster than anyone else. Quintana briefly managed to take back some time when he attacked but in the finale, Froome again had the upper hand. This suggests that the pair is pretty equally matched.
There are still four uphill finishes to come and two of them should suit Quintana better than today’s explosive climbs. Saturday’s queen stage to Aubisque and the penultimate stage to Aitana have long finishing climbs which should be better for the Colombian. However, the uphill finish on stage 17 is a brutal wall that is much better for Froome. Sunday’s final climb is pretty easy and shouldn’t do any damage. This gives Quintana at least two chances to take back some time and the question is whether that’s enough.
We can’t resist the temptation to comment on Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard is showing no sign of fatigue which is hugely impressive after such a long season. At the start of the race, we felt convinced that he would make history by finishing in the top 10 but we would never have expected him to be on the podium. As things stand now, he is in prime position to take the third place. It must be hard for him not to wonder what might have been. At the Tour, he was clearly stronger than Quintana and if he had been riding for himself, he could very well have been on the podium and so become the first rider ever to be in the top 3 in all grand tours in a single season.
However, for now, he has to concentrate on defending his third place and to do so, both he and the rest of the contenders have to get safely through the next two stages. The next big test is Saturday’s queen stage and the next two days should be for escapees, with the sprinters maybe eyeing an opportunity in Friday’s stage. For the GC riders, it will be all about staying safe and spend as little energy as possible.
That won’t be easy though. Tomorrow’s stage is very hard and even though the downhill finish means that it’s not a GC day it could very well be one of the toughest of the entire race. Everybody knows that it is a day for a breakaway so most of the riders want to be in the break. It’s also a very important day for the mountains classification and so it was very easy to predict that riders like Omar Fraile, Thomas De Gendt and Alexandre Geniez didn’t try to get in the break today. Many of the best attackers saved energy today to give it a real go tomorrow.
This sets the scene for another very fast start. Today it took an hour for the break to be formed and it will be a surprise if it takes less time tomorrow. The first part is uphill but most of the first 40km are flat. That means that it will be a bit of a lottery to join the right move. However, it would be a bit of a surprise if the break has already escaped when we get to the first climb and if things are still together at that point, we will get a very strong break with several of the best climbers in the race. We could very well get a pretty big group with all the climbers among the non-GC riders and they will be very had to bring back.
When the break has been formed, Movistar will hit the front but they don’t want to bring the break back. It’s a good stage for Valverde but at this point, it’s about the bigger picture. The Spanish team need every ounce of energy in the weekend so they want to get as easily through the stage as possible.
It is very hard to imagine that a team will try to bring it back. Fabio Felline could go for the sprint so Trek may give it a go if they miss the break. On the other hand, they don’t really have the team to control the finale and so it will probably be a waste of energy.
It’s a possibility that Alberto Contador will try to make one of his usual attacks. To do so, he needs to have a rider in the break but that won’t be easy. If the break goes on the climb, only Jesus Hernandez has the form to be there but he is suffering from previous crashes. If the team don’t get a rider in the break, it makes no real sense to attack. He may still give it a go – after all Contador never gives up – but this stage should make no difference in the GC battle.
Hence, we expect the break to make it. The only team that can really change the outcome is Tinkoff. If they get a rider in the break and Contador plans to attack, they have to keep the gap small. This means that the break may be caught in the finale but it is still unlikely as the group will probably be too strong.
When the race last visited Bilbao, Igor Anton took a very popular home win. We will put our money on another local rider to repeat that performance. Omar Fraile has been absolutely flying in this race and he has red-circled his home stage as a big goal. It would be huge for him to win in Bilbao and he will also be keen to go for KOM points.
Fraile showed his form with his fantastic solo ride in stage 6 but it was Lagos De Covadonga that really proved how good he is. Having spent the day in the break, he managed to hang onto Chris Froome when the Brit came fast from behind and even dropped Alberto Contador before crossing the line in fourth. Today he was again up there for a long time, proving that he is one of the best climbers in the race.
The flat start is not ideal for Fraile but if the break goes clear on the climb we have no doubt that he will be there. Then it will be up to him to make the difference on El Vivero. At the moment, we doubt that anyone will be able to follow and another Basque solo win is very likely. Even if it comes down to a sprint, Fraile will be strong as he is pretty fast on the line. Hence, he is our favourite.
Robert Gesink is another obvious candidate. 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 in stage 10. The flat start for him is not ideal but if the break goes on the climb, he will be there. If he climbs like he did two days ago, it won’t be easy to match him on the ascent. His big problem is that he isn’t fast in an uphill sprint. He is good in a uphill drag to the line but on flat roads, many riders are faster than him.
Today Gianluca Brambilla slipped out of GC contention and he is now more than five minutes behind Samuel Sanchez in 10th. This should give him the freedom to attack and there is little doubt that he will try his hand tomorrow. Until now he has been one of the best climbers in the race and this is the kind of stage that suits him down to the ground. The climbs aren’t too long, there’s a descent in the finale and the finish is flat. Brambilla is one of the best descenders and has a very fast sprint so he probably couldn’t have decided a better stage.
Luis Leon Sanchez was very impressive in stage 7 where he was caught just metres from the line. That probably played against him when he hit the break in stage 9 as everybody looked at him to close the gaps. However, the Spaniard is riding really well and this is a stage that suits him. He is not a pure climber but he can do well on climbs like these that are not very steep. He may not be able to follow the best on the final climb but he has time to get back on the descent where he is one of the best. Finally, he is very fast in a sprint.
Fabio Felline has found it hard to decide whether to go for the GC or a stage win. Today he made the decision to lose almost 12 minutes to make sure that he has lost enough time to get the necessary freedom. Trek will do everything to put him in the break on this stage and his ride on stage 10 shows that the form is good. The final climb is a bit too steep to suit him perfectly and he may not be able to follow the best there. However, if he can make it back on the descent, no one is going to beat him in a sprint.
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. Today he bounced back with a great performance and Cofidis have confirmed that he will try to get into the breaks. He has been one of the best climbers in this race and he is also one of the fastest in a sprint
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. This stage must be a goal for him and if the break goes on the climb, he should be there. Unfortunately, he is not fast in a sprint so he needs to ride away on the climb
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 Alto el Vivero gives him a much better chance to show his strength. The main problem is that he is not really fast in a sprint.
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 in stage 20 and was one of the last riders to be caught by the GC riders. Tomorrow’s shorter climbs suit him even better so if he can join the right break, he will have a solid chance. He is not exactly slow in a sprint but there are faster riders than him so he will probably need to attack in the finale.
Alexandre Geniez has already been on the attack several times. The mountains jersey is a big goal so he will try again tomorrow. He is not at 100% yet but he is getting better and better after his injury-marred start to the year. He climbs well, is a good descender and has a solid sprint too.
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. The problem is the fact that he can’t sprint so he needs to ride away on the climb
Finally, we will point to Jaime Roson. The Spaniard is one of the biggest climbing talents in Spain and he has been really impressive in his first grand tour. After a slow start, he seems to get better and better and he was up there on the climb for a long time in today’s stage. Unfortunately, he is not fast in a sprint so it won’t be easy to win the stage but he could very well be in the break.
In the very unlikely scenario that the break will be caught, Alejandro Valverde can win the stage. The final climb is not hard enough for the GC riders to make a difference and Movistar are strong enough to keep things under control. Hence, it is likely to come down to a sprint and here he is the only rider with a chance to beat Felline.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Omar Fraile (breakaway)
Other winner candidates: Robert Gesink, Gianluca Brambilla (all from a breakaway)
Outsiders: Luis Leon Sanchez (breakaway), Fabio Felline (breakaway or sprint), Romain Hardy (breakaway)
Jokers: , Alejandro Valverde (sprint), Tejay van Garderen, Mathias Frank, Andrey Zeits, Alexandre Geniez, Jaime Roson (all from a breakaway)
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