Stage 12 proved just how unpredictable the Vuelta a Espana can be and things won’t be any easier for the pundits when the riders tackle their final transitional stage before the Pyrenees on the 13th day of racing. A lumpy course with tough climbs in the middle section and a relatively flat finale means that Friday’s stage is one of the most unpredictable of the entire race and while the GC riders hope to get easily through the stage, almost everybody else will eye their opportunities in either a sprint or in a breakaway.
One of the characteristics of recent Vuelta a Espana is that the stages generally have been relatively short. This is also the case in 2016 as only two stages have a length of more than 200km. The longest stage comes in stage 13 where the riders will cover 213.4km on a course full of ups and downs. However, there aren’t any long, tough climbs and this turns it into a classical transitional stage that is open to a lot of possible outcomes.
The 213.4km stage will start in the city of Bilbao and finish in Urdax-Dantxarinea close to the French-Spanish border. All day the riders will be travelling in an easterly direction as they continue their journey to the Pyrenees where the next big GC battles will be held. The first 93.7km of the stage are not completely flat but they are as flat as they can possibly be in the Basque Country. Along the way, the riders will pass the famous city of Eibar, known as the host of the queen stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. However, there will be no chance to climb the Alto de Arrate and instead the riders will follow the largely flat roads until they get to the bottom of the category 3 Alto Monte Igueldo (5.3km, 6.2%).
After the descent, the riders will contest the intermediate sprint at the 110km mark and then they get to the hardest part of the course where three category 3 climbs come in quick succession. First up is the Alto de Aritxulegi (6.2km, 6.5%) and then it’s time for the Alto de Agiña (5km, 6.2%). The climbing ends with the Puerto de Lizaneta (7.2km, 4.7%) whose top comes with 50.2km to go.
As they crest the summit, the riders will head into France before they return to Spain at the bottom of the descent to reach the finish after 181.7km of racing. The stage will end with one lap of a 31.7km circuit that is partly on French soil but they will only pass close by the finish line before they embark on the lap. It’s a lumpy one but there aren’t any real climbs. The final 5km are mainly slightly descending until the riders take a sharp turn with 380m to go. Then it’s uphill at 1.5%-2% and the riders will go through a roundabout just 240m from the line.
Urdax-Dantxarinea has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.
There will be no sign of the infamous Basque rain on stage 13 as Friday will be another hot and sunny day. Bright sunshine will greet the riders and the temperature will reached a massive 30 degrees.
There will be a light wind from a northerly direction and so the riders will have a crosswind all day. It will also be crosswind on most of the circuit. In the final 4.5km, the riders will have a cross-headwind.
Cycling is wonderfully unpredictable. Stage 12 was maybe the most obvious breakaway stage of the entire race but all the stars aligned for the sprinters and suddenly Jens Keukeleire emerged as a surprise winner. Movistar were reluctant to bring Peter Kennaugh back into contention and lose their lead in the teams classification and so they kept the strong break firmly under control. Astana had missed the break and wanted to set Luis Leon Sanchez up for the win in what was maybe his best chance in the race and so the break was suddenly brought back. To make things even more surprising, a lot of sprinters made it over a climb that should have been way too hard for them. Keukeleire proved the good form that he has shown for most of the year and added a maiden grand tour stage win to his victory at the Tour de Slovenie.
The win is a welcome one for Keukeleire who seemed to be the next Belgian classics star when he started his pro career with all guns blazing, winning numerous races during the spring in 2010. However, he has never lived up to expectations and even though he has had good results on the cobbles, he has never become the prolific winner than many had hoped. This year he was hugely disappointed when he was the final rider to be denied a spot on the Orica-BikeExchange roster for the Tour but with today’s win adding to a pretty solid season, he should soon move up in the internal hierarchy.
While Keukeleire celebrated a deserved win, there was huge disappointment in most other camps. As said, this was the most obvious breakaway stage in the entire race and for many riders it was one of their biggest goals. In the final part of the race, the stages mostly have uphill finishes or are relatively flat and this reduces the number of potential winners significantly. If you are not a climber, sprinter or time triallists, you are running out of options!
However, there is still at least one very solid chance for the attackers. Stage 13 is maybe the most unpredictable of the entire race. The longest stage of the race is hard enough to inspire the strongest riders and with a relatively long, flat run to the finish, almost every single rider can hope to win if he makes it into the right break. However, the relatively easy finale also means that the sprinters have red-circled the stage as their only opportunity in the second week and this means that almost every rider in the peloton hopes to do something.
This also means that the stage is very hard to predict. An early breakaway can make it or it can be decided in a sprint. If it comes back together, there will be an extra element of uncertainty as there are no guarantees that all the fast riders will survive the climbs.
The unpredictability sets the scene for another very fast start and just like in the last two stages, we can expect a huge battle of more than an hour to join the right break. The first part of the stage is relatively easy so it requires a solid amount of luck to make it. However, there are some shorter climbs where the strong guys can make a difference and if the break goes here, it can again be a strong, big group that goes clear.
It will be very interesting to see whether the sprint teams will go for the win. Giant-Alpecin have been very anonymous in this race and their only real chance to win a stage is to go for the sprints with Nikias Arndt. The Germans team has to go all in for a bunch sprint but they won’t be able to control the stage single-handedly. Dimension Data also have their eyes on the sprints with Kristian Sbaragli who is in excellent form and excels on hard days like these. However, they don’t have the strongest team either and if they have Omar Fraile in the break, they won’t do anything.
With the queen stage coming up, Movistar will do nothing so Etixx-QuickStep probably have the key to the stage. They have an excellent team and are among the few that can control this stage but they will be uncertain about whether Gianni Meersman can make it over the climbs. They have some solid breakaway candidates too so they may try to play both cards and if they have a rider in the break, they will probably let it stay away. IAM may also eye an option with a confident Jonas Van Genechten but they will also try to join the moves. Finally, Trek and Lotto Soudal may also give it a shot but they will also try to join the attacks.
Everything will depend on the composition of the break. If most of the sprint teams miss out, most notably Etixx-QuickStep, there must be enough interest in trying to bring things back together. If not, the break will make it. Even if the break is caught, the many small climbs in the finale could be good launch pads for successful breakaways.
It’s 50-50 whether we will get a sprint but with a relatively flat start and only one chance for the sprinters in the second week, we will put our money on a reduced bunch kick. Gianni Meersman has been climbing really well in this race and this is the kind of lumpy course that he loves. Etixx-QuickStp should be keen to go for their in-form sprinter and so they are likely to lead the chase. With their amount of firepower, that can make all the difference.
As said, Meersman has looked very strong on the climbs, most notably on stage 7. Back then he was surprised that his legs were that good and he doesn’t seem to be doing any worse now. If the peloton goes full gas on the hardest climbs, it will be too tough for him but only Dimension Data have a real interest in doing so and they don’t have the team to get rid of the Belgian.
The late climbs should suit a punchy guy like Meersman who is likely to be fresher than many rivals but most importantly he has an excellent lead-out. He won’t have a full train at his disposal after such a long, hard day but he should at least have Zdenek Stybar there. Meersman is great at positioning and Stybar is a master in timing his effort. Hence, we put our money on another win for the Belgian.
Fabio Felline has been in great form in this race and he was extremely disappointed after missing out in today’s stage. Tomorrow he has another chance but it won’t be easy to find out how to handle the stage. If he joins the right break, he will be the obvious favourite due to his fast sprint but he can also wait for a sprint. That gives him lots of options and he will probably try to play both cards.
In a break, he has all the skills to win but it won’t be easy to keep things under control if he doesn’t have a teammate at his side. A sprint is probably his best chance. Usually he is not as fast as the pure sprinters but at the end of a tough day on an uphill finishing straight he has a much better chance. Today he probably did the best sprint of everybody but he was closed by Chaves in the finale and had to come from too far back. This proves that he has the speed and form to match the fastest guys. Usually, he is good at positioning so at the end of such a hard stage, he will be one of the favourites.
Orica-BikeExchange have two cards to play. Magnus Cort and Jens Keukeleire are both fast in a sprint and both like these hard stages. Usually, the Dane is number 1 in the hierarchy but with Keukeleire’s great win, things could very well change. Cort is doing his grand tour debut and may not be as fresh as Keukeleire in the finale and he may even not make the selection at all. Keukeleire will have lots of confidence and today he proved his speed. The Belgian has a solid chance to make it two in a row at the end of another very fast stage.
Kristian Sbaragli showed what a great climber he is in today’s stage. He was the only real sprinter to make it over the climb. However, the finale also showed that he lacks a bit of speed to win these stages. On the other hand, he is still one of the fastest in this race and unlike the other sprinters, he will be much fresher at the end. It’s a bit of a problem that he doesn’t have much of a lead-out as Tyler Farrar is unable to be there in such a hard stage and Nathan Haas has gone home. He needs a bit of luck to be in the right spot but usually he is pretty good when it comes to positioning. If it ends up as a hard race, the Italian will be one of the favourites.
Nikias Arndt has not had much luck in this race as he has been caught out in every single sprint. It is hard to say how the German is going as he has been taking it easy in the last few stages. Usually, he is a better climber than most of the other sprinters so on paper this should be a very good stage for him. Furthermore, his lead-out should be great but everything has worked terrible for them until now. That makes it very hard to found out what Arndt can do in this stage. On paper, he is maybe the fastest rider in the race but due to the failed lead-outs he hasn’t had a chance to show his form.
If a breakaway makes it, Luis Leon Sanchez is again an obvious candidate. The Spaniard went all out for victory today and will be very keen to try again tomorrow. With a bigger group in the end, he is unlikely to win in a sprint so he has to go on the attack, either in the beginning or on one of the late climbs. He has proved that he is in great form and this combination of climbs and flats is ideal for him. If he makes it into the break, he is likely to be both the strongest and the fastest.
If Etixx-QuickStep got for the breakaway, Zdenek Stybar is a good candidate. The Czech has been climbing pretty well in this race and is in very good form. The climbs in the middle are a bit hard for him but they come so early that they won’t be much of a problem. He is strong on the flats so he has a good chance to make it into the break and he has the sprint to finish it off.
The same goes for his teammate Gianluca Brambilla. The Italian was in the break today and seemed to be the strongest rider. In the end, he was left unrewarded but he must be keen to give it a go again. The easier start will make it harder for him to make it into the break, especially if he tired from today’s efforts. However, the lumpy finale is ideal for a fast, punchy guy like him.
Cannondale must be eager to have Moreno Moser in the break. With his third place on Naranco, he proved that he has slowly found some form and he was even in the break one day later too. He is pretty good at hitting the right breaks and he has the right combination of power on the flats, good climbing legs and a very fast sprint that has allowed him to win reduced bunch kicks in the past.
IAM were close to victory with Dries Devenyns who has found his best form after a slow start. This stage is another good one for the Belgian. He is clearly one of the strongest riders in the race and so has a solid chance to make it into the break. Some of the climbs are a bit hard for a puncheur like him but today dhe delivered an excellent climbing performance. He is not very fast in a sprint but he has the punch to make the difference on a late climb.
Lotto Soudal have Tosh van der Sande who has sent very mixed signals in his race. He climbed better than the other sprinters on stage 6 but today he was unable to follow the best. Usually, he is one of the best climbers among the fast guys so this stage should be pretty good for him. Since last year’s Vuelta, he has been sprinting better than before and after his recent win in Ain, he has the confidence.
Lotto Soudal may also go on the attack with Thomas De Gendt. The Belgian has been usual inconsistent self in this race. He has had very good days in the breaks but as usual he has spent too much energy. However, if he is on another good day tomorrow, the stage is ideal for him. His power makes it likely that he can join the right break and at the end of a long, hard day, he is stronger than most. The late climbs are perfect for a small attack from a breakaway and he is also pretty fast in a sprint.
BMC have Philippe Gilbert and Jempy Drucker. However, Gilbert doesn’t seem to be in his best form so we don’t have much confidence in the Belgian champion. Drucker is probably a better card but he has to wait for the sprint. The Luxembourger is a decent climber and he excels in sprints like this one where there won’t be a real lead-out as he is very good when it comes to positioning. In a reduced bunch sprint, he is usually one of the fastest.
We will also point to Simon Yates. Today the Brit was very active in the finale and if it’s all back together tomorrow, he will definitely try again on one of the late climbs. He is obviously in great form and just seems to be getting better and better. He has already shown that he can get away on short climbs in the finale and this will motivate him to try again. He has the right puncheur skills to make the difference.
Finally, Alejandro Valverde deserves a mention. The Spaniard is usually not fast enough to beat the sprinters but if the race becomes really hard, he has a chance, especially in this kind of slightly uphill sprint. He has already proved that he is ready to give it a go in the bunch sprints so if the faster guys are left behind, he will try again.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Gianni Meersman (sprint)
Other winner candidates: Fabio Felline (sprint or breakaway), Jens Keukeleire (sprint)
Outsiders: Nikias Arndt (sprint), Luis Leon Sanchez (breakaway), Zdenek Stybar (breakaway), Gianluca Brambilla (breakaway), Moreno Moser (breakaway), Dries Devenyns (breakaway)
Jokers: Tosh van der Sande (sprint), Jempy Drucker (sprint), Magnus Cort (sprint), Philippe Gilbert (sprint or breakaway), Thomas De Gendt (breakaway), Simon Yates (late attack), Alejandro Valverde (sprint)
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