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Will Chris Froome take his second win in the big queen stage to the top of the Col d'Aubisque?

Photo: Unipublic / Graham Watson

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02.09.2016 @ 19:17 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The GC riders got it like they wanted in today’s stage which was the first easy ride in this year’s Vuelta a Espana and so got the chance to recover ahead of two tough days in the Alps. After two days on the defensive, a major shake-up of the GC will be on the menu in Saturday’s queen stage whose three legendary Tour de France climbs will make it the only really big mountain stage of the race. It all comes to an exciting conclusion on the Col d’Aubisque whose steep slopes will give a much clearer picture of who’s going to win the Spanish grand tour.

 

The course

The Vuelta a Espana organizers have introduced a tradition that sees them host three consecutive mountain stages in the penultimate weekend of the race, very often in the Asturian mountains. This year they have changed the script slightly as they have moved the big block of consecutive mountain finishes to the second weekend but the penultimate weekend will still a key part of the fight for the overall win. This year the riders will only have two summit finishes in a row but with two major mountaintop finales in the Pyrenees, it may still be the most important part of the race. It all kicks off with one of the most spectacular stages of the race as the riders will face a finish on the legendary Col d’Aubisque after having passed some of the most famous climbs known from the Tour de France.

 

Stage 14 will see the riders cover 196km from Urdax-Dantxarinea to the top of the Col d’Aubisque and is held exclusively on French soil. The riders will cross the border already in the neutral zone and then follow flat roads for the first 51km as they travel in a mainly southeasterly direction during the stage. Slowly, they will approach the heart of the Pyrenees and the mountain range will welcome them with the category 1 Col Inharpu (11.5km, 7.1%). It may not be the most famous climb but it’s a tough one with double-digit gradient for most of the time in the first half. Near the top, there’s a small flat section before the road ramps up for the final 2.5km.

 

After the climb, the riders will descend to the bottom of category 1 Col du Soudet which is known from the Tour de France. It averages 5.2% over 24km but the first half is easy at around 3-5% before it gets much steeper. There’s a tough section of double-digit gradients just after the midpoint and again in the finale. After the descent, there is a short valley section and then the riders will face the famous category 1 Col de Marie-Blanque (9.2km, 7.5%). It has a relatively easy start at 4-5% for the first 4km but then become very steep, with double-digit gradient for the final 3km.

 

The top comes with 38.3km to go and the final part is made up of a descent, a short valley section of around 10km and the final climb. Having contested the intermediate sprint at the 177.8km mark, the riders will hit the famous Col d’Aubisque which is of the HC category. The average gradient of the 16.5km ascent is 7.1% but the final 9km are relatively regular at 8-9%. It’s a winding road with a few hairpin bends, most notably in the second half. The final hairpin bend comes with around 500m to go and the gradient is around 8.5% in the final kilometre.

 

The Col d’Aubisque was last used as the finish of a major bike race in 2007 when Michael Rasmussen, Levi Leipheimer and Alberto Contador battled it out for glory at the Tour de France. The Dane ultimately dropped the Discovery Channel pair to all but confirm his overall victory. Just a few hours later, Rabobank withdrew him from the race. The climb was also used for a stage in the 2000 Criterium International where Leonardo Piepoli beat Alexandre Vinokourov but it has been a regular feature in the Tour de France since the early days of the race.

 

The weather

For some reason, the riders have often had bad weather in the Pyrenees at the Vuelta but that won’t be the case this year. Saturday will be sunny with only a very small 10% chance of a shower late in the afternoon. The maximum temperature at the bottom of the final climb will be 30 degrees.

 

There will barely be any win, only a very light breeze from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will have a cross-tailwind and a tailwind almost all day. It will be a tailwind for most of the final climb but the riders will turn into a cross-headwind with 4km to go. It will be a tailwind in the final kilometre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The favourites

The GC riders had one big goal for stage 13: to get to the finish as easily as possible. They got exactly what they wanted as the peloton was apparently pleased to have a bit of an off-day after three brutally fast stages since the first rest day. In the last two stages, it was absolute madness in the first hour of the race and it took a long time for the break to be formed. This time it escaped much earlier and as soon as Etixx-QuickStep had a rider there, it was evident that they had a big chance to make it. Trek and Dimension Data threw in the towel immediately and from there, it became a bit of a procession and the first easy day at this year’s Vuelta a Espana.

 

The big winner was of course Valerio Conti who got the win he deserved at this year’s Giro. The Italian has always been a huge talent but he has been very inconsistent. In some races, he has been brilliant and in others he has been very bad. However, he was absolutely flying in the final week of the Giro and he carried that form into the Dauphiné. Unfortunately, his efforts weren’t rewarded. In this race, we have been a bit disappointed by his performance but true to his inconsistent nature he turned things around with his win in today’s stage.

 

Conti will now take a back seat while the GC riders resume their battle after a two-day break. For the second year in a row, the riders will face a brutal stage in the Pyrenees which is likely to have a crucial impact on the final result. However, it’s much different from last year’s madness where Joaquim Rodriguez had designed a stage that was regarded as the hardest in recent grand tour history. In 2015, the riders tackled numerous, relatively short climbs in a relatively short stage. This year the queen stage is one of the longest in the race and marked by long climbs up some of the most famous slopes in the Pyrenees.

 

The stage is by far the hardest in this year’s Vuelta and one of only three to finish at the top of a real mountain. The riders have already tackled Lagos De Covadonga and Alto de Aitana will be on the menu in stage 20. However, Aubisque is a lot harder than Aitana which may not do too much damage and there is little doubt that this is the stage that will create the biggest time differences. It’s also the only really big mountain stage with climbs throughout the entire day and this makes it the best chance for the pure climbers.

 

This also means that it is the most important day for Nairo Quintana. The Colombian has done nothing to hide that he regards Froome as the virtual leader of the race due to the gains he will make in the time trial. It is definitely true that the Movistar captain needs more time before the TT and even though he doesn’t need the three minutes he mentioned on the rest day, he definitely needs to go on the attack. This is his best chance. There are still four mountaintop finishes but the final three don’t suit him that well. Aitana is not very steep and Sunday’s stage to Formigal is unlikely to make any real difference. Wednesday’s stage finishes at the top of a short, steep wall that suits Froome better.

 

This means that Movistar will go into the stage with big plans and they probably want to make the race as hard as possible. They would love to win the stage too as the Col d’Aubisque is a climb that everybody wants to conquer. However, they also have to gauge their efforts carefully as there’s another uphill finish on Sunday and as Quintana is likely to retain the lead, they will have to work a lot in stage 15 too.

 

Big mountain stages are always difficult to predict as they can both be won by a breakaway and in a battle between the favourites. Usually, the hardest stages are very difficult to control and this makes it more likely that it’s day for a breakaway. Tomorrow’s stage is so hard that it is very difficult to predict whether the escapees will make it.

 

The flat start favours the GC riders. To win this stage, you need to be an excellent climber but it will be a lottery to make it into the break. Everybody knows that the break has a big chance and as it’s the most important day for the mountains jersey, it will be a very fast and aggressive start. However, the riders that can finish it off will be at a disadvantage and if the break goes clear before we get to the first climb, there may not be any great climbers at all.

 

However, teams like Dimension Data, Cofidis, FDJ and Lotto Soudal that have their eyes on the mountains jersey may try to keep the break on a tight leash in the final part of the flat section to give their climbers a chance to jump across. In any case, some of the good climbers should give it a go on the first climb so in the end, we expect the break to be strong and probably pretty big too.

 

Movistar have the key to whether the break will make it. Of course Froome would love to win here but he has a conservative approach. He doesn’t need to gain more time before the TT and there is no reason to bring the bonus seconds into play. Hence, Sky won’t try to bring it back. Alberto Contador can save his race by winning this stage but Tinkoff don’t have the team to control the race. Instead, they will try to send riders on the attack to play a tactical role later in the race. Esteban Chaves is an unlikely winner so Orica-BikeExchange won’t do anything either.

 

This leaves Movistar with the key to the stage. There is no doubt that they have the team to set Quintana up for the win but the question is whether they will make the effort. It takes a lot of energy but we think they will. Quintana needs every single second before the TT and the 10 bonus seconds can be extremely valuable. They have shown that they are willing to work more than usual in this race and very often the break will include riders that are close on GC. This forces them to ride hard anyway and then it may be worth making the extra effort. However, there are definitely no guarantees and it could very well be a day for a breakaway too.

 

We are pretty sure that Tinkoff will try to have a rider in the break. Everybody knows that Alberto Contador is not afraid of attacking from afar and for him, it doesn’t matter whether he is fifth or third in this race. His goal is to win the race and to do so, he has to make a big move. We expect him to attack in the steep part of Marie-Blanque and so the race could come alive already here. However, we doubt that he will be able to get away and the favourites will probably be together by the time we get to the top. Nonetheless, it will make the race harder and make it more difficult for the breakaway to make it.

 

As said, we put our money on the GC riders to battle it out for the stage win and if that’s the case, only Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana can realistically hope for the win. Those two riders have proved to be in a class of their own on the climbs and it is hard to imagine that it will be any different on the Col d’Aubisque. It’s a brutal climb and a real mountain and among the climb already tackled, it can only be compared to Lagos De Covadonga.

 

The big question is what version of Chris Froome we will get. Will it be the defensive version who just time trials his way to the top or will it be the aggressive version we saw on La Camperona and Peña Cabarga? It will probably be the latter but we don’t expect him to go on the attack. He gained a lot of confidence in stage 11 and this time he is unlikely to let Quintana go. However, he still has La Camperona fresh in his mind and he learned the lesson from having attacked too early there. Hence, he will probably just try to follow Quintana’s moves and maybe give it a go in the very finale as he did on Peña Carbarga.

 

That strategy could very well be a winning one. Froome didn’t enter the race in his best form but he has been improving gradually. On La Camperona, he paid for his early attack but the next day he almost matched Quintana on Lagos De Covadonga. In fact, he did the second half of the climb but faster than anybody else. He lost a lot of time in the beginning and a bit more when Quintana attacked but in the middle section and in the finale, he was the fastest. On Pena Cabarga, he was never in difficulty and even though he couldn’t get rid of Quintana, he seemed to have everything under control and could even counter when the Colombian had made his moves.

 

It is no secret that Froome is the best climber in the world and when he is at 100%, nobody can drop him. He is not in Tour de France condition but he is no longer far off. He is showing no sign of the fatigue that has often marred him in the third week and he is on track to becoming stronger and stronger. We doubt that Quintana will be able to drop Froome who may even make his own attack near the top. If it comes down to a sprint, the Brit is faster and so Froome is our favourite to win the stage.

 

However, Quintana will be a formidable rival. The Colombian has returned to his best in this race and has been absolutely flying. Unlike Froome, he is not really suited to the short climbs so it is hard to base too much on the fact that he was unable to drop Froome last Wednesday. The longer climbs in this stage suit him a lot better and he has proved that he can drop the Brit. Froome may be prefer to stay safe and go into TT mode instead of trying to follow and if that’s the case, there is no doubt that Quintana will win the stage.

 

If it’s a GC battle, either Froome or Quintana will win so the rest of our stage winner picks are strong attackers. In this race, we have been very impressed by Kenny Elissonde. The tiny Frenchman already won the Angliru stage in 2013 but since then he hasn’t shown much. In this race, however, he has maybe been better than ever, attacking in stages that are usually too easy for him. However, what really marked him out was his performance yesterday. Only the very best could make it into the break after that frantic start as the break went on a category 1 climb and he was right there. In the finale, he was clearly the strongest and this indicates that he is close to his very best. The longer climbs in this stage suits him pretty well and he is far enough behind to be given some freedom. The big challenge will be to get in the break in the flat start but in the past he has actually been rather good at this. If he makes it, Elissonde won’t be easy to beat.

 

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 in this stage which suits him down to the ground. He is tailor-made for a long, grueling day with numerous big mountains as he has the engine to keep going. The flat start 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 hard to beat.

 

This stage is a big day for the mountains jersey and so it is a bid day for Omar Fraile. The Basque 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. Yesterday he attacked relentlessly but the effort cost him too much and so he failed to join the right break. Fraile is not a pure climber but he seems to be in the form of his life and he delivered his best performance on the longest climb that they have tackled. If he doesn’t spend too much energy in going for KOM points, he can definitely win this stage.

 

Louis Meintjes is doing the race on the back op top 10 rides at the Tour and the Olympics and he is clearly not at his best. However, he was actually very good in the early part of the race until he went down in a crash. Now he is feeling better and his performance in the break on the very tough stage 12 shows that he is improving. He is an excellent climb and suited to such a long, grueling day. If he continues to get better, Lampre-Merida could make it two in a row.

 

Mathias Frank has been one of the most aggressive riders in this race and he will be keen to finally get rewarded. This stage is the one that suits his diesel engine the best so it will be his biggest goal for the race. He has proved that he is riding well and even though he is not in peak condition, he seems to be good enough to win.

 

LottoNL-Jumbo have more cards to play. George Bennett may have done the Tour but he is not tired yet. In fact, he is climbing better than ever in this race and he showed his great form yesterday on a stage that didn’t suit him. This is a stage for a pure climber like him but the challenge will be to get into the break as he doesn’t have much power on the flat. If the break goes on the climb, he should be there and if that’s the case, he has proved that only the very best can beat him.

 

Pierre Rolland would love to finally get things right in a stage that enters his home country. He is not at his best but his relentless attacks shows that he is not too bad. He was the final riders to get dropped by Gesink in stage 10 and this suggests that his form is growing. This is the only stage in the race that really suits him as he is at his best on long, gradual climbs on tough days in the high mountains. He is very good at hitting the breaks. The question is whether his form is good enough to beat the best climbers in this race.

 

Gianluca Brambilla was riding for GC in this race but has now turned his attention to stage win. With his great ride on stage 12, he clearly showed that his form is still excellent and there is no doubt that he will keen to go on the attack in this stage. However, he is not a pure climber and it is doubtful whether he can beat riders like Gesink, Frank, Elissonde and Meintjes on such a grueling stage.

 

Andrey Zeits is in the form of his life and for once he even has the freedom to for personal glory. He has been flying since Rio and he has been on the attack almost every day in this race. He is very strong on the climbs and has the diesel engine to keep going but it remains to be seen whether he can keep up with the real climbers.

 

Finally, we will point to Jaime Roson. The huge talent won the queen stage at the Tour of Turkey and is a pure climber suited to a stage like this. It’s his grand tour debut but he is not showing any sign of fatigue. In fact, he is just getting stronger and stronger and has been up there with the best for a long time on the climbs. Of course it’s hard to win a queen stage in the first grand tour but Roson has the talent to deliver the surprise.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Chris Froome

Other winner candidates: Nairo Quintana, Kenny Elissonde (breakaway)

Outsiders: Robert Gesink, Omar Fraile, Louis Meintjes, Mathias Frank (all from a breakaway)

Jokers: George Bennett, Pierre Rolland, Gianluca Brambilla, Andrey Zeits, Jaime Roson (all from a breakaway)

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