A very entertaining and dramatic queen stage firmly established Chris Froome’s position as the favourite for overall victory in the Vuelta a Espana as Nairo Quintana missed his biggest chance to gain time on the Brit. He has another chance tomorrow on another tough stage in the Alps but a rather easy final means that it’s a day that is unlikely to produce any major time gaps.
The Pyrenees have not always played a big role in the Vuelta a Espana which doesn’t visit the mountain range every year. This year the mountains on the French-Spanish border will be crucial as they will be the scene of two of the most important battles. One day after the big Aubisque stage, the riders will face another tough mountain stage with a summit finish and as it’s one of those short mountain stages that have become so popular in recent years, it will be an intense affair. However, the final climb is relatively easy and won’t make the same kind of difference as the Aubisque.
At just 118.5km, it’s the second shortest road stage of the race and will bring the riders from Sabiñanigo to the mountaintop finish on Aramon Formigal in Sallent de Gallego. First they will do a lap of a flat circuit around the starting city before they travel west to go up the category 3 Alto de Petralba (6.3km, 5%). The descent will bring them north to the bottom of the category 2 Alto de Costefabio (12.5km, 4.3%).
The top comes with 42km to go and the descent leads to the intermediate sprint in the valley. It comes at the 90km mark and from there the riders will head north for the rest of the stage. A gradual uphill leads to the bottom of the final category 1 climb which averages just 4.6% over 14.5km. The first half is easy at 3-5% and then there’s a flat section. It only gets steeper in the final 3.2km where the gradient is 6-9%. It’s a road with an incredible number of hairpin turns in the final 3km until it straightens out for the final 500m. The gradient is 6% in the finale.
The final climb was last used in 2013 and back then a breakaway decided the stage. Neo-pro Warren Barguil memorably beat Rigoberto Uran in a two-rider sprint. Only small splits appeared in the GC group where Joaquim Rodriguez put 3 seconds into Alejandro Valverde and six seconds into Thibaut Pinot and Chris Horner while race leader Vincenzo Nibalo had a bad day and lost 28 seconds to the Spaniard.
The bad weather that has often marred the race in the Pyrenees will be nowhere to be seen this year. Sunday will be sunny and even though clouds will appear in the afternoon, there will be no rain. The temperature at the bottom of the final climb will be 26 degrees.
There will be a light wind from a westerly direction which means that the riders will a tailwind on the first climb and a headwind on the second climb. A long crosswind section will lead to a cross-headwind for the final climb.
The queen stage was always going to create a big drama and create big time gaps but rarely has a race been so confusing and exciting. Several bike races were contained in just one stage and the race exploded to pieces. In the end, the GC was turned around and significant changes set the scene for a very interesting final week.
However, one thing remained unchanged. The gap between the two strongest riders in the race is still 54 seconds but that doesn’t mean that the situation is the same. This was by far Quintana’s best chance to increase his advantage before the time trial but all his attacks were fruitless. Froome may occasionally have hesitated but he always seemed to be in control and it never looked like there was any real risk that he would crack.
Froome can now make a big sigh of relief. This was the stage which could really put him under pressure as it was the only stage with numerous long climbs. The final three summit finishes are either relatively short or pretty easy and so much less suited to Quintana. When the Colombian failed to distance Froome in today’s stage, it is hard to imagine that he will be able to do later in the race, especially as the Brit seems to be getting stronger and stronger.
Froome approached the stage just like we had predicted yesterday. Knowing that he had no reason to attack, he had a defensive mind set and this worked out well. All race, he has been waiting for the time trial and he has only made one mistake when he briefly got carried away on La Camperona. That cost him valuable time but since then he has done nothing wrong and he now finds himself in pole position.
For Quintana, it was a bad day. Things were looking promising when Moreno was in the break and Sky had to chase. However, the Brits were never under real pressure as they still hadn’t used any of their climbers at the bottom of the penultimate climb. In the end, it ended very bad for Movistar as they lost Alejandro Valverde as a tactical option. For the first time since he emerged as a grand tour contender, the veteran cracked in a very spectacular way on a big mountain stage and was unable to limit his losses. The stage proved that even the peloton’s most versatile and consistent rider has a limit after a very long and hard season.
The other big talking point was of course the Orica-BikeExchange offensive. Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates are not the best climbers in this race but they played their tactical cards perfectly to both gain time and move up in the standings. They now occupy third and fourth spot overall and it will be interesting to see whether they want more than this. Given the superiority of Froome, Quintana, Sky and Movistar, they may regard this as the maximum achievable and they may have a more defensive approach later in the race. However, if they want to go for victory, they have all the tactical cards to play.
Finally, Andrew Talansky and Samuel Sanchez deserve a mention. Both are known as diesel engines and they were always likely to shine when things became hard towards the end of the race. That’s exactly what happened in the Pyrenees. While many other start to fade, those two riders are about to find their best legs and they should be able to move up in the standings.
The GC riders will get their first chance to do so in stage 15 which is one of those short stages that have become some popular in recent years. On paper, it looks like a good opportunity for Quintana to gain more time on Froome but the final climb is definitely not made for the Colombian. It is pretty easy for most of the time and only gets slightly easier near the top. To make things even worse, there will be a cross-headwind and this will make it even less selective.
This also means that it’s not a day for Movistar to go for the stage win with their Colombian leader and it’s not a day for Froome either. Both Movistar and Sky worked tremendously hard today so they will probably prefer a steadier day until the final climb where Quintana will of course try to test Froome. This should open the door for a breakaway to make it to the finish. Of course it’s a great stage for Valverde but with his bad day today, it’s not really realistic for him to be too ambitious. Orica-BikeExchange also spent a lot of energy today so they will probably take it relatively easy and it’s not a day for Contador either.
This should make it another very fast with numerous attacks as everybody wants to be in the break. Again it’s a relatively flat start and this will make it a bit of a lottery to get into the break. However, we could very well see a big group get clear very early just like it happened today and if that’s the case, the peloton should be able to take it relatively easy until we get to the final climb. Otherwise, we could see attacks all the way to the first climb and if that happens, the good climbers will have a much better chance to make a difference.
When the break has gone clear, it’s hard to imagine that there will be any incentive to try to bring them back. Only if an ambitious team has missed the move may we see an attempt to control the race but we doubt that it will happen. The biggest threat for the breakaway is that it may go clear so late in the stage that they never really get much of an advantage. If that happens, they may be brought back when the GC battle unfolds on the final climb but it is unlikely to happen. After all, the first 11km of the climb are easy and should be done at a steady pace with Movistar on the front and we will probably only see a few attacks in the very finale.
With a breakaway win on the cards, we will put our money on Gianluca Brambilla. The Italian didn’t make it into the break in today’s stage and unlike many other climbers, he had a relatively easy day. This should put him in a good position to go for victory tomorrow on a stage that suits him much better. He is not a real climber so it was always going to be difficult to win today but stage 15 is a day with shorter, easier climb and do it was a wise decision to save himself for tomorrow.
Brambilla dropped out of GC contention on Peña Cabarga and is no longer in the same kind of form as he has in the beginning of the race. However, he is still in great form as he showed with his excellent performance on the very hard stage 12 where only the strongest could make it into the break. The relatively easy climbs suit him well and he is very fast in an uphill sprint. Brambilla is our favourite to win the stage.
Ben Hermans probably did the climb of his life in tday’s stage where he was able to follow Contador for most of the time. This proves that he is showing no sign of fatigue yet and this will make him morivated for tomorrow’s stage. He is not too far back in the overall standings but as he is no big threat for the big teams he should be given some freedom. Just like Brambilla, he is not a pure climber but this terrain suits him down to the ground. He is pretty fast in an uphill sprint too so the final climb suits him well.
Dries Devenyns is not a climber but in this race he has been climbing better than ever. He was up there on stage 9 which should have been too hard for him and he made a very impressive solo attack on stage 12. This should make him motivated for this stage as the climbs are pretty good for a punchy classics specialist like him. His form is great, he is strong on the flats and he is fast in an uphill sprint.
Today’s stage turned out to be difficult for Pierre Latour who paid the prize for an early attack. However, he still limited his losses pretty well and as he is no longer close to the top 10, he should get more freedom to attack. He is showing no sign of fatigue in his grand tour debut and this stage suits him pretty well. He has had a hard time on the long climbs but he has been riding very well when the mountains have been a bit easier. This means that this terrain suits him and with a pretty powerful kick, he has the skills to finish it off on this kind of climb.
Luis Leon Sanchez has been strong in this race but until now his efforts have been unrewarded. He most be very keen to try in this stage which suits him pretty well. As he is not a climber, he is not ideally suited to uphill finishes but this climb is so easy that it is manageable for a big, powerful guy like him. The climbs never get steep and so are tailor-made for him. He has the power on the flats to make it into the break and he is hard to beat in an uphill sprint.
Kenny Elissonde was in the break in today’s stage but he also took the lead in the mountains competition. This means that he will be keen to attack again. Usually, it is hard to be in the break two days in a row but at this point in a grand tour, it is all about freshness. Elissonde has been flying in the last few days and only seems to get better and better. The climbs are not ideal for a pure climber like him but when it comes to form he is one of the strongest.
Louis Meintjes finished in the gruppetto in today’s stage which may be a sign that a long season is finally taking its toll. However, he was not really in GC contention anymore so he may have opted to take it easy to save energy for a later attack. After all, he rode very strongly in the hard stage 12 and was showing signs of progress after his crash. Like Elissonde, he is not ideally suited to the terrain but he is still one of the best climbers here.
Trek have two good cards to play. It seems like Riccardo Zoidl is always strong in the third week of grand tours. In the Giro, he did well in the final part and today he mixed it up with the GC riders. The Austrian is a good climber but he has to make the difference with pure power as he is not fast in a sprint. The stge is also a good opportunity for Fabio Felline as he is fast in an uphill sprint. However, the Italian seems to be pretty tired and it will not be easy to follow the best riders from a breakaway.
Obviously, Alejandro Valverde had a bad day today but history shows that you can never rule the Spaniard out. If it comes back together on the final climb, it could very well come down to an uphill sprint. Until now Valverde has been riding strongly and he is one of the most consistent riders in the peloton. The final climb suits him very well and with the headwind, it won’t be impossible to hang on and win the stage with his powerful acceleration.
Among the GC riders, there aren’t many punchy riders so if it comes down to a sprint and Valverde has been left behind, Chris Froome could take his second win. Among the best climbers in this race, he is one of the fastest. Furthermore, the final part of the climb may be hard enough for him and Quintana to make a difference and if that happens, Froome will win the sprint.
Finally, we will point to Simon Yates. The Brit seems to be getting stronger and stronger. Of course he spent a lot of energy and so he will be riding conservatively tomorrow. However, among the GC riders, he is one of the fastest in an uphill sprint. Furthermore, he has a great ability to make a well-timed attack in the finale and if Movistar are unable to control things, Yates will be keen to make one of his trademark move. Samuel Sanchez is another rider with a great nose for such a late attack.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Gianluca Brambilla (breakaway)
Other winner candidates: Ben Hermans, Dries Devenyns (both from a breakaway)
Outsiders: Pierre Latour, Luis Leon Sanchez, Kenny Elissonde (all from a breakaway)
Jokers: Louis Meintjes (breakaway), Riccardo Zoidl (breakaway), Fabio Felline (breakaway), Alejandro Valverde, Chris Froome, Simon Yates, Samuel Sanchez
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