Once again a medium mountain stage turned the Vuelta a Espana on its head just like it happened when Alberto Contador made his memorable coup in Fuente De in 2012. Nairo Quintana now seems to be poised to take his first Vuelta a Espana victory until Chris Froome can come up with something extraordinarily. The Brit will have to wait a few days though as the sprinters will hope to grab their opportunity in stage 16 on a day they have been looking forward to since the fifth day of racing.
It is no surprise that the sprinters have generally turned their back to the Vuelta a Espana. This year there are probably more sprint finishes than usual but at this point, the riders haven’t had a really flat stage since stage 5. Luckily, they can look forward to more opportunities in the third week which has some of the flattest stages of the race. They should get their first chance one day before the final rest day.
Stage 16 will bring the riders over 156.4km from Alcañiz to Peñiscola and will see them leave the Pyrenees and head south before turning east to reach the finish on the Mediterranean coast. The riders will spend the day on the plains in the Teruel province and will head along slightly ascending roads in the first half of the stage. It all culminates with the category 3 climb of Alto Castillo de Morella (3.4km, 5.2%) whose top comes at the 75.4km mark.
From here the riders will turn west and climb for a few more kilometres before they will take on the long gradual descent to the coast. They will reach the sea with 17.4km to go where they will contest the intermediate sprint and then they will follow the completely flat coastal road to the finish. In the finale, they will follow a straight road until numerous roundabouts start to appear with 3km to go. After three such challenges, there’s a sharp with 2km to go and a left-hand turn in a roundabout before the riders hit the flat 1300m finishing straight on the seafront.
Peniscola has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.
If the riders thought that the heat couldn’t be any worse, they will be bitterly disappointed. Monday will be a day with bright sunshine and a maximum temperature at the finish on 34 degrees.
There will be a light wind from a southeasterly direction which means that it will be a long day with a head- and a cross-headwind. There will be a crosswind in the final 10km along the coast. There will briefly be a headwind with 2500m to go but it will again be a crosswind on the finishing straight.
In 2012, Alberto Contador completely changed the script of the Vuelta a Espana by attacking from afar on a medium mountain stage to Fuente De that nobody expected would do much damage. With a gusty attack, he distanced Joaquim Rodriguez and turned the GC completely around on one of the most memorable Vuelta stages in recent years.
It was hard not to have a feeling of déjà vu in today’s very dramatic stage. The short, lumpy stage to the top of the Formigal climb was not expected to create many changes due to the relatively easy nature of the climbs but again it proved that big things can happen when you least expect it. Contador was clearly inspired by what he did four years ago and was a man with a mission when he went on the attack right from the start.
That was hardly a surprise as he is known for his long-distance moves but few would have expected Quintana to follow suit. After all, he was still the race leader and even though his advantage of 54 seconds was unlikely to be enough before the time trial, it was a big gamble. However, he committed himself fully right from the start, knowing that he risked losing it all in the finale.
The biggest surprise was the complete collapse of the Sky team. Movistar have always been the strongest team in this race but Sky haven’t been far behind. However, they may have paid the price for their huge efforts yesterday when they missed a crucial move and spent all day riding on the front. Only once in the team’s short history have we seen something similar. On stage 9 in the 2013 Tour de France where Richie Porte famously cracked, Froome was isolated almost straight from the gun. However, back then he was so immensely strong that he could rectify the situation.
That leads to the key reason for the turnaround: Froome simply didn’t have the legs. He missed the move once when Contador and Quintana attacked on the first small climb and then made a big effort to bridge the gap. At that point, he should have been warned about the risks so when he failed to make it into the group when Quintana went again, it was a clear signal that he was on a bad day. It’s rare for the Brit to have an off-day but it has happened in the past. Many will remember how he cracked at the 2013 Tirreno-Adriatico in pretty similar fashion.
Quintana is now in pole position to win the race and it is hard to imagine that things will change. Froome showed a whole new level of ingenuity in the Tour de France and there is definitely terrain to try something in the next few stages. However, unlike Sky, Movistar have shown no signs of weakness and Quintana hasn’t either. Furthermore, Quintana has never had complete off-days, even not when he has been sick. He won’t lose three minutes in the TT, probably not even two, and with this kind of buffer, he has no reason to take any risks. With a strong team at his side, he should be able to win this race.
Finally, it’s worth to point out that today’s stage was another example of how exciting short mountain stages can be. Many remember the penultimate stage at the 2011 Tour which started the trend of these stages and since then they have become increasingly popular. Today’s turnaround was very similar to what we saw in a similar stage at the 2014 Dauphiné where Andrew Talansky grabbed an opportunity to take the overall win on a day when race leader Alberto Contador was isolated, much like Froome was today.
Froome will have a few days to find out what to do. Tomorrow’s stage could potentially be a dangerous one if it had been windy but tomorrow will be a calm day. Even though there will be a crosswind in the coastal section, it won’t be enough to split the field. Hence, there is little chance that it will change the overall standings.
The stage is the first really flat stage since stage 5 and so it has been the big incentive for the sprinters to fight through the mountains. This is the day they have been looking forward to and so there is little doubt that they will do their utmost to bring it back together for a bunch kick. However, things are never straightforward in the third week of a grand tour and the history is loaded with frustrated sprinters that have been denied by strong escapees.
Things will be made a bit more complicated by the fact that there aren’t any big-name sprinters here so it is less evident who’s going to control things. However, the riders have had two very hard stages and many will probably prefer an easier stage tomorrow. Furthermore, there are several teams with a clear interest in a sprint.
Gianni Meersman has been unbeatable until now and even though Etixx-QuickStep have already had lots of success, they are always keen to go for victory so they should give it a go again. However, Giant-Alpecin and Dimension Data will be even more motivated. They have both had a pretty bad race and are in desperate need for some success. The same goes for Lotto Soudal and they all have sprinters that can realistically go for the win. Trek may also lend a hand as they still don’t have a stage win but they are less likely to do so as the flat finish is not ideal for Felline. Finally, IAM have already won a stage with Van Genechten and this must have fueled their motivation.
This means that we expect a sprint finish but everything will depend on the start. As said, many will be keen to have an easy day so the break is likely to go early. However, we may also see another very aggressive start and if that’s the case, it could be a day for a breakaway. If a strong group goes clear and people keep attacking, some of the sprint teams may try to join the moves. If Etixx-QuickStep have a rider in the break, it’s not impossible that the break will make.
However, a bunch sprint is the most likely scenario and in that case, Gianni Meersman must be the favourite. The Belgian is not a pure sprinter and this kind of power sprint doesn’t really suit him. However, there aren’t any really fast guys here and Meersman has one big advantage: his lead-out. In the first sprints, Etixx-QuickStep have timed things perfectly and there is little doubt that Meersman is supported by the best team. Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert form a great train and they have dominated things so far.
At the same time, Meersman is still fresh. He was even in the break in the queen stage and this suggests that he is still feeling good. That’s very important in the third week of a grand tour. On paper, there are faster riders than him but the combination of freshness and a good train makes Meersman our favourite.
Orica-BikeExchange are mainly here for the GC but Magnus Cort is free to take his chance in the bunch sprints. Like Meersman, he is not a pure sprinter but at this point in a grand tour it is more about freshness. His excellent ride in the queen stage suggests that he has that in abundance and this should put him in a good position. Furthermore, he can count on an in-form Jens Keukeleire for the lead-out. It’s not a big train but there aren’t any big trains in this race. In stage 2, he showed that he is one of the fastest riders in this field so if Keukeleire can bring him into a good position, it could be a stage win for the Dane.
Jempy Drucker has not had much luck in the sprints so far. However, his lack of results is not caused by a lack of speed. On paper, he is one of the fastest riders here and he has shown that he can ride well at the end of a grand tour. He is usually a master when it comes to positioning and this is a crucial ability in these hectic sprints. The problem is his lack of support but usually he doesn’t need much. If he can get onto the right wheel in the finale, he has the speed to beat everyone here.
On paper, Nikias Arndt is probably the fastest rider here and with Koen De Kort, he even has the best lead-out man. However, the German is suffering from knee pain and he has had a hard time until now, sitting at the back of the field for most of the time. Nonetheless, Giant-Alpecin still believe in him and they have been saving energy for this stage for a couple of days. It remains to be seen whether his health allows him to be competitive but of course Arndt is a big great candidate for the win.
Dimension Data have Kristian Sbaragli who is clearly feeling really good. He surprised us by making it over the tough climb in stage 12 and this shows that his form is excellent. He usually needs a harder stage to really excel though and this stage may be a bit too easy for him. On the other hand, he has Tyler Farrar for the lead-out and even though the American is not the riders he once was, he has actually done a pretty good job for the Italian in the first sprint stages.
Fabio Felline will probably also try his hand. The Italian usually doesn’t mix it up in these pure bunch sprints but with Niccolo Bonifazio he has to give it a try. If the likes of Kittel and Greipel had been here, it wouldn’t have been worth a try but here he definitely has a chance. There are several riders that are faster than him but in the third week in a grand tour, things are often different. Felline is a much more versatile rider and clearly a lot fresher than his rivals. With Kiel Reijnen and Fumy Beppu, he has a solid support crew.
Michael Schwarzmann is making his grand tour debut so he finds himself in untested territory. However, 2016 season has been a bit of a breakthrough year for him as he has been sprinting very well whenever he has got his chance. In this race, he did an excellent sprint to take second on stage 2 and so he has proved to be one of the fastest. With Rudiger Selig, Scott Thwaites and Christoph Pfingsten, Bora have one of the best trains. There is uncertainty about his recovery but with this kind of support, he is definitely able to win the stage.
Jonas Van Genechten has already won a stage here but it won’t be easy to repeat that performance. He doesn’t have the best support team and he usually needs an uphill sprint to beat the best. At the same time, it looks like he has suffering a bit in the mountains. On the other hand, his confidence is high and even though it’s a flat finish, the lack of real sprinters could open the door for him.
Finally, we will point to Daniele Bennati. The Italian is mainly here to support Alberto Contador and it is unlikely that he will be given his chance. However, Contador is no longer in contention for the overall win and this could open the door for Bennati. After all, he was close to victory when he was given the chance in stage 7 and a stage win would save the race for Tinkoff. Bennati has been sprinting really well this year so it’s definitely possible to win her.
If a breakaway makes it, keep an eye on riders like of Silvan Dillier, Danilo Wyss, Luis Leon Sanchez, Kiel Reijnen, Jan Bakelants and Thomas De Gendt.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Gianni Meersman
Other winner candidates: Magnus Cort, Jempy Drucker
Outsiders: Nikias Arndt, Kristian Sbaragli, Fabio Felline, Michael Schwarzmann
Jokers: Michael Schwarzmann, Jonas Van Genechten, Daniele Bennati
Breakaway jokers: Silvan Dillier, Danilo Wyss, Luis Leon Sanchez, Kiel Reijnen, Jan Bakelants, Thomas De Gendt
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