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Will Chris Froome bounce back with a victory on the steepest 4km in the Vuelta a Espana history?

Photo: Unipublic / Graham Watson

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06.09.2016 @ 19:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

A relatively easy sprint stage and a rest day gave the GC riders a small chance to recover but the battle for the top positions is far from over. Unlike in 2016, the final week is loaded with big GC stages and it all kicks off with a brutal stage to the top of Alto Mas de los Costa. The new climb is one of the brutal walls that characterize the Vuelta and the steep slopes which race director Javier Guillen describes as the hardest 4km in the history on the Spanish grand tour, will be the scene of another memorable battle between Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome.

 

The course

Last year one of the characteristics of the course was the fact that there were very few GC stages in the final week. A flat time trial and a relatively gentle mountain stage with a downhill finish on the penultimate day were the only chances to change the outcome before the finish in Madrid. In a dramatic finale, it all changed in the final mountain stage but this year the organizers have provided the GC riders with more opportunities to turn things around right until the end. After the final rest day, there will be a flat time trial and two mountain stages that are set to shape the final GC and it all kicks off with a finish on one of those steep walls that are the trademark of the Spanish grand tour.

 

Stage 17 will bring the riders over 177.5km from Castellon to a summit finish at Camins del Penyagolosa in Llucena. Starting at the coast, the riders will do a small loop in the city before they head to the flat coastal road. In the city of Benisasim, they will turn inland to go up the category 2 Alto del Desierto de las Palmas (7.3km, 5.1%) and from there, they will go down the descent before they head north along mainly flat roads.

 

After 68km of racing, it is time of the next big challenge, the category 2 Alto de la Sarratella (14.5km, 3.6%) before the descent leads to a turn that will see the riders travel west for a few kilometres. Along the way, they will go up the category 3 Alto de Benasal (11.2km, 3%) and then they will turn around to head south. A long descent will bring them onto a largely flat section until they turn west to go up a gradual uphill section that leads to the intermediate sprint just 8.9km from the finish.

 

Flat roads will bring the riders to the brutal wall of Alto Mas de la Costa. The category 1 climb may only be 3.8km long but with an average gradient of 12.5%, it is the steepest climb of the race. The gradient only briefly drops to 7% on the lower slopes and then stays around 15-20% for most of the time. The steepest section of 21% comes inside the final kilometre where the gradient hovers around 13-17% for most of the time. There are several hairpin turns throughout the entire climb, with the final turn coming 150m from the line.

 

Llucena has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade and the climb has never been used before.

 

 

 

 

 

The weather

The heat was simply brutal in Monday’s stage and it won’t be much colder on Wednesday. Bright sunshine is forecasted for the entire stage and the maximum temperature will be 30 degrees.

 

It will be a bit windier than it has been recently as there will be a moderate wind from a southeasterly direction. This means that the riders will have a crosswind for most of the day, most notably in the opening coastal section. It will be a tailwind for the final 20km and so also on the final climb.

 

The favourites

Stage 13 was an exception to the general rule but yesterday’s stage showed again that there are no easy days in grand tours. The GC riders hoped for an easy downhill run to the coast but the stage ended up being one of the fastest of the race. The combination of the strong breakaway and the risks of crosswinds forced the sprint teams to ride hard all day and the GC teams to be very attentive. That made it three very tough days in a row and if one remembers how fast stages 11 and 12 were too, the second week was simply brutal.

 

In the end, Jempy Drucker took a much deserved win. The Luxembourger may not be the fastest rider in the bunch but he is extremely consistent. Last year he was up there in every single bunch sprint and he again showed his consistency in Burgos where he was second three times in a row. When it comes to positioning, Drucker is one of the very and this showed again in stage. Everybody knew that Etixx-QuickStep had the best lead-out and that the place to be was on Meersman’s wheel. Drucker grabbed the coveted spot and then easily came around. Meersman started his sprint too early but usually Drucker is faster than the Belgian in this kind of flat sprint and so the outcome was no surprise at all.

 

The result makes it another hugely successful grand tour for BMC that now have a stage win, the lead in the teams classification and a rider in the top 6 and they had several days in the red jersey. It comes on top of an equally successful Tour de France where they won a stage, spent time in yellow and had a rider in the top 5. The team may not have had the desired result in the GCs and has not always had the success that their roster was capable of but during the last two seasons, the team have finally assumed the position as one of the very best in the world.

 

To complete the race successfully, they have to defend the top 6 on GC and this is definitely not a guarantee. Last year the final week was pretty easy as it just had two GC stages, a time trial and a relatively easy mountain stage. This year the final five stages are much harder as two mountain stages and a TT offer the GC riders a big chance to turn things around. The dramatic change in stage 15 will make it really explosive as Sky will leave no stone unturned in their quest to win the race and the ever-aggressive Alberto Contador will be looking for more opportunities in every terrain. If the first two weeks were hard, the situation on GC will do nothing to make the final give days any easier.

 

It all starts with one of the most spectacular stages of the entire race. When the rumours about the course started to surface last autumn, our attention was immediately drawn by what was told about the Alto Mas de la Costa. There’s a good reason that race director Javier Guillen has described those four kilometres as the hardest in the Vuelta history and that he has wanted a stage finish there for several years. The race is known for its brutally steep climbs – Angliru, Mirador del Ezaro, La Camperona, Cuitu Negru, Bola del Mundo, Valdepenas de Jaen and San Lorenzo de el Escorial just to name a few – but apart from the Angliru, they are all shorter than this new climb. This stage has been partly overlooked but it will create much bigger time gaps that many expect!

 

During the rest day, Chris Froome made it clear that he will do everything he can to win the race. He has already been second twice and another runner-up spot will do nothing to change his career. As he said one week ago, he is only here to win the race and so there is little doubt that Sky will go into this stage with big plans to make things explode.

 

The start is an interesting one as there’s a tough climb right from the beginning and we expect Sky to go on the attack already here. It’s not impossible that Chris Froome will even try to catch Nairo Quintana off-guard by going on the attack and we have no doubt that Alberto Contador will try to make a move too. However, Quintana and Movistar have shown no signs of weakness and the Colombian will stay glued to Froome’s wheel. He made a mistake in the Tour on the top of the Peyresoude and he won’t repeat that kind of blunder here. Furthermore, Movistar are strong enough to control things and so they won’t allow Froome or Contador any kind of leeway.

 

After what is likely to have been a brutal pace on the climb, the big teams will probably slow down a bit and this will allow a break to be formed. After such a brutal start, only the best will be there and so we can expect a formidable group of climbers to go clear. A regrouping is then likely to take place and then Movistar will assume their position on the front.

 

Quintana has done nothing to hide that he will ride defensively from now on so Movistar will do nothing to bring the break back. They will be pleased to see the bonus seconds disappear so it will be up to Sky or Tinkoff to lead the chase. Until now, Sky haven’t done much riding on the front to catch breaks apart from when they missed the two moves in the Pyrenees but this time they will probably give it a go. To take back enough time, Froome both needs the bonus seconds and a hard race so we expect Sky to spend the day on the front.

 

There are two climbs in the middle section but they are not steep so they won’t make much of a difference. They are not suited to long-distance attacks, especially as there is a long, flat section in between the final two climbs. Hence, it should all come down to a big showdown on the final ascent.

 

The main question is whether the break will be caught. As said, we expect Sky to go the stage win so we think they will be brought back. However, the break is likely to be a formidable one and so it takes a very strong team to control things. There’s definitely a chance that they will make it but due to the long, flat section, we will put our money on the GC riders to battle it out for the stage win on the final climb.

 

As said, Quintana will approach the stage with a conservative mind set and Orica-BikeExchange have made it clear that their goal is to defend the podium. Hence, it will be up to Froome and Contador to ride aggressively and we expect everybody to look at the Brit to make his big move. This time he won’t go into TT mode as he needs to take some risks to make Quintana crack. Hence, it will be the aggressive Tour de France version of the Sky leader and we should get another exciting battle between Froome and Quintana.

 

The final climb is a very special one. It is short but very steep, much like La Camperona on stage 9 where Quintana dropped all of his rivals. It can also be compared to Peña Cabarga where Froome beat Quintana in a sprint.

 

Historically, Chris Froome has done very well on these climbs in the Vuelta. In 2014 when he was far from his best, the Brit suffered on the long climbs but gained time on Contador and the other rivals on climbs that are similar to Alto Mas la Costa. Last year he also had a hard time on the first long climb before bouncing back on this climb of wall. In general, Froome is much better suited to these climbs than Quintana and when he got dropped on La Camperona, it was only because he got carried away and attacked too early.

 

On paper, this is a stage for Froome but the question is whether he is starting to fade. He looked strong in stages 11 and 14 but he had a really bad day on stage 15. While Quintana did the climb in the wind and never looked back, Froome was suffering at the back of his group and he hadn’t even been working on the front all day like his Colombian rival. The question is whether it was just an off-day or whether it’s a general trend.

 

We believe that Froome will come out with all guns blazing. Until his bad performance last Sunday, he had shown no signs of fatigue and he is usually at his best one day after a rest day. More importantly, Quintana will be content with following wheels and has no reason to try to drop Froome. We doubt that Froome will be able to drop Quintana – he hasn’t been since stage 3 – but we doubt that Quintana will try to drop him either. In a sprint, Froome is the fastest and therefore the Brit is out favourite to win the stage.

 

The other realistic strong contender is of course Nairo Quintana. He will go into the stage with a defensive mind set but if he senses an opportunity in the final kilometre, he may go for the victory. He has a comfortable buffer but as he doesn’t know what’s going to happen later in the race, he will try to exploit any sign of weakness from Froome. Until now, nobody has been able to drop and even though Froome is usually better on these climbs, Quintana is the in-form rider. He may not be as fast as Froome in a sprint but on these steep gradients, the legs will do the talking.

 

It’s hard to imagine that another rider will be able to win a GC battle but it’s possible that some riders can exploit the tactical battle. If Froome is unable to drop Quintana, the pair will watch each other and this can open the door for riders from the second step of the hierarchy to go on the attack. Froome won’t allow the likes of Contador or Chaves to ride away but other riders will have the freedom. That’s especially true for Michele Scarponi who likes these short, steep climbs. He had a bad day on the queen stage but otherwise he has been one of the very best. He was very strong on Le Camperona and won’t be far behind Froome and Quintana. If the tactical battle starts, he knows how to grab the opportunity.

 

The same goes for Samuel Sanchez. The Spaniard is a wily rider and he always shines in the third week of a grand tour. He hasn’t been totally consistent in this race but he has generally been riding strongly. His vast experience is a huge asset on this kind of climb where it’s important not to go into the red zone and he is generally very good at picking opportunities in these tactical battles. We won’t be surprised if Sanchez is the one to exploit any kind of hesitation from the two favourites.

 

Andrew Talansky is another diesel engine who should be at his best in the third week. He generally prefers longer climbs but he was one of the very best on La Camperona where he paced himself extremely well. On stage 15, he showed that he is not afraid of attacking to gain time and everything suggests that he is on track to be at his best in the final week.

 

If a breakaway makes it, we will point to Louis Meintjes. The South African has had a very long season and he is clearly no longer at his best. However, part of the reason for his poor showing in this race is an early crash. He has recovered from that incident and in stages 12 and 15 he showed that he is again riding at a very high level. The tough start means that he has a very good chance to join the break and even though he prefers longer climbs, the very steep gradients should suit his skills as a pure climber.

 

Robert Gesink has already won a stage but there is no reason that he can’t do it again. The Dutchman is coming back from injury and so is still getting better and better. As a grand tour rider, he usually recovers very well so he should be very strong in the third week. Like Meintjes, he should benefit from the tough start and even though he prefers longer climbs, he should be at his best on a steep mountain like this.

 

In this race, Egor Silin has been riding better than ever. He was flying in the first week but them seemed to be fading a bit. However, he bounced back in the weekend where he rode to third in the queen stage and back it up with a great ride one day later. At the moment, he is clearly one of the best climbers here and he is generally strong on short climbs. He should find the rough start to his liking and has a big chance to make it into the break.

 

The same goes for Kenny Elissonde who is climbing better than ever. The Frenchman is showing no sign of fatigue as he was in the break on both stages 14 and 15 and as he is contention for the mountains jersey, he wants to be on the attack again. He is a former winner on the Angliru and prefers the steepest climbs. That’s exactly what he will find in this stage and so it won’t be easy to beat him on the final climb.

 

Gianluca Brambilla has already won a stage but there is no reason that he can’t do it again. The Italian looked extremely strong on stage 15 and this is a stage that suits him. With a tough start, he has a very good chance to make it into the break and he knows how to gauge his effort well. He is not a pure climbers but as the final climb is relatively short, he should be able to do well.

 

We will point to Ben Hermans. The Belgian has been climbing better than ever in this race and he is not showing any sign of fatigue. In fact, he has been at his best in stages 14 and 15 so he may even be improving. BMC want to have a rider in the break due to the teams classification and Hermans is their in-form rider. He is not a pure climber but he can handle this kind of short climb well and if he has the legs he had on Angliru, he will be hard to beat.

 

Finally, Pierre Latour deserves a mention. The Frenchman is making his grand tour debut and was riding well until he dropped out of contention on stage 15. He will be keen to bounce back but he finds himself on untested territory as he has never done a third week of a stage race before. However, he has been riding pretty inconsistently in this race so we won’t be surprised if he bounces back from the disappointment by going on the attack.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Chris Froome

Other winner candidates: Nairo Quintana, Michele Scarponi

Outsiders: Samuel Sanchez, Andrew Talansky, Louis Meintjes (breakaway, Robert Gesink (breakaway)

Jokers: Egor Silin, Kenny Elissonde, Gianluca Brambilla, Ben Hermans, Pierre Latour (all from a breakaway)

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