Nairo Quintana showed no signs of weakness of Alto Mas de la Costa and now just needs to limit his losses in the time trial and defend himself on the Alto de Aitana to take his second grand tour win. Before he gets to the next GC test, he needs to get safely through the lumpy stage 18 which offers the sprinters a rare chance to go for glory if they can control things in what will be a hard opening part.
The second week was one long series of frustrations for the sprinters but the fast finishers will have had an incentive to make it to the final part of the race. Three of the final six stages should be for the fastmen and after they had their first opportunity in stage 16, they could get another chance just three days before the big finale in Madrid.
At 200.6km, stage 18 is the second longest of the race and it will bring the riders from Requena to Gandia. In the first part, they will travel south along lumpy roads that never become completely flat and then they will tackle the category 2 climb of Puerto de Casa del Alto (13.3km, 3.8%). After the top, they will continue south along hilly roads until a long descent leads to the 105km mark.
The riders will now head in a northeasterly direction for the final part of the stage and even though the roads aren’t completely flat, the terrain is easy. After a gradual uphill section, the final 65km are mainly descending. Along the way, the riders will contest the intermediate sprint at the 147km mark. The gradual downhill will continue all the way to the finish in the coastal town of Gandia until it flattens out for the final 4km. The riders will turn left in a roundabout with 1400m to go and then go straight through a roundabout at the flamme rouge. Finally, there’s a right-hand turn in a roundabout with 600m to go.
Gandia has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.
With most of the race taking part in the northern part of the county, many were hoping for a less hot edition of the Vuelta. However, the conditions have been brutal and there will be no chance to cool down on stage 18 which will be an equally hot affair. Bright sunshine is forecasted and there will be a maximum temperature of 33 degrees at the finish.
It will be a bit winder as there will be a moderate wind from an easterly direction. This means that the rides will have a crosswind in the first half and a headwind in the long downhill section to the coast. In the finale there will be a crosswind until the riders hit a headwind with 3km to go. In the final 1500m, it will mainly be a crosswind.
Yesterday Alberto Contador said that Alto Mas de la Costa would make big differences than Peña Cabarga. It is certainly true that the climb was a lot harder than the wall in Cantabria but it failed to separate the four best riders who matched each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke on one of the toughest ascents in the Vuelta history. Hence, it’s status quo in the battle for the overall win and baring accident Nairo Quintana is now virtually guaranteed his second overall victory.
Some may be surprised by the lack of action but it’s actually a very common phenomenon. In the third week, everybody is on their knees – especially this late in the season – and the racing is far less explosive. Generally, the differences between the best riders are a lot smaller in the final part of a three-week race. The gap to the second step in the hierarchy usually grows and big time gaps open up in the battle for the top 10 places but when it comes to the very top, fans are often left disappointed. Most of the riders are in survival mode so unless a rider cracks completely like it happened for Fabio Aru in the Tour, the top rarely changes. Just remember what happened on Col du Joux Plane in this year’s Tour, on the Monte Zoncolan in the 2014 Giro, on Bola del Mundo in the 2012 Vuelta and the Mont Ventoux in the 2009 Tour de France, just to name a few of the spectacles that never materialized.
The stage proved that Chris Froome doesn’t have the kick that he needs to turn things around. A long season is finally catching up with him and his hopes of reaching peak condition in the final week have dashed. He doesn’t seem to be on the verge of a breakdown but he is unlikely to turn the GC around. In fact, the fatigue probably means that he won’t gain that much time in the TT and even though it should be enough to secure second place, we doubt that he will be able to match the likes of Jonathan Castroviejo on the flat course in stage 19.
At the same time, Alberto Contador is clearly improving which is no big surprise. The Spaniard has always had better recovery skills than anybody else. At the same time, he has done less racing than his rivals and so he was always going to shine in the third week. He is bound to move into third in the time trial and then we expect him to go all in for a stage win on Alto de Aitana on Saturday.
The big novelty is Esteban Chaves’ strength. The Colombian has always faded in the third week in a grand tour but this time he even seems to be getting stronger. It was evident that he didn’t come into the race with all guns blazing as he has done in the past and that strategy has clearly paid off. He is likely to finish fourth in the race but in addition to Quintana, he may be regarded as the big winner of the race as he has now proved that he can handle the strains of a three-week race without showing much fatigue in the final week.
The GC riders will now go into survival mode for a day as they hope to get as easy through stage 18 as possible. However, for everybody else, Thursday is a key stage. If you are not a sprinter, climber or time triallist, this is the final chance to win a stage and this means that many will be motivated to give it a go. At the same time, the sprinters will be very motivated to get another chance after a tough second week that didn’t give them a single chance.
Usually, these stages in the third week of a grand tour can be very hard to control and you usually get one of two scenarios. Either everybody is so tired that they are just content to let the first break go and let the sprint teams get it their way. Otherwise it’s totally madness and it takes a long time for the break to be formed. It’s pretty hard to predict which scenario we will get tomorrow. On one hand, the first part is definitely tough enough to make it a brutal stage. On the other hand, many have described this as one of the hardest grand tours in recent years and everybody seems to be pretty tired.
Our guess is that it will be a sprint. In stage 16, it was interesting to observe how almost every single team with a sprinter contributed to the chase and how the sprints teams didn’t take any risks at all. In a field where almost every sprinter has been close to victory at one point, they all believe that they can win the stage and so we will probably see another great alliance. Etixx-QuickStep, Giant-Alpecin, IAM, Bora-Argon 18 and Dimension Data all want to sprint and after Drucker’s win, BMC should also be motivated. Trek may also lend a hand and so almost half of the teams can be expected to chase. The first part may be hard but the final 120 are relatively easy and the strong headwind in the final 80km doesn’t favour the attackers. If it turns into a really tough race that explodes on the uphill part after 30km, a strong break may make it to the finish but we expect another bunch kick.
Gianni Meersman has been the most successful sprinter so far and he will again be the man to beat. He is not the fastest sprinter but he has one big advantage: his train. Etixx-QuickStep have dominated every single sprint finish in this race and it was only the tough uphill sprint on stage 7 that really failed for them. Otherwise, they have been able to deliver Meersman on the front every single time.
Things failed a bit in stage 16 where they ran out of power a bit too early. The team had lost Yves Lampaert, Meersman’s final lead-out man, in the hectic run-in and Zdenek Stybar could not keep going long enough. That forced Meersman to start too early and so he had to settle for fourth. However, tomorrow Lampaert will be keen not to make the same mistake and if they can stay together, Meersman should get another textbook lead-out. It’s a very technical finale and so lead-outs are much more important than they were in stage 16. This favours Meersman even more so he is our favourite to win the stage.
In stage 16, we already made Jempy Drucker one of our three biggest favourites and he should again be one of the strongest. On paper, he is one of the fastest riders in this field and he has proved that he is always strong in the third week of a grand tour. However, what really marks him out from the rest are his great positioning skills which allowed him to get the most coveted spot when he won Monday’s stage: Meersman’s wheel. He has Silvan Dillier and Danilo Wyss to keep him protected and if he can again position himself perfectly, it’s probably only Nikias Arndt who is faster than the Luxembourger.
Giant-Alpecin are mainly here to sprint with Nikias Arndt. On paper, he is the fastest sprinter and on paper he has one of the two best trains. However, things haven’ t worked out perfectly until now and to make things worse he has been hampered by knee pain. He has been suffering tremendously in the mountains but he still managed to sprint to third in stage 16. The team didn’t time the lead-out perfectly but on paper they have the power to deliver their fast German near the front and if he can finally find a good position, he is the fastest sprinter here.
Bora-Argon 18 have proved that they have one of the best trains and they have multiple options. Rudiger Selig and Michael Schwarzmann have both sprinted to second and they can both be given the nod. The one who gets his chance will have a formidable train that also has Scott Thwaites and Christoph Pfingsten as important pieces in the puzzle. Selig will probably get his chance but Schwarzmann may also get his opportunity.
Lorrenzo Manzin is a huge sprint talent who already won a race in his neo-pro season. However, he has not had much luck in 2016 and he has sprinting really poorly. However, now he is finally back on track and he actually seems to be pretty fresh. With Matthieu Ladagnous, he has a solid lead-out man and he gained lots of confidence with his strong fifth place in stage 6.
Kristian Sbaragli has not had much success yet and it will be hard for him to win. He usually needs harder races to excel and this stage could be a bit too easy. In fact he has to hope for a very strong break that forces the peloton to ride hard all day. With Tyler Farrar he has a solid lead-out man and as he is always stronger than the rest in the third week of a grand tour, he may have a chance if the race becomes tough.
Usually, Daniele Bennati doesn’t get his chance but it actually seems like he has some freedom in the sprints. He was second in stage 7 and he attacked in stage 16. This suggests that he may be allowed to do the sprint. It’s a pretty technical finish which doesn’t favour him as he is unlikely to take many risks. However, he has been sprinting really well this year and on paper he is fast enough to win.
Tosh van der Sande crashed hard in stage 15 but he still managed to take 9th in stage 16. He also did pretty well in today’ stage and he seems to have recovered well. He is a better climber than most of the sprinters and is usually fresher than his rivals at this point in a grand tour. He has clearly upped his level a lot and he has a strong team to support him. Unfortunately, he misses the final lead-out man with the speed to bring him to the front.
Trek have Fabio Felline who opted not to do the sprint on stage 16 as he had bad legs. However, Kiel Reijnen who took over the sprint role, made it clear that Felline is still number one. Unfortunately, he is not a pure sprinter and this is stage is too easy to for him so he may even opt to save energy for the time trial. On the other hand, it is a very technical finish and this should give him a better chance, especially this late in a grand tour.
Jonas Van Genechten has already won a stage but we it will be hard for him to do it again here. He prefers uphill sprints and this one is completely flat. Furthermore, it’s a technical finale and he is not the best when it comes to positioning. He doesn’t have much support either and this will make things harder for the fast Belgian.
Finally, we will point to Magnus Cort. The Dane’s main job is to support Chaves and Yates and he is unlikely to get his chance. However, if the leaders are safe, he may be given the freedom and his sprint on stage 2 shows that he has the speed to be up there. Furthermore, he has been on the attack twice so his form is clearly good. Unfortunately, he won’t get any support so it will be hard to win in such a technical finale.
If you are looking for more sprinters, keep an eye on Kiel Reijnen, Gediminas Bagdona, Jhonatan Restrepo, Yukiya Arashiro, Loic Chetout, Eduard Prades and Ryan Anderson.
If a strong break goes clear, look out for riders like Danilo Wyss, Silvan Dillier, Jan Bakelants, Sergey Lagutin, Thomas De Gendt, Larry Warbasse, Romain Hardy and Salvatore Puccio,
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Gianni Meersman
Other winner candidates: Jempy Drucker, Nikias Arndt
Outsiders: Rudiger Selig, Michael Schwarzmann, Lorrenzo Manzin, Kristian Sbaragli
Jokers: Daniele Bennati, Tosh van der Sande, Fabio Felline, Jonas Van Genechten, Magnus Cort
Breakaway candidates: Danilo Wyss, Silvan Dillier, Jan Bakelants, Sergey Lagutin, Thomas De Gendt, Larry Warbasse, Romain Hardy, Salvatore Puccio
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