The GC riders had hoped for an easy spin in the sun but the 200km to the Spanish coast turned out to be pretty hard and so there will be some tired legs when they face their next battle in one of the most important stages of the entire race. The 37km time trial on the Spanish coast is one for the specialists and provides Chris Froome with a final chance to get back to within shouting distance of Nairo Quintana ahead of Saturday’s final big mountain stage.
In 2014 a frustrated Chris Froome asked race director Javier Guillen why there was never a completely flat time trial in the Vuelta. Much to his delight, Guillen announced that he had already planned a flat TT around Burgos for the 2015 edition of the race and there was no doubt that stage 17 was one of the drawcards for Froome. This year Froome hasn’t made a similar request but Guillen has still fulfilled his wish as the one individual time trial that always features in the race is similarly flat.
The last two time trials have marked a bit of a change in recent Vuelta history. While the Giro has often had two time trials – of which one has often has been a mountain time trial – and the Tour has historically had more time trialling than the other two grand tours, the Spanish race has usually limited its time trialling to one stage in the second or the third week. The distance has usually been around the 40km mark and very often it has included a considerable amount of climbing without being a mountain time trial. This year the race again offers a single individual test but it comes later than usual. The distance is within the usual range but what marks the real difference is the terrain. After last year’s TT, it is only the second really flat time trial since a relatively unknown Chris Froome surprisingly rode himself into the red jersey by finishing second behind Tony Martin in Salamanca in 2011.
At 37km, the course has the typical length of a Vuelta time trial and it is almost completely flat as the riders will stay between 10m and 175m above sea level for the entire stage. The riders will start in Xabia on the Mediterranean coast and follow the flat coastal road in the first part. Then they will head inland along similarly flat roads until they face the only small climb at the 13.1km mark. Then a descent leads back to the coast and the riders will then follow the flat coastal road for most of the final part of the stage. However, it is very winding with numerous turns and there won’t be many straight sections until the riders get to the final few kilometres. Having reaching the finishing city of Calp just outside of Calpe, they will briefly head to the centre of the major city before making a U-turn with 2.3km to head back to the finish. There will be a few roundabouts and then the riders will face five turns inside the final 600m.
Calp last hosted a major bike race in 2007 when Alessandro Petacchi won a bunch sprint at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana. The bigger city of Calpe hosted stage finishes of that race almost every year in the early part of the century. Alexandr Kolobnev, Petacchi (twice), Alejandro Valverde, Ruben Galvan and Michele Bartoli have all won stages here.
There will be no chance to escape the Spanish heat in the time trial as Friday will be another sunny day. The maximum temperature at the finish will be 30 degrees.
There will be a moderate wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will have a headwind or cross-headwind almost all day. The wind will be relatively constant throughout the stage and so everybody will have similar conditions.
A strong breakaway forced the sprint teams to chase hard on the lumpy roads and in the crosswind sections in the middle of the course and this made stage 18 a tough one. All the GC riders had hoped for an easy day ahead of the time trial but they got anything but that. When they turned into a headwind in the finale, things calmed down and it was easy to follow wheels but it ended up as another testing day in what has been a brutal Vuelta.
That also resulted in a slightly surprising outcome. Already in stage 2, Magnus Cort proved that he is one of the fastest in the race but due to team obligations he has not had many chances since then. Instead, he slightly defied team orders when he went for the sprint as he had been asked to stay close to Chaves and Yates. However, his team can probably forgive his behaviour as the team secured their third stage win in what turns out to be another very successful grand tour for the Australian team. In the mountains, Cort had already proved that he is still fresh at the end of his first three-week race and that made the difference in the end. As he can expect more support in Madrid, the Dane suddenly stands out as one of the big favourites for Sunday’s stage.
For now, however, the attention turns back to the GC battle and one of the most important stages of the race. The Vuelta was once known for its many flat time trials but in their desire to make the race harder and harder, the organizers have decided to make their TTs a lot hillier in recent years. However, for the second year in a row, they have listened to Chris Froome’s famous wish to include a flatter course and like last year the addition of the time trial means that the Vuelta winner needs more versatile skills than he did in 2012-2014.
The course doesn’t include much climbing but it’s not completely straightforward either. The first part has many long, straights for the specialists but the second part is much more complicated with multiple turns. That’s diversity is reflected in the very different assessments of the course from the two GC riders who have done a recon. Alberto Contador has described it as a stage with very few straight sections and as a complicated affair while Nairo Quintana has emphasized the many long, straights where Chris Froome will gain time on him.
Luckily, there will be no rain or changes to the wind and so everybody should have the same conditions. Hence, we should have an honest contest where the GC riders and specialists will be competing on an equal footing.
Very often the GC riders have the upper hand in the TTs in the third week of a grand tour as their better recovery skills give them an advantage compared to the specialists. On the other hand, this course is one for the really powerful riders and it won’t be easy for the tiny climbers to match their speed. Furthermore, it’s important that there will be a pretty strong headwind and this is clearly an advantage for the big guys compared to the tiny climbers. It also favours Chris Froome in his quest to take back time on Nairo Quintana.
Let’s start with a short remark about the GC battle. Chris Froome will beat Quintana but he won’t gain nearly enough time to be close to the lead. Last year Quitana did one of his best TTs on a very similar course in Burgos. He finished sixth and only lost 1.33 to Tom Dumoulin who is a better time triallist than Froome on this kind of course. Furthermore, Quintana has improved a lot since then so Froome is unlikely to gain much more than a minute. Alberto Contador will gain time on Esteban Chaves to move comfortably onto the podium while Andrew Talansky may be good enough to pass Simon Yates. Samuel Sanchez should also do well while Davide Formolo is likely to be a big loser.
The day could very well turn out to be a great one for Movistar. Quintana will retain the lead but the team could very well win the stage too. Jonathan Castroviejo has developed into one of the best time triallists in the world and he stands out as the man to beat. The Spaniard was very strong in 2013 but in 2014 he suddenly lost the edge in the TTs. That returned towards the end of the year and in 2015 he took a massive step up. He did some excellent time trials on almost every kind of course and he memorably missed out on a Worlds medal by seconds. This year he had similar bad luck at the Olympics as he was just seconds shy of the bronze medal at the Olympics.
Castroviejo crashed hard in Algarve and only returned to racing in June. He is a lot fresher than many other riders and he has been riding very well in support of Quintana in this race. He prefers slightly hillier courses but at last year’s Worlds he was fourth on a flat course. Due to his very aerodynamic position, he should benefit from the windy conditions. Castroviejo is our favourite to take the win.
Luis Leon Sanchez has been riding very well in this race but his efforts have been unrewarded. This is his final chance to win a stage and he has a very big chance to do so. The Astana rider has historically been very good in time trials late in grand tours. Last year he was second in the Giro TT, in 2012 he was third in the final Tour TT, in 2010 he was fifth in the Vuelta TT and in 2009 he was ninth in the Tour time trial. The power course with its many technical sections suits him pretty well and even though he no longer has the form he has at the start, he should be one of the strongest. He is pretty inconsistent in his time trialling but if he is on a good day, he should do well.
Chris Froome is obviously a very big candidate. After his very poor time trial performances in 2015, he has returned to his best this year. He did a good TT in Romandie and he was in the top 2 in both Tour TTs before winning the bronze medal in Rio. However, he generally prefers harder courses and he doesn’t seem to have the power in the flat TTs as he had when he almost beat Tony Martin in Mont Saint-Michel in the 2013 Tour. Furthermore, he seems to be pretty tired at the moment and so it will be hard for him to match the likes of Castroviejo and Sanchez. On the other hand, Froome is always strong in a TT late in a grand tour and he has the benefit of his great recovery skills. It will be hard for him to win but it’s definitely not impossible.
Tobias Ludvigsson once showed great promise as a time triallist until he suddenly disappeared a bit into anonymity. However, he has returned to his best in 2016 and he has done some very good time trials, most notably in the Giro where he was fourth in the opening stage. More importantly, the Swede is in the form of his life. He has been climbing excellently in the hardest stages and that kind of freshness is crucial at this point in a grand tour. With his big power, he should fin the course to his liking.
LottoNL-Jumbo have Belgian champion Victor Campenaerts who has really taken a massive step up since he joined the WorldTour. He showed his class at the Belgian Championships and did a very good time trial on the flat course in the Tour de Pologne. The main question is his level of freshness at this point in a grand tour but his good ride for Gesink in the mountains indicates that he is still going strongly.
Alberto Contador is one of the big question marks in this race. The Spaniard was once one of the best time triallists in the world on every kind of course but since he returned from suspension, it has been different. He has done some amazing time trials on hilly courses – just remember his fantastic TT at last year’s Giro and in Pais Vasco earlier this year – but on flat courses he has been far from his former level. This course is definitely not ideal for him. However, this stage is likely to be a question of freshness and Contador is clearly on the rise. He has always been strong in late grand tour TTs and the technical nature should make him more competitive.
When he first emerged on the WorldTour scene, Andrew Talansky made a name as a great time triallist. He was in the top 10 in almost every WorldTour TT but in the last few years he has not been at the same level. However, he has now got rid of the virus that marred him and he seems to have returned to his former level in the mountains. Now he needs to prove that he is also back on top in the TTs. His good ride in California suggests that he is on track. Furthermore, his diesel engine is always great in the third week in a grand tour and he is clearly in growing condition.
Fabio Felline lost Kiel Reijnen’s wheel in today’s sprint and so missed out on a top result. He will be keen to get his revenge in the time trial. In the early part of his career, he never excelled in TTs until everything changed in 2015. Suddenly, he emerged as a time triallist and he was in the top 10 in almost every TT he did. Most recently, he did a great time trial on a flat course in Poland and even though he had preferred a hillier route, he should do well. He should find the technical nature to his liking and he is clearly still in great form.
Etixx-QuickStep have Yves Lampaert who is a double runner-up at the Belgian Championships. Unfortunately, he hasn’t always been at the same level in the international races and he seems to prefer the shorter races. However, he is one of the most powerful riders in this race and his performances at Nationals indicates that he can do well over this distance too.
Will Leopold König be allowed to go full gas? The Czech may be asked to save energy for Saturday but if he is given the freedom, he should be strong. He has had one bad day but yesterday he showed that he is back on track. He did an excellent TT at the end of the 2014 Tour where he was close to the podium and he is recovering better than most and still very fresh due to his long injury break. He would have preferred a hillier course but he can do well here too.
The dark horse is Thomas De Gendt. The Belgian seems to be very tired but you never what he comes up with. He is not a time trial specialist but due to his power, he is often very good in late grand tour time trials. He has been on the podium in the final Tour TT and this year he also did a very good first time trial at the Tour. This time it seems that his form is not good enough but history shows that De Gendt can always come up with a surprise.
Like Talansky, Jean-Christophe Peraud is clearly getting better and better and he is one of the in-form GC riders. The Frenchman is no longer the rider he once was and in fact he has not really done a long time trial at a high level since 2014. However, he has not been riding at this level since that year either and so we can expect a solid ride from him. On a hilly course, he was once one of the best and this course is probably a bit too flat for. Nonetheless, he should be able to do well.
Samuel Sanchez is a former winner of a late Vuelta time trial. The Spaniard was once known for his consistency in stage races but in this race it has been a bit different. He had a bad day on Tuesday and so we have some question marks about him. However, he has usually been very good in the Vuelta TTs and he should find the technical part to his liking. Earlier this year he showed that he still has it as he did a very good time trial at the Ruta del Sol at a time when he was far from his best.
Finally we will point to Moreno Moser and Silvan Dillier. The Italian usually prefers shorter courses but his top 10 at the Worlds last year proves that he can do well over long distances too. The question is whether he has the freshness to be competitive. That won’t be an issue for Silvan Dillier who seems to be in excellent form. However, Dillier has done his best TTs over short distances and he still needs to prove that he can be competitive in a long time trial on the international level. On the other hand, he seems to have taken another step in 2016 and he clearly has the freshness to do well.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Jonathan Castroviejo
Other winner candidates: Luis Leon Sanchez, Chris Froome
Outsiders: Tobias Ludvigsson, Victor Campenaerts, Alberto Contador, Andrew Talansky, Fabio Felline
Jokers: Yves Lampaert, Leopold König, Thomas De Gendt, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Samuel Sanchez, Moreno Moser, Silvan Dillier
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