A determined Chris Froome proved that he has not given up yet and delivered one of the best time trials on his life to crush the opposition in stage 19. It may still be very difficult to win the race overall but with the Brit, Alberto Contador and Esteban Chaves all having a lot to gain, no one could have wished a better scenario for the final big mountain stage of the race. The scene is set for a huge battle on the long climb of Alto de Aitana.
With last year being the only exception, the Vuelta a Espana has had a tough mountaintop finish on the penultimate day every year since 2012. In 2012, it was the Bola del Mundo that provided an exciting end to the race while Alto de Angliru was the decider in 2013. In 2014, we had a huge battle between Alberto Contador and Chris Froome on the Ancares ascent and in those three years the overall win has been up for grabs right until the penultimate stage.
Last year the organizers returned the race to a more traditional format as the penultimate stage was a mountain stage without a big summit finish. It still turned out to be enough to turn everything around at the very end but this year the course designers have returned to their preferred format. With the final stage being held late in the evening, they have designed a big showdown on the famous Alto de Aitana as they have time to move the entire circus all the way to Madrid for the grand finale.
The 193.2km stage will start in the coastal city of Benidorm and end on top of the Alto de Aitana. After a flat start, the riders will climb the category 2 Coll de Rates (13km, 3%) as they travel in a northerly direction. A descent and a flat section lead to a long uphill part that includes two category 2 climb, the category 2 Alto de Vall de Ebo (8km, 5.4%) and the category 2 Alto de Tollos (4.1km, 5.9%), as the riders will now travel to the west.
A decent leads to a much easier part as the riders will now head south towards the final climb. Along the way, they will contest the intermediate sprint at the 121km mark. Then more flat roads will lead to the lower slopes of the Alto de Aitana but this time the peloton won’t go all the way to the top. Instead, they will contest a category 2 KOM sprint at the top of the Puerto de Tudons (7.1km, 5.3%) before they head south along descending roads. Here they will turn around to climb all the way to the top of the final 21km category HC climb. It averages 5.9% and is very regular. For most of the time, the gradient stays around 6-7% and it never really gets very steep. The final 6km are bit steeper at 7-9%. It’s a winding road with two hairpin bends inside the final two kilometres, the final one 700m from the finish. In the final kilometre, the gradient is 6-9%.
Alto de Aitana was last used in 2009 when Damiano Cunego took a breakaway win. In the GC battle, Robert Gesink put 8 seconds into Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde and Samuel Sanchez while another five riders arrived just six seconds later. In 2004, Leonardo Piepoli beat Roberto Heras by four seconds on a day when six riders finished within 30 seconds. In 2001, Claus Michael Møller took a solo win with a 15-second advantage over Gilberto Simoni, Carlos Sastre and Roberto Heras.
If the riders had hoped that the heat would ease off a bit in the final weekend, they will be left disappointed. Saturday will be a sunny day with a maximum temperature at the bottom of the final climb of 27 degrees. However, there is a 25% chance of an afternoon shower so for once the riders may have to face wet conditions.
There will be a light wind from an easterly direction and so the riders will first have a crosswind and then a tailwind. In the final part of the stage, there will mainly be a cross-headwind. On the final climb, it will be a cross-tailwind on the lower slopes and a direct headwind in the final 7km.
What a ride by Chris Froome! If anyone though that the Brit had given up in the fight for overall victory at the Giro d’Italia, they were firmly silenced. Froome has rarely had such a determined face as he had when he rolled down the ramp and it was clear that he was a man on a mission. In the past, he has become known for his famous pacing strategy where he has slowly moved up from time check to time check. This time there was no such considerations and it was full gas right from the start. He knew that he risked blowing up but to win the race, he needed to make the gamble. In the end, the effort was rewarded as he showed no sign of fatigue at all and maintained his speed all the way to the finish.
Froome gained 2.16 on Quintana which is far more than anyone could have expected. The Colombian did a solid time trial even though it was not as good as the one he did 12 months ago. He probably got the pacing as bit wrong as he lost ground to a lot of riders in the second half which should suit him the best. After his bad crash in a TT two years ago, he seemed to be unwilling to take too many risks in the turns in the windy conditions and that clearly cost him a lot of time.
The other determined rider in the race was Alberto Contador who went into the stage with the same approach as Froome. He was on fire right from the start but unlike the Brit, he was unable to maintain his speed. Still he did a pretty good time trial to move into a comfortable third place and as his condition still seems to be growing he is on track to at least finish on the podium even though he will no longer remain unbeaten in his home race.
For the Orica-BikeExchange riders, it was more or less as expected. Chaves failed to do a TT as the one he did one year ago but it was not far off the mark. Both he and Yates were always going to lose a lot of time and even though they had definitely hoped for a different outcome, they knew that they were very likely to find themselves in this situation.
For the spectators, the outcome couldn’t have been any better. Froome took back enough time to harbour realistic ambitions of turning things around in the final mountain stage and it is clear that he will leave no stone unturned in an attempt to do so. Contador still hopes for a miracle and will go into the stage with an aggressive mind set, at least hoping to win the stage. Esteban Chaves is still within shouting distance of the podium and has enough of a buffer over Andrew Talansky that he can allow himself to take some risks. Hence, the scene is set for a memorable battle on Alto de Aitana.
Orica-BikeExchange, Sky and Tinkoff all have something to gain and they will all go into the stage with big plans. Movistar will be under pressure right from the start as they all want to have riders up the road. There’s a climb after just around 20km and it will be madness on that ascent. In addition to the riders from the GC teams, many climbers want to go for the stage win and Omar Fraile and Kenny Elissonde will be chasing KOM points. Movistar probably want things to calm down as soon as possible and we expect a big group to go clear with riders from Orica-BikeExchange, Sky and Tinkoff all ther.
When the break has gone clear, Movistar will hit the front but they have no interest in bringing the break back. They will be pleased to see the bonus seconds disappear. However, Sky need a hard race and they need the 10 seconds to be up for grabs. Hence, they are very likely to finally hit the front and control the stage for only the second time in the race. Contador also want to win the stage so Tinkoff may lend a hand and so it will be a fast stage where the break is likely to be held firmly under control.
It will be interesting to see whether someone wants to make a move already on the penultimate climb. Froome won’t but if he wants to take the overall win, Contador has to move from afar. However, the Spaniard will probably have a more realistic approach, knowing that he is unlikely to win the race. He has a much better chance if he focuses on the stage win so that’s probably what he wants to do.
Simon Yates could very well give it a go just as he did in stage 14. The move paid off on Aubisque and his team seem to be willing to take the risk. It’s the perfect way to put their rivals under pressure and Orica-BikeExchange is the only team with multiple tactical cards to play. They have to go for that opportunity if they want to move onto the podium.
However, it is unlikely that his move or the early break will work out. Sky are strong enough to control the stage and so we expect it to come down to a battle between the GC riders on the final climb. Here there will be no room for Froome’s usual pacing strategy. He has to go on the attack and he has to attack from afar.
Froome must be hugely frustrated by the weather forecast. It will be a headwind in the final 7km of the climb which is the hardest part. That will make it much harder to get rid of Quintana and it could very well make all the difference. It may force him to make his move a bit earlier than planned. However, if he can get a gap before he turns into the headwind, it will actually work in his favour as he is much more powerful than Quintana.
We have little doubt that Froome will attack relentlessly but we think that the headwind will make the difference. Even though today’s time trial proves that he is still in great form, we doubt that he is good enough to drop Quintana on a climb that is never very steep and is marred by a headwind. At this best, he may have been able to do so but until now he has not been able to put the Colombian under pressure. This climb is simply not difficult enough and so we doubt that he will accomplish his mission.
The headwind also means that Quintana is our favourite to win the stage. Froome has to ride hard all the way to the top while Quintana can be allowed to follow wheels. He will spend far less energy than Froome and so he will have something left in reserve. In 2014, we had a big battle between Contador and Froome in the final mountain stage and after Froome had attacked relentlessly, Contador countered in the final kilometre. We could very well envision a similar scenario here. When he is comfortably inside the final kilometre, Quintana will focus on the stage win. Froome will have spent too much energy in the wind and so he won’t be able to match Quintana’s late attack. Hence, the Colombian is our favourite to win the stage.
Of course Froome will be the big rival. We had some doubt about whether the Brit was starting to tire but today he showed that he is still very strong. It’s definitely not impossible that he will actually be able to drop Quintana, especially if he attacks before he turns into the headwind. If not, he may also turn his attention to the stage win when he realizes that the overall win is no longer possible. If so, he will have something left for the final kilometre to follow the late attacks and among the GC riders, he is usually the fastest in a sprint.
Alberto Contador would love to win the stage and it’s definitely not impossible. If the Spaniard is wise, he saves some energy for the finale and tries to follow Froome and Quintana when the Brit makes his attacks. As the Brit is likely to tire due to the headwind and Quintana will be unwilling to take risks, Contador will have options in the finale. If he attacks with 1km to go, the two big favourites may opt not to follow and this could give Contador room to get clear. He is clearly not the best climber here but his form is on the rise and he should find the long climb to his liking. Furthermore, he is faster than Quintana in a sprint so if Froome has used too much energy, he can also take a sprint win.
Esteban Chaves seems to be one step below the three best climbers in the race. However, for once he has timed his condition better. In the past he has always faded in the third week but this time his form seems to be growing. He delivered his best performance yet in stage 17 and he will have options in a stage that suits him well. He and Contador seem to be pretty equally matched and just like the Spaniard he may be able to exploit the tactical battle to attack in the finale. Furthermore, he is maybe even faster than Froome in a sprint so if he can keep up with the best, a stage win may be in store.
We doubt that a breakaway will make it but it’s not impossible. Sky haven’t been at their best in this race, Tinkoff don’t have the team to control the race and Orica-BikeExchange have their eyes on the GC, not the stage win. As a formidable group of climbers will get clear in the beginning, it won’t be easy to bring them back.
If a break makes it, Robert Gesink is our favourite. The Dutchman’s condition is still on the rise and his good ride in stage 17 was just another confirmation. As a GC rider, he always gets better and better throughout a grand tour and it’s no different in this race. He came up shot on Alto Mas de la Costa but he will be much more comfortable in this stage which is harder and whose final climb suits him a lot better. Whenever the stage has finished on a big mountain, he has been in the top 2 and he could very well keep that trend alive.
In the queen stage, Egor Silin was also very close to victory but he came up short in the final battle against Gesink. The Russian will be keen to get his revenge and he is showing no signs of fatigue yet. He climbed really well on Alto Mas de la Costa and he has been one of the best climbers in this race. He is not really a pure climber so the final climb may be a bit long but his performance in the queen stage proves that he can do well in this terrain too.
At the start of the race, we knew that Ben Hermans was flying but we had actually expected him to fade in the final week. That hasn’t been the case. In the last three mountain stages, he has been one of the very best, even better than many riders from the top 10. With Samuel Sanchez out of the game, he will be the BMC leader and he will be targeting a top result here. He is not a pure climber but like Silin he has done well in the high mountains regardless. The proble is that he may be too close to the top 10 to get any kind of freedom.
Kenny Elissonde mainly wants to win the mountains jersey but the door for a stage win could also be open. The Frenchman is clearly in the form of his life. Last weekend he was in the break two days in a row and even though he had a bad day on Wednesday, he claims that he is still feeling good. He was already close on the Col d’Aubisque and it is almost guaranteed that the will be in the break. He likes the long climb but the headwind could make it difficult as he is not fast in a sprint,
Mathias Frank seemed not to be at 100% in the early part of the race even though he was close to a stage win on a couple of occasions. Now he has really some good form as his great ride on the Alto Mas de la Costa fully showed and this is a clear indication that he is still fresh too. As a GC rider, he is usually strong in the third week so it is not really a surprise. Frank definitely has a chance to make this race even more memorable.
Like Frank, Gianluca Brambilla has already won a stage. His ride in stage 15 was simply impressive and he will be motivated to use his good form again. The Italian usually suffers a bit on the longer climbs but the headwind should play into his favour. If he can stay with the best climbers from a break on the final climb, no one is going to beat him in a sprint.
The only rider that can do so is Fabio Felline. Just like Brambilla, he is not a pure climber but he is a master in gauging his effort. He goes up the climbs at his own pace and usually he gets close to the front near the top. His third place in stage 15 and his good TT shows that his form is good and the headwind shoul favour a fast guy like him.
Louis Meintjes is clearly tired after a long season and he has been riding very inconsistently in this race. However, he has shown signs of his class, most notably in stages 15 and 12. Everything depends on whether he is on a good day or not but if he has a splendid day, he is one of the best climbers in the race and he lies a long climb like this.
Finally, we will point to Matvey Mamykin. The neo-pro shows great grand tour potential in this race as he just gets stronger and stronger. He had a slow start but he has improved from mountain stage to mountain stage. On stage 17, he was very close to the best GC riders and he will be very motivated to use his good form. It will be hard for him to beat the more experienced climbers but if he can finally avoid any unnecessary waste of energy, he may deliver a surprise
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nairo Quintana
Other winner candidates: Chris Froome, Alberto Contador
Outsiders: Esteban Chaves, Robert Gesink (breakaway), Egor Silin (breakaway),, Ben Hermans (breakaway)
Jokers: Kenny Elissonde, Mathias Frank, Gialuca Brambilla, Fabio Felline, Louis Meintjes, Matvey Mamykin (all from a breakaway)
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