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Will Niccolo Bonifazio take his first grand tour stage win on the first road stage of the Vuelta a Espana?

Photo: Trek-Segafredo






20.08.2016 @ 21:30 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Team Sky and Chris Froome got their Vuelta a Espana off to the best possible start with an impressive team time trial victory and the Brit may even find himself in the red jersey already on the second day. However, it will be the fast finishers that take centre stage in the first road stage as the few sprinters in the race will be keen to grab one of their few opportunities in a very mountainous Spanish grand tour.


The course

In the last few years, the Vuelta organizers have significantly reduced the number of sprint finishes and nowadays the fast finishers don’t have many opportunities in the last grand tour of the season. This has prompted many of the sprinters to skip the Spanish grand tour which has given more room for young sprinters who are brave enough to spend three weeks on the Iberian Peninsula and there is no doubt that the sprint field in Spain is less stacked than the one we saw in both the Tour and the Giro.


The Vuelta is now loaded with summit finishes and the stages with flat finales are often pretty hilly with a climb located near the finish. Furthermore, the first week is often pretty tough and it is definitely not the sprint festival that we usually see in the Tour de France. Even the first road stage has often been a summit finish and the sprinters have been in survival mode almost straight from the gun.


This year the sprinters will be pleased to know that they should get an early opportunity already on the second day and in general the organizers have given them a few more chances in this year’s race. With the first sprint stage coming this early, the fast finishers in the strongest teams may even eye a stint in red provided that they have not lost too much time in the team time trial. However, the stage is still not a flat affair as the roads in Galicia are always undulating with several short, steep climbs. In total, there will be 2270m of climbing in the opening road stage and this will take its toll before we get to the expected bunch kick.


At just 160.8km, stage 2 continues the Vuelta tradition of having very short stages and it will bring the riders from Ourense capital termal to the coastal city of Baiona. All day, they will be travelling in a westerly direction but the terrain changes a bit during the day. The first 60km are completely flat but then the riders will head into a range of hills. A gradual uphill section will lead to the bottom of the category 3 Alto de Fontefria (8.2km, 3.2%) which is a typical Spanish climb that never gets steep. The top comes at the 79.7km mark and then the riders will descend back to flatter terrain.


The final 60km will be held on typical Galician roads as they are mainly flat but have two small, uncategorized climbs. The first one comes with around 40km to go and then a descent will lead to the big city of Vigo. Here the riders will contest the only intermediate sprint with 19.1km to go before they will get to the bottom of the final small climb. Between the 147.5km and 151.7km marks, the riders will climb 130m of altitude for an average gradient of 3.1% over 4.2km The top comes with 9.1km to go and then a descent leads to the final 6km which are mainly flat. The road is winding in the finale and there are numerous roundabouts but the final 1200m are straight and flat.


Baiona also hosted the finish of the second stage in 2013 but back then, the race finished at the top of the nearby Alto do Monta da Groba. Nicolas Roche won the stage and Vincenzo Nibali took the leader’s jersey after Astana had won the opening team time trial.





The weather

The riders had perfect conditions for today’s team time trial and they will be pleased to know that the weather will be just as great for stage 2. Sunday will be a day of beautiful sunshine with a maximum temperature of 26 degrees.


There will be a light wind from a northwesterly direction which means that it will be a cross-headwind for most of the day. In the final 25km, it will be a crosswind until the riders turn into a headwind for the final 2km.


The favourites

In 2015, Team Sky missed out on a very important TTT win at the Tour de France by less than a second. Today the margins were in their favour and Chris Froome could not have asked for a better start to his attempt to make a very rare Tour-Vuelta double. He may not have gained any real time on Nairo Quintana but to already lead Alberto Contador by 52 seconds is a dream scenario after just 27.8km of racing.


At the same time, it must be comforting for Froome to realize that his team is strong. Michal Kwiatkowski seemed to be riding like a motorbike and may have returned to his best level after a poor start to the season. Leopold König looks like a solid back-up plan for the GC and Peter Kennaugh confirmed his own assessment of being in the form of his life by taking the first leader’s jersey.


Movistar can also be very pleased to again confirm that they are among the very team time trial teams in the world and they will be glad to have gained time on most of the rivals. Esteban Chaves is another big winner as Orica-BikeExchange did much better than expected, losing just six seconds. Samuel Sanchez will be frustrated to have missed out on the red jersey but in a GC perspective things aren’t too bad. The same can be said for Steven Kruijswijk but he may be a bit frustrated that his team cracked a bit in the end.


The big loser is of course Contador. It was always going to be a difficult day for a team with many non-specialists but to lose almost a minute is definitely a bad start. However, the performance says nothng about his personal strength as he seemed to be riding well. The problem was the many climbers sitting on at the back of the train and it is definitely a reason to be concerned that his team is apparently so weak compared to the mighty Sky and Movistar formations, both on the flats and in the mountains.


The other losers were Miguel Angel Lopez who mechanical turned out to be very costly for an Astana that actually did very well, Ag2r leaders Pierre Latour and Jean-Christophe Peraud, and the Caja Rural climbers Sergio Pardilla and Hugh Carthy who lost more time than expected.


Kennaugh will now wear the red jersey in tomorrow’s first road stage but he will be under threat. Among the sprinters, only Magnus Cort can take the lead with a stage win but four of his Sky teammates can take over the lead too. If Cort doesn’t win the stage, the first Sky rider across the line will be the new leader. Sky will be pleased to save Froome from the spotlight but the Brit still had to be attentive near the front and he could very well be the new man in red. However, Kennaugh is good at positioning too as is Michal Kwiatkowski who is likely to be Froome’s bodyguard in the finale.


For the sprinters, tomorrow is a very big day. They don’t have many opportunities in this race so they have to be ready whenever there is a relatively flat stage. This is probably one of the weakest field of sprinters in a grand tour ever and it can probably only be compared with the 2013 Vuelta. With ten uphill finishes, this is not the ideal preparation for the Worlds and so the big name are all absent, meaning that the door is open for the second-tier sprinters to claim the biggest win of their career.


This can create some confusion as it is not evident who’s going to control the flat stages. However, there are a few teams that are mainly here for the sprints and they really eye this race as a big opportunity. Things will probably be more complicated later when a hierarchy has been established but for the moment, there should be plenty of interest in keeping things together.


However, the lack of big sprint names means that the attackers may also eye an opportunity so we could see a more aggressive start than we usually do in a first flat stage at the Tour. It may take a little longer for the break to be established but the race should still settle into a rhythm pretty early. Teams like Caja Rural, Lampre-Merida, Dimension Data, Cofidis, Direct Energie, Bora-Argon 18, FDJ and IAM are likely to try to put a rider in the break, especially as there is a mountains jersey up for grabs, and it is virtually unthinkable that the former team won’t have a rider on the attack.


When the break has gone clear, Sky will briefly hit the front but we expect Trek, Giant-Alpecin, Etixx-QuickStep and maybe Lotto Soudal to take over pretty early. With a cross-headwind, the escapees won’t have much of a chance and it should all come back together.


The finale will probably be very nervous as there will be a crosswind in the final coastal section. This will create a big fight for position and could cause some crashes. However, it is very unlikely that the wind will be strong enough to split the field.


Instead, the danger is likely to be the long uphill drag in the finale. The Galician roads are much harder than they look on paper and this will take the sting out of the legs of the sprinters. The finale may be flat but if there had been any pure sprinters in this race, they would probably be left behind. We expect the peloton to lose quite a few riders on that uphill drag and so the stage is more suited to the strong sprinters. Luckily, almost all the sprinters in this race are pretty good climbers.


In the end, it will come down to a bunch kick. It will be a very long finishing straight and this makes it a great stage for the power sprinters. At the same time, there will be a headwind so timing an aerodynamics will be of utmost importance.


Niccolo Bonifazio is usually number 2 in the Trek sprinting hierarchy behind Giacomo Nizzolo but this is his big chance to lead his team in a grand tour. The Italian has had a fantastic first year at Trek and has really stepped up his level. At the Tour de Romandie, he nearly beat Marcel Kittel and he was clearly the second best sprinter in that race. In July, he confirmed his progress by taking his first WorldTour win at the Tour de Pologne where he beat no less of a figure than Fernando Gaviria.


Bonifazio didn’t show the best form in the Arctic Race of Norway but on paper he should be the fastest rider here. He is a solid climber and so should benefit from the late climb. Furthermore, Trek have one of the best trains here as he can count on the likes of Fabio Felline and Kiel Reijnen for the lead-out. They are probably not as strong as Giant-Alpecin but they should be able to deliver Bonifazio in a good position. A headwind sprint is perfect for the tiny Italian so if he is not too far back, he should be able to win this one.


His biggest rival will be Nikias Arndt. Giant-Alpecin are really eyeing some sprint wins here and they have designed a team almost completely with an eye on the flat stages. Arndt will be supported by Koen De Kort, Zico Waeytens and Tobias Ludvigsson in the finale and so the German team have the best train here. At the same time, Arndt is a fantastic climber who excels at the end of tough stage and so this race really suits him well. He hasn’t raced a lot recently but he was up there in the hard Rad am Ring so his form is not bad. He may be better later in the race as it was the case in the Giro but with the best train at his side, he can definitely win here.


BMC were left frustrated in today’s team time trial but they will have an immediate chance to strike back. Jempy Drucker did some very good sprints in this race 12 months ago and now he is back for more. He showed excellent form in the Vuelta a Burgos where he was second in every sprint stage and here he won’t be up against Danny Van Poppel. Unfortunately, he will be missing Daniel Oss who played a key role in Burgos. However, he is one of the best when it comes to positioning and he can still count on Danilo Wuss and Philippe Gilbert in the finale. With his great positioning skills, Drucker can win this stage.


Gianni Meersman is not a pure sprinter but he excels at the end of a tough race. He would obviously have preferred the stage to be harder but the climbs in the finale should make him competitive. After a few very bad months, he found some form in Wallonia and Burgos where he was up there in all the sprints. There are faster riders than him in this race but he can rely on one of the best teams as he has Yves Lampaert, Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar for the lead-out. That can make all the difference and may be enough to win the stage.


Tosh van der Sande is not a pure sprinter either but he goes into the race with huge confidence. At the Tour de l’Ain he took his first pro win in a reduced bunch sprint and in general he has improved his sprinting a lot. His form is good and he excels in sprints at the end of hard days. He may not be the fastest rider here but he can count on a strong train with the likes of Jelle Wallays and Adam Hansen.


Kristian Sbaragli won a stage in this race last year and he would love to repeat that performance this year. He is usually not fast enough to win the real bunch sprints and often needs a hard race to excel. However, he seems to have improved a lot recently and he did some good sprints in Burgos and Poland. With Tyler Farrar at his side, he had a very experienced lead-out man. He needs some luck to win the stage but it is not impossible.


IAM are here with Jonas Van Genechten. At one point, it seemed like the Belgian had the potential to become a real top sprinter but he hasn’t really lived up to his promises since he joined IAM. However, he is one of the fastest riders here and he has been riding really well recently. With Vicente Reynes and Vegard Stake Laengen, he has a decent team to support him but the final climbs will maybe cost him a bit too much.


Orica-BikeExchange are here for the GC but Magnus Cort will be allowed to go for the sprints. He has Simon Gerrans and Jens Keukeleire for the lead-out so he really has a great train. However, they also have to keep an eye on their two GC riders and it is doubtful whether he will have full commitment from the team. He showed good form at the Tour of Denmark but it will be hard for him to beat the faster guys in a flay sprint.


Bora-Argon 18 are here with three fast finishers. The finale is probably too hard for Rudiger Selig and not hard enough for Scott Thwaites. This opens the door for Michael Schwarzmann who has really showed a lot of progress this year. He is not fast enough to win the big sprints but after a hard day, he is very competitive as he proved with his second place in the reduced sprint on stage 2 in Ain. With Thwaites, Christoph Pfingsten and maybe Selig for the lead-out, he should be up there.


If you are looking for more sprinters, keep an eye on Lorrenzo Manzin, Enrico Battaglin, Gediminas Bagdonas, Jhonatan Restrepo, Patrick Bevin, Federico Zurlo, Romain Hardy, Kenneth Vanbilsen, Eduard Prades, Jose Goncalves, Ryan Anderson and Tony Hurel who may all give it a try.


NB: The exact times from the TTT don't count. If Cort doesn't finish in the top 2, the rider in red will be the best placed one of the 10 riders which are currently tied on time. That makes it likely that Rojas will be allowed to go for the sprint.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Niccolo Bonifazio

Other winner candidates: Nikias Arndt, Jempy Drucker

Outsiders: Gianni Meersman, Tosh van der Sande, Kristian Sbaragli

Jokers: Jonas Van Genechten, Jose Joaquin Rojas, Magnus Cort, Michael Schwarzmann



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