The team time trial created the first gaps in the overall standings but it didn’t show much about the strength of the GC contenders. On Monday, we will be a lot wiser when the riders have battled it out on one of the brutal walls that characterize the Vuelta a Espana. The Mirador de Ezaro and its gradients of more than 20% created a huge spectacle in 2012 and this year it will provide us with the first indications of who’s on form in the final grand tour of the year.
It has become a bit of a tradition that the first road stage of the Giro and the Tour is for the sprinters. Sometimes the puncheurs have been given their chance but the first road stages are never one for the GC riders.
The Vuelta has always been different. The Spanish geography means that it is possible to find tough climbs in almost every part of the country and very often the organizers have preferred to have a first uphill finish very early in the race to create an initial selection and create less stress in the bunch. In 2013, the riders already tackled a summit finish on the Alto Do Monte Groba on the second day of the race and one year earlier it was the famous Arrate climb in the Basque Country that made the first selection on the third day. Last year the riders already faced the first summit finish on the second day where Esteban Chaves emerged as a serious contender by claiming the stage win.
This year the GC riders can look forward to a first battle already on the third day when they return to the brutal wall of Mirador de Ezaro which created a huge spectacle in 2012, and the steep slopes will make it one of the typical puncheur finishes that have become a bit of a trademark for the Spanish grand tour. The 176.4km will bring the riders from Marin to the top of the Mirador de Ezaro in the city of Dumbria on the Galician coast and it is a typical stage in the region. For most of the day, the riders will follow the lumpy coastal road as they head to the north while also making a few digressions to head into slightly hillier terrain.
The first 109.7km are mainly flat but there are a few small hills that are typical for the Galician coastal road. After just 17km of racing, the riders will pass through Sanxenxo that hosted the opening stage in 2013. The riders will then leave the coast to go up the category 3 climb of Alto de Lestaio (8.3km, 5.3%) before turning around to descend back to the coast. Then they will again head inland to tackle the category 2 Alto da Paxareiras (9.3km, 5.4%) whose top comes with 21km to go. A descent then leads back to the coastal road which is mainly flat and leads to the city of Dumbria. Along the way, they will contest the intermediate sprint 10.4km from the finish.
Instead of having a flat finish in the city centre, the riders will head to the category 3 Mirador de Ezaro climb on the outskirts. At just 1.8km, it is a very short climb but the average gradient of 13.8% makes it a very tough affair. It follows a winding road with several turns on the lower slopes before it straightens out for the final 500m. Inside the final kilometre, there will be sections of 20%.
When the climb made its debut in 2012, Joaquim Rodriguez confirmed his status as the best rider for such finales and as the strongest rider in that year’s race. After a desperate late chase, Katusha managed to bring it back together and then the leader used his trademark kick to put 8 seconds into Alberto Contador, 13 seconds into Alejandro Valverde and 20 seconds into Robert Gesink while Chris Froome started to show the signs of fatigue that marred him in the final week of the race, with the Brit crossing the line in fifth, 23 seconds behind race leader Rodriguez.
Galicia has welcomed the Vuelta with excellent weather and it will continue for the next few days. Monday is forecasted to be sunny and it will also be pretty hot as there will be a maximum temperature of 29 degrees.
The wind can play a role in this region but on Monday it won’t make a difference. There will only be a light breeze from a westerly direction and so there will mainly be a crosswind during the long run up the coast. In the final part, there will be more headwind, most notably on the final descent, and then a cross-tailwind will lead to the finish. On the final climb, there will be a cross-tailwind on the lower slopes and a tailwind for the final 600m.
The lack of a top-level sprint train made the first bunch kick just as confusing and chaotic as expected. On paper, the two strongest trains were Giant-Alpecin and Etixx-QuickStep and it was the latter that came away with the win. While Nikias Arndt was taken out by a crash in front of his Giant team, Etixx-QuickStep showed the patience they missed in the Tour, knowing that the headwind would make timing crucial. Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampart launched the sprint just at the right time and then Gianni Meersman was strong enough to finish it off.
The win must be a huge relief for Meersman who once emerged as one of the real experts in reduced bunch sprints. The last 18 months have been terrible for the Belgian who has failed to win a single race but his performances in Wallonia ad Burgos showed that he was back on track. With Etixx-QuickStep showing great lead-out skills with a less experienced train, he will have more opportunities in a race whose lumpy courses suit him well.
However, he and the rest of the sprinters will have to wait until stage 5 to get their next chance. After the hectic opener yesterday, the GC riders had a very easy day today as the peloton almost had to hit the brakes on certain occasions to avoid an early catch of the break. Hence, they managed to save a lot of energy for the next two stages which will give the first indication of who’s going to win the race.
Mirador del Ezaro will be the scene of the first big battle and it’s a climb that will give us the first indications of who’s on form. However, it’s a very special ascent, very similar to the Mur de Huy, and it is a climb for puncheurs more than real climbers. Like in 2012, the time gaps will be relatively small but it has can still be used to draw some early conclusions. There are another three short, steep walls coming up later in the race and so explosive climbing skills will play a rather big role in determining the winner of the race. On the othe hand, the Vuelta is often a gradual elimination race where fatigue starts to set in and a lot will be different when we get to the third week of the race.
However, we are not totally convinced that the favourites will actually battle it out for the stage win. Usually, early breaks don’t have a real chance in the first week of a grand tour but things could be different this time around. Currently, Movistar and Sky are in pole position but they won’t necessarily chase down the break. Froome wants to avoid the red jersey for as long as possible and as he expects to improve throughout the race, he is a bit uncertain about his ability in a stage that doesn’t suit him perfectly. Sky may have the lead but they will do nothing to chase the break down.
Movistar are a bit more interesting. On paper, it’s a perfect finish for Alejandro Valverde. However, the Spaniard is tired and the main goal for the team is to win the race with Nairo Quintana who’s not suited to this kind of finish. For the Colombian, it would be great to see the bonus seconds disappear so unless Valverde really feels confident, we doubt that Movistar will do anything either. It’s also not a finish for Alberto Contador so Tinkoff won’t hit the front too.
That leaves it to Orica-BikeExchange to control the stage but it remains to be seen what their ambitions are. For the long-team goal, it would probably be best to let the red jersey slip away. On the other hand, it’s a great chance for Esteban Chaves to win the stage and gain some bonus seconds and a leader’s jersey in a grand tour is always a great achievement too. The stage also suits Simon Yates really well so the Australians may decide to go for the win.
This will set the scene for an exciting tactical battle and if the sports directors are wise, they will send riders on the attack. On this stage, a breakaway really has a chance to make it and the red jersey will even be up for grabs. Hence, we should probably have a fast start with numerous attacks and it will take time for the early break to be formed.
When the group has escaped, Sky will hit the front but as said, they won’t try to bring the break back. The tactical game will continue and if Movistar and Orica-BikeExchange show no initiative, the break will make it. However, it’s a too good of an opportunity for Orica-BikeExchange to let it slip away and so we expect them to take control. Hence, we put our money on the peloton to catch the break but we won’t rule out a breakaway.
However, a late attack on the penultimate climb may also work out. The finale is pretty hard and if Orica get no help, they may not be strong enough to keep it together. Obviously, Philippe Gilbert has his eyes on the red jersey and as he knows that the final climb is too hard for him, he may try an attack either from the start or late in the stage. If a strong group gets clear, they will have a chance too. On the other hand, the fight for position in the flat run-in to the climb will be huge and so you need quite a bit of an advantage to make it.
Last year Esteban Chaves established himself as a potential winner of the race with a storming ride in the first uphill finish. The Colombian usually hits the grand tours with all guns blazing. He never does any racing to prepare but his training in Colombia is very efficient. He was flying at the start of last year’s Vuelta and again at the Giro earlier this year. Nobody knows how he is doing now but he looked strong in the team time trial. There is a big chance that he is again flying.
Furthermore, this kind of short steep climb suits him pretty well. He may not be a real specialist like the likes of Valverde, Rodriguez, Henao, Martin and Alaphilippe but he has a decent punch for this kind of finish. He is more explosive than most of his rivals and only Valverde, Yates and Lopez really have the kick to match the Colombian. As he has a history of strong starts to grand tours, we will put our money on Chaves to win the stage.
Chris Froome is very uncertain about his form and he expects to grow during the race. He underlines that he not in Tour de France condition yet. However, he was still pretty surprised with his good legs in the team time trial and the Sky victory indicates that he is strong. He may not be known as an explosive climber but he actually does pretty well in these finishe – just remember how he nearly won the Mur de Huy stage at last year’s Tour de France. In his past Vuelta outings, he has been at his best on short, steep climbs while he has suffered more on the longer climbs. Furthermore, he has won on the Pena Cabarga and La Planche des Belles Filles which are climbs that require a certain punch.
On paper, Froome is the best climber in this race and his form can’t be too bad. After all he was good at the Olympics and even though he will be cautious on the lower slopes of the climb, he will definitely grab the opportunity if he can gain some seconds. Froome has always been good in these finales and he can definitely win this stage.
On paper, Alejandro Valverde is the biggest specialist for this kind of climb. However, the Spaniard must be very tired and no one knows how he is feeling. He wasn’t very good at the Olympics and he is very unlikely to be at 100%.
On the other hand, Valverde is by far the best rider for these finishes and he doesn’t need to be at his best to win the race. He has always been strong in the early part of the Vuelta and he is always very competitive. In the last two years, he has won very similar stages in the first week so if the season hasn’t taken too much of a toll, the king of the Mur de Huy will of course win this stage.
Alberto Contador is not really suited to this kind of climb. However, it is still steep enough for the best climbers to make a difference and he was actually second here in 2012. He is much fresher than most of his rivals and if he is close to his best, he can do well in this kind of stage too. He has already lost a lot of time so if he has the chance to gain some of it back, he will grab it with both hands.
Chaves may be the best Orica-BikeExchange card but they also have Simon Yates. The Brit is really suited to this kind of explosive finish and he was in the top 10 on the Mur de Huy at last year’s Tour. He has proved his excellent form during the last few weeks where he has been up there in every race he has done. He doesn’t have to work for Chaves on a climb where it is all about the legs and he definitely has the skills to win the stage.
Miguel Angel Lopez is making his grand tour debut here and he got it off to a very bad start to the mechanical in the team time trial. He will be keen to bounce back in this stage and it really suits him pretty well. Last year he won a punchy uphill sprint at the Vuelta a Burgos and he has the kick and can handle the very steep gradients. His form is a bit of an unknown as he has only done the Olympics as preparation but like Chaves he has the ability to get into peak conditions by training in Colombia.
Nairo Quintana is not suited to this finale but a win for the Colombian cannot be ruled out. After all, he is one of the best climbers here and if he has returned to 100% of his form, he can make a difference on such a steep climb. After all, he has often done well in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco which is loaded with these finishes. If he is really back at his highest level, Quintana could make his mark already on the third day.
Daniel Moreno is one of the biggest specialists in this kind of finish but he is mainly here to support his leaders. However, he may be given the chance to play his own card if Valverde is not up for the challenge. He can take away important bonus seconds from Quintana’s rivals and he has always been good in the Vuelta. Unfortunately, he hasn’t really been very good in 2016 and he still needs to prove that he has his former kick.
Samuel Sanchez was once a specialist in these finishes but he is no longer as explosive as he once was. However, he was still in the top at Fleche Wallonne and this year he has been riding better than he has done for years. He usually needs a few days to reach his best form but he is much fresher than his rivals in a race that has been his big goal all year.
Etixx-QuickStep are here with Gianluca Brambilla who is suited to this kind of explosive effort. The Italian is enjoying the best season of his career and has shown excellent form in the Vuelta a Burgos. He won’t be able to match the best on the long climbs but he can make a surprise in this kind of finish.
Caja Rural have a pair of explosive climbers in Pello Bilbao and Jose Goncalves. Last Goncalves was up there in these punchy finishes and he will definitely give it a try again. Bilbao is enjoying a bit of a breakthrough season and even though he hasn’t shown his best form lately, he is suited to this finish.
If a breakaway makes it, look out for riders like Philippe Gilbert, Dario Cataldo, Odd Christian Eiking, Fabio Felline, Rein Taaramae, Gialuca Brambilla, David de la Cruz , Dries Devenyns, Pello Bilbao, Angel Madrazo and Jose Goncalves who can attack both early and late in the stage.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Esteban Chaves
Other winner candidates: Chris Froome, Alejandro Valverde
Outsiders: Alberto Contador, Simon Yates, Miguel Angel Lopez, Nairo Quintana
Jokers: Daniel Moreno, Samuel Sanchez, Gianluca Brambilla, Pello Bilbao, Jose Goncalves
Candidates for an early or late breakaway: Philippe Gilbert, Dario Cataldo, Odd Christian Eiking, Fabio Felline, Rein Taaramae, Gialuca Brambilla, David de la Cruz , Dries Devenyns, Pello Bilbao, Angel Madrazo, Jose Goncalves
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