Gianni Meersman and Etixx-QuickStep showed that they are the ones to beat in the sprints at the Vuelta a Espana and the strong Belgian may now have small hopes that he can take a third win on stage 6. However, a tough final half with barely a single metre of flat road means that it will almost be impossible to control and it seems to be the perfect day for another breakaway win.
In recent years, the sprinters haven’t had many opportunities in the Vuelta a Espana and when there has been a flat finale, it has very often been preceded by a solid amount of climbing. This has made the race a perfect event for strong sprinters and those riders could also find the sixth stage to their liking. However, a lumpy finale with barely any flat roads means that the classics riders will also have red-circled the sixth day as an opportunity as have the attackers who have already had lots of success in this race
The 163.2km stage wil bring the riders from Monforte de Lemos to Luintra. The first part consists of an 86.6km circuit on the southeastern outskirts of the starting city. Even though there are a few small hills, this opening section is largely flat.
Having returned to the starting city, the riders will travel south, going op an uncategorized climb before descending to the bottom of the main challenge. The category 2 climb of Alto Alenz averages 5.1% over 10.9km and the top comes with 47.3km to go. Just 1.9km from the summit, the riders will have the chance to go for bonus seconds in the intermediate sprint.
Having crested the summit the riders will descend to the bottom of a long uphill drag that averages 3.4% over 13.3km. The top comes with around 20km to go and then the riders will descend slightly until they get to the bottom of a small 1.8km climb with 5km to go. The climb averages around 5-6% and the top comes just before the 3km to go mark. One kilometre of flat roads then leads to a descent that ends at the flamme rouge. The last 300m are uphill at around 3.5%. The final 5km follow a winding road that ends with a sharp turn 900m from the finish. From there, the road is almost completely straight.
Luintra has not hosted the finish of a major bike race for more than a decade.
The riders had their first taste of rain in today’s stage and there is a chance that they will be riding on wet roads tomorrow too. It is likely to be a sunny start to the stage but there is a 50% chance of a thunderstorm late in the afternoon. It will be another hot day with a maximum temperature of 29 degrees.
Again there will barely be any wind, with just a light breeze blowing from the west and later from a northwesterly direction. This means that the riders will mainly have tailwind in the first part of the first circuit and headwind in the second part. They will have a cross-tailwind on the climb and a cross-headwind after the top. It will be the same in the finale.
Etixx-QuickStep again confirmed that they have one of the very best teams for the sprints here. The Belgian train and Giant-Alpecin – on paper the two best lead-outs in the race – were the only teams to have strength in numbers in a very chaotic finale and when Nikias Arndt was taken out by the crash, it was evident that Etixx would dominate the finale. This time it was Zdenek Stybar giving Meersman the perfect lead-out and the Belgian dutifully finished it off. He may not be the fastest sprinter here but the strength of the Etixx-QuickStep team allowed him to stay out of trouble and turn things completely around after a long drought that even put his career under threat.
It is not only a personal turnaround for Meersman. For Etixx-QuickStep, the situation is completely different from what they experienced in the Tour where their lead-out failed completely. In France, they never timed things to perfection but here – with a much less experienced train – they have done everything right. Of course the lack of big trains makes things much easier but it’s still a very impressive performance from the Belgians who just keep winning everywhere.
Meersman’s confidence is now huge and he will be hopeful that he can take a chance in the next two stages too. However, they are far less straightforward and it will be very hard to bring things back together for a sprint and for the sprinters to survive. However, there must be several motivated riders as the fast finishers have to wait more than a week for a potential chance if they miss out the next two days and it is even very likely that their next opportunity will come in the third week.
This makes tomorrow’s stage one of the most unpredictable of the entire race. It will be very hard to control and a breakaway has a huge chance. Late attacks on the final climb can also pay off but it could also come down to a reduced bunch sprint. If that’s the case, it is an open question which riders have survived and who’ll be strong enough to win on this kind of uphill finishing straight.
It is bit of a mystery that the long climb in the finale is not categorized and this makes it pretty hard to find out how difficult it is as there is no official information. However, the average gradient is only around 3% and as there won’t be a KOM sprint, it probably never gets very steep. It is very likely to be one of those long, grinding uphill drags that are very tiring and that Spain is loaded with. There is no official information about the final climb either but is should be around 1800m at 5-6%.
With that kind of puncheur climb so close to the finish, we doubt that the sprint teams believe in their chances. With no flat roads in the second half, it will be almost impossible to control and still have fresh sprinters in the end. There is a big chance that it will be a complete waste of energy to try to bring it back together an as the chances are better in stage 7, many will probably prefer to save some energy. This means that it is unlikely that the likes of Giant-Alpecin, Bora-Argon 18 and Etixx-QuickStep will control the stage.
Everybody knows that it is a perfect day for a breakaway and so we can expect a very fast start. It will probably take a long time for the break to be formed and we could very well get a big group. However, the first part is relatively flat so unlike on stage 4 where the strong climbers could simply ride away, it requires a lot of luck to hit the right break.
Unlike Movistar and Sky, BMC will do their utmost to defend the jersey so there won’t be any room for riders that are close on GC. The Americans have a very strong team here so they should be strong enough to make sure that the breakaway is not dangerous for the red jersey.
When the break has been formed, it will be interesting to see which teams will take control. As said, we don’t’ expect the sprinters to have much of a chance but it’s a great stage for Philippe Gilbert. Hence, BMC may actually try to control the stage for their Belgian puncheur but they also have to save some energy for the upcoming stages. Trek may also want to go for it with Fabio Felline but they spent a lot of energy today so they may prefer to go on the attack.
As we expect a pretty big group to go clear, we put our money on the breakaway to make it. However, BMC and Trek may be strong enough to bring it back and if so it will be a very uncontrollable finale. There will be attacks, especially on the final climb where some of the puncheurs can make a difference, and only the best will be left if it comes down to an uphill sprint.
Interestingly, most of the riders that can win this stage can do well in all scenarios. This is a stage for puncheurs who are powerful in the flat first part, strong enough to hang onto the climbs and finish it off in the punchy finale. Most of them can win in a lot of different ways and they have to decide what card to play. It won’t be easy to choose the right tactic but many will probably try to join the breaks and then take stock of the situation if they miss out.
One of the riders with a great chance here is Jose Goncalves. The Portuguese was so close to a stage win on numerous occasions in 2015 and now he really wants to get that elusive victory. At the Volta a Portugal, he showed that his form is good and he confirmed it with a great ride in the tough finale on stage 3 where he was one of the last riders to get dropped by Movistar.
Goncalves has all the skills to do well here. He is very strong on the flats so he has a decent chance of joining the right break and even though he is not a real climber, he is strong in this kind of terrain. He has the punch for the short climb in the finale but his greatest asset is his power in uphill sprint. He will go for the break but if it comes down to a sprint, he will be up there too. He is a better climber than some of the classics riders and this will give him an advantage in what will be a testing finale. Goncalves is our favourite to win the stage.
There is no doubt that this stage is a big goal for Philippe Gilbert. However, the Belgian may be a bit locked due to Atapuma’s red jersey and there are no guarantees that he will be allowed to attack. He may have to wait for a sprint but it is not impossible that he will be given the freedom to move earlier in the stage too.
The finale is tailor-made for Gilbert as he is strong on short climbs and excellent in an uphill sprint. However, his form has not been good recently and even though he is getting better, he doesn’t seem to be at the top of his game. Still he is one of the best riders in this kind of finish and as he can win from every scenario, he is clearly one of the favourites.
The same goes for Enrico Battaglin. The Italian was mainly here to work for Kruijswijk but now the Dutch team will be chasing stage wins. This opens the door for Battaglin who showed his good form with his sixth place yesterday. This stage is even better for him as the climbs are less hard. He may not be as strong as he was in the Giro but he is still very good. He can join the attacks and he will be one of the obvious favourites if it comes down to a sprint.
Zdenek Stybar was instrumental in setting Meersman up for the win in today’s stage and he has proved that he is good form. He was in the break yesterday but that finale was obviously too hard for him. The final 5km are tailor-made for his puncheur skills but the longer climbs in the finale are less ideal. That could leave him a bit empty if he gets into the right break. However, he is a master in this kind of finish and if he is still there in a break in the final 5km, he will be difficult to beat. Furthermore, his trademark attacks will be very dangerous if a bigger group arrives and he also has an outside chance in a sprint.
Fabio Felline is one of the fastest in an uphill sprint. However, he is going for the GC so he won’t have the room to go on the attack. He has to wait for a sprint and this will make it more complicated for him to win the stage. However, if things come back together, he will be one of the big, big favourites.
Alejandro Valverde saw an opportunity to go for bonus seconds today and if it comes down to a sprint, he will take his chance again. This finale is much harder and so suits him a lot better. In fact he is probably the best rider in this field for such an uphill sprint. Of course he won’t take too many risks but if he can mix it up without having to go crazy, he could very well win a sprint here.
Dimension Data have an in-form Nathan Haas who powered to victory in an uphill sprint on Vuelta a Burgos. This one is pretty similar and his fifth place yesterday on a stage that should have been too hard for him shows that he is in very good form. Like all the other puncheurs, he can win the stage in lots of different ways as he can be up there in a sprint and join a breakaway.
Astana have less GC hopes due to Miguel Angel Lopez’ crash and this opens the door for Luis Leon Sanchez to go for the win. After a few bad years, he has returned to his best level in 2016 and he has already won two races. This kind of hard stage with climbs that are not too steep and he is a master in joining the right breaks. He has shown good form in the last few stages. He can take his chance in a sprint but his best chance comes if he can get into the right break.
Simon Clarke launched a very strong attack in today’s stage and so proved that he is in really good form. The Australian has been a bit inconsistent but on his best days he is absolutely flying – just remember how well he rode at the Worlds in Florence. He is mainly here to protect Talansky but Cannondale have shown that they are also going for stage wins. This is a great chance for Clarke who can go for it both from a breakaway and a sprint.
The same goes for his teammate Patrick Bevin. The Kiwi is making his grand tour debut and finds himself in untested territory. However, this is a stage that suits him really well as he is a punchy climber with a very fast sprint. We are a bit uncertain about his form so he is definitely not a safe bet but on paper he can be up there in every possible scenario.
Gianni Meersman has huge confidence and when he is at his best, this stage is definitely manageable for him. If it comes back together for a sprint, he will definitely give it a shot. In fact, he prefers uphill sprints so the finishing straight is ideal for him. The question is whether the hard finale will have taken the stings out of his legs.
Kristian Sbaragli is probably the best climber of the sprinters but this is likely to be a bit too hard for him and he may have to work for Haas. However, on his best days, he has survived some very tough climbs and on paper, this should not be too hard for him. However, he would have had a better chance if it had been a flat sprint.
Thomas De Gendt is riding very aggressively and there is no doubt that he will try again on stage 6. He was clearly the strongest rider in the break on stage 4 but as usual he spent way too much energy. However, he showed that his form is good and he is one of the best riders to get into the right breakaway. These climbs that are not very steep are ideal for him and unlike yesterday, the finale is not too hard for him.
Dries Devenyns was absolutely flying in July but he no longer seems to be in the same form. However, this stage must be one of his big goals as it suits him pretty well. He is strong in this terrain and has a decent sprint. However, he is not fast enough to mix it up with the fastest riders so his only real chance to win is by joining the right break.
On paper, the stage is tailor-made for Pello Bilbao who is one of the best in an uphill sprint. The Spaniard was absolutely flying in the spring but unfortunately he has not been at his best since h abandoned the Tour of Turkey due to illness. He seems to be suffering in this race too and so we are not confident in his chances. However, he may just have saved energy and if that’s the case, he can attack or go for the sprint.
Finally, Simon Gerrans deserves a mention. This stage is ideal for him and he would usually be one of the favourites. However, he has just come back from injury and his form is not at its best. At the same time, his job is to keep Esteban Chaves safe so he may not even give it a shot in the sprint. He won’t be free to go on the attack but you can’t rule him out if it’s a sprint
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Jose Goncalves (sprint or breakaway)
Other winner candidates: Philippe Gilbert (sprint or breakaway), Enrick Battaglin (sprint or breakaway)
Outsiders: Zdenek Stybar (sprint or breakaway), Fabio Felline (sprint), Alejandro Valverde (sprint), Nathan Haas (sprint or breakaway)
Jokers: Luis Leon Sanchez (sprint or breakaway), Simon Clarke (sprint or breakaway), Gianni Meersman (sprint), Kristian Sbaragli (sprint), Patrick Bevin (sprint or breakaway), Thomas De Gendt (breakaway), Dries Devenyns (breakaway), Pello Bilbao (sprint or breakaway), Romain Hardy (sprint),, Simon Gerrans (sprint)
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