After three days in survival mode, it is finally time for the GC riders to show their real cards in this year’s Vuelta a Espana. The next four stages all have uphill finishes and form the most important block of the race. It all starts with an anticipated return to the climb of Le Camperona whose brutally steep slopes turn it into one of the hardest challenge in this year’s edition of the Spanish grand tour.
One of the regular features in recent editions of the Vuelta a Espana, is the triptych of consecutive summit finishes in the Cantabria and Asturias regions. Very often the three key stages have come in succession on the penultimate weekend but this year the organizers have changed the layout a bit. In an unprecedented move, Unipublic have added an extra uphill finish to make it four big GC days in a row and this year the start in Galicia means that this key block comes earlier than usual. It all kicks off after just one week of racing when the riders return to the brutally steep climb of La Camperona which made its debut in 2014 and is one of those walls that characterize the Spanish grand tour.
At 181.5km, stage 8 is a bit longer than most of the Vuelta stages and it will bring the riders from Villalpando to the summit finish on La Camperona in Valle de Sabero. Most of the day, there will be nothing to suggest that this is a day for the GC riders. The starting city is located in a completely flat part of the country and the riders will be travelling along flat road almost all day. Having travelled in a westerly direction for the first 30km to, the riders will head north for the rest of day, following long, straight, flat and potentially exposed roads.
The terrain and nature of the stage won’t change until the riders get to the very end. In the city of Sabero with 8.5km to go, they will contest the intermediate sprint and this is the signal for things to change completely. The final 8.5km of the stage go up the Alto de la Camperona, a category 1 climb that averages 7.4%. However, the average gradient is deceptive. In the first 5km, there is just a very short, steep 25% section. Otherwise the gradient stays at 1-3%. However, then the nature of the climb changes completely. In the final 3.5km, it stays between 8% and 22% and almost all the time, the riders face double-digit gradients. The winding road doesn’t have many sharp turns and the final kilometre follows an almost completely straight road. Here the gradient is between 9% and 20%, with the steepest part coming just after the flamme rouge.
The climb made its debut in 2014 when Ryders Hesjedal emerged as the strongest from a big breakaway, passing Oliver Zaugg with a great comeback inside the final kilometre. Further down the climb, the GC riders battled it out and it was Chris Froome who made a bit of a comeback after a bad start to the race. The Brit was the best of the overall contenders, putting one second into Joaquim Rodriguez and seven seconds into overall leader Alberto Contador. The GC group split to pieces, with just five riders finishing within a minute of Froome.
There will be no chance to escape the Spanish heat on Saturday which forecasted to be another sunny day. The maximum temperature at the bottom of the final climb will be 29 degrees and there is no chance of rain.
However, there will still be a change as the conditions will be windier than it has been in the first week. There will be a moderate wind from a southwesterly direction which means that the riders will have a cross-headwind in the first 30km and then a tailwind for the rest of the day. There will be a short cross-headwind section on the lower slopes of the climb but it will be a tailwind in the steep part.
Stage 7 turned out to be just as exciting and hard as expected and it would have been a just reward if Luis Leon Sanchez had finished it off. Astana bounced back from their bad start to the race by showing determination and mental strength and they really took the race on in the most beautiful manner. Before the race, Michele Scarponi told that their Spanish star is in top form and he truly showed that he has finally returned to his best level. He was once known as the greatest stage hunter in grand tours but after the Belkin affair, he failed to find his best legs. This year he has been flying ever since he rode everybody off his wheel on the first uphill finish in Algarve. With Lopez out of the race, he should get the freedom to finally return to his winning ways later in the race.
At the same time, it was a remarkable performance by Jonas Van Genechten. Ever since it was announced that the team will fold, IAM have been absolutely flying and now they have won stages in all the grand tours. At the same time, it’s a return to form for the Belgian who showed much promise in his final year at Lotto. He failed to confirm that at IAM but today he showed that he is a bit of a specialist in uphill sprints. He has won this kind of stages in smaller races in the past and he has the potential to develop into a real contender for these difficult finales. However, first he needs to find a team for the 2017 season.
For the GC riders, it was another day of staying safe and as the late crash showed, it can be a difficult affair. It is hard to believe the amount of bad luck that Alberto Contador has had this year. With his previous time losses, it already seemed to be difficult to go for the win and now it seems to be almost impossible. The crash came one the eve of the first of four consecutive mountain stages and so couldn’t have happened at a worse time.
The last two stages may not have created any gaps among the overall contenders but they have still been extremely hard. Yesterday was brutal and today Astana really made things tough in the final 40km. That will have a big impact on the next three big stages as the riders will have done 10 consecutive days of racing before they get to the first rest day. We are already close to the end of a long season so this will be a game of recovery and fatigue more than good legs.
It’s a bit of a gamle by the organizers to have four consecutive summit finishes at this early point in the race. The second half is gruelling too but there is a chance that big time gaps will have opened when we get to the top of Pena Cabarga on Wednesday. Only the Naranco stage is not very but Le Camperona and Lagos de Covadonga are among the hardest climbs in the race. Pena Cabarga is also hard but as it is relatively short, time gaps are usually not too big.
First up is Le Camperona. The real climb is only 3km long so it is pretty short. However, the gradients are so steep that it will be every man for himself as soon as they hit the tough gradients. As the 2014 stage, big time gaps can be created over this relatively short distance and so it is the first big test for the GC. Stage 4 ended as a ceasefire and stage 3 was for puncheurs. Tomorrow will give us the real indication of who’s on form for the race.
However, the GC riders are unlikely to be in the mix for the stage win. It’s the first of four big days so everybody wants to conserve as much energy as possible. Esteban Chaves and Chris Froome have all made it very clear that it’s about riding conservatively at this point and so it is very doubtful that they will do anything to bring the early break back. Sky also lost Kwiatkowski in today’s stage so they are even short on manpower. Alberto Contador is uncertain about his form and the crash hasn’t made it any easier. Hence, Tinkoff will be in a defensive mode. Movistar also know that the final climb is not ideal for Nairo Quintana and they are always riding defensively on the first day of a big mountain block.
That leaves it to BMC to shut the break down. There is only a very slim chance for Darwin Atapuma to retain the lead but of course they need to give it a shot. Hence, they will close down any dangerous move in the opening phase but with this kind of easy start, that won’t be too difficult. They will be strong enough to make sure that none of the escapees are close on GC and then they will be very happy to see the break take away the bonus seconds.
Many know that this is a good stage for a breakaway so it should be another fast and aggressive start. However, the first part is completely flat and this turns it into a complete lottery. It takes a lot of luck to hit the right break and the climbers who can finish it off on this kind of ascent are disadvantaged. This makes it very hard to predict the winner of this kind of stage. You need to be a very good climber to win but it’s very hard to get into the right break.
As said, the tactical situation means that the break is very likely to stay away. There is a small chance that Movistar or Orica-BikeExchange will try to bring it back but unless there is a dangerous rider in the break, we expect them to make it to the finish and battle it out for the win. The first part is exposed and so the wind could have complicated things. However, it will be a tailwind and so the group is very unlikely to split. There will be some tension and nervousness on the exposed roads but nothing should happen before we get to the climb.
With the break likely to make it, we will put our money on Joe Dombrowski. The American is one of the best climbers in this race and had a real breakthrough ride at the Giro d’Italia. He was so close to a stage win on numerous occasions and he would love to make up for his many near-misses here.
Dombrowski failed to defend his title in Utah but in the final stage he was maybe the strongest rider. Hence, his form should be pretty good and even though he didn’t shine in the first uphill finishes, he can’t be going too bad. The final climb is really good for a pure climber like him and the key challenge will be to hit the break. However, Cannondale have a strong team and must be motivated to have their American in the right escape. The flat section is definitely not ideal but with a strong team at his side, he may be good enough to be there. If he’s in the break, we doubt that anyone can beat him.
Another great candidate is Ben Hermans. BMC have the leader’s jersey but they now that it will be difficult for Atapuma to defend it. The best defence is to ride aggressively so why not put Ben Hermans in the break? He is up there on GC but he is no long-term danger so the big teams won’t be concerned. In fact, Froome would love not to get the red jersey too early.
Hermans had a difficult start to the year but now he is flying. He was very strong on stage 6 where he attacked in the finale and he almost matched Contador on the queen stage in Burgos. He will suffer on the longer climbs but this one should suit him pretty well. Furthermore, he is very strong on the flats so he has a good chance to get into the break.
Alexandre Geniez has already won a stage but there is no reason he can’t do it again. The Frenchman has had a difficult start to the year but now he is getting into form. He won the final stage in Ain and won on Mirador del Ezaro and he will only get better and better. He is actually pretty good on the flats and FDJ must be motivated to help him get into the break. He is a good climber so if he gets into the right break, he could very well be the strongest.
If it comes down to a battle between the favourites, Chris Froome is the man to beat. The Brit was very strong on this climb when they last did it in 2014 and this is no surprise. On these very steep climb, it is important to gauge your effort and this is what Froome does better than anybody else. Every year at the Vuelta he gets dropped early on these climbs and then just time trials his way back. That’s like to happen again tomorrow when Movistar up the pace on the lower slopes. Froome is likely to lose ground but he will probably be back before we get to the top.
In fact, Froome’s best performances in the Vuelta have always come on short, steep climbs. He looked very strong on stage 3 which suited him less. He doesn’t seem to be fatigued and even expects to improve throughout the race. As the best climber will win here, Froome should come out on top.
His two big rivals will be Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves. The Movistar captain was the big question mark at the beginning of the race but on Ezaro he showed that he is not too bad. He did really well on a climb that was way too short for him and he should be a lot more comfortable on this longer climb. On paper, he is the only rider who can potentially match an in-form Chris Froome on such a tough climb and he seems to have the form to pose a real threat for the Brit.
Esteban Chaves has usually been flying in the first week of grand tours but this time he seems to have a quieter start. He has always faded in the third week and he seems to be a bit off his best at the moment. However, that may mean that he will only get better and so he may be able to improve on his performance on Ezaro. That climb suited him really well as he is more explosive than Froome and Quintana but he seemed to suffer a bit in the finale. This climb suits him less compared to his two big rivals but it is still a good one for the punchy Colombian. He has proved that he is one of the three best climbers here and a win on this stage is definitely possible.
We can’t really imagine that one of these three riders won’t win if it’s a battle between the favourites so the rest of our picks will be breakaway riders. Mathias Frank was already close on stage 6 and seems to be getting closer to his best after his illness from the Tour. His main goal is to win a stage and he will be motivated to give it a short. He is more than four minutes behind so it’s on the limit whether he will be given the freedom but if he joins the right move, he should be one of the best climbers.
Kristijan Durasek has always been very inconsistent but since the Tour he has been riding well. He was absolutely flying in the third week of the French race and at the Olympics he was good too. In this race, he doesn’t seem to be too bad either and he should find the steep final climb to his liking. On paper, the flat start doesn’t suit him but he has shown that he is very good at hitting the right break when he’s on form.
Astana have two great cards to play. Andrey Zeits is in the form of his life as he proved in Rio and in this race he has already been in the break twice. The Kazakh team will be motivated to have a rider in the break and their Kazakh fighter will definitely give it a shot. At the moment, he has the form to win this kind of stage.
The same goes for Dario Cataldo who won on a very steep climb a few years ago. After a slow start, he showed good form in today’s stage and unlike many of the climbers he has the power on the flats to make it into the right break. At the same time, he is a master in gauging his efforts which is very important on such a difficult climb.
Cannondale have more cards to play. Pierre Rolland is obviously not in his best form but he expects to get stronger and stronger. In stage 4, he was far from 100% but he was still up there. The final climb is not ideal for him but if he is in the break, there’s still a big chance that he will be the best climber.
Finally, we will point to the Caja Rural trio of Hugh Carthy, Jaime Roson and Jose Goncalves. The former two are among the biggest climbing talents and should show themselves in this race. The flat start is not ideal but if they get into the right break, they are climbing well enough to win. On paper, Carthy is the best but he has been suffering a bit in this race. However, it is hard to know whether he has just been conserving energy for the stages that really suit him. Goncalves is extremely strong on the flats and so has a big chance to make it into the break. He is good on the very steep stuff but he is not a real climber so the final climb could be a bit too hard for him. Furthermore, he crashed today so it remains to be seen how he has recovered.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Joe Dombrowski (breakaway)
Other winner candidates: Ben Hermans, Alexandre Geniez (both from a breakaway)
Outsiders: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves
Jokers: Mathias Frank, Kristijan Durasek, Andrey Zeits, Dario Cataldo, Pierre Rolland, Hugh Carthy, Jose Goncalves, Jaime Roson (all from a breakaway)
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