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Will an in-form Luis Leon Sanchez return to his winning ways on the famous Alto del Naranco?

Photo: Sirotti






27.08.2016 @ 18:21 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After three weeks of suffering in France, Nairo Quintana finally managed to put Chris Froome under pressure on a climb in a grand tour and the in-form Colombian now finds himself in pole position. However, there will be no room to rest on the laurels as the series of consecutive mountaintop finishes continues with a finale on the famous Alto del Naranco but the gentler slopes should make it less selective and the time gaps will be smaller on a day that is expected to be one for a breakaway.


The course

After the first tough GC battle, there will be no room to recover as the series of four consecutive summit finishes continues with another very hard day. On stage 9, the riders will return to the famous Alto del Naranco in the Asturias region, a climb which has been the finish of its own classic in the past and is an iconic mountain in Spain. It may not be the hardest climb of the race but history shows that it shouldn’t be underestimated and that it’s a day where important time can be gained.


The 164.5km stage will bring the riders from Cistierna to the top of Alto del Naranco on the outskirts of Oviedo and it can be split into two parts. Cistierna is located on the flat plateau in the interior of the country where the riders spent the previous stage. Hence, the first third of the stage is mainly flat but the riders will have a tough start as the first 5km are all uphill. All day, they will travel in a northwesterly direction, approaching the Asturian mountains just south of the coast.


The flat roads will come to an end at the 49km mark where the riders will hit the bottom of the category 2 Puerto de San Isidro (11km, 3%). From there, they will tackle the long descent that leads them down from the plateau and into the mountainous Asturian terrain near the coast. The descent ends when the riders hit the bottom of the category 3 Alto de Santo Emiliano (6.2km, 4.7%) at the 111km mark and from there, it is up or down almost all day. After the intermediate sprint at the 124.6km mark, it is time for the category 3 Alto de San Tirso (5.1km, 3.9%), an uncategorized climb and the category 3 Alto de la Manzaneda (3.5km, 6.9%) which come in quick succession.


The top of the latter challenge comes with 12.5km to go and then a short descent leads to the bottom of the final category 2 climb. Alto del Naranco averages 6.1% over 5.7km and is a fairly regular climb. The gradient stays between 5% and 7% almost all the time, with the final kilometre averaging 6%. It’s a winding road with a few hairpin turns. Inside, the final kilometre, there are four sharp turns, the final one coming just 290m from the line.


Alto del Naranco was last used by the Vuelta a Espana in 2013 when Joaquim Rodriguez made his classic acceleration in the finale to take a solo win, arriving with an 11-second advantage over Diego Ulissi, Daniel Moreno and Samuel Sanchez. Surprisingly, race leader Vincenzo Nibali suffered and he lost six seconds to rival Chris Horner who took over the race lead before going on to defend his position on the Angliru one day later. The ascent has hosted the finish of the one-day race Subida al Naranco which has come into financial difficulties and hasn't been run since 2010, with Santiago Perez being the most recent winner. Instead, the climb was a regular in the Vuelta a Asturias from 2011 to 2013 and Constantino Zaballa, Remy Di Gregorio and Javier Moreno all triumphed there.





The weather

The riders had often had rainy conditions in Asturias but this year it seems that they will be greeted by dry conditions. However, they will face markedly colder conditions on a cloudy day in Spain where the temperature will reach just 22 degrees.


Unlike today, there will only be a light wind which will come from a northerly direction. This means that they will have a cross-headwind or a headwind almost all day. They will briefly enjoy a tailwind on the Alto de San Tirso but it will be a headwind in the finale. On the final climb, the riders will turn into a cross-headwind with 3km to go and in the final kilometre, it will first be a headwind, then a crosswind and finally a tailwind on the short finishing straight.


The favourites

That was a hell of a comeback from Nairo Quintana! People had been questioning his explanation of illness as reason for his poor showing at the Tour de France but with today’s ride he has silenced his critics. Before the race, there were rumours from the Movistar camp that he was riding well but the team was very quiet and low-key in the build-up to the race. However, his strong showing on the explosive climb of Ezaro indicated that he was good and today he confirmed that he is back on track after his disappointing Tour.


The time gaps were surprisingly big between the best riders and he gained lots of time on Froome who is now 27 seconds behind the Colombian. Of course he needs more of a buffer before the time trial but with seven uphill finishes still to come, he has plenty of terrain to go on the attack. At the same time, Movistar again showed that they have the strongest team in the race and this must make Quintana confident that he can increase his advantage before the crucial individual test in the final week.


For Froome, it must be a big disappointment. It seemed like the Brit got carried away a bit. His pre-race plan was to time trial his way to the top and his plan has always been to ride defensively all the way to the TT. However, he must have felt good halfway up the climb and this prompted him to change his tactic. In the end, he paid the price and there is little doubt that he regrets his decision. The Brit rarely makes any tactical mistakes but this one was certainly one of them.


However, Froome is not out of the battle yet. Today’s stage has taught him to be more aware of the fact that he is not in Tour de France condition yet. However, everything will depend on his recovery. Usually, he doesn’t recover as well as Quintana who has the added benefit of not having done the Olympics. Froome expects to grow during the race but it could very well be the opposite outcome.


Alberto Contador’s comeback was equally remarkable and it seems that he spoke the truth when he wrote his poor performance in stage 3 down to hydration issues. He talked about the same kind of problems at last year’s Giro and it is a bit of a surprise that a veteran who is known for his attention to details can make these rookie mistakes repeatedly. However, he is now back in the battle for the overall win even though it is hard to see how he will take back almost two minutes on Quintana.


The big loser was of course Esteban Chaves. As we wrote yesterday, the Colombian did surprisingly poorly on stage 3 which suited him down to the ground. However, no one had expected him to lose this amount of time on a climb that also suited his characteristics. Usually, he has hit the ground running in grand tours and faded in the third week. This time he has clearly tried to arrive a bit shy of his best condition to be at his best in the final part. It remains to be seen whether this new strategy will pay dividends in the end.


Quintana is now in the lead and he immediately faces another solid test. Alto del Naranco is an iconic climb in Spain and it’s another chance for the GC riders to test each other. However, it is the easiest of the four consecutive summit finishes and this means that the GC riders will be keen to hold something back, especially with another two days coming up. It’s not really a climb for the likes of Contador, Quintana and Froome and is more for faster guys like Valverde.


This means that it should be a day for a breakaway. The final part of the stage is pretty hard and it takes a strong team to control things. Movistar may be tempted to go for the win with Valverde and they have the team to do so but with Quintana’s strong showing, they can afford to waste any energy. Quintana is unlikely to gain any time on Froome and as the Brit is faster in a sprint, he may even lose some time due to bonus seconds. Even if Valverde has a great chance, it is in their best interest to let the break decide the stage.


After his poor showing today, Esteban Chaves has no reason to ask his teammates to chase and Chris Froome won’t do so either as he won’t be the favourite on this kind of climb. Alberto Contador may be tempted but it’s not a good climb for him either and he will still be concerned by his injuries. Samuel Sanchez is riding on home soil and would love to win the stage but it will be very difficult. Furthermore, BMC have done a lot of work and will be keen to have an easier day.


We find it very unlikely that the break will be brought back and this will set the scene for a fast start. Today it was pretty obvious that the break would stay away so we were surprised that the group took off so early. Tomorrow they won’t make similar mistakes so we should have a very fast and aggressive start. The fist kilometres are uphill and this will make it very tough. Unfortunately, the next part is flat and this again turns it into a bit of a lottery to hit the right break. Just like today, there may not be any really good climbers in the break and this turns it into a very unpredictable an open affair. However, the start is harder so we should get a stronger break this time. If we get to the category 2 climb before the break has escaped, it will be a very strong group.


When the break has gone, Movistar will control things but we don’t expect them to do any chasing. Hence, the escapees should battle it out in the tough finale. For the GC riders, it will be important to be attentive in the tricky finale where there aren’t many flat roads and this will make things a bit faster as everybody want to be in a good position for the descents. However, they probably won’t attack before we get to the final climb. Here we should have a battle and especially Contador must be keen to try things. However, it will be a headwind and so it will be hard to make much of a difference. The best climbers are likely to arrive at the finish together.


With a breakaway win on the cards, we will put our money on Luis Leon Sanchez. The Spaniard 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 and he showed that he has rediscovered that killer instinct when he won a stage in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco.


In this race, Sanchez has been riding extremely well and everybody was impressed by his showing on stage 7. Simon Clarke who joined him in the late break was not too disappointed to have been caught close to the line as he said that he would never have beaten Sanchez anyway. He was also up there on stage 6 and tested himself in the sprint on stage 5. He is clearly hungry for success and with Lopez out of the race, he should get the freedom to go on the attack.


The flat start makes it difficult but Sanchez is one of the best on the flats so he will have a better chance than most to get into the right break. The climbs in the second suit him perfectly as they are short and never very steep. He likes the descent and is fast in an uphill sprint like the one he could face on the final climb. In this terrain, there aren’t many riders better than Sanchez and so the Spaniard is our stage winner pick.


Yesterday we already pointed to Ben Hermans but he opted to stay with Atapuma. Now he will have the freedom to attack and he will be keen to use his good form. Hehad 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 stage should suit him pretty well. Furthermore, he is very strong on the flats so he has a good chance to get into the break.


Hermans is pretty close to the best on GC but he is not a long-term danger for Movistar. In fact, they would love to get rid of the jersey and get some welcome help from BMC. Hence, they don’t have any reason to chase the Belgian down and if he going the right break, he will be one of the strongest.


His teammate Tejay van Garderen is here to go for stage wins and with Atapuma now out of the jersey, he will have the freedom to give it a go. On paper, he is the best climber among the non-GC riders and even though the climbs here aren’t that hard, he should still be able to make the difference. He was riding really well in the TTT so even though he has lost a lot of time, he is in pretty good form. He is good on the flats so he should be able to get into the breaks and then he is strong enough to finish it off.


If it comes down to a GC battle, Alejandro Valverde must be the favourite. He was close to the best in today’s hard finale and tomorrow’s climb suits him much better. With a headwind, it won’t be easy for the best to get rid of the Spaniard and if it comes down to a sprint, no one is going to beat him. As always, the big challenge will be to keep things under control but with the strong team Movistar have, it should be possible to set the Spaniard up for a sprint.


If one of the three big climbers – Froome, Contador and Quintana – is strong enough to make a difference, Froome is probably the man. The Brit suffered a bit in today’s stage but we doubt that he will be in difficult on these slopes. Among those three riders, he is the fastest in a sprint so if Valverde is not on a good day, it won’t be impossible for Froome to win this stage.


Nairo Quintana also has an outside chance. The Colombian was the best in today’s stage and the climb has its steepest section near the top. If he is feeling good and spotting any sign of weakness from Froome, he will try to gain more time. It won’t be easy on this kind of climb but with the superiority he showed today, it’s not impossible.


There’s also the chance that a rider can take the win with a gutsy late attack. That’s how Sergio Pardilla won the queen stage in Burgos and today he tried a similar tactic. If Movistar run out of manpower, he will definitely try again and with the form he has at the moment, it won’t be easy to bring him back.


It’s also a very good climb for Gianluca Brambilla and Adam Yates. Both are suffering a bit when it comes to matching the best on the long climbs but this one suits them well. Just like Pardilla, they will be looking for a chance to attack in the finale and if Movistar show the slightest sign of weakness, they have the punch to make the difference in the finale. Brambilla is even so fast that he may try to challenge Valverde in a sprint


IAM have Mathias Frank. The Swiss is not here for the GC and has his eyes firmly on a stage win. He is getting better and better after his illness and should just keep getting stronger throughout the race. He would obviously have preferred a harder stage but he is one of best climbers among the non-GC riders and looked pretty good on stage 6 where he was close to victory. His teammate Larry Warbasse is another very good candidate as he did really well in today’s stage. He is still searching for a new contract so he will be extremely motivated.


If Etixx-QuickStep are smart, they will try to send David de la Cruz in the break. As said, Movistar won’t dio much to keep the red jersey and so De La Cruz could very well find himself in red if he can join the right break. The Spaniard is constantly getting better and better and in this race he has reached a whole new level. He will probably be the best climber if he joins the right break.


We have been very impressed by Egor Silin in this race. The Katusha rider is very inconsistent but here he has been climbing excellently. At the same time, he has lost a lot of time so even if Movistar want to keep the jersey, he should get the freedom. He usually struggles a bit on the long climbs, but the terrain here suits him really. His teammate Alberto Losada has also been climbing excellently and he will be motivated after a mechanical took him out of the break on stage 6.


Omar Fraile, Thomas De Gendt and Alexandre Geniez all took it easy in today’s stage as they wanted to save energy for this stage which has more KOM points on offer. They have all proved to be in great form and are suited to this kind of stage. De Gendt is brutally strong and has the best chance to get into the break but the final climb may be a bit too hard for him. Fraile showed his good form on stage 6 but Geniez is the real climber and the one with the best chance to finish it off.


Finally, we will point to Jose Goncalves. The Portuguese bounced back from a poor performance in stage 6  when he looked poised to sprint for the win in stage 7. Unfortunately, he hit the deck but he didn’t suffer any major injuries. He is not a pure climber but this kind of terrain suits him down to the ground. He is strong on the flats, handles medium mountains well and excels in uphill sprints.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Luis Leon Sanchez (breakaway)

Other winner candidates: Ben Hermans, Tejay van Garderen (both from a breakaway)

Outsiders: Alejandro Valverde (sprint), Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Sergio Pardilla (late attack), Gianluca Brambilla (late attack), Adam Yates (late attack)

Jokers: Mathias Frank, David De La Cruz, Egor Silin, Alberto Losada, Omar Fraile, Thomas De Gendt, Alexandre Geniez, Jose Goncalves, Larry Warbasse (all from a breakaway)



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