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As usual, the final time trial in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco will include some very difficult climbing

Photo: Tinkoff-Saxo / BettiniPhoto

ITZULIA BASQUE COUNTRY

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08.04.2016 @ 19:57 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Sergio Henao and Alberto Contador confirmed what they have proved since the start of the race: that they are the two best climbers in the race. Joaquim Rodriguez and Thibaut Pinot are also still within striking distance and so everything is set for a great four-rider battle in the final time trial which includes some extremely steep gradients just like the very unusual time trial that gave us a thrilling end to last year’s race.

 

The course

True to tradition, the race ends with a time trial around the city where the previous stage ended. It has often incorporated parts of the finale of stage 5 but this year things will be different. The riders will still climb to Sanctuary of Arrate but they will go up it from a harder side. Compared to recent time trials, it is the typical hilly and technical affair but with a distance of just 16.5km, it is shorter than usual. On the other hand, it’s the second year in a row with more climbing than usual and it includes some very steep sections, meaning that it a stage for climbers and not for time triallists.

 

The stage takes place on a short circuit on the northern outskirts of the start and finishing city of Eibar and there won’t be much time to find the rhythm. After 1.8 flat kilometres, the riders will have left Eibar and will start the climb immediately. The riders will reach the Sanctuary 3.5km later and then it’s uphill for another 900m.

 

At the 6.2km mark, the riders hit a slightly descending section which leads to the real descent after 8.3km of racing. From there it is downhill until the 12.5km mark where the powerful riders finally get a chance to make a difference. The final 4km consist of a flat loop on the western outskirts of Eibar which the riders will tackle before they head to the finish along flat roads.

 

The climb is simply brutal. The first kilometre averages 5.8% but from there all hell breaks loose. The second kilometre averages 15.4% and includes a section of 22%. The third kilometre is almost equally steep at 14.1% with 18% sections and then things finally get a bit easier, with the fourth kilometre averaging 8.9% before it levels out after the Sanctuary. The organizers have paved the road to use it for this stage.

 

As said, the Arrate climb has never been tackled from this side before. The most recent winners of the time trial are Tom Dumoulin (2015), Tony Martin (2014, 2013 and 2011), Samuel Sanchez (2012), Chris Horner (2010) and Alberto Contador (2008 and 2009). That list may be dominated by specialists but it doesn’t really reflect the fact that the Basque time trials are usually much better for climbers than the traditional TTs.

 

 

The weather

It has been a very rainy edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and there will be no chance to enjoy sunshine on the final day either. In the first part, there is a 75% chance of rain and even though it will drop to 50% towards the end, there is a big chance that the roads will be wet. The maximum temperature will be 11 degrees.

 

There will be a moderate wind from a northwesterly direction and it will abate a bit towards the end. Hence, there will be a headwind on the climb, a tailwind on the descent and a crosswind in the flat finale.

 

The favourites

The queen stage did more damage that we had expected and created the biggest selection it has done for several years but it again became apparent that it is impossible to create massive time gaps on the climb to Arrate. In the end, the four best climbers arrived almost in the same time and for that quartet, it almost remained status quo. However, the stage was very important as Simon Spilak, Rui Costa and Wilco Kelderman who could all have been dangerous in the time trial, are now out of contention for the overall win.

 

The big loser was of course Nairo Quintana. The Colombian was ill before the race and it has been evident right from the start that he is not at 100%. He seemed to be getting slightly better in stage 4 but today it became apparent that his condition never made him a real threat for the overall win. Movistar must definitely regret the loss of an in-form Ion Izagirre who was able to beat Sergio Henao at the GP Miguel Indurain and would have been one of the favourites for the time trial.

 

The 2016 course may have been harder than usual but we still end up with the same scenario. On the eve of the time trial, it is evident that the TT will be the single most decisive stage and the road stages have been more of an elimination race. This year four riders have survived the challenges and those four riders will decide the race on the final day. If Samuel Sanchez delivers one of his best time trials, the podium is within reach but the win will be decided between Sergio Henao, Alberto Contador, Thibaut Pinot and Joaquim Rodriguez.

 

The Basque time trials are known as extremely hilly and can’t be compared to the time trials that are used in most other races. The top of the classification is usually dominated by climbers and you can’t base too much on the usual TT pedigree of the riders. It will be the same in the 2016 edition of the final stage as it is a very tricky affair.

 

There may be a short, flat section at the end but don’t be fooled by this stage. This is definitely not a time trial for the specialists who are way too big for this kind of brutally steep ascent and unlike last year there is less flat terrain for them to make up for their time loss. On the profile, the climbs looks easy but it is a real wall like the ones that have been tackled several times in this race. There will be no need for a time trial bike in the first part but some may consider a bike change to get more aerodynamic for the more traditional second part. Like last year we could see punchy riders like Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao do better than usual and be close to victory.

 

It’s a tricky time trial to gauge. If it had just been about the steep climb, Sergio Henao would probably have been the strongest. However, there’s also a descent and a power section near the end where the bigger riders and specialists can make a difference. Hence, the stage definitely suits a very complete rider but due to the severe gradients of the climb, you have to be an excellent climber to win the stage. In that sense, it is similar to last year’s stage that was won by Tom Dumoulin who beat climbers Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao. Back then, it was a bit of a surprise that Dumoulin could win that kind of time trial but based on what we know now, it can’t be regarded as just the slightest bit of a shock.

 

The weather could become a factor. As the past few days have shown, you never know when the sun will be shining and when it will be raining. If some riders have wet roads while others have dry conditions, it will make a big difference. There is a biggest chance that the roads will be dry late in the stage and this may favour the late starters who will always have to battle a less strong wind. In any case, the final starters will have similar conditions and so it won’t impact the fight for the overall win.

 

Alberto Contador went into this race as the overall favourite and he has proved that he is very strong. He may not be the dominant figure like when he won this race in 2014 but he has still been the second best climber in this race. He has had a hard time following Sergio Henao on the short, steep climbs which is no surprise as the Colombian is much punchier than the Spaniard. On today’s longer climb, he was never in trouble and he is now in a great position for the time trial.

 

Contador has had mixed experiences in TT. He was one of the best in the world before his suspension but since his comeback it has been much harder for the versatile Spaniard. While he has done pretty poorly in flat TTs, he has been one of the very best on hilly courses. He would have won the TT at last year’s Giro if he had not had stronger wind than Kiryienka, he nearly beat Froome in the hilly Tour de France TT in 2013 and he almost beat Tony Martin when he last did a time trial in the Basque Country.

 

This makes this course great for Contador. It has the right mix of climbing and flats. He can gain time on the more powerful riders on the climb where he will be one of the fastest and he will put time into Henao in the final part. He is a good descender too, also on wet roads, and so he has the right mix of skills to win this time trial. He hasn’t won a time trial since his comeback but tomorrow he has his best chance yet. Contador is our favourite to win the stage.

 

When he won this race in 2012, Samuel Sanchez also won the time trial. He has always been very string in the Basque TTs which is no surprise at all. They are always very technical and include tricky descents and short, steep climbs, exactly the terrain that Sanchez likes. This year he seems to be back at his best level after a disappointing 2015 season and he has been riding great throughout the entire race. He already did a great time trial in Andalucia and back then he was not in the same form as he is now. This course suits him even better. Sanchez could very well win this stage, especially if the roads are wet.

 

Simon Spilak is not a TT specialist but he is one of the best on hilly courses. Last year he stepped up his level even more, finishing second in the TTs in both Romandie and Switzerland behind Tony Martin and Tom Dumoulin respectively. Last year he was probably the biggest favourite for the time trial here but he had a mechanical that took him out of contention. He is not in the same form this year but he is still riding at a solid level. The climb may be a bit too steep to suit him perfectly but it is still a great course for the Slovenian.

 

Thibaut Pinot has improved his TT skills massively and nowadays the discipline is one of his strengths. He has just won his first TT ever at the Criterium International and this course should suit him well. However, he seems to do better in short TTs and last year he arrived him in a similar position but delivered a disappointing TT over the longer distance here. The same happened in the Tour de Suisse. Furthermore, the descent will be a problem, especially if the road is wet. On the other hand, he seems to have taken another step since last year and it is definitely not impossible for him to win here.

 

If this had been a normal time trial, we would never mention Sergio Henao as one of the favourites. However, this time trial is very special and with an extremely steep climb, he should be able to do well. He did so last year as he was third and nearly took the overall win. It’s the third time that he starts the final TT as the race leader but until now he has always come up shirt. Unfortunately, he will probably lose too much time in the second part of the stage to defend the lead so even though we expect him to be among the best, it will probably be a third near-miss for him.

 

Rui Costa has never been good in the Basque Country but this year it has been different. The Portuguese is not suited to really steep climbs but he has been better than ever here. He suffered a bit in today’s stage which can be explained by a lingering leg injury and this could also hamper him in the time trial. He is no real specialist but he has done some excellent TTs on hilly courses in Switzerland. As his condition is outstanding, he will do well again here if he isn’t too bothered by his injury.

 

Among the favourites, Wilco Kelderman is the only real TT specialist. However, he would have preferred a flat course where he would have a bigger advantage compared to the lighter guys. In general, he has done some disappointing TTs on hilly courses while he has been better in flat races. On the other hand, he did a good TT in Andalusia and that was definitely not an easy course. He crashed in today’s stage and it remains to be seen how he has recovered. We doubt that he will win the stage but if he is not too hampered by his injury, he will be one of the best.

 

Lawson Craddock has long been regarded as a big stage race talent but he never really lived up to expectations at Giant-Alpecin. Now he is enjoying a breakthrough season. He was great in Criterium International and he is even better here. He is a versatile rider that can both climb and time trial so he should be able to do really well here.

 

Usually, we would never mention Sebastien Reichenbach for a time trial but like the rest of the FDJ team he has improved massively. He did a fantastic TT in Tirreno on a flat course and he should find this one much more to his liking. He still needs to prove that the Italian result was no fluke but he could deliver another surprise.

 

Fabio Felline developed into a bit of a TT specialist in 2015. He did some very good TTs in Besseges, Criterium International, Pais Vasco and the Giro. He has been set back by illness so he has not been at the same level in 2016 but in this race he has been getting closer to his best level. He is not a climber but he can do well on a short, steep ascent and this mixed course suits him really well.

 

Dario Cataldo has been one of the most aggressive riders in this race and he is clearly in great form. The Italian is also a good time triallist on hilly courses and he should find this one to his liking. He hasn’t done his best TTs since joining Astana but he seems to be better than he has been for some time.

 

Jesus Herrada has been working as a domestique so it is hard to know whether he is still in the same great condition that he showed in the beginning of the year. If he is, he will be very strong in this time trial. He has always been a good time triallist but this year he has improved which he showed in Paris-Nice where he did an excellent prologue. He should find the mixed course to his liking even though the climb is probably too steep for him.

 

The same goes for Luis Leon Sanchez. The Spaniard is back at his best level and he is one of the best time triallists in this race. He should find the mixed course to his liking, especially the second part where he can make a big difference. However, the climb is too steep for him to be a real winner candidate.

 

Finally, Jurgen Van den Broeck deserves a mention. While he is no longer the climber he once was, he has suddenly become a TT specialist. He did several great TTs last spring but failed to deliver the same results in the autumn. He still needs to confirm his potential but if he can, this course is one for him to do so.

 

CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Alberto Contador

Other winner candidates: Samuel Sanchez, Simon Spilak

Outsiders: Thibaut Pinot, Sergio Henao, Rui Costa, Wilco Kelderman

Jokers: Lawson Craddock, Sebastien Reichenbach, Fabio Felline, Dario Cataldo, Jesus Herrada, Luis Leon Sanchez, Jurgen Van den Broeck

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