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Starting at 15.00 CEST you can follow the second Pyrenean stage of the Vuelta on CyclingQuotes.com/live

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08.09.2013 @ 14:55 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

An epic day of racing produced a major shake-up of the GC and the frozen riders will be unhappy to realize that they have to go through it all again tomorrow. The race's longest stage takes the riders up four major Pyrenean mountains and finishes on French soil with a finish in Peyragudes where Alejandro Valverde won a Tour de France stage last year. Another epic stage is in store on a day where the difficult weather conditions may once again turn the GC on its head. Starting at 15.00 CEST you can follow the stage on CyclingQuotes.com/live.

 

The course

There will be no time to rest as the race continues with a very hard stage that takes the riders into France and up some well-known Tour de France climbs. For the second day in a row, Alejandro Valverde will get the chance to contest a stage finish where he won a grand tour stage during the 2012 season. At 224,9km, the stage is unusually long for the Vuelta and it is a classic mountain stage with 4 mighty climbs.

 

The race should get off to an attacking, uncontrollable and tactical beginning as the riders head up the category 1 Puerto del Canto (24,4km, 4,2%, max. 10%) just 7km from the start. The first 5km are rather steep with 7-10% gradients but from then on, the climb is gentle, rising at 3-4% for most of the time. The descent is followed by 30,1km of slightly ascending valley roads which lead to the bottom of the category 1 Puerto de la Bonaigua (20km, 5,5%, max. 12,5%). This is a tougher climb than Puerto del Canto and has a rather constant 6% gradient, only disrupted by a short descent and a steep 12,5% ramp at the 7km mark.

 

A long gradual 66,8km descent takes the riders into France and to the bottom of the famous category 1 Port de Bales (19,2km, 6,2%, max. 10,5%). Being the climb on which Andy Schleck lost his chain in the 2010 Tour de France, the mountain plays an important role in the newer Tour de France history. The first 8km are rather easy but from there the gradient only occasionally drops below the 8% mark. From the top 24,5km remain and they are all either up- or downhill, finishing with a climb that is a real Tour de France classic.

 

The category 1 Col de Peyresourde is one of the most visited by the French grand tour but as the riders did in the Tour last year, they won't finish with a long descent from the top. Instead, they will head down a short 2km downhill section which leads to the final 4,5km ramp up to the finish in Peyragudes. The combination of those ascents is a category 1 climb (16,7km, 4,7%, max. 13,33%). The Peyresourde is a tough climb with a slightly irregular start and a rather constant 7-8% gradient in the second half. The final ramp to the finish gradually gets steeper before reaching its maximum at 11,67%. The final 1,5km are, however, mostly flat with some small up- and downhill sections.

 

The riders face several hairpin bends just before the flamme rouge but the final kilometre is mostly straight with just a sharp right-hand turn 400m from the line. It is rolling with several up- and downhill sections but the final 110m are uphill with a 1-3% gradient.

 

The weather

The weather was the main talking point on today's stage and it will be so again tomorrow. At the start in Andorra, the temperature will hover around the 10-degree mark on what will be a misty day with light rain falling. It will of course be much colder on the top of the climbs and even though they will not get into the same heights as they did today, it will be very difficult to stay warm on the descents.

 

As the day goes on, conditions will deteriorate with the rain intensifying and the temperatures staying relatively constant around the 10-degree mark in the valley. However, things will improve for Monday's stage and the shift in weather conditions is expected to happen late in the afternoon. The riders may finish the stage in dry weather.

 

The only positive will be the fact that there will be almost no wind. The light wind will be from a southern direction in Andorra but as they get closer to the finish, it will have turned around and come from the opposite direction. This means that the riders will mostly have either a tail- or crosswind throughout the day with a tailwind expected for the climb up Port de Bales and a crosswind for the Col du Peyresourde.

 

The favourites

Daniele Ratto may not be your usual sprinter but few would have bet on the fast finisher winning on Collada de la Gallina. However, cold weather often produces the most unexpected outcomes and turns the usual climbing hierarchy on the head when the skinny climbers struggle to just stay warm. Just recall how Maxim Belkov rode away from a host of climbers on the Florence stage in the Giro and how a group of fast finishers almost took the win on the Jafferau a couple of days later.

 

Tomorrow's stage was always hard to predict but with more bad weather forecasted, it will only be even more difficult. On paper, such a long, hard stage is perfectly suited to a breakaway as it takes a massive effort to keep things under control on such a long, hard day in the saddle. On the other hand, Alejandro Valverde made it clear during his pre-race press conference that his big dream was to repeat last year's win in Peyragudes.

 

Prior to today's drama, we would have expected Movistar to set Valverde up for a win in a finish that suits him perfectly. However, the Spaniard had a very difficult stage today when he struggled with the cold and he will be more concerned with a potential repeat than the prospect of a stage win. In the current situation, we doubt that he will ask his team to use a massive amount of energy to chase down a strong breakaway when he is not totally comfortable that he can finish it off.

 

It is hard to see any other team with a genuine interest in controlling things. Astana showed today that they don't care much, probably hoping that Nibali will win his stage on Angliru later on. Katusha tried to keep things together today but failed in their quest and Joaquim Rodriguez was unable to keep up with the race favourites in the finale. The Russian team is likely to take a back seat tomorrow.

 

This leaves Radioshack to do the work but the American team is more concerned with the GC, having already three stage wins in their pocket. They may apply the pressure on some of the climbs but are unlikely to target the stage win.

 

At the same time, it will be almost impossible to keep things under control. The difficult start means that a big group of strong climbers is likely to get clear and from then on, it will be a gradual elimination race until the winner emerges in Peyragudes. The peloton won't take any risks on the descents while the escapees are likely to be a little more careless. Astana faces a difficult task on the first climb to make sure that no dangerous rider gets clear but when the break is established, they won't be too concerned. It's hard to imagine the stage not being won by an escapee tomorrow.

 

The hard start means that you won't get into the break if you aren't a solid climber and this makes it easier to predict who's going to make it. From then, things become much more unpredictable as the weather conditions may change the usual climbing hierarchy among the escapees.

 

Euskaltel hasn't won a stage yet but they have one of the strongest teams of climbers in the race. Team captain Samuel Sanchez won't be allowed any leeway but their competitors won't be too concerned, should any of their other riders get up the road. The team showed aggression today and there is little doubt that they have red-circled tomorrow's stage as a perfect chance to shine in their preferred battleground in the Pyrenees.

 

Tomorrow's stage will be up against the Angliru stage when it comes to awarding the status as the race's queen stage and Euskaltel has the "master of their queen stages" in their ranks. Mikel Nieve burst onto the scene when he won the queen stage to Alto del Cotobello in the 2010 Vuelta a Espana and he repeated the feat in the 2011 Giro d'Italia. That stage was another long one held in cold, rainy conditions and it evolved into a brutal survival battle. Nieve would love to repeat that performance in similar weather tomorrow.

 

As a Basque, he is used to the cold and rain and won't be too bothered by the hard conditions. He had a difficult 2012 season but found his best legs for this year's Tour de France where he emerged as one of the best climbers of the race, finishing 3rd on the Mount Ventoux. He didn't manage to finish off one of his trademark long-distance attacks in the mountains but will try to do so tomorrow. Despite having had a long season, he still appears to be rather fresh and finished 12th on today's stage. Having had a bad day earlier in the race, he is 11.50 behind Nibali on GC and so Astana won't be too concerned, should he get into the break. Tomorrow may be the day when Nieve once again conquers a queen stage.

 

Should he fail in his quest, his team has another genuine winner candidate. Igor Anton has had a terrible season and has been unable to find his best legs for the entire year. Having had a similarly bad start to the Vuelta, he has finally returned to his best and has been one of the strongest climbers in this year's race. He may have suffered a bit in the cold today as he didn't appear to be as strong as he has been recently but he still managed to finish 17th. There is no doubt that Euskaltel will go out with all guns blazing and their dream scenario would be to have both Nieve and Anton in the day's break.

 

Sergio Henao had big hopes for this Vuelta but it all came to nothing when he forgot to eat on stage 2. Since then he has tried to make amends but he clearly hasn't got the legs that has marked him out as one of the biggest stage race talents in the world. Nonetheless, he still hopes to win a stage in this race as he confirmed to Biciciclismo earlier this week. Sitting in 19th on GC, he is no longer any danger but may see a long-distance breakaway as an opportunity to get closer to the top 10. There is little doubt that he has a big attack planned at some point in the race and tomorrow could be his day. He handles the cold well as he proved in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco where he was the strongest climber of the race.

 

Euskaltel even has a third winner candidate tomorrow. Young Mikel Landa has failed to rediscover the legs that allowed him to win the queen stage of the 2011 Vuelta a Burgos but in the Clasica San Sebastian and the Vuelta a Burgos, he finally started to show some signs of life. We had big expectations for him in this race but he had a really bad start. Now he appears to be improving and he did a good race yesterday on the Alto del Rat Penat. His standout performance was, however, his 9th place on today's stage. Like Nieve and Anton, he is likely to get into tomorrow's break and with three genuine winner candidates, Euskaltel has a good shot at tomorrow's victory.

 

Yesterday we pointed to Jose Herrada as our joker but as we expect a breakaway to make it tomorrow, he is now more than a joker. The Movistar rider has been riding impressively throughout the entire race and did so again today when he helped Valverde save his podium dreams by leading him onto the final climb. Movistar will try to put a rider into tomorrow's break as Valverde could need assistance later in the stage and with a difficult start, their best climbing domestique could be the man to make it. Currently, that honour goes to Herrada and we wouldn't be surprised to see the talented Spaniard as a crucial part of tomorrow's action.

 

Robert Kiserlovski was really strong in the start of the Giro but faded towards the end. This time it appears to be the opposite scenario as the Croatian struggled through the early part of the race. However, he is now one of the best climbers in the race as he proved yesterday when he brought back Rodriguez and Nicolas Roche on the Alto del Rat Penat and as he did again today when his hard tempo on the final climb could only be matched by Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali. Horner may want to have him at his side in the race finale and so he could be asked to sacrifice his own chances but if he is allowed to chase personal success, it would be a good idea to look out for the Croatian champion's jersey.

 

Our joker pick may be a bit controversial but we'll give it a shot. Personal problems forced Carlos Betancur to make a late change to his plans, skipping his GC ambitions to focus on stage wins. He started the race short of condition but has gradually improved and hopes to shine in the final week. Until today, he hadn't shown any signs of life but today he made his best performance yet. He is still far from the best but he will only get better from now on. He proved in the Giro that he doesn't mind the cold conditions and tomorrow's stage could suit him well. It may come a little bit too early but tomorrow could be the day when Betancur makes his first mark on the race.

 

Despite the presence of a breakaway, we will of course see a fierce GC battle which deserves a mention. As we predicted yesterday, Nibali and Horner are the strongest climbers in this race and there is little doubt that Horner will try to attack again tomorrow. However, today Nibali seemed to have everything under control and was never under pressure. On the other hand, Horner was clearly on his limit.

 

Those two riders could very well ride away from their rivals again tomorrow but once again we expect Nibali to race conservatively. He has a comfortable lead and wants to win this race without going too deep as he also targets the world championships. Tomorrow's finish even contains a number of tricky and wet descents and there is no reason for him to take any risks at all. We expect him to follow the second best climber all the way to the line and that is likely to be Horner.

 

Valverde suffered in the cold today but did an amazing job to limit his losses. At the moment, he appears to be the third strongest in the race but he is not at the level of Horner and Nibali. Knowing that it will be hard to win the race, he will mostly focus on Rodriguez, Pinot and Pozzovivo tomorrow. Rodriguez almost admitted defeat today and he is now focused on the podium. The Katusha captain and Valverde are almost equally matched and we expect them to finish close to each other again. Pinot and Pozzovivo are not too far behind and did surprisingly well in today's cold conditions.

 

Finally, Samuel Sanchez deserves a mention. As usual, the Spaniard is far from the best at the start of grand tour but improves as the race goes on. That's what happened in the Giro and that's what's about to happen again. Like in the Giro, he has already lost too much time to target the podium but look out for the Euskaltel leader in the final week of the race.

 

CyclingQuotes' stage winner pick: Mikel Nieve

Other winner candidates: Igor Anton, Sergio Henao

Outsiders: Mikel Landa, Jose Herrada, Robert Kiserlovski

Joker: Carlos Betancur

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