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Starting at 15.15 CEST you can follow the queen stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco on





09.04.2015 @ 15:10 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao dealt their rivals a huge blow in the first big GC stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but they all need to gain more time before the final time trial. They will get a chance to do in tomorrow’s queen stage whose longer climb offers a different kind of climbing and should suit the pure climbers more than today’s explosive finale.


The course

The fourth day is the day of the race's traditional queen stage. For many years, the finish with the Alto de Arrate and the short downhill run to the line featured in the queen stage of the Euskal Bizikleta but when that race disappeared, the organizers agreed with the Vuelta al Pais Vasco organizers to incorporate that stage into the biggest Basque race. Since then it has always featured as the end of the race's queen stage and in 2015 it will be no different.


While the finale is unchanged from year to year, the early part of the stage varies a bit. This year the stage has a length of just 162km and starts in Zumarraga. That city is located very close to the finish in Eibar and the first part of the stage consists of a sinuous system of loops in the hilly area west of those two cities.


After a rather flat start, the hostilities start after 36.7km of racing when the riders hit the category 2 Alto de Asentzio (2.7km, 8.33%) which has a rather steep middle section. The descent is followed by a flat section that leads to the bottom of the category 2 Alto de Karabieta (5.8km, 6.81%) which is a very regular ascent.


After the descent, the riders travel along slightly rolling roads back to Eibar where they start another loop around the city. It kicks off with the hardest climb of the day, the category 1 Alto de Ixua (3.8km, 10.39%). It's a very tough one with a very steep final part and features on the course every year. This time, however, it comes pretty far from the finish as there are still 64.2km to go.


Instead of heading to the finish in Eibar, the riders travel along a short flat section to a tricky series of three climbs that come in quick succession. First it is the category 3 Alto de Gontzagaigana (5.9km, 4.24%) which is a relatively easy climb that gets steeper and steeper. The top comes with 43.8km to go and after the descent it is time for the category 3 Alto de Santa Eufemia (3.9km, 6.92%) which is a very regular climb and summits with 31.7km to go. Finally the riders take on the category 2 Alto de San Miguel (4.6km, 5.54%) which is a rather easy climb until it hits the final 600m which average 10.83%.


From the top 19.6km remain and they start with a fast descent that leads to a short stretch of gradually ascending valley roads that go back to Eibar. Now it is time to head up the famous category 1 Alto de Arrate (7.3km, 6.71%) which is located on the northern outskirts of the city. It's a very regular affair as the first 6km have a gradient of 7.5% but then the road flattens out with a gradient of just around 3% for the final 1.3km.


The KOM sprint comes with 2.2km to go but the road will be ascending until the riders reach the flamme rouge. The riders will all know the final section well as it features at the race every year. It is a fast technical downhill where there is no time for regrouping and the time differences are usually maintained all the way to the finish. It's a technical affair that has several turns inside the final kilometre. The final right-hand bend comes just 100m from the line and history proves that the winner is the one who enters it in first position.


 The stage debuted in the race in 2009 when Alberto Contador rode to a solo win 8 seconds ahead of Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez but since then it has been Sanchez' domain. The local hero won it thrice in a row from 2010 to 2012, arriving at the finish as part of a trio twice and with an 11-rider group once. The technical descent has suited him perfectly and he has always known how to time his sprint ahead of the final corner to come away in the win. In 2013 he was finally beaten when he failed to make it into the 7-rider lead group and this time it was Nairo Quintana who excelled on the descent to win ahead of Sergio Henao and Alberto Contador. Last year Wout Poels made a late move on the climb and he arrived at the finish a few seconds head of a 13-rider group that was led home by Alejandro Valverde and Sanchez. The finish also featured in the 2012 Vuelta when Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome arrived at the finish, with Rodriguez doubtlessly regretting that he didn't sprint all the way to the line as he was passed by Valverde just before the finish.




The weather

It has been an unusually sunny edition of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco but things are expected to change for the final days when a bit of rain is forecasted. However, the riders should get one final day in the sun before they have to take on their rain jackets as tomorrow will be another sunny day. Towards the end of the stage, however, more clouds will appear and a bit of rain is actually forecasted about the time the riders will reach the finish. There will be a maximum temperature of 18 degrees in Eibar, making it the hottest day yet.


There will be a moderate wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will first have a headwind before they turn into a tailwind as they head towards Eibar. On the many circuits around that city, the wind will be coming from all different directions. On the final climb, there will be a tailwind and a cross-tailwind before the riders turn into a cross-headwind for the descent to the finish.


The favourites

As expected, the brutally steep Alto La Antigua did a lot of damage in today’s stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and it left the riders spread all across the road. The punchy climb was perfectly suited to Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao while Nairo Quintana confirmed his good condition on an ascent that was too explosive for him and those three riders managed to gain a bit of time on their rivals.


None of those three riders are known as time trial specialists and as they only managed to distance Michal Kwiatkowski by 7 seconds, they need to gain a lot more time before they head out for the race against the clock on the final day. However, the final two road stages offer plenty of terrain to do and the next two days should allow them to create bigger time gaps that today’s relatively short ascent did.


Stage 5 will again include some very steep climbs which suits the punchy climbers like Henao and Rodriguez but tomorrow’s queen stage is of a different nature. The Alto del Arrate is one of the only longer climbs in the Basque Country and even though it is no big mountain, its 7.3km will allow the pure climbers a better chance to make a difference. This was evident in last year’s edition of this stage where Michal Kwiatkowski suffered a lot. The Pole is known for his skills on shorter climbs and had looked strong in the first part of the race but on the Alto de Arrate he lost contact with the best.


Nonetheless, the final part of the Alto de Arrate is not very steep and the difference has to be made in the first part of the climb. History shows that the time gaps are usually pretty small and sometimes a rather big group has been together at the top. Tomorrow there will be a tailwind though and this should make it easier for the climbers to make a difference.


That will be very important for the likes of Quintana, Henao and Rodriguez. The final time trial is definitely not your usual TT and the climbers should be able to defend themselves pretty well on that course. However, they can still expect to lose time to Michal Kwiatkowski and they need to gain as much time as possible during the next two days.


Stage 4 is the traditional queen stage but stage 5 is probably the one that will do the biggest damage. Nonetheless, Quintana, Rodriguez and Henao have to make the most of tomorrow’s stage too.


There are no bonus seconds in this race and this means that the GC riders can allow themselves to let a breakaway stay clear. However, this stage is a very prestigious one which they all want to win. Quintana has already won it in the past and there is no doubt that he wants to repeat that performance. Hence, the early break won’t have much of a chance.


Hilly stages are usually pretty aggressive and so it often takes some time for the early break to be established. So far, however, the breaks have gone clear pretty early and everybody will know about Movistar’s intentions. We may see a bit more aggression than we have done in the first three stages but again we can expect the break to get clear not too long after the start.


The early chase work will probably be left to Sky who want to defend Henao’s leader’s jersey.  As soon as they hit the hilly part, however, we expect Movistar to come to the fore. As said, the final climb is not very hard and they need to make the race as tough as possible. They have a formidable team and there is no doubt that they will make use of their strength, especially on Alto de Ixua which is simply a brutal climb.


This will make it very hard for anyone to make late attacks and it will spell the end for the early breakaway. We can expect it to be a gradual elimination race. However, the big battle between the top contenders will be left to the final climb as the late climbs are not very steep.


Today Nairo Quintana looked comfortable on the Alto La Antigua and he didn’t seem to be in any kind of difficulty when he was glued to Rodriguez’ wheel. This confirms that he is in great condition as Rodriguez is much better suited to these explosive climbs and comes on the heels of his many interviews that have clearly indicated that he is very confident in his form.


Tomorrow he finds himself in a terrain that suits him much better and unlike today he will have an offensive approach. In Tirreno-Adriatico, he was in a class of his own on the climbs and there is no reason to suggest that he is not a similar level. He has had an incident-free build-up and will be ready to strike tomorrow.


Quintana has to attack in the steeper part on the lower slopes where he has to distance the rest. He may have won this stage from a sprint in the past but he probably has to arrive alone if he wants to win the stage. We expect him to launch a big attack on the steepest sections and as he is the best climber in this race, we expect him to win the stage.


His biggest rival is likely to be Joaquim Rodriguez. Today the Spaniard proved that he is back at a very high level and he will be keen to gain more time before the time trial. Tomorrow’s stage doesn’t suit him perfectly as the climb is longer and more regular but he has done well in this stage in the past.


Rodriguez knows the climb perfectly and he is a great descender with a pretty fast sprint. If he can keep up with Quintana, he will be the favourite to win the sprint and he is the rider who is most likely to do so. Rodriguez narrowly missed out on the win in this stage in the 2012 Vuelta but tomorrow he may make up for that defeat.


Today’s climb proved to be a bit too steep for Michal Kwiatkowski who will find the easier gradients in tomorrow’s stage more to his liking. On the other hand, the longer climb doesn’t suit him too well and last year he suffered in this stage.


However, Kwiatkowski proved in Paris-Nice that he has improved a lot on the longer climbs and this climb is not as the long he faced in the queen stage of that race. This time there is a chance that Kwiatkowski will be able to stay with the best and in that case he will be the big favourite. He is both the fastest sprinter and the best descender and this will make him hard to beat in the finale.


Samuel Sanchez is the king of this stage which he has already won three times and after two defeats, he would love to return to the top step of the podium. Today he proved that he is back at a very high level as he performed strongly in a stage that was a bit too explosive to suit him well. He knows the finale intimately and has always come out on top when he has been with the best at the top. He may not be strong enough to follow the big attacks but if the best riders are unable to drop each other, he may get back to the front and then he will be hard to beat.


Sergio Henao defied expectations by delivering an impressive performance in today’s stage despite this just being his second race since he came back from a broken kneecap. Tomorrow he should again be among the best but the final climb doesn’t suit him as well as today’s steep wall. In 2013, he had also taken the lead on that kind of brutally steep climb but he was not at the same level in the Arrate stage and this is a confirmation of the fact that he needs more explosive climbs to really excel. Being the race leader, he will be a marked man and we doubt that he will be able to distance Rodriguez in this stage. As the Spaniard is usually stronger in this kind of finale, it will be hard for him to win the stage. On the other hand, Henao is both a great descender and a fast finisher so he definitely has the means to win.


Bauke Mollema looked strong in today’s stage where he was among the best on the climb. However, he did a bad descent which caused him to be passed by several riders. He should find tomorrow’s less steep climb to his liking and all year he has been in very good condition. With his fast sprint, he could both win from a group of favourites but he also has the right aggressive mindset to exploit a tactical battle between the favourites like Wout Poels did last year.


The same goes for Rafal Majka who surprised himself by being back at a high level already now. His confidence will have been hugely boosted by today’s performance and as he was not one of the pre-race favourites he may be less marked. He is a pretty poor descender and not fast in a sprint so he won’t win if a small group has to decide the stage. However, he could launch a Poels attack which could give him his first 2015 win.


Last year Simon Spilak attacked on the lower slopes of this climb and he nearly managed to keep the peloton at bay. The Slovenian is known for his aggressive mindset and he could very well go into the stage with similar plans. Like Majka he is no great descender and he is not fast in a sprint so he needs to escape. With Rodriguez to protect him in the group of favourites, however, it may be Spilak’s time to shine.


Rein Taaramae did extremely well in today’s stage which didn’t suit him at all. In fact, the Estonian has looked very strong in this race and tomorrow he will find himself in terrain that is much better for him. He is usually extremely aggressive and we feel pretty sure that he will attack at some point. In the Vuelta a Murcia he proved how hard he is to catch.


His teammates Michele Scarponi and Mikel Landa both climbed very well in today’s stage and this gives Astana a number of cards to play. Those two riders need to gain time before the time trial and they will be keen to attack. Scarponi has lots of experience and is well-suited to this finale while Landa has done well by attacking in the past. Expect Astana to play it offensively in tomorrow’s stage.


Alexis Vuillermoz has been climbing extremely well all year and today he again delivered a great performance. The Ag2r rider is destined for big things and he is perfectly suited to the Basque terrain. He is a bit of an underdog in this race and as he is not a great time triallist, he is not a big GC threat. This may give him the freedom to go on the attack in the finale.


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Nairo Quintana

Other winner candidates: Joaquim Rodriguez, Michal Kwiatkowski

Outsiders: Samuel Sanchez, Sergio Henao, Bauke Mollema, Rafal Majka

Jokers: Simon Spilak, Rein Taaramae, Michele Scarponi, Mikel Landa, Alexis Vuillermoz



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