Six major climbs in just 85 miles in the thin air of the Pyrénées. That can mean only one thing — the Vuelta a España is hitting full throttle.
Many are calling Wednesday’s 11th stage across Andorra an epic one in the making.
“This is going to be dramatic,” said Joaquin Rodríguez (Katusha), who lives and trains in Andorra year-round. “This stage is going to be hard right from the start, and it will go a long way toward crowning the winner.”
The 70th Vuelta is still very much a wide-open affair, but it won’t be at the finish line Wednesday. The top 10 is divided by only two minutes right now, and the gaps will surely grow in the Andorran epic.
The climbers know this is their chance to make a difference against strong time trialists such as Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and Chris Froome (Sky). If Fabio Aru (Astana), Rodríguez, or Nairo Quintana (Movistar) want to win this Vuelta, this is their chance to stake their claim.
No chance for recovery
The course profile certainly provokes such accolades. There are six rated climbs, with four first-category, one second-category, and one “especial” just to make things just that more interesting. The vertiginous route presents no chance to recover, with barely any flats between the descents and ascents. It’s straight up right from the gun, with the Cat. 1 Collado de Beixalis climbing more than 500 vertical meters in the opening 10 kilometers.
From there, the suffering comes in quick succession. The Cat. 1 Col d’Ordino tops out at nearly 2,000m, followed by a long, high-speed descent back to the valley floor, and the ascent of the Cat. 1 Col de la Rabassa, making it three first-category climbs in the opening 70km.
It’s straight down, then straight up the hardest climb of the stage, with the “especial” climb at Collada de la Gallina at 100km. Another treacherous descent returns to the valley and a momentary respite on the flats before the final climbs. The second-category Alto de la Cornella could serve as a trampoline for the brave at 120km. It’s a quick descent to the foot of the final, 10km to the finish line at Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp at 2,095m.
“I think this is one of the hardest stages in Vuelta history,” said ex-pro and TV commentator Pedro Delgado. “With 138km, and six climbs, there is no place to recover or rest. It’s the decisive mountain stage of this Vuelta. No one can afford to make a mistake on this stage, or their GC hopes are done.”
Change in the weather
If the stage wasn’t already hard enough, forecasters are calling for a major change in the weather.
After suffering through broiling heat for the first 10 days, the peloton will be in for a shock in Andorra. The valley floor lies at 1,000 vertical meters, with the final summit at 2,095m, meaning the peloton will be racing in dramatically cooler temperatures.
Temperatures are forecasted in the low to mid-70s in the valley floor, and cooler higher up. Staying warm on the descents will prove decisive.
There’s also a high chance of afternoon showers, which would completely alter the stage, making descents not only treacherous, but also very cold. It won’t be nearly as cold and miserable as it was in 2013, when 14 riders abandoned in cold rain, wind, and even snow, but conditions could be highly averse.
Settling the GC
The first half of the Vuelta saw the inevitable weeding out of the field. Some major names were forced to exit due to crashes and ailments, including Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin), Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis), and Marcus Burghardt (BMC Racing).
The GC contender list remains largely intact despite the disqualification of Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) for an illegal tow in stage 2, and the injury of Tejay van Garderen (BMC) in stage 6.
Wednesday’s brutal stage will go a long way toward revealing who has the legs to win this Vuelta.
“Can I win the Vuelta? I don’t think so, but I am going to try,” said Dumoulin, who holds a slender 57-second lead to Rodríguez. “But I also didn’t think I would win [Sunday], so I might as well go for it. I have nothing to lose.”
Behind Dumoulin, less than one minute separates second-place Rodríguez to 10th place Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) at 1:52 back.
The explosive nature of the first 10 days of racing has favored riders such as Dumoulin and Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), now third at 59 seconds back.
“The longer climbs will change the nature of the race,” Chaves said. “Everyone is feeling tired from racing hard in the first week. It’s not going to be easy, but I will do my best to stay with the front climbers.”
On paper, the stage favors Quintana, but the Colombian rider is clearly lacking his climbing punch so far through this Vuelta. He’s been unable to make any discernible attacks, and he could not respond when Froome attacked on the Cumbre del Sol Sunday. With the Burgos TT favoring Froome and Dumoulin, Quintana needs to make a move Wednesday if he harbors realistic chances of overall victory.
The same could be said for Rodríguez and Valverde, who was banged up in a crash Sunday that left him with a hobbled shoulder. Rodríguez could ride into red, but he would need to take at least two minutes on Froome if hopes to defend in Burgos.
Froome is another question mark. He revived his GC hopes Sunday, and if he can finish with the top riders in Andorra, his overall chances for victory will only improve by the day.
Perhaps the rider with the most to gain Wednesday is Fabio Aru (Astana). The Italian climber has been active in the first week, and seems to be finding his kick just in time to make a decisive move.
“Fabio is a candidate for victory in the Vuelta,” said Astana teammate Mikel Landa. “So far, these explosive finales haven’t really favored him, and he looks good on the bike. He’ll be fresher than the riders who raced the Tour. I believe he can fight for the overall victory.”
After 10 brutal days of racing, and coming right after a rest day, the stage might not deliver the fireworks many are expecting. Legs are tired, and motivation is waning, but the climbers know this is their best chance to take the initiative and break the GC gridlock.
The pack will certainly blow up on the first climb, and the gruppetto will be working their calculators to make sure they make the time cut. The stage will likely be more a race of attrition over the endless climbs, with the winning moves coming on the final 8km climb.
If the opening climbing stages of the Vuelta are any indication, it’s nearly impossible to predict what will happen. Nearly everyone has been hot and cold throughout this Vuelta. Froome appears to be riding into form, while Quintana remains an unknown factor. Valverde will be trying to shake off his crash, and Rodríguez will be trying to break his tendency of having a bad day the day after a rest day.
The stage clearly favors the daring and the strong. Dumoulin will ride better than expected, but will likely cede the red leader’s jersey. Aru could be the big winner.
Expect to see Froome, Aru, and either Valverde or Quintana solidify their position atop the GC hierarchy. The stage won’t decide the Vuelta, but it will likely eliminate realistic chances for final victory for just about everyone except for an elite two or four riders.