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Vuelta a Espana

Preview: Four days to decide who wins the Vuelta

Four upcoming stages at the Vuelta a Espana will most likely decide who wins the overall title. Andrew Hood previews the action.

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Wednesday’s dramatic stage across Andorra was only the appetizer. The Vuelta a España’s main course is still to come, with four decisive stages that will likely crown the overall winner of the race’s 2015 edition.

Starting Saturday, with the first of three consecutive mountain stages across the brutally steep climbs of Asturias, and the 39-kilometer individual time trial in Burgos on Wednesday, the Vuelta is reaching its boiling point.

Right now, the Vuelta is shaping up to be a three-horse race, but with so much vertical standing between the peloton and Madrid, where the Vuelta ends on September 13, it would be a mistake to exclude anyone in the top 10.

“I cannot just say [Joaquim] Rodríguez and [Tom] Dumoulin are my only rivals,” said race leader Fabio Aru (Astana). “There are others who can be dangerous, and there are many more hard mountains to come. It’s a mistake to say the race is over.”

Andorra served to shrink the ranks among the legitimate favorites. Chris Froome (Sky) crashed and eventually abandoned, while Nairo Quintana (Movistar) continues to struggle with a fever, meaning two of the top favorites are out of the frame. With Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) also missing the winning kick, and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) ejected from the race, the top-4 finishers from the Tour de France are not playing the role as protagonists as many expected during this Vuelta.

Instead, it’s the fresh and ambitious legs of Aru, the experience and depth of Rodríguez, and the surprise and promise of Dumoulin who are the leaders of the band.

Aru leads Katusha’s Rodríguez by 27 seconds, with Giant-Alpecin’s Dumoulin hanging around at 30 seconds back. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Valverde are all within two minutes and keeping things interesting.

“[1:52] is a lot of time, or maybe it’s not,” Valverde said of his gap to Aru. “The stages in Asturias are going to be very difficult. If someone has a bad moment, they can lose minutes. And if you’re good, you can gain back a lot of time. I am feeling tired from the Tour, but we’re going to keep fighting.”

Three hard days across Asturias

Every mountaintop finale in this year’s Vuelta is new. Race organizers searched out eight undiscovered summits, one for the each decade in what’s the Vuelta’s 80th birthday. So far, each have delivered their own bit of surprise, with the best — or worst — yet to come.

The three summits in Asturias will be the hardest of the new-fangled terrain. Saturday’s 215km 14th stage from Vitoria to Fuente del Chivo, which climbs 1,000m in 18km, is just a painful preview of what lies ahead. The finale is on a steep escarpment high in the desolate Cantabrian Mountains, the haunt of some of Europe’s last remaining brown bears.

If the favorites escape mauling, Sunday’s 175.8km 15th stage plunges deep into the heart of the Picos de Europe, with the summit at Sotres little more than a paved goat track (the famous cabrales cheese is produced nearby). The climb becomes steeper the higher it goes, with no let up for nearly 12km.

Monday’s 185km 16th stage is the hardest of the three, with La Cordal and La Cobertoria, two of the Vuelta’s notorious climbs, stacked up to soften up the legs before the final assault to the Alto Ermita de Alba, an insanely steep road that was only paved a few years ago. It averages nearly 10 percent for 8km.

“People say I can win the Vuelta, and it would be nice if I could,” said Dumoulin. “I think I will still lose time in the mountains. There are still many hard climbs to come.”

Aru and Rodriguez promise to attack

The three mountain stages present Aru and Rodríguez with their best chance to solidify their position atop the GC hierarchy.

Astana boasts the freshest and strongest team in this Vuelta, and even without Nibali, the squad will be looking to eliminate Dumoulin and put more time into Rodríguez.

“Dumoulin is a threat with the time trial in Burgos,” Aru said. “And we’ll have to watch Rodríguez. With the time bonuses, he can be dangerous. It’s going to be complicated. If I have the legs, I will try something.”

Astana will look to repeat the strategy it deployed so successfully in Andorra, and ride aggressively rather than defensively in the mountains. Aru knows he will lose time to Dumoulin in the Burgos time trial, so the Italian will want to attack the Dutchman at every turn. With Mikel Landa out of the GC picture, and already a winner of a stage, the team should be able to count on the Basque climber to be Aru’s most important ally across Asturias.

Like Astana, Katusha will be interested in getting rid of the stubborn Dumoulin. Rodríguez is wildly inconsistent in time trials, and will likely shed minutes to the Dutchman in Burgos, so Astana and Katusha will work together to put Dumoulin into the red early.

“For me, the leader is still Dumoulin,” Rodríguez said. “He’ll take time on both me and Aru in the time trial, so until he loses time, he’s the favorite.”

With those comments, he might be trying to take pressure off himself, but Rodríguez knows the roads of Asturias better than Aru, and he has the experience of fighting deep into the third week. Desperate to win a grand tour, the 35-year-old Rodríguez will try to rattle his younger rivals. Three straight mountaintop finales give Rodríguez the chance to attack, win a stage, and most importantly, pick up time bonuses waiting at the finish line for the top 3.

“You’re going to have burn all your matches by Monday, because after that, there are no more mountaintop finales,” Rodríguez said. “As long as I have the strength, I am going to attack. I have no choice.”

Burgos TT: Dumoulin’s big chance

The 6-foot-1 Dumoulin is the surprise of this Vuelta, and he hopes to have a few more moves in his legs over the next three stages. Backed by the weakest team among the top GC contenders, Dumoulin will largely be on his own against the inevitable onslaught from Astana and Katusha.

His only hope is to hold on as long as he can and survive with GC options going into next Wednesday’s 39km time trial in Burgos. Some are suggesting that Dumoulin, third in last year’s world time trial championship, could take two minutes or more out of Aru and Rodríguez, but that seems overly optimistic.

“I will lose time in the mountains, and I don’t know if I can take it all back in the time trial,” Dumoulin said. “My performance so far isn’t a complete surprise, but it’s true, I have never made it over so many climbs before. Let’s see what happens next.”

Dumoulin has been digging deep every day in this Vuelta, meaning he won’t be riding as fresh into the time trial as he normally might be if he was hiding in the gruppetto all week. The opening 30km of the time trial are flat and wide open, favoring Dumoulin, but the final 10km are very technical, with a short climb around the castle above Burgos, ending with a narrow, fast descent. Realistically, Dumoulin should be able to gain about a minute and a half out of Aru and Rodríguez.

Weather

It looks like the peloton will dodge a bullet in Asturias, where torrential rain, fog, and cold can strike at any moment. Forecasters are calling for mostly sunny skies, with temperatures in the upper 70s along the coast and valley floors, and a slight chance of afternoon showers Monday. That will be welcome news for a tired and weary peloton, especially on the descents, which are treacherous even in the dry.

Anyone with a reasonable lead coming out of the Burgos TT will likely win this Vuelta. There remain some difficult climbs in the closing stages, especially in the penultimate stage in the mountains north of Madrid, but the real battle will be fought over the next four stages.