The team mechanics of the Vuelta a España will be hunting for their biggest cassettes and lightest components Tuesday night.
Two huge climbing stages in Spain’s Asturias region arrive Wednesday and Thursday, headlined by summit finishes atop the Alpe d’Huez-esque Lagos de Covadonga and wall-like Altu d’El Gamoniteiro.
Pretenders to the red jersey, beware.
“Sunday’s stage was tough, but on paper it was not a major mountain stage. The way the riders raced it made it really tough. If they do that on Covadonga or Gamoniteiru, then for sure the gaps will be really big,” Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels told the Spanish daily AS.
The time gaps were small when the race tilted uphill last week. Miguel Ángel López and Adam Yates snatched back scraps of time, but the GC was largely unbothered in a weekend of cagey headwind climbing.
The peloton is bracing for something far more brutal on stages 17 and 18. The GC remains tightly coiled after Fabio Jakobsen kicked to his third sprint victory Tuesday, but the historic Covadonga climb and unprecedented Altu d’El Gamoniteiru could blow the race to bits.
“Covadonga is very irregular, very steep parts and even some descents,” Engels said. “Gaimoniteiru is just brutal, 15 kilometers, always steep from the bottom to the finish. Very different.”
Nairo Quintana attacks Alberto Contador to win the stage at Covadonga..! pic.twitter.com/JlIA7lvQAA
— Graham Watson (@grahamwatson10) August 29, 2016
The Lagos de Covadonga has become an Alpe d’Huez-esque icon of the Vuelta a España through its 21 appearances to date, seeing wins from Pedro Delgado and Luis Herrera through Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot.
The special category Covadonga climb has left red jersey racers reeling in the past. But it’s the unprecedented climb to Altu d’El Gamoniteiru climb that is creating the most ripples of concern.
Climbing the back of the mountain that plays home to the Alto del Angliru, the Gamoniteiru is being hyped as every bit as tough as, but different in nature to, its next-door neighbor.
The 15-kilometer haul packs a near-constant 10 percent grade into its 1,450 meters of ascent, capped by a cruel finishing ramp nudging up to 20 percent. It’s a more constant burn than the bucking and rearing Angliru, and one that could favor aggressive racing rather than the slow-bike race attrition of the Vuelta’s better known Alto.
“It’s not like the Angliru. I have known this climb well for years and its difficulty lies in its constant grade,” local racer Dani Navarro of Burgos BH told AS. “That is why I think that these types of climbs are more decisive than Angliru, where the ramps on television are very spectacular, but we are standing still.”
Aggression in Asturias
Both stages 17 and 18 pack a quartet of climbs into what is its own tour of Asturias. The two mountaintop finishes are tough enough in isolation, but the 4,500 metes of gain accumulated through each day tightens the screw further.
With the peloton deep into the third week of the race, there’s likely to be more than one red jersey contender bowing out of the battle in Asturias – and GC leader Odd Christian Eiking forecasts that he could be one of them.
“Normally Covadonga is too hard for me, but I’m still going to fight and see what happens,” Eiking said after the mountain stage Sunday.
No matter how Eiking and Intermarché-Wanty Gobert fare in the mountains, the key players the Norweigan all have the incentive to attack.
Jumbo-Visma knows Promož Roglič cannot wait too late to regain the red jersey and isn’t going to assume Eiking and Guillaume Martin will lose time without being put under pressure.
“Let’s not forget the guys who are in front,” Engels said. “There are some really hard days left to come and maybe because of the stages and the racing, Martin and Eiking will lose time. But it might be necessary to race aggressively to get rid of them.”
Movistar pair López and Enric Mas will be even more motivated to make the racing hard.
López and Mas need to both claw back time and build a buffer on Roglič, who they believe could gain as much as two minutes in the final stage TT. Whatever Mas and López try in Asturias, it will have to be spectacular in order to build the lead they need to ride into red in Santiago di Compostela.
“In the two mountain stages in Asturias we’ll have to be in good shape and gain time,” Mas said Monday. “We all know Lagos de Covadonga and it’s a climb where you can gain time. We’ll try to win overall with me or with López.
“I cannot say if it’s going to be some epic big attack or something else, but what we can say is that we are going to try to win this Vuelta.”
Expect the classification to be altogether different after the Vuelta’s Asturias double-header.