This is the big one.
After 19 stages the Vuelta a España boils down to this, a 181 kilometer showdown in the Guadarrama Mountains. Sunday’s final stage will be processional; this will be anything but.
The riders will face no less than five climbs along the roads between Moralzarzal, a historic city with an important past under Muslim rule, and the heights of the Puerto de Navacerrada.
Indeed that first category climb will be scaled twice during the stage, albeit from different directions. The first ascent begins soon after the start and averages 6.8 percent over 10.3 km, topping out 34km after the stage.
That is followed by a descent and then a long plateau at over 1000 meters elevation, with the second category Puerto de Navafria then beginning at km 83 and peaking at km 92.8. This is followed by another second category climb, the Puerto de Canencia (km 126.8).
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That trio of peaks should thin out the bunch considerably and reveal which riders are struggling and which have more to give. Those who do have more in the tank can really let rip inside the final 46 kilometers, with the category one Puerto de la Morcuera (km 143.7) a potential platform for a long range move.
This is 9.4 km in duration, averages 6.9 percent and crests at just under 10 percent in gradient.
Enric Mas (Movistar Team) will start the stage 2:07 behind Remco Evenepoel and knows he has to go from a long way out if he is to try to recoup that much time. Providing he has the legs, the course promises fireworks; Mas has finished second twice before in the Vuelta and needs to go all out if he is to finally stand on the top step of the podium in Madrid.
The battle will then rage on the final mountain of the 2022 Vuelta a España, the category one Puerto de Cotos. This brings the riders to the Navacerrada finish line, albeit with a 6.7km false flat after the summit.
The climb averages 6.9 percent in gradient, with a more difficult section of 10 percent located close to the summit.
Evenepoel versus Mas aside, there are a cluster of riders who have much to fight for. Those from third to tenth are separated by just over four minutes, with four of those – Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), the rider currently third overall, plus Miguel Ángel López (Astana Qazaqstan), Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Joāo Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) all within two minutes or less of each other.
There is much to gain and lose on Saturday’s stage; that puts a lot of pressure on the riders, but also bodes well for the viewers, in terms of spectacle.
It could, and should, be a big, big day of racing.