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Vuelta a Espana

Vuelta favorites brace for weekend mountain showdown

Chris Horner and the GC hopefuls will chase race leader Vincenzo Nibali through the Pyrénées this weekend

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CASTELLDEFELS, Spain (VN) — With three hard climbing stages looming in the Pyrénées, the GC favorites at the Vuelta a España were content to let a breakaway have its moment in the Iberian sun Friday.

Warren Barguil (Argos-Shimano) won out of a big group that held clear over the Cat. 1 Alto del Rat Penat, with Astana leading the main pack across the line at 2:43 back.

For race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and the rest of the top contenders for the Vuelta, the upcoming three stages should prove decisive on who wins the 68th edition of the Spanish tour.

“The stage was very fast today, and there was a crash, but the stage ended up OK. Today was not a day to move,” Nibali said. “I think Rodríguez can still do a lot in this Vuelta. Tomorrow is a hard stage. We will see, because the GC is still very open. Nothing is decided yet.”

Whether they prove to be a race-breaker remains to be seen. Nibali took a promising lead after the individual time trial, and if he has the climbing legs that many expect him to have, the fight could be on for the podium.

Though Nibali’s gap is still slender — Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) are still stacked within 46 seconds of the Italian — there’s a feeling that Nibali might have this Vuelta wrapped up.

Of course, all it takes is one bad day, and Nibali or any of the other remaining favorites can lose everything.

From here to Madrid, it’s hardly a walk in the park. Of the eight remaining stages, six feature uphill finishes. And they’re all hard.

The first chunk comes this weekend, with three consecutive climbing stages across the breath of the Pyrénées.

Saturday’s 155km course climbs from Bagà into the mountain enclave of Andorra and tackles four climbs, including the Vuelta’s high point at 2,400 meters at the Envalira climb, and ends atop the Collado de la Gallina. It’s the favorite climb of Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), but it was Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who took the stage win last year.

“I think they will be very big differences. Gallina is steep, and hard, but I don’t see it being very decisive,” said Katusha’s Dani Moreno. “The three stages will mark differences. It depends on who has the legs.”

Sunday’s 224.9km marathon stage from Andorra to Peyragudes is the Vuelta’s longest stage and a throwback to the longer, Tour-like stages that the Vuelta has largely shunned over the past several years. The four-climb stage favors the likes of Nibali and Horner, but it was Valverde, again, who won when the Tour passed there last year.

“It was important to get through [Friday’s] stage,” Valverde said. “We will see who has the legs. These three stages will make a big difference. Everyone will be feeling the fatigue of the racing.”

The final of the threesome is the 146.8km 16th stage from Graus to Formigal on Monday. With two relatively easy climbs mid-stage, and a long, smooth grinder up to the ski resort, the stage favors breakaways and is the easiest of the three.

But it’s just this kind of stage where teams can lay traps, and it is reminiscent of the stage at Fuente Dé when Alberto Contador caught Rodríguez to take control of last year’s Vuelta.

With the wear and tear catching up on the peloton, almost anything could happen over the next three days.

Horner, who also leads the climber’s jersey competition, is hoping that he has the same climbing legs in the second half of the Vuelta that he had in the first, when he won two stages.

“I will need one of these three stages to make a gap,” Horner said. “We will see how the legs are. If they are as good as they were some days ago when I won, then everything is OK for me.”

Another factor will be the weather. After nearly two weeks of warm, summer-like weather, forecasters are calling for rain and much cooler temperatures. Saturday’s forecast is the worst of the three, with temperatures dropping to 8 degrees Celsius with rain.

Sunday’s and Monday’s stages will also see a chance of afternoon showers, but such an abrupt change in weather could zap the legs of more than one GC favorite.

Nibali doesn’t seem too worried about the nasty forecast.

“I don’t do so bad in the rain, for me it’s not a big problem,” Nibali said. “As people could see this year at Tirreno-Adriatico and in the Giro, I can handle the cold and wet pretty well.”

These days, it seems like Nibali can handle everything pretty well. It will be interesting to see if Horner, Valverde, Roche, and the rest can make his life difficult.