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‘Fantastic 4’ ready for battle in Asturias

Three straight summit finales should clarify GC picture at the Vuelta

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FERROL, Spain (VN) — If this Vuelta a España hasn’t been exciting enough, three brutal climbing stages this weekend will spice things up even more in what should be a thrilling GC battle up some of Spain’s steepest climbs.

Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) carries a slender 13-second lead over Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) into the trio of decisive climbing stages. With Chris Froome (Sky) at 51 seconds back and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) hanging in there at 1:20 off the pace, any one of the “fantastic four” could still ride away with the red leader’s jersey.

Which one does it remains to be seen. What’s sure is that this long weekend should see some of the most intense attacking and high-voltage racing of the season.

“There are four of us on top right now, and we’re going into these three most challenging stages in the mountains, and after 13 days of racing, I am sure some of us are going to blow up,” Rodríguez said. “I cannot imagine that the differences will be tight going into the second rest day (on Tuesday).”

After five short, punchy uphill finales that have tilted in favor of Rodríguez’s explosive racing style, the Vuelta changes gears and moves into long, more sustained climbs that, on paper at least, are more tailored for Contador and Froome.

Contador, for one, has attacked but fallen short of winning a stage and could not wrestle away the leader’s jersey from the resilient Rodríguez in Wednesday’s time trial. Rodríguez gained back time up the Ezaro climb Thursday and Friday’s rolling stage into Ferrol saw a cease-fire among the GC favorites as Steven Cummings dashed clear of a breakaway to claim BMC Racing’s second stage win of this Vuelta.

Contador has been sharpening his knives and promises to attack in the coming days. First, he will be looking to drop the still-dangerous Froome once and for all before turning his attention to Rodríguez. Everyone is waiting for Contador to make a race-breaking move, but he gave little away when asked how he intends to race over the climbing treble.

“These next three days will decide a lot,” Contador said. “The longer climbs are better for me. I hope the legs respond. I am feeling good, and we’ll play the tactics based on what happens each day. I need to attack, but so does Froome. I am not the only one who has to be aggressive.”

It remains to be seen if Contador can lay down a long-distance attack like he did to win the 2011 Giro d’Italia, when he pounced near the base of Mount Etna and rode away with the pink jersey for good.

The peloton hasn’t seen Contador successfully make a similar attack since last year’s Giro. In the 2011 Tour de France, his attacks failed on Alpe d’Huez and he hasn’t raced on big, longer mountain climbs since then while sidelined from his clenbuterol ban.

So far in this Vuelta, Rodríguez has been able to mark Contador’s moves and the overall leader takes confidence out of the first half of the race in that he’s been capable of responding to Contador. Riding in the leader’s jersey will help, with Katusha sport director Valerio Piva saying that Rodríguez can ride defensively to mark the attacks and then counter-attack to take time bonuses.

So far, Rodríguez is the king of the time bonuses, but he says he doesn’t expect the differences to be so small that they will eventually decide the race.

“By the time we get to Madrid, after what lies ahead of us, I honestly do not think the bonuses will become much of a factor,” Rodríguez said. “With the brutality of what lies ahead, the time gaps should be minutes, not seconds.”

That might not be the case. The differences between the leading four have been minimal going uphill, so huge time gaps might not be in play, unless someone blows up and loses the wheel.

The setting couldn’t be more dramatic.

Saturday’s 14th stage finishes atop the rugged, wild Ancares climb in an isolated mountainous region that harbors some of Spain’s few remaining brown bears.

Sunday’s 15th stage tackles the short, but steep Cat. 1 Alto de Mirador before the Lagos de Covadonga climb, at 12km, long enough to do some damage to any rider that is off his game.

Monday’s 185km 16th stage is the Vuelta’s etapa reina, with the brutally steep San Lorenzo and Cobertoria climbs before the long, grinding Parajes summit. Race organizers have decided to twist the knife even more, taking the peloton up a service road at a ski resort to finish at Cuitu Nigro over a narrow strip of asphalt just laid down this summer.

The biggest enigma remains Froome, who clearly is not the same rider he was in July, but who has doggedly stayed in the fight.

Of the leading four, Froome admits he has had the most trouble with the shorter, explosive climbs where Rodríguez and Valverde have made their gains. Froome was expecting more from Wednesday’s time trial, when he lost time to Contador and didn’t gap Rodríguez and Valverde as he had hoped.

The Kenya-born Brit struggled up the explosive, 30-percent ramps of Ezaro on Thursday, but he was able to respond to Contador’s aggression at Arrate and Valdezcaray earlier in the Vuelta. It will be interesting to see if Froome has the gas in his engine to withstand the Spanish onslaught over the next three days.

“These coming days will tell us a lot,” Froome said. “I tried to limit my losses (Thursday) because I knew that would be hard for me. I am still in the game. There is still a lot of race left and now we face three true mountain stages.”

Valverde, still bitter about losing 55 seconds in his crash in the echelons in stage 4, seems resigned to racing for the podium. At 1:20 back, he needs to gain time on Froome to move up into podium territory and admits that outright victory could be beyond his grasp.

“Contador and Purito are strong right now and they have the advantage, while it appears Froome is tired from the Tour, but he’s still there, so it’s going to be a hard fight,” Valverde said. “I am now 1:20 back, but closer to the podium than ever. We’ll see how the legs respond in Asturias because these next three days should decide a lot.”

The Vuelta isn’t just about the leading four, of course, and others will be fighting for stage victories and to improve their GC positions.

Rabobank has three riders in the top 10, with Robert Gesink fifth, at 2:59 back. The tall Dutchman still harbors ambitions for the final podium in Madrid.

“I am feeling better as the Vuelta unfolds,” Gesink said. “I hope it keeps going like that and the legs can respond on the longer climbs. I want to move up and try to be on the podium in Madrid.”

Others, such as Nicolas Roche (Ag2r La Mondiale), seventh at 4:22 back, and Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp, eighth at 5:17 back, will be looking to consolidate their holds on top-10 spots overall. Talansky, riding just his second grand tour, hopes that the longer, steadier climbs are better suited to his style of riding than the shorter, Purito-style climbs the Vuelta’s seen so far.

“I really do not know what to expect in Asturias. On paper, they should suit me a lot better than something like (Ezaro) did. I saw days like Arrate and Andorra were better for me,” Talansky said. “It’s kind of unknown territory. It’s kind of the final hurrah of this Vuelta. For a lot of guys, like Valverde, Contador, Froome and Rodríguez, they know what they are going to do, but I think for a lot of guys, it’s unknown. Guys who did the Tour maybe are tired, for me it’s a new experience to try to keep on top going into this third week.”

Talansky is quietly optimistic he can hang tough against the top climbers and continue to make headway in his first serious run at the GC in a three-week grand tour.

“I am very satisfied with how the Vuelta’s gone so far,” Talansky said. “I had good form at Tour de l’Ain (which he won). I just didn’t know what to expect at this level, and regardless of what happens in the rest of the race, I’ve proved to myself and to people that I do have what it takes to be a grand tour contender in the future.”

Three-straight brutal days of climbing across Asturias will provide Talansky and everyone else with a good measuring stick of where they are.