Nobody could have wished a more exciting scenario for the final three stages of the Vuelta a Espana after Fabio Aru delivered a fantastic defence against big favourite Tom Dumoulin and now trails the Dutchman by 3 seconds. The next three stages may not be the hardest in the race but with such a small difference, the scene is set for some great action, starting already with tomorrow’s stage and its tricky finale.
Unlike in the last few years, there are no big mountain stages in the final week of the race but the climbers still have a chance to make a difference in the three stages that are held in the mountains north of Madrid. There are no summit finishes but the stages include some solid climbs that can be used to change things a bit at a time when fatigue has definitely set in and plays a major role.
This first of those opportunities comes in stage 18 which is another long one of more than 200km. It brings the riders over 204km from Roa to Riaza. Roa is located in the flat area close to Burgos where the riders spent the rest day and did the time trial and so the first part of the stage is completely flat as the riders travel in a southeasterly direction to approach the hills on the northern outskirts of Madrid. The roads are only very slightly ascending but things get a bit tougher at the 75km mark when the riders hit the bottom of the category 3 Alto Santibanez de Ayllon (7.8km, 4.0%). A short flat section leads to the category 3 Alto del Campanario (6.5km, 3.9%) whose summit is located with 104.5km to go.
From here the terrain is mainly descending but it is significantly lumpier than it was in the first part of the stage as there are very few flat sections and several small climbs along the way. With around 60km to go, the riders will turn around to head in a northwesterly direction in the final part of the stage and with 47km to go, they get to the intermediate sprint.
This signals the start of the finale as the road will be slightly ascending for most of the time until the riders get to the bottom of the main challenge, the category 1 Puerto de la Quesera , with 23km to go. It is a 10km climb that averages 5.2%. The first three kilometres are relatively easy at 2-3% but from there the gradient hovers around 6-7% for most of the time. The summit is located just 13km from the finish and is followed by a descent that is not too technical. The real descent ends with around 6km to go and from there the final part of the stage is only slightly descending. The road is winding until the riders get to the final 3km from where it is almost completely straight.
Riaza has not hosted the finish of a major stage race for more than a decade.
It’s been a very pleasant Vuelta when it comes to the weather and it doesn’t look like it will change in the final part of the race. Thursday is forecasted to be sunny with a maximum temperature of 22 degrees.
The area round around Burgos can be very windy but tomorrow there will only be a light wind from a westerly direction. This means that the riders will first have a tailwind and then a cross-tailwind until they get to the top of the first climb. Then it will mainly be a crosswind, interspersed with a few headwind sections in the final part of the stage. It will be a crosswind on the final climb and a cross-headwind on the descent.
When the course for the Vuelta a Espana was unveiled, many were a bit disappointed that the final week was very easy. Most believed that the race would be decided after the time trial as the final three stages leading to grand finale in Madrid do not offer summit finishes. They all include some solid climbing but most expected that a strong team of one of the favourites would be able to control the race.
However, those predictions are likely to be wrong after Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin set the scene for a great finale for the race after a very exciting time trial. It is still very likely that Dumoulin will be able to defend the lead but with a 3-second difference, the race is not over yet. Aru will desperately try to change things and with a very strong team at his side, he has the means to put Dumoulin under pressure. After all, the Dutchman is likely to be isolated when the going gets tough. Giant-Alpecin is a very strong team but only Lawson Craddock is a real climber.
Dumoulin fully lived up to expectations in the time trial while Fabio Aru confirmed that he has improved a lot in the discipline. As we said yesterday, it was going to be close and that prediction turned out to be truer that we had expected. At the same time, a flat Vuelta time trial was again the undoing for Joaquim Rodriguez who will probably never win a grand tour as it will be impossible to make up that amount of time. Alejandro Valverde did a very good time trial which was not a surprise based on his TT skills. However, the Spaniard had been extremely tired so it marks a bit of a turnaround for him. Rafal Majka was far below his usual level while it was a great day for Colombia, with Nairo Quintana and Esteban Chaves doing the time trials of their lives.
Aru now has three chances to turn things around and that won’t be easy. The next three stages all include some serious climbing in the finales but none of them are very steep. Tomorrow’s final ascent never gets steeper than 7% and that’s great for a powerful guy like Dumoulin. Furthermore, there are no summit finishes so Dumoulin may be able to use his excellent descending skills to get back in contention if he loses a bit of ground. Usually, he is a much better descender than Aru.
Most importantly, he is clearly the fastest of the pair. In fact, he is pretty fast in a sprint as he proved when he was second in the GP Quebec last year. Hence, Aru cannot rely on bonus seconds to take the lead and the bonus seconds will more be an advantage for Dumoulin. If Aru wants to win the race, he needs to drop Dumoulin on the climbs. He will definitely regret the outcome of the queen stage. If Mikel Landa had followed team orders and waited for his captain, he would at least have gained an extra four bonus seconds which would have been enough to lead the race. He will also regret the fact that Daniel Moreno dug deep in stage 15 to sprint past the Astana captain to take away the four bonus seconds that would have seen him wear red tomorrow.
There is no doubt that his best chance comes in Saturday’s stage which offers by far the biggest amount of climbing. However, there is no doubt that he will try to change things already in tomorrow’s stage. From now on, we can expect attacks from Aru on the final climb in every stage to test whether Dumoulin is on a bad day.
However, Aru has no intentions of going for the stage win. As said, he needs to drop Dumoulin to take the lead so the bonus seconds will make no difference. Hence, Astana will do nothing to bring back the early break so this is a stage that has breakaway written all over it.
Movistar have the key to the stage. They can no longer finish on the podium and with just one stage win and potential victory in the teams competition, the outcome is pretty meagre. Alejandro Valverde will be the favourite to win all the remaining stages apart from the final one if the early break is caught. There is no reason for them not to go for the stage win in at least one of them.
The big question is whether they will do so in stage 18. It’s a very long stage so they may prefer to save their energy for later. Much will depend on the composition and size of the early break. If they have a rider in the move, they are likely to let it go. If they have missed out and it’s a relatively small group, they may try to control the race and bring it back together for a battle on the final climb.
In any case, we should see a big fight in the early part of the stage. Everybody knows that the break has a very big chance so we should see another extremely fast start and it will probably take more than an hour for the break to be formed. At the same time, there will be a big fight for the teams classification and Sky and Movistar will mark each other closely. Either both of them will be represented in the break or they will both have missed out.
This area can be extremely windy but tomorrow there won’t be any danger so when the break has gone clear, the race will calm down. If Movistar decide not to go for the win or have a rider in the break, it will probably stay away unless one of the teams that have missed out, start to chase. Otherwise we should get a very fast chase and a battle between the favourites on the final climb.
Movistar will be very aggressive in the first part of the stage as they need to cover the attacks because of the teams classification. Hence, there is a big chance that the Spanish team will be represented so we expect the stage to be decided by the breakaway. That doesn’t change the fact that Astana will go crazy when we hit the climb as they will desperately try to drop Dumoulin. However, we don’t think that the climb will be hard enough so we expect the Dutchman to defend his lead. Aru may also try to attack on the descent as may Valverde and Rodriguez but Dumoulin will be strong enough to match the Italian and won’t be too concerned with the two Spaniard who may gain a bit of time.
As we expect the break to make, the stage winner will be a strong rider who can join the break on the flats and finish it off in a finale that includes a tough climb. With a downhill finish, good descending skills and a fast sprint are clear advantages. Of course the flat start makes it a bit of a lottery to join the move but at this point in a grand tour, freshness plays a huge role so we might well see some of the usual suspects be part of the action.
As said, Movistar will probably be represented in the break and one of the riders who will be covering moves is Giovanni Visconti. The Italian has been riding really well in this race and is tailor-made for this stage. He is strong on the flats and is excellent and joining the right attacks. Furthermore, he has proved that he is one of the best climbers in this race and he is an excellent descender. Finally, he is a very fast sprinter. If he joins the right break, he will be very hard to drop on the climb and it is hard to imagine that anyone will be able to beat him in a sprint. Hence, he is our stage winner pick for this stage.
Rafal Majka’s podium ambitions were dealt a blow in today’s stage and so the main goal for the Pole will probably be to defend his fourth place. This could open the door for some of his teammates to go on the attack. Pawel Poljanski has been extremely strong in this race and just seems to get better as the race goes on. He has proved to be one of the best climbers in this race which he again confirmed when he dropped his companions in the breakaway on stage 13. Back then, the finale was not hard enough for him. Tomorrow’s stage suits him a lot better. Furthermore, he is a good descender and reasonably fast so he has the skills to win this stage.
Jose Goncalves is enjoying a breakthrough race. He doesn’t seem to be as strong as he was earlier in the race but he is still riding at very high level. He proved his good condition in today’s time trial and tomorrow he will try to go on the attack. He is not a climber and the final climb may be a bit too long for him but with his good condition he may be able to hang onto his companions. Finally, he is very fast in a sprint.
Nelson Oliveira is in the form of his life. He has already won one stage in this race but there is no reason that he can’t do it again. He is no climber but he has managed to stay with the best on the climbs for a very long time so this finale is unlikely to be too hard for him. He has shown no signs of fatigue yet and this is very important at this point of the race. There is a big chance that he will be in the break but as he is not fast in a sprint he needs to drop his companions to win the stage.
Jose Joaquin Rojas has underlined that he is much more than a sprint and he has proved that in this race. He was third on the Alto Campoo which proves just how well he is climbing. This climb is obviously a bit long but as it never gets very steep he may be able to hang onto the best if he joins the right break and he obviously has the sprint to finish it off.
If Movistar miss the move and bring the race back together, Alejandro Valverde is the favourite. The Spaniard has looked very tired but today’s time trial proved that he still has something left. Tomorrow’s final climb should not be hard for anyone to distance the Movistar rider who is also an excellent descender. Among the GC riders, he is by far the fastest in a sprint.
Only two riders can realistically beat him in a final dash to the line. One of them is Tom Dumoulin who is one of the most complete riders in the peloton. He is very fast in a sprint, especially if it is slightly uphill. He was second in the GP Quebec last year so it won’t be impossible for him to beat Valverde. With bonus seconds on the line, there is no doubt that he will give it a try.
The other threat to Valverde in a sprint is Daniel Moreno. The Katusha rider is faster than his captain Joaquim Rodriguez in a flat sprint so he will probably be given his chance. He is riding well so he will be strong enough to stay with the best. It won’t be easy to beat Valverde but it won’t be impossible.
Like Movistar, Sky will do their utmost to join the break as they want to win the teams classification. They have several in-form riders who climb well enough to win this kind of stage. Vasil Kiryienka is very strong on the flats and the climbs but needs to drop his companions to win the stage just like Ian Boswell. Geraint Thomas, Nicolas Roche and Sergio Henao will have a better chance as they are also fast in a sprint.
Etixx-QuickStep are still in search of that elusive stage win and tomorrow they have at least two good cards to play. Maxime Bouet and Pieter Serry are both suited to this finale as they are good climbers and fast in a sprint. Both have shown reasonable condition.
The stage is pretty similar to the Tour de France stage that finished in Gap. That stage was won by Ruben Plaza who will again try to join the breaks tomorrow. He is not in his Tour condition but his TT proved that he is riding well. He won’t win a sprint but like in Gap he may be strong enough to drop his companions on the climb.
We haven’t seen much from Simon Gerrans in this race as he has mostly been supporting Esteban Chaves. However, it is about time that he tests himself for the Worlds and he claims to be riding pretty well. The final climb is a bit too long to suit him well but he may get back on the descent and then use his fast sprint.
Finally, Jerome Coppel and Fabio Duarte deserve a mention. Both have shown good condition and have the skills to win this stage. Coppel is not fast in a sprint but is climbing well enough to drop his companions. Duarte is very inconsistent and will have a hard time in the flat first part. However, if he gets into the right move, his good climbing legs and fast sprint make him a great winner candidate.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Giovanni Visconti (breakaway)
Other winner candidates: Pawel Poljanski (breakaway), Jose Goncalves (breakaway)
Outsiders: Nelson Oliveira (breakaway), Jose Joaquin Rojas (breakaway), Alejandro Valverde, Tom Dumoulin, Daniel Moreno
Jokers: Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas, Sergio Henao, Ian Boswell, Nicolas Roche, Pieter Serry, Maxime Bouet, Ruben Plaza, Simon Gerrans, Jerome Coppel, Fabio Duarte (all from a breakaway)
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