The GC riders had hoped for an easy stage but instead they got a very stressful ride to Murcia that will have left some tired legs before they head into the next big battle. Stage 9 offers an uphill finish on one of the famous Spanish walls whose brutally steep gradients will offer a final opportunity to gain some time before the first rest day.
After one day to recover, it is back into climbing mode for the GC riders in the final big test of the first part of the race. The Vuelta has always included finishes on very steep walls and despite the 2015 edition holding fewer of those finales, there will be such a challenge on the 9th day of the race. The explosive climb of the Alto de Puig Llorenca will offer the punchy climbers a final chance before the ascents get longer in the second week of the race.
The riders have reached the eastern coast of the country and it is time to head the Pyrenees in the north. The 168.3km stage brings the riders from Torrevieja to Dumbre del Sol-Benitatxell and will offer them a long day with stunning views along the coast. The first 120km take place entirely on the coastal road as the riders head to the northeast in completely flat terrain.
In the city of Moraira, they will head inlands to hit the circuit that will host the final part of the stage. It starts when they hit the bottom of the Alto de Puig Llorenca which is also the final climb of the race. This time they won’t go all the way to the top though and so it will only be a category 2 climb (3.3km, 8.9%) this time. The summit comes with 41.9km to go. After the descent, the riders will head back into flat terrain for the next part of the circuit and will contest the intermediate sprint in Javea with 13.3km to go.
In the second part of the circuit, there is a small climb to warm up the legs before the riders descend to the bottom of the final climb. This time they will go all the way to the top, meaning that it is a 4.1km climb category 1 ascent with an average gradient of 8.9%. It is a typical Spanish wall with deceptive numbers as the first 2km are easy at 5.33%. Then the riders get to a 500m section of 19% before a short flat section leads to the final 1300m during which the gradient hovers around 9-11%. The riders will take a sharp turn with 3.9km to go and then there are some sweeping turns as they go up the climb. With 700m to go, they will make a 150-degree turn to leave the big road and the original circuit to head all the way to the top, with a final hairpin turn coming 500m from the line. There are ramps of 13%, 16% and 26% inside the final kilometre.
The final climb has never been used in the Vuelta and not hosted a major bike race for more than a decade.
The riders have left Andalusia and the extreme heat and as they travel further north, the temperatures will be a bit more bearable. In fact, tomorrow will be cloudier than the first week even though the sun should come through in the second part of the race. The maximum temperature at the finish will be 29 degrees.
There will be a light wind from a northerly direction which means that the riders will have a cross-headwind almost all day. There will mainly be a crosswind on the climb and then a headwind on the descent. Then the riders will have every kind of wind direction as they go around the circuit, with a tailwind leading to the bottom of the final climb. Interestingly, there will mainly be a headwind in the final kilomtre.
Stage 8 was always going to be a fast stage which would leave little room for recovery for the GC riders. However, few would have expected the drama that saw Peter Sagan being robbed what looked like a guaranteed stage win and overall contenders Tejay van Garderen and Daniel Martin crash out of the race. With the first hour being very fast, Tinkoff-Saxo and Giant-Alpecin chasing hard all day and a very aggressive finale where many GC riders even went on the attack, the main contenders definitely had a stressful day. That will certainly leave some tired legs for tomorrow’s stage, especially as this will be the ninth race day in a row.
There are still two stages left before we get to the first rest day and while stage 10 should be very similar to today’s, tomorrow’s stage is a chance for the GC riders to make a difference. Alto de Puig Llorenca is a typical Spanish wall with some very steep gradients and a finale for the true specialists. With the first 2km being pretty easy, the steep part is 2km long and this makes it very similar to the Mur de Huy. This is not a stage that will create massive time differences but it will definitely open gaps between the overall contenders and we should get further indications about the true form of the main riders.
Today it took quite some time for the early break to be formed as everybody knew that a strong group had a chance. After the break made it yesterday, a lot of riders will be inspired to try again tomorrow. The main teams have been looking a bit too much at each other and if that kind of tactical battle continues, another surprise win could be in store. Hence, we should have another fast start but it won’t take an hour for the break to be formed. Stage 10 stands out as a better opportunity for many riders, especially as the finale is a lot easier, so many will be keen to save some energy.
We now have very big time gaps in the overall standings so again Orica-GreenEDGE can probably let the break ride away. It will be left to other teams to try to chase it down and it shouldn’t take too long for Katusha to come to the fore. This finale has Joaquim Rodriguez written all over it and stands out as one of his best chances in the entire race. He needs a stage win and the bonus seconds so this stage is likely to be firmly controlled by the Russian team. It is also a pretty good finish for Alejandro Valverde but Movistar have already done a lot of work so they are likely to take a back seat. Instead, we could again see Astana lend a hand as Fabio Aru will be motivated after his strong showing in the first mountain stage.
The riders will follow the coastal road in the first part of the stage and this could create some nervousness but as it will mainly be a cross-headwind, there should be no danger. Hence, it will be less stressful and the racing shouldn’t start for real before we get to the climb for the first time. Of course we will have a big battle for position but apart from a few attacks from some of the smaller riders, the first passage should do no more than create a first selection as it comes way too fast from the finish.
With Katusha keen on a stage win, the break is likely to be caught in time for the final climb. The intermediate sprint comes relatively late in the stage and if Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez or other GC contenders can pick up bonus seconds without too much effort, they are likely to do so.
In the end, it is all likely to come down to a battle between the best climbers in this very special finale. On such a short climb, it will be very important to be in a good position so the key point will be to start the climb near the front. Then it will be all about timing. In this kind of finish, lots of riders will fade if they go full gas too early and it usually requires some experience to handle this kind of challenge. With 26% ramps inside the final kilometre, it is important to save something for the very end.
Esteban Chaves doesn’t have that kind of experience but he seems to be very mature. He has handled the first week extremely well and he is not showing any sign of fatigue yet. Until now he has clearly been the strongest rider in the race, dropping everybody else in both stages 2 and 6. In the first mountaintop finish, he wisely focused on the most dangerous riders and so allowed Fabio Aru to ride away. However, his big surge inside the final kilometre proved that he was probably again the strongest rider in the race.
Chaves is a climber but he is fast in this kind of finish too. It is no coincidence that his first two wins have come in puncheur finales and the steeper gradients in this stage should actually suit him even better. He may not have the kick of Valverde or Rodriguez but at the moment he seems to be stronger than the two Spanish veterans. Furthermore, he doesn’t need to ride aggressively so there is no big risk that he will make a big acceleration too early. In fact, he can just follow wheels before accelerating inside the final kilometre. We doubt that anyone will be able to follow him so Chaves is our favourite to win the stage.
Nairo Quintana has had a slow start to this race and he was far from impressive in stage 2. However, he is clearly getting better and he looked very comfortable yesterday. Tomorrow’s final climb is usually too explosive for him but at this point in a grand tour, it is more about good legs that punchy climbing skills. Just remember how well Quintana rode in the Tour de France stage to Mende which is not too different from this one. On that day, he was stronger than Valverde and even though this climb suits his Spanish teammate better, we believe that the Colombian is currently riding stronger. He likes these very steep gradients and as it all comes down to the legs, we expect him to be among the very best.
Fabio Aru was always going to be strong in this race but after he crashed in stage 2, he clearly suffered. He didn’t suffer any big time losses but he was not as strong as usual in the many explosive finishes. However, he turned everything around in yesterday’s stage where he put in a very strong attack. Of course not everybody tried to follow but it clearly underlined that he is one of the strongest riders in this race.
Aru doesn’t have an awful lot of experience in this kind of finish and so it is hard to say what he can do. However, he was very strong in last year’s stage to La Camperona which was pretty similar to this one. He should be able to do well as he excels on the steepest gradients and is pretty explosive too. Until now, Astana haven’t had much success but tomorrow may be the day when Aru turns it around.
On paper this is a very good finish for Alejandro Valverde who has won Fleche Wallonne two years in a row. However, we haven’t been very impressed by the Spaniard in the last few stages. He was strong in stage 4 but he has been below his best in the many finales that have been tailor-made for him. He has always been with the best so he is clearly riding well but we are not sure that he has the legs to win tomorrow’s stage. However, we may be wrong and Valverde is always dangerous in this kind of finale as he has lots of experience in timing his moves.
A few years ago, Joaquim Rodriguez would have been unbeatable in this stage and his stage win on the Mur de Huy in the Tour proves that he still has what it takes to win this kind of stage. However, the Spaniard hasn’t been impressive in this race. He started really strongly in stage 2 but since then he has been below his best. Yesterday he was clearly suffering and had to dig deep just to stay with the best. The long, relatively easy climb didn’t suit him too well and he should be more comfortable on the steepest gradients. If he has his usual kick, no one will be able to follow him when he takes off but we doubt that he has.
Rafal Majka got the race off to a bad start but the Pole has been one of the strongest in the last few stages. He doesn’t have an awful lot of experience in these stages but he is usually strong on steep gradients and pretty explosive too. He is unlikely to win a direct battle with the best but if he manages to anticipate them as he tried yesterday, he could win this stage.
Chris Froome suffered in yesterday’s stage but it is too early to write the double Tour winner off. Last year he was riding very inconsistently. In fact, he suffered on some of the longer climbs while he did two of his best stages on short steep walls like this one. He is a former winner on the Pena Cabarga and was probablu the strongest in Huy at the Tour. Of course he doesn’t have the same legs but last year’s race proves that he has the ability to turn things around in this kind of finale.
Until now, we have barely seen Domenico Pozzovivo who has been waiting for his terrain to arrive. The Italian is a pure climber who excels on the steepest slopes and so the final climb should be very good for him. In fact, he is also pretty explosive as he has often been among the best in the many Italian one-day races. He has flown a bit under the radar so he won’t be too heavily marked in the finale and this year he has proved that he has the right aggressive mindset.
Nobody really expected Louis Meintjes to be a GC contender in this race as this is his second grand tour in a row. However, the South African has been riding extremely well and is clearly one of the best climbers in the race. He has been up there in all the uphill finishes apart from stage 4 where he lost ground due to a crash. He is not very explosive so this is not really a climb for him but he won’t be too heavily marked if he launches an attack.
This is not really a climb for Mikel Nieve as it is way too short. However, the Basque is riding extremely well in this race as he has been up there in finales that didn’t suit him at all. In the Tour de Pologne, he proved that he is not afraid of attacking in finales like this one and he also made a few moves yesterday. Sky are likely to have strength in numbers and an in-form Nieve could be the one to benefit.
Nicolas Roche is another strong Sky card. The Irishman is riding really well and he likes these short climbs. This one is probably too steep to really suit him but he has the right mindset to go on the attack. The main problem is that he is a potential threat to the red jersey which means that Chaves is likely to keep him under control.
Daniel Moreno is a real specialist in these finales. Two years ago he dominated these explosive stages completely and also won Fleche Wallonne. However, he has never regained the same level and in this race he again seems to be below his best. He will probably be riding in support of Rodriguez but could also be used to cover some of the early attacks. If that’s the case, you can never rule Moreno out in this kind of finale. The same goes for Sergio Henao who really likes these walls but is not at his best.
Finally, Mikel Landa and Pello Bilbao deserve a mention. The Basque is not an explosive climber and is clearly not at his Giro level. However, he should get better as the race goes on and he is comfortable on the steepest gradients – just recall how he won the stage to the Alto de Aia in Pais Vasco. He won’t win a direct battle with the best but he could anticipate them. Bilbao has been riding really well and this is the kind of short climb that he likes. He saved energy in yesterday’s big mountain stage and then put his sprinting skills on show in today’s stage. It will be hard for him to win the stage but he has the explosiveness to create a surprise.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Esteban Chaves
Other winner candidates: Nairo Quintana, Fabio Aru
Outsiders: Alejandro Valverde, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rafal Majka, Chris Froome, Domenico Pozzovivo
Jokers: Louis Meintjes, Mikel Nieve, Nicolas Roche, Daniel Moreno, Sergio Henao, Miel Landa, Pello Bilbao
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