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Who'll win the most important preparation race for the Vuelta a Espana?

Photo: Sirotti




01.08.2016 @ 23:59 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

The Tour de Pologne and the Clasica San Sebastian were the first steps in the preparation for the Vuelta a Espana and this week the build-up for the final grand tour of the season continues with the traditional warm-up event, Vuelta a Burgos. After a few years with less star-studded line-ups, the race has enjoyed a renaissance for the 2016 season and has attracted a formidable field as riders like Alberto Contador, Samuel Sanchez, Simon Yates and Gianluca Brambilla are among the riders that are set to put their final touches to their Vuelta form in the mountainous and windy event in the northern part of Spain where the traditional queen stage to Lagunas De Neila on Saturday will be a key indicator of who’s on form fir the final three-week race of the year.


It's part of the anatomy of the cycling calendar that every grand tour is preceded by a short warm-up stage race in a mountainous part of the host country. The Giro contenders use the extremely mountainous Giro del Trentino to prepare for the biggest Italian race while the Tour favourites head to the Alps and the Dauphiné to finish off their build-up for the world's biggest bike race. The Vuelta counterpart to those two races is the Vuelta a Burgos which starts on Tuesday and offers the riders for the Spanish grand tour a perfect opportunity to test themselves in high mountains, on short, explosive climbs and in fierce crosswinds - three challenges that often play a crucial role in determining the overall winner of the three-week Spanish race.


The Dauphiné is a WorldTour event and so is a highly prestigious event in its own right with all ProTeams lined up at the start line. The Trentino and Burgos races are only 2.HC races on the European Tour calendar and so their natures are more one of mere preparation for later targets. They have mostly been dominated by local riders while the international riders have often preferred to prepare in foreign countries.


In recent years, things have changed slightly. The race is Trentino has become a lot more international while the race in Burgos has lost some popularity. Like every other Spanish race, it has suffered in the tough economic climate and so it has had a field dominated by Spanish teams in recent years. This year things have turned completely around though. No less than 13 of the 18 WorldTour teams will be in attendance and the race has really returned to its roots as the preferred test event for the Spanish grand tour.


The Olympics probably plays a key role in the revival. This time of the season has usually been loaded with short stage races and especially the Tour de Pologne has really developed into a tough rival for the Vuelta a Burgos. However, many of the smaller races have preferred to change their date to avoid a conflict with the Games in Rio and the Tour de Pologne was even held already in the middle of July. This has left riders in desperate search of a race to prepare for the Vuelta and in an unusually quiet week, the Vuelta a Burgos and the Tour of Utah are the only options. It is no surprise that many have been attracted by the Spanish race as the calendar date and course turn it into the perfect build-up for the three weeks in Spain, and so the race has obtained a more international flavour and gained more prestige in its own right. At the same time, the race is one of the biggest on Spanish soil and for some of the smaller teams, it is one of the highlights of the entire season which guarantees a very aggressive and attractive race.


In years gone by, the grand tour favourites were never at their best and not in the running for the win in their preparation races but that trend appears to have changed in recent seasons. Using the Trentino and Dauphiné races as a gauge, the Vuelta a Burgos may be even more indicative of what will happen in the Vuelta than it has been in years past. Mikel Landa shone in the Giro del Trentino on his way to a solid start to his Giro campaign while Chris Froome stood atop the Dauphiné podium just a few weeks prior to the Grand Depart in Normandy. The late-season scheduling of the Vuelta may force the Vuelta favourites to ride a little bit more conservatively in Burgos than Landa and Froome did in their build-up events but we should still be much wiser when the race comes to its conclusion on Sunday.


Taking place in the Northern province of Burgos, the race was first held in 1946 but after its second running in 1947, it was shut down. Many years passed before the gauntlet was finally picked up again and the third edition of the race was held in 1981. Since then, the race has been an annual fixture on the UCI calendar and big riders like Marino Lejarreta, Pedro Delgado, Alex Zülle, Laurent Dufaux, Tony Rominger, Laurent Jalabert, Abraham Olano, Francisco Mancebo, Alejandro Valverde, Iban Mayo, Samuel Sanchez, Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana have all been crowned winners of the event. The race has been held in August since 1984 and since the Vuelta was only rescheduled from spring to autumn in 1995, it hasn't always had status as a preparation event. Since 1995, two riders have gone on from a Burgos win to triumph in the Vuelta: Abraham Olano in 1998 and Alejandro Valverde in 2009.


The course varies from year to year but one stage finish is always part of the build-up of the race: the feared summit finish on the Lagunas De Neila climb. With its status as decisive queen stage, the race to the beautiful nature park and its many lakes has often been held early in the race but since 2009 the race has come to a dramatic conclusion on the top of its most famous ascent. Traditionally, there has also been some kind of timed event - either an individual or a team time trial – and this year it is a collective test that will play a big role in the final outcome. That plays the cards into the hands of the pure climbers who excel on the Lagunas De Neila and who can limit their losses much better in a team time trial that they can in an individual event. Furthermore, the race has often been littered with short, steep finishing climbs but there won’t be many opportunities for the puncheurs in this year’s race.


It's not all about the climbs though. Taking place on the high, exposed plains in Burgos, the race is often heavily influenced by the strong winds that usually blow the race to pieces at least once every year. To come out triumphant, the climbers need to surround themselves by strong teams who can keep them protected when the crosswind attacks are launched. That part is also perfect preparation for the Vuelta which is also likely to see some crosswind action at some point during the race.


Some of the Vuelta favourites have raced the Tour and have to limit their racing to avoid getting too exhausted for the Spanish grand tour. Hence, there won't be any Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana on the start line in Burgos but that doesn't mean that we will lack the opportunity to gauge the form of some of the Vuelta contenders. Alberto Contador will use the race to fine-tune his form after his untimely abandonment from the Tour and the race is also the final test for riders like Samuel Sanchez, Simon Yates and Gianluca Brambilla who are likely to shine on the climbs in Spain later this month. Traditionally, the race has also been a happy hunting ground for riders benefiting from their Tour condition but that trend is less evident in 2016. Many of these riders will head to Rio instead and among the Tour riders, Domenico Pozzovivo stands out as the biggest name,


Last year Rein Taaramae started a fantastic month of August in the best possible way by taking the overall victory. After his Astana team had won the team time trial, Miguel Angel Lopez won the first uphill finish and took over team leadership. However, Taaramae was far stronger than his teammate in the queen stage where he set the pace all the way from the bottom. Even though he was unable to go with Daniel Moreno’s big attack in the finale, he limited his losses enough to take the overall win with a 2-second advantage over his teammate Michele Scarponi. Moreno was nine seconds behind in third.


The course

The Vuelta a Burgos has usually included a time trial – either an individual or a team test – one or two potentially windy sprint stages, one or two stages for the puncheurs and the traditional queen stage to the top of the famous climb at Lagunas De Neila. This year it follows the traditional format and there aren’t many surprises when it comes to the route. Overall the course is a bit easier than it has been in the past and again it will be the queen stage and the time trial that will be the key stages.


For the second year in a row, the time trial will be one for teams and like last year the queen stage will come on the final stage. There will be no other uphill finish and the traditional puncheur stages have been abandoned. Instead, the race is more suited to sprinters and classics riders than it has been in the past as stages 1, 3 and 4 all have flat finishes. However, they all take place on the windy plains of Burgos where the crosswinds can potentially wreak havoc on the field.


Stage 1

The sprinters have traditionally had a few chances in Burgos and this year they will have even more than usual. The first one should come already on the first day when the riders will tackle 158km from Sasamon to Melgar de Fernamental. First the riders will do a 78km loop before returning to the start city. Along the way, they will tackle the only category 3 climb at the 26km mark. From there, they will head to the finish where they will end the race by doing one lap of a flat 40km circuit. The final turn comes at the flamme rouge and then the 6-7m wide road bends slightly to the left and is very slightly uphill.


This year there are more sprinters than usual at the Spanish race and they all want to test themselves in this stage. Hence, there is little doubt that it should be a day for the sprinters but the racing could very well be dramatic. Crosswinds have often split the race to pieces and if Tuesday is a windy day, a lot can happen on what will otherwise be a straightforward stage for the sprinters.




Stage 2

The first of the two key stages for the GC comes on the second day when the rides will tackle the 10.7km team time trial around the city of Burgos. The start is very technical with numerous turns and then the riders will head up the Alto del Castillo climb which comes after 5km of racing. Then it’s back into flat terrain for the final part of the race where the course again becomes more technical with numerous turns and roundabouts. However, the roads are completely flat.


The stage is close to being the reverse stage of the one that was used one year ago but last year, the riders did a few more kilometres in both ends of the stage to increase the distance to 13.14km. However, the courses are still very similar and last year’s stage says a lot about what to expect. Back then Astana beat Caja Rural and Movistar by 28 seconds while Katusha was 4 seconds further adrift in fourth. Murias Taldea was last and lost 56 seconds to the winners. An average speed of more than 53km/h indicates that it’s not as slow as one could expect and even though there is a small climb, it’s a great course for the teams that really specialize in the discipline. With more strong teams and a shorter distance, the gaps will be smaller but it will still be a key stage for all the riders who hope to win the race overall.




Stage 3

The sprinters should be back in action for the third stage but this time they won’t have it all their way as they need to overcome a tough climb in the finale. The course will bring the riders over 198km from Sedano to Villarcayo and is mostly flat. The opening section includes just a single climb after 56km of racing and then the riders will cross the finish line for the first time at the 112km mark. In the end, they will do one two laps of a 42.5km circuit that includes the category 3 climb of Alto Retuerta 22km from the finish. After the descent, the riders will head along flat roads to the finish where the slightly downhill sprint comes at the end of a long, straight road of more than 2km.


The late climb could be a challenge for some of the pure sprinters but it comes too far from the finish for anyone to really make a big move. Hence, it should be another day for the fast guys even though the field may be a bit smaller in the end. Again the key danger will be the wind which can potentially create carnage at any point of the race.




Stage 4

When they saw this year’s course, the sprinters had every reason to be pleased. After two flat stages, there is another relatively easy day on the penultimate stage byt this time an cobbled 700m climb in the end will make it a stage more for punchier riders than pure sprinters. The stage will bring the riders over 145km from Aranda de Duero to Lera. The opening section will lead the riders onto the circuit where they will tackle the key category 3 clib of Alto del Majadal after 55km of racing. From there they will head to the finish before doing one full lap of the 59km circuit. This means that the riders will tackle the climb again with 31km to go before they will head along lumpy roads to the finish where the final 700m are all uphill on a very narrow 3-5m wide road with cobbles. The final 300m average 6% but the road is straight as the final turn comes at the bottom of the climb.


The final climb means that this is a stage more for classics riders and puncheurs than pure sprinters but many of the fast guys here can handle this kind of finale too. There is little doubt that the teams of riders like Carlos Barbero, Gianni Meersman and Danny Van Poppel should control this stage as it’s a finish that suit them well. Hence, we should have another sprint finish but again the GC riders have to be attentive. The crosswinds are again a potential danger as are the splits that will occur in the finale.



Stage 5

For the GC riders, this year’s Vuelta a Burgos is a long waiting game until they can finally show their cards on the final day which is the day of the traditional queen stage to Lagunas De Neila. The 163km between Caleruega and Lagunas De Neila follow the traditional pattern as a mostly flat first half with just two small category 3 climbs leads to the difficult second half. Here the category 2 climb of Alto del Gargardero serves as a warm-up before the riders get to the finishing circuit. Here they will first tackle the category 2 climb of Alto del Collado before they get to the final climb for the first time. This time they won’t go all the way to the top and instead they will start a descent with 30km to go before tackling the Alto del Collado for the second time. At the top, only 11km remain and they consist of a short descent and the final 7.8km climb which averages 8.76%. The first three kilometres aren’t that hard but then the climb gets really difficult. The third last kilometre averages 9.7%, the penultimate kilometre is the steepest at 11.9% and then it eases off a bit in the end as the final kilometre is ‘only’ uphill at 7.5%.


The climb to Lagunas De Neila is always where the Vuelta a Burgos is decided and why this is a race for climbers. It’s a very steep climb but it’s also relatively short and this means that it is better suited to some of the classics riders than the pure climbers. This is reflected by the fact that Daniel Moreno is the latest winner. The list of winners here is a star-studded one and shows that only the best can come out on too on one of the most legendary climbs in Spain. Other recent winners are Nairo Quintana (2014 and 2013), Esteban Chaves (2012), Mikel Landa (2011), Samuel Sanchez (2010), Ezequiel Mosquera (2009), Juan Jose Cobo (2008), Mauricio Soler (2007), Iban Mayo (2006), Juan Carlos Dominguez (2005), Alejandro Valverde (2004), Dave Bruylandts (2003), Michael Rasmussen (2002), Juan Miguel Mercado (2001) and Leonardo Piepoli (2000 and 1999)




The favourites

The 2016 edition of the Vuelta a Burgos seems to be slightly easier than it has been in the past few years but that won’t change the nature of the race much. As usual, three elements will decide the race: the queen stage, the team time trial and potential splits in the crosswinds.


With fewer uphill finishes, the climbers will have fewer chances to make a difference so the team time trial will be more important than usual. This makes it even more crucial to have a strong team and as last year’s race shows, a good performance in the team time trial can be enough to win the race even if you fail to win the queen stage. The importance of the team will be enhanced even more by the fact that Thursday and Friday will be pretty windy and with more WorldTour teams in attendance, the fight for position will be greater. In the past, the lack of big teams have meant that the key names have all made the selection in the wind but this year things could be different.


Overall the race suits Simon Yates pretty well. The Brit has just returned from suspension after his Orica-BikeExchange team failed to apply for a TUE for his asthma medication but he has been on fire right since his first racing kilometres. He suffered in the cold at the Tour de Pologne but then claimed his first pro win with a dominant showing in Klasika Ordizia. Despite his lack of racing, he was one of the best in the Clasica San Sebastian where he finished seventh and if he had been a bit more patient, he might even have been part of the race-winning move. One day later he confirmed his form by finishing second in the uphill sprint at Circuito del Getxo.


Yates is in excellent condition and he will only get stronger as he gets more racing in his legs and continues to build for the Vuelta a Espana. The relatively short, steep climb to Lagunas De Neila suits him well and Orica-BikeExchange is traditionally among the best in the team time trials. They don’t have their best team here but they should still be among the strongest and Yates should be able to limit his losses. We doubt that anyone will be able to match the in-form Brit in the queen stage and so he is our favourite to win the race.


Alberto Contador is of course the biggest name at the start but the Spaniard is far from his best condition. He crashed out of the Tour and even though he claims that he is feeling pretty good, he admits that he is not in his Tour de France form. That was evident in the Clasica San Sebastian where he was unable to follow the best.


Contador goes into this race with the goal to improve his form and he doesn’t have a big focus on the result. However, the Spaniard is always riding for the win and there is little doubt that he would love to come out on top in one of the few Spanish races he hasn’t won yet. On paper, he is the best climber here and he benefits from the fact that the queen stage comes late in the race where his form will have improved and where he can benefit from his great recovery. He won’t be caught out in the crosswinds and Tinkoff should do reasonably well in the team time trial even though they are not the favourites for that stage.


Etixx-QuickStep are led by Gianluca Brambilla who has had a bit of a breakthrough season. He has already won two races this year, including a stage in the Giro d’Italia, and he was close to becoming national champion too. He returned with a bang at Clasica San Sebastian where he finished sixth and this proves that his form is great. He is not a pure climber but the relatively short, steep climb in the queen stage should suit him well. However, his main asset is his team as Etixx-QuickStep should be among the best in the team time trial. If he can gain some time here and limit his losses in the queen stage, this is a race that he can definitely win.


Movistar are here without any of their leaders and this should give one of their domestiques a chance to shine. Ruben Fernandez is the most obvious candidate as he showed great form at the Tour de Pologne where he was one of the best on the climbs. The former Tour de l’Avenir winner will be keen to grab this chance and he benefits from a strong team for the team time trial where Alex Dowsett will be a big engine. He is a bit inconsistent but if he has maintained the legs he had in Poland, Fernandez has a chance to take a breakthrough win here.


Samuel Sanchez is a former winner of the race but this year he is mainly here to prepare for the Vuelta a Espana. He made his return to competition at the Clasica San Sebastian where he worked for his team and so it is hard to gauge his form. However, he usually needs quite a bit of racing to reach peak form so this race probably comes a bit too early for him. On the other hand, BMC have one of the best teams for the team time trial and Sanchez has been flying all year. If his form is better than expected, a good TTT may be enough to win the race.


Astana won the race last year and they are back with last year’s runner-up Michele Scarponi. He hasn’t raced since the Tour de Suisse so his form is a bit of a question mark. He is likely to be preparing for the Vuelta so he shouldn’t be too bad and in the Giro he proved that he is still one of the best climbers in the world. In the past, he didn’t need much racing to return to peak form so if he has the Giro legs, he could be the best in the queen stage. Astana have a solid team with some big engines for the team time trial so if they can limit their losses here, it’s a good race for Scarponi.


The race is loaded with young guns who hope to shine here. One of them is Hugh Carthy who has had a bit of a breakthrough season. He finished in the top 10 in an outstanding field at the Volta a Catalunya and won the Vuelta Asturias overall. He has confirmed his potential on numerous occasions and is now building for a likely Vuelta debut. However, his form doesn’t seem to be optimal yet and even though Caja Rural did a good TTT last year, he is likely to lose too much time here to be a real winning candidate.


Katusha will give talented Matvey Mamykin a chance to ride for himself. The Russian had a slow start to the year but from the Tour de Suisse he has shown his class. He rode well in Poland and he should find the tough queen stage to his liking. Katusha may even be the favourite for the team time trial and if he can gain some time here, a breakthrough win could be on the cards.


Sky are here without any of their leaders so it could be a chance for Sebastian Henao and Ian Boswell. None of them have raced since June so no one knows how they are going. They have both shown flashes of their potential and proved that they can climb with the best but they are also very inconsistent. As their form is up in the air, everything can happen but at least they will be supported by a solid team for the TTT.


Domenico Pozzovivo is the big name coming from the Tour de France and as always, it’s a bit of a lottery to come out of a grand tour. However, he has already done two three-week races and he has never returned to his best following his dramatic crash at last year’s Giro. He wasn’t very strong at the end of the Tour so it requires a bit of a turnaround to win this race. On the other hand, Ag2r actually have an unusually good team for the team time trial so he may be able to do well here. As the only climber coming from the Tour, it may be possible for him to win.


Movistar have more cards to play with Jose Herrada and Javier Moreno. Both have shown great form recently, with Herrada finishing third in Getxo and Moreno taking fourth in Ordizia. Both benefit from having a strong team but their top level is probably not high enough to go for the win.


Finally, we will point to Alexander Foliforov and Sergey Firsanov. The pair of Gazprom-Rusvelo riders have had a great year, with the former winning the mountain TT at the Giro and the latter riding extremely well in the spring. Foliforov showed decent from in Wallonia and this race suits him much better. Firsanov has been far from his best since the Giro but on paper he is one of the best climbers here. If he has suddenly found some form, he could be one of the best. Both will benefit from their team as Gazprom-Rusvelo is traditionally one of the best in team time trials.


***** Simon Yates

**** Alberto Contador, Gianluca Brambilla

*** Ruben Fernandez, Samuel Sanchez, Michele Scarponi

** Hugh Carthy, Sebastian Henao, Matvey Mamykin, Domenico Pozzovivo, Jose Herrada, Javier Moreno, Alexander Foliforov, Ian Boswell, Sergey Firsanov

* Ben Hermans, Giovanni Visconti, Evgeny Shalunov, David De La Cruz, Peter Kennaugh, Moreno Moser, Jaime Roson, Sergio Pardilla, David Arroyo, Igor Anton, Floris De Tier, Mikel Bizkarra



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