Nairo Quintana never seemed to be in trouble on Alto de Aitana and is now poised to win his second grand tour. While the Colombian will enjoy what he hopes to be a safe and spectacular in Madrid, the few sprinters in the race are ready to battle it out one final time and with the many different winners in the bunch sprints so far, the scene is set for a very open fight in one of the most prestigious stages on the cycling calendar.
While the Giro d’Italia has changed its finishing city on several occasions and have alternated a bit between sprint stages and time trials for the final day, the Tour de France and the Vuelta a Espana have been a lot more conservative. Since 1990, the French race has always finished with a flat road stage in Paris, with the Champs-Elysees being the most famous cycling avenue due to its role in the biggest race in the world. The Vuelta organizers have experimented a bit more but in recent years they have almost always had a flat sprint stage in Madrid on the final day. In 2014, their desire to celebrate the 800th anniversary visit of St Francis of Assisi’s visit to Santiago de Compostela saw them change things by having a short time trial in that city but before that the stage hadn’t had a final time trial since 2004 and not finished outside Madrid since 1993.
Already in 2014, the organizers promised to return to tradition for the 2015 edition and this year it is again no surprise that the race ends with a flat stage to the capital. Like in the Tour, it is always a mostly ceremonial affair and so the organizers have made the wise decision to make it relatively short. At 104.1km, it is the shortest road stage of the race and brings the riders from the western suburb of Las Rozas to Madrid.
Like ASO now does at the Tour de France, Unipublic have also shortened the first part of the course which is where the riders celebrate their achievements by riding at a slow pace. Hence, they will only do a very small loop around the start area before heading directly towards the city centre along completely flat roads. Already after 57.7km of racing, they will cross the finish line for the first time. The final part of the stage is made up of 8 laps of a 5.8km finishing circuit that is completely flat. It is the same circuit that has been used in the past and is well-known by most of the riders. It is T-shaped and includes three U-turns and two 90-degree turns but otherwise is held on wide and straight roads. The final turn comes at the flamme rouge and then it is a straight, very slightly ascending road to the finish on Plaza Cibeles in the heart of Madrid.
As said, the race skipped its usual finish in Madrid in 2014 but apart from that it has finished in the capital every year since 1993. John Degenkolb won in 2015 and Michael Matthews took victory in 2013. John Degenkolb completed a memorable race by taking the win in 2012. Peter Sagan won the final stage of his debut grand tour in 2011 while Tyler Farrar beat Mark Cavendish in 2010. André Greipel came out on top in 2009 and Matti Breschel was the surprise winner in 2008. Daniele Bennati continued a great Vuelta by winning the stage in 2007 and Erik Zabel took the win in 2006. Alessandro Petacchi and the Italians practiced their lead-out for the Worlds in 2005 to deliver the fastman to another victory while Santiago Perez was the last rider to win a TT in 2004. Petacchi was again the fastest in 2003 and Aitor Gonzalez took the overall victory by winning a TT in 2002. In 2001, Santiago Botero won a TT and it was Santos Gonzalez who came out on top in race against the clock in 2000. In 1999, Jeroen Blijlevens took a sprint win.
It’s only fitting that a hot race ends in brutal heat. Sunday will be a day of bright sunshine and a maximum temperature of 34 degrees and it will only be slightly colder for the evening stage.
There will be a light wind from a southerly direction which means that the rides will mainly have a headwind in the first part. On the finishing circuit, there will be a headwind in the middle section and a tailwind on the finishing straight.
Chris Froome has unfairly been criticized for a lack of aggression for years. However, the Brit has always been one of the most attacking riders in the peloton which his huge number of solo wins on mountaintop finishes is a testament to. If the races have been boring, it has been due to superiority, not an unentertaining riding style, and today the Brit again put on a show. Like we wrote yesterday, the combination of a headwind and gentle gradients always made it an impossible mission to distance Quintana but he gave it a wholehearted try. His number of attacks were countless and even in the final kilometre where there was nothing to gain – not even the stage win – he kept trying. His impressive fighting spirit was unrewarded though and he has to settle for a third second place in the race.
There is little doubt that Quintana is the deserved winner of the race. The Colombian had the braveness to make a big gamble at a time when he found himself in a very difficult situation. If he hadn’t surprised everybody on the stage to Formigal, Froome would have won the race with a big margin. Of course the final two mountain stages would have panned out differently but on Aubisque, Froome proved that he was able to match Quintana on the climbs. Just like Froome was never going to drop Quintana, Quintana would have had very little chance against Froome in today’s stage to Aitana.
Froome went into the race with one goal: to a ride a defensive race and make the difference in the time trial. The strategy almost worked out but he made two mistakes: he was inattentive in the stage to Formigal and he got carried away on La Camperona. Without those errors, he would have won the race comfortably. However, he can still go home with the confidence that he has proved that his elusive dream of the Tour-Vuelta double is a very realistic goal and he seems to finally have got rid of his tendency to fade in the same week.
Chaves can take comfort from exactly the same fact. He may have finished third in the Giro but this achievement is far bigger and more promising. The level in the Vuelta was much higher and he proved to himself that he can maintain his level for three weeks. His new strategy of going into the race at 90% instead of starting with all guns blazing, paid off. He now just has to decide whether he will stick to his original goal of making a Tour de France debut in 2017 or whether it would be wiser to go for a very realistic victory in the Giro.
However, nothing is set in stone yet as there is still one very important stage left. The stage to Madrid may not carry the same prestige as the Paris stage in the Tour but it’s still a huge goal for every ambitious sprinter. This year it is even more exciting as there is no overwhelming favourite. In the last few years, John Degenkolb has usually arrived in Madrid as the man to beat but this year it seems like every fastman can realistically hope for victory.
The organizers have made the wise decision to make the stage very short, thus following the pattern of the Tour de France of shortening the ceremonial part and having more exciting in the end. We will have the usual ceremonial ride in the first part where the riders will celebrate their achievements, enjoy a bit of champagne and get photos taken. Movistar will gradually up the speed as we get closer to Madrid and then the race will start for real when the riders cross the finish line for the first time.
From this point, the race will be extremely fast. Usually a small group gets clear in the first two or three laps but they rarely get much of an advantage. In such a short stage, it is important not to let the situation get out of control so we can expect the sprint teams to come to the fore very early. In the last few sprint stages, there has been a big alliance between almost every single sprint team and we can expect Giant-Alpecin, Etixx-QuickStep, Dimension Data, Bora-Argon 18, IAM and BMC to all go all in for a bunch sprint. The gap will probably stay between 30 and 60 seconds for most of the stage.
In last year’s Giro, the breakaway created a big surprise but this is not the kind of circuit where it is possible to stay away. It’s a non-technical, high-speed circuit that clearly favours a big peloton and a final road stage in Madrid hasn’t been won by a breakaway for more than a decade. With so many ambitious sprinters, there is no chance that it won’t be a bunch kick.
Ane interesting battle is the one for the points jersey. Alejandro Valverde has won the green jersey three times during the last four years but he is now seven points behind Felline. In 2012, Rodriguez also went into the final stage as the leader in that classification but Valverde decided to mix it up in the bunch sprint to take the jersey off the shoulders of his compatriot. He is set to leave the race empty-handed so he will probably try again. He could get a first chance already in the intermediate sprint at the second passage of the line if the break has not gone clear at that point. Otherwise he may want to do the bunch sprint like he did in 2012 where he finished sixth. It won’t be easy to deny Felline who is usually a faster rider and has a better lead-out but in the last sprint stage, Felline lost Reijnen’s wheel and missed out completely. If it happens again, Valverde will be keen to grab the opportunity.
However, Valverde won’t win the stage as this is one for the pure sprinters.The finishing straight is very long and wide and as there will be a tailwind, it will be very fast. This is one for the really fast power sprinters and it should suit the fastest guys while lead-outs will be less important.
Magnus Cort is not a pure sprinter but in this race, there aren’t any of those. Hence, the Dane has emerged as the fastest rider in the race. He was the best in stage 2 which he would have won if he hadn’t been set back by a crash and then was taken out of contention in stage 5. He was not allowed to sprint in stage 16 and then defied team orders to take his chance in stage 18. Here he again proved that he is faster than everybody else in this race.
To make things even better, Cort is impressively fresh at the end of his debut grand tour. He has been climbing excellently in the mountains where he has been on the attack twice and today he played an integral role in setting Chaves up for his big attack. While many other sprinters have suffered a lot, Cort is definitely not on his knees. Furthermore, he may actually get some support in this stage. Simon Gerrans will probably have the job to keep Chaves safe while Yates has a big gap to De La Cruz and so can take care of himself. This should make it possible for Keukeleire to do the lead-out and Sam Bewley may also come into play. Cort has proved that he is a master in positioning and if he even gets decent support, he should be able to sprint from a good position. He likes an uphill sprint so the stars seem to align for him. Cort is our favourite to win the stage.
In stage 16, Jempy Drucker proved that he is one of the fastest here. This is no surprise. Already in our preview of stage 2, we made the claim that only Arndt and Bonifazio were faster. He was very consistent in 2015 and he did some excellent sprints in Burgos. Furthermore, he has the freshness and with Silvan Dillier and Danilo Wyss at his side, he has a solid team to position him. He is probably the best in the fight for position and unlike in stage 18, he didn’t do a lot of work in today’s stage. In an uphill sprint where it is all about speed, Drucker is one of the favourites.
On paper, Nikias Arndt is probably the best sprinter in the race but he has had no luck. On paper, he also has the best lead-out but the team failed completely in the first sprint stages. However, they were the dominant force in stage 18 and now seem to be on the rise. Koen De Kort is the best lead-out man in this race and in the Giro, Arndt proved that he is very strong at the end of a grand tour. However, he is clearly not riding as well as he did in Italy where he won the final stage following Nizzolo’s relegation. He has been set back by knee pain and today he even finished dead last. Nonetheless, he is one of the fastest riders here and with a good lead-out, he is definitely a force to be reckoned with.
Gianni Meersman has already won two stages but this one will be tricker for the Belgian. His two victories have been based more on excellent lead-outs than Meersman’s own speed. This power sprint is one for the pure sprinters and we are not sure that Meersman is fast enough to beat the faster guys. He still has the advantage of having the best lead-out as Etixx-QuickStep have only failed once: in stage 18 where they were completely out of position. Nonetheless, a Meersman win is definitely still possible if Etixx-QuickStep can again dominate things like they have done recently.
Rudiger Selig is probably the purest sprinter in this race. The German has mostly been doing the lead-outs for Michael Schwarzmann but when he got his chance in stage 16, he sprinted to second. Already before the race, he told radsport-news that this stage was his big goal and as he is more of a pure sprinter than Schwarzmann, he should be given the chance. With Schwarzmann, Pfingsten and Thwaites for the lead-out, he has one of the best trains and this should make him competitive here.
With Contador’s disappointing race, Daniele Bennati has been given an unexpected chance to do the sprints and he will be keen to win here for the second time in his career. This time he may even get some support. He is no longer willing to take big risks but in this race it won’t be necessary as it is more about speed. In the Tour of Denmark, Bennati proved that he is sprinting better than he has done for years. He definitely has a chance to save the race for Tinkoff on the final day.
Jonas Van Genechten has already won a stage but it won’t be easy to repeat that performance. He prefers uphill sprints and this one is a bit too flat for him. Furthermore, IAM don’t have many strong guys for the lead-out. On the other hand, Van Genechten has won a similar power sprint in the Tour de Pologne a few years ago so a win cannot be ruled out.
Kristian Sbaragli is one of the most consistent sprinters in the race but this stage is not ideal for him. He prefers hard races with a significant amount of climbing and this stage is simply too easy for him. Furthermore, the lead-out with Jaco Venter and Tyler Farrar has not worked very well. Sbaragli’s advantage is his freshness but it is unlikely to be enough to win the stage.
FDJ have Lorrenzo Manzin who has really taken a big step in this race after a disastrous start to the year. He failed to do a single good sprint in the early part of 2016 but in this race he has found his best form. He seems to be pretty fresh and he has a solid lead-out man in Matthieu Ladagnous. Unfortunately, he has been a bit ill but he seems to have recovered.
Fabio Felline will mainly have his eyes on the points jersey and he will probably do a ‘safe’ sprint to make sure that he scores points. Furthermore, this sprint is too easy for him and he doesn’t have the speed to compete with the faster guys. Nonetheless, you can’t rule him out completely. After all, we are at the end of a grand tour and he is much fresher than any of his rival sprinters.
Finally, we will again point to Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard won’t win the stage but don’t be surprised if he finishes close to the front. He will give the green jersey one final shot and he can do so without taking too many risks in a finale that is not very technical. If he grabs the right wheel, a top 3 is not impossible.
If you are looking for more sprinters, keep an eye on Gediminas Bagdonas, Jhonatan Restrepo, Tosh van der Sande, Yukiya Arashiro, Romain Hardy, Eduard Prades and Ryan Anderson.
CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Magnus Cort
Other winner candidates: Jempy Drucker, Nikias Arndt
Outsiders: Gianni Meersman, Rudiger Selig, Daniele Bennati
Jokers: Jonas Van Genechten, Kristian Sbaragli, Lorrenzo Manzin, Michael Schwarzmann, Fabio Felline, Alejandro Valverde
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