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Photo: Sirotti


27.03.2014 @ 15:10 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Joaquim Rodriguez won the first clash of the titans in an explosive finish that suited him down to the ground but he faces a much sterner test in tomorrow's queen stage. Unlike today's rather easy finisher climb, the long ascent up to the finish in Vallter 2000 is the kind of mountain that creates big differences and we should be in for a real spectacle when the top 4 from last year's Tour de France test themselves against each other in a true mountaintop finish.


The course

The riders will be left with tired legs after the previous day's climbing but things will only get tougher for Thursday which is the day of the queen stage. The 166.4km stage starts in Alp at the bottom of yesterday's finishing climb and ends at the top of the HC category climb to Alp-Vallter 2000-Setcases that also hosted a finish of last year's race.


The race will be off to a brutal start as the riders head directly up the category 1 Collada de Tosses (19.6km, 3.0%, max. 6%) which runs parallel with yesterday's finishing climb. Although being a long one, the climb is rather easy but should be the perfect scene for an early attack, making it very hard for the leading team to control things.


From the top, the riders take on a very long, technical descent, passing through the city of Planoles before reaching Ripoll down in the valley. There they turn left to go up the category 2 Alt de Canes (16km, 3.0%, max. 6%) that is more of a long, gradual uphill section than a real climb.


From the top 91.2km remain and they start off with a fast descent that only gets a bit technical near the bottom. Down in the valley, the riders follow slightly ascending  roads for a few kilometres, passing the first intermediate sprint 71.3km from the line.


A little later, the riders go up the category 1 Alt de Oix (7.7km, 5.3%, max. 10%) which is followed by a fast and technical  decent down to the city of Beget. This ends the descending part of the stage and the final 41.4km are either uphill or flat.


First up is the category 1 Alt de Rocabruna (7.5km, 5.6%, max. 14%) which isn't followed by any descent but just several kilometres of long, flat roads. The riders will do the final intermediate sprint 19.8km from the finish and after a short stretch of slightly ascending roads, it is time for the HC climb to the finish (12km, 7.8%, max. 12%).


Just before there flamme rouge there are several hairpin bends while the final kilometre is mostly a straight road but ends with two sharp corners and two hairpin bends that lead onto the short 50m finishing straight. From the 3 to 2km to go marks, the road rises at an average gradient of 5% but the penultimate kilometre is much harder. The first 500m have a gradient of 10% while the next 500m are even steeper at 12%. The final kilometre has a gradient of 9%.


The final climb is much harder than the easy one that ended the previous stage and we can expect to see much bigger time differences as the riders head up the many hairpin bends to the finish 2200m above sea level. The climb should be hard enough to make a selection but last year a fierce headwind made it difficult to do some real damage. The race only exploded in the final kilometre when Nairo Quintana made a fierce acceleration to take a solo win while his teammate Alejandro Valverde beat Joaquim Rodriguez and Bradley Wiggins in a sprint 6 seconds later. 9 riders, however, finished within 10 seconds of the race winner but if the wind is less fierce in this year's stage, it will be a deserved scene for the crowning of the likely winner of the Volta a Catalunya.



The weather

The bad weather that had been forecasted was nowhere to be seen in today's big mountain stage that took place under beautiful sunshine and it was hard to imagine that it had been at risk of getting modified due to excessive amounts of snow. When we headed into the race, there was a big risk that tomorrow's queen stage could also be in danger as more bad weather was forecasted and the stage finishes at an even higher altitude, 2200m above sea level.


However, there seems to no longer be any risk that things won't go ahead as planned. There may fall a bit of snow at around midnight but it should be too little to pose to do any damage. By the time, the riders wake up, it should be beautiful sunshine and even though the race will mostly take place under a cloudy sky there should be no risk of any precipitation. The temperatures are expected to reach a rather pleasant 10 degrees in the valley at the bottom of the final mountain.


Today was a much windier day than had been forecasted and the strong wind made it a rather slow stage. Tomorrow there should be a light wind coming from a southern direction but based on today's events we can expect it to play a bigger role as the roads in the area are very exposed. The riders will have cross-headwind up the first climb before turning into a direct headwind on the final part of the descent. There will be crosswind on the second climb and its descent before the riders turn into a tailwind for the final part of the stage. There will be a tailwind up the final climb but in the many hairpin bends near the finish, the riders will have both a head- and tailwind.


The favourites

As we had expected, today's stage didn't produce massive time gaps as the final climb was way too short to make a huge difference. Hence, all is still to play for and today's time gaps should have little impact on the final overall classification when the dust have settled after tomorrow's big stage. As we said yesterday, today's final climb was one for the explosive riders but tomorrow's is a completely different affair that suits the pure climbers.


Today Joaqium Rodriguez took what almost seemed to be an easy win when he made use of his explosive acceleration skills to rid himself of the other major climbers in the race. His performance clearly indicates that he is in excellent condition but he finds himself in terrain that suits him much less on tomorrow's much longer climb.


The start to the stage could be rather dramatic. Right from the start the riders go up a hard category 1 climb and whenever a race has such a start, a big group is almost guaranteed to go clear. It is almost impossible to control the situation on such a hard climb as some of the best climbers can simply ride away from the peloton. A lot of excellent riders have lost some time today and some of them will try to use the hard stage to get into the early move.


That was what happened in last year's queen stage when a very group containing eventual overall winner Daniel Martin got clear. It put the Movistar team of then leader Alejandro Valverde under hard pressure and made the stage very tough as the Spanish team had to ride hard all day. Valverde crashed out of the race and the subsequent hesitation in the chase meant that Martin stayed away to the finish to lay the foundations for his overall win.


There is a great chance that some of the stronger teams like Movistar, Sky, and Tinkoff-Saxo will try to put Katusha under pressure by sending riders up the road, and we should see a big battle between the big teams right from the beginning. To get some assistance in the chase, Katusha will try to avoid riders from those three teams to make it into the move. Movistar has a team of very solid climbers, and it will be hard for Katusha to resist their pressure though and we would expect the Spanish team to have at least one rider in the day's early break to potentially play a role later in the race.


Today Katusha and Movistar proved that they are the strongest teams in this race and the Russian team has the firepower to control things. With an in-form Pavel Brutt, Maxim Belkov, Alberto Losada, Eduard Vorganov, and Angel Vicioso for the early work and Giampaolo Caruso and Daniel Moreno for the final climb, we would expect them to be strong enough to bring things back together for the final climb. If Tinkoff-Saxo, Sky or Movistar miss the break, they are likely to get some assistance and so the most likely scenario is that the stage will be won by one of the favourites. In this kind of hard stage, however, a breakaway win can never be excluded.


If the favourites will battle it out on the final climb, Alberto Contador will be the favourite to win. Today's climb suited Rodriguez down to the ground but the tiny Spaniard usually struggles when the climbs get longer. As opposed to this, those are where Contador excels and tomorrow he will find himself in his favourite terrain.


Today's stage clearly indicated that Contador is currently stronger than Chris Froome and this will have been a great confidence boost for him. He may not have been able to match Rodriguez' fierce acceleration but by attacking the Katusha captain a bit farther out, he should be able to rid himself of the race leader.  He will probably benefit from the strong Movistar team who will do like they did today - set a hard pace on the final climb - and that sustained pressure will tire out Rodriguez. Contador proved in the Tirreno that he is in excellent shape at the moment and to get so close to a strong Rodriguez in today's finish proves that he hasn't lost any bit of that condition. This makes him the big favourite for tomorrow.


In the beginning of his career, Rodriguez would have had little chance on a climb like today's but he has come a long way in improving his skills on the long climbs and in the high mountains. Today he is one of the very best in the true mountain stages as well. Today's stage clearly indicated that his training camp on Mount Teide has made him enter this race in excellent condition and he may have the strength to match Contador.


Rodriguez will hope that the final climb will be raced with repeated accelerations and subsequent standstills. Under such circumstances he is hard to beat but if the pace is hard right from the bottom, he is much less comfortable. He can expect Movistar to try to exploit this weakness and this will make it hard for him to respond to Contador's attack that is guaranteed to be launched in one of the steeper sections near the top. We doubt that he will be able to follow the Tinkoff-Saxo captain all the way to the finish but with the condition he showed today it is certainly not impossible. If he gets into the final kilometre with the leaders, he will be almost impossible to beat.


Today Chris Froome showed rare signs of weakness and the Brit is evidently no longer at his best. He declares himself satisfied with the outcome of the stage and refers to the fact that his injury caused a few missed training days. The break always made his condition a bit uncertain and today it was evident that it has had a bigger impact than he had hoped for.


Tomorrow's final climb suits him much better than today's and after today's stage he will probably race a bit more defensively, leaving it to Contador to launch the attacks. This should make it easier for him to follow wheels but based on today's performance it is hard to imagine a complete turnaround tomorrow. Froome is likely to come up short against Contador but no one can rule out the Tour champion.


Today's stage confirmed what we already knew from Tirreno: Quintana is still a bit shy of his best and at the moment he is not able to match the best. That's no big concern as he is building for the Giro but it will make it hard for him to repeat last year's win. Tomorrow's longer climb and the high altitudes will suit him much better but he is unlikely to be able to match Contador. He will certainly be up there but a podium spot is probably what he will have to settle for.


Domenico Pozzovivo confirmed the excellent condition he had already shown in Tirreno when he finished 6th in today's stage. That result was achieved on a climb that was not nearly steep enough to suit the tiny Italian. He has been riding extremely well right from the beginning of the year and tomorrow's terrain will suit him much better. He has a tendency to struggle a bit on longer climbs but the steeper gradients should help him. Of course it will be hard for him to finish on the podium in this high-level field but he shouldn't be too far behind.


Honestly, we can't see any other rider win a battle amongst the favourites and so our final outsider and joker pick will be a potential escapee. As said, there is a solid chance that the best riders from a big early break will be able to stay away to the finish and there are a few good climbers that have lost some time today. They will have been disappointed by today's outcome and will be eager to make amends tomorrow  just like Dan Martin did it one year ago.


The first that springs to mind is Vuelta champion Chris Horner. The American has never been afraid of attacking from afar as he has proved it in the Tour of California and he will have been disappointed by losing 47 seconds in today's stage. The Lampre team still has Przemyslaw Niemiec in the top 10 and can play the Horner card from a bit further out. Horner showed great condition in the Tirreno but had to leave the race early due to tendonitis in his Achilles tendon. That injury has slowed him down but he wasn't too far off the mark on an explosive climb that didn't suit him well. Tomorrow's stage suits him much better and he is obviously one of the best climbers in the world. Don't be surprised to see Horner make it into the early break and if that happens, he will be hard to catch back.


Finally, we will select our jokers. Laurens Ten Dam is building for the Tour de France and the team doesn't expect him to shine yet. However, he is not too far from his best level yet and he performed solidly in today's stage that didn't suit him. Before turning into a grand tour contender, he was known as a very aggressive rider who spent almost the entire 2012 Tour de France on the attack. Tomorrow's long stage and long, gradual climbs suit him down to the ground. Wilco Kelderman is right up there at top end of the GC and Belkin could try to put their rivals under pressure by sending Ten Dam up the road. If he makes it into the early break, he will be a danger man.


Winner Anacona showed his potential when he finished in the top 20 at the 2012 Vuelta but had an injury-plagued 2013. Now he is back to his best and showed great form earlier this month in Roma Maxima. He was a bit off the pace in today's stage but this will give him the freedom to go on the attack tomorrow. Lampre-Merida have several cards to play in the early escape and it may as well be their young Colombian who makes a big coup tomorrow.


CyclingQuotes' stage winner pick: Alberto Contador

Other winner candidates: Joaquim Rodriguez, Chris Froome

Outsiders: Nairo Quintana, Domenico Pozzovivo, Chris Horner

Jokers: Laurens Ten Dam, Winner Anacona



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