A furious pace meant that the GC riders didn't get the chance to save energy on today's 13th stage and that was probably what they had hoped to do. They will need all their reserves on tomorrow's 14th stage which is the first of a triptych in the Pyrenees. A climb up the Port de Envalira will bring the riders to the highest point of this year's Vuelta and precedes the dramatic finish on the Collada de la Gallina where Alejandro Valverde won a stage last year. A shake-up of the GC is in store on a stage that is set to give a further indication of who will win this year's Vuelta. Starting at 14.45 CEST you can follow the stage on CyclingQuotes.com/live.
The Vuelta enters its decisive phase with three consecutive stages in the Pyrenees and when the riders get to their second rest day on Tuesday, massive time gaps will have opened up. The first of those will be created in the short 155,7km 14th stage which takes the riders to Andorra and a chance to once again climb the Collada de la Gallina which was also included in the race last year.
The stage may be a short one but it is extremely tough with 4 categorized climbs and some high altitudes. From the start in Baga, the roads are slightly descending as the riders head in a northwestern direction but at the 39,4km, things will turn around and the riders will start climbing on gently rising roads, crossing the border to Andorra along the way. At the 60,6km mark, hostilities begin with the category HC Port de Envalira (26,7km, 5,2%, max. 15%) which takes the riders to the highest point of the entire race at 2410m above sea level. The lower slopes are the hardest while the midsection is fairly easy with a rather constant 3-5% gradient. The last part is tougher but highly irregular with some flatter sections and even a small descent interrupted by steep 15% ramps. The climb is located too early to make a difference but it is perfectly suited to tempo-riding on the front.
A 20,7km descent leads to the bottom of the category 2 Coll de Ordino (8,8km, 4,9%) which is followed by an 18,7km descent. The short category 2 Alto de la Comella (5km, 4%) will break the legs before the riders head down a steeper descent. 4,5km of flat roads lead to the bottom of the final climb, the category 1 Collada de la Gallina (7,2km, 8%, max. 15%). The climb has numerous hairpin bends and is easiest on the lower slopes while the final 4,2km are tougher. During the final 2,2km, the gradient won't drop below the 9% mark and the stage finishes with a 10% section and a sharp hairpin bend just 50m from the line.
When the climb was used last year, Alberto Contador seemed to finally have dropped Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez and was cruising towards a solo win. The two Spaniards recovered and passed him inside the final kilometre with Valverde beating Rodriguez in a close uphill sprint. The final climb is hard enough to produce some time gaps as it did last year where only 11 riders finished with a minute of Valverde.
Until now , the riders have had beautiful sunshine for most of the race but it will all change in the Pyrenees. A drastic shift in weather conditions is in store and may have a massive effect on the racing tomorrow. At the start in Baga, the riders can expect temperatures that stay slightly below the 15-degree mark and it will only get colder as they climb into the mountains. It will be a cloudy, misty day where light rain is expected to fall throughout the entire stage with things intensifying towards the end of the stage.
There will only be a light wind from a southern direction which means that the riders will have either a tail- or crosswind in the early part of the stage. On the Port de Envalira, they will have a cross-headwind which will also be the case on the two category 2 climbs. The peloton will mostly face a headwind on the final climb and this could make things a bit more complicated for the attackers. However, the wind is not very strong and the rain is likely to have a bigger impact on the race, especially on the descents.
Tomorrow's stage is a chance for the GC riders to gauge their form after a couple of easier stages and most will be a little curious to find out how they are going at the end of two weeks of hard racing. The final climb is steep but not very long and while it will open some solid time gaps, it won't decide the Vuelta a Espana.
On paper, this could be a good opportunity for a breakaway. The riders face a mammoth stage in the Pyrenees on Sunday and will be challenged by a third consecutive mountain stage on Monday. This may prompt some of them to save their domestique resources for later and be content with an escapee riding away with the win.
Most riders know this and so we could very well see a repeat of today's frantic start. Most teams want to join the early break and we could very well get to the Port de Envalira before the early break is established. This means that it will be much easier to predict who's going to make it into the break as only the strongest riders will be able to get clear on that mighty mountain.
However, we believe that the escapees' efforts may all be in vain. Joaquim Rodriguez lives in Andorra and the Collada de la Gallina climb is a common challenge on his training rides. Last year his Katusha team combined forces with Team Sky to reel in the break and Rodriguez could very well ask his team to bring it back together for the final climb. He has been dissatisfied with his sensations in the early part of the race but appeared to test his legs on the Alto del Rat Penat today when he rode away with teammate Giampaolo Caruso and Nicolas Roche. The short climb with a steep ramp towards the finish suits him perfectly and if he has anything in his legs, we believe he will target the stage win. With riders like Vladimir Gusev, Angel Vicioso and an in-form Giampaolo Caruso, the team will be strong enough to control things on the difficult course.
Valverde would like to repeat his win from last year. However, Sunday's stage finishes in Peyragudes where he won his 2012 Tour de France stage and at the pre-race press conference, he made it clear that he would prefer a win on stage 15. He can't ask too much from his team and so may decide to save his teammates for Sunday, especially after today's loss of Pablo Lastras.
Until now, Radioshack has been the main aggressor in the mountains and Chris Horner's confidence is at an all-time high. The American is convinced that he is the strongest climber in the race and he needs the 10 bonus seconds to get close to Vincenzo Nibali. Hence, we believe that his Luxembourgish squad will join forces with Katusha to reel in the early escapees. It will, however, be no easy task as the difficult nature of the stage means that the break is likely to consist of some of the strongest riders in the business.
On stages 3 and 10, no one reacted when Chris Horner attacked. Having twice been surprised by his strength, his rivals will now respond to all his attacks. Horner is one of the select few riders that can win the race and he will no longer be able to benefit from a tactical battle between the pre-race favourites. He may still ride away from his rivals as he has been the best climber so far but this time there will be no gifts.
In the early part of the race, Vincenzo Nibali was not at his best. With the world championships coming up, he preferred to enter the race a little shy of his best form but his legs have gradually started to come around. He rode away from the chase group on the Alto de Hazallanas and managed to keep a relatively stable distance to Horner, proving that those two are of almost equal strength.
However, Nibali is only getting better while there is a risk that Horner may fade towards the end of the race. He hasn't raced an awful lot this season and so is unlikely to be fatigued but at 42, he may pay a price at the end of a three-week race. There is little doubt that Horner will attack tomorrow but we don't think, he will be able to drop his Italian rival again.
Nibali can allow himself to ride a little bit conservatively and unless he feels way stronger than his rivals may want to save something for later. That's what he did in the Giro and that's what he could do tomorrow. Naturally, he will respond to Horner's attack but he may not try to attack on his own.
Should Horner and Nibali emerge as the strongest and leave their rivals behind, they may be content to put time into their rivals. However, there will be no gifts when it comes to the stage win and we believe Nibali to be a little bit stronger in the race finale. Hence, we pick Nibali as our stage winner candidate.
However, neither Nibali nor Horner are fast in a sprint and Horner could very well go on to win his third stage. His ride on Hazallanas was simply impressive and if he has kept that strength, he may even take another solo win.
Until now, Alejandro Valverde has been riding solidly but he hasn't been unable to keep up with the best climbers. He was even briefly dropped on the Alto de Hazallanas but managed to claw his way back before winning the sprint for third.
The shorter climb and the less steep gradients should suit him well. At the same time, Valverde is a master in gauging his effort. On the Hazallanas, he knew himself well and knew to keep a steady pace instead of following all accelerations. That's also what he did when he won on Collada de la Gallina last year and that could be his strategy again tomorrow. If Nibali and Horner are unable to drop each other, the man to benefit could very well be Valverde who is almost unbeatable in this kind of uphill sprint.
One of the select few that may defeat Valverde in a sprint is Joaquim Rodriguez. The Katusha captain has himself admitted that he had hoped to feel better in the early part of the race and so far his performances haven't been at his Tour de France level. At the end of a long season, that was to be expected but Rodriguez had still hoped for more.
On the Hazallanas, he claimed to feel well until 4km from the finish when he may have suffered from a slight hunger flat. That may, however, not explain his below-par showing in Valdepeñas de Jaen where he was almost dropped by Valverde in a finish that suited him down to the ground.
Rodriguez is searching for his best legs but appeared to be riding a bit better today. Like Valverde, he may exploit a tactical battle between Horner and Nibali to get back into contention and everybody knows how dangerous his furious final-kilometre accelerations are. Until now, Valverde has beaten him in all sprints but the steeper gradients tomorrow should suit him better. The shorter climb also plays into his hands.
The first mountain stages were all dominated by late attackers that exploited the tactical battle between the race favourites and we may see a similar scenario tomorrow. Domenico Pozzovivo has been riding strongly in the early part of the race but his time trial performance suggests that he is on the rise. People generally underestimate his time trialling abilities but to finish 3rd behind Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin was extraordinary. He often fades towards the end of very long climbs and will benefit from the shorter climb tomorrow and the race favourites may not react should he attack in the finale.
Thibaut Pinot may enjoy a similar freedom. The Frenchman was in difficulty on the early part of the Hazallanas but recovered and ended up being one of the strongest. He is one of the best climbers in the race and sufficiently far down on GC to not be an immediate threat. He would have preferred a longer climb and a longer stage but may exploit the tactical battle in the finale - if he has overcome the wet descents that lead to the Collada de la Gallina.
We will pick two jokers for tomorrow's stage. Igor Anton has had a terrible season so far and his Vuelta started on a similarly bad note. However, his legs have suddenly started to come around and he simply appears to be getting better and better. He made a very encouraging impression on the Alto del Rat Penat today and tomorrow's climb should suit him well. On the Hazallanas, he was the rider to kick off the attacking and he may do so again tomorrow. If he gets away, the race favourites may never see him again.
Finally, we will pick a rider that may win from a breakaway. Jose Herrada has been outstanding in the early part of the race, setting a furious pace on the climbs for team captain Valverde. Movistar is likely to put a rider into tomorrow's break as they both want to protect their position in the teams classification and have a rider up the road to support Valverde. If the break gets clear on the Envalira, it will consist of some of the best climbers and Herrada is one of those. His time trial performance suggests that he hasn't slowed down at all and he will be hard to beat by his fellow escapees, should he make it into the break.
CyclingQuotes' stage winner pick: Vincenzo Nibali
Other winner candidates: Chris Horner, Alejandro Valverde
Outsiders: Joaquim Rodriguez, Domenico Pozzovivo, Thibaut Pinot
Joker: Igor Anton, Jose Herrada
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