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Starting at 15.15 CEST you can follow the hardest stage of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco on

Photo: Sirotti




10.04.2015 @ 15:15 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

As it has so often been the case, no one was able to make a big difference in the queen stage and so the climbers only have one chance left to distance the time triallists before the final race against the clock. However, the final road stage is the hardest of the entire race and with two passage of the brutally steep Alto de Aia and another wall at the finish, the terrain is there for the punchy climbers to get rid of the heavier guys.


The course

In recent years, the final road stage has often been one for the GC riders but last year the organizers deviated from the script. This year they have again made it a day for the best climbers as they will return to the brutally steep Alto de Aia that has created some dramatic racing in the past. Furthermore, they have added an extra twist to the stage by including a summit finish on a brutal wall and this will make it a very tough affair where the climbers can gain time on the eve of the final time trial.


The 155km stage brings the riders from Eibar to Aia and is probably the hardest of the entire race as it is up or down all day and is littered with the short, steep climbs that characterize the Basque Country. After a flat start, the riders reach the category 3 Alto de Kalbario (4.3km, 4.72%) which has a very steep second half, after just 17.3km of racing. There is little room for recovery as it is followed by the category 3 Alto de Itziar (5km, 4.2%) and category 2 Alto de Garate (2.9km, 8.69%) which come in quick succession. The latter is clearly the hardest as it has a second kilometre with an average gradient of 10.6%.


After a short, flat section, the riders get to the longest climb of the day, the category 1 Alto de Urraki (8.6km, 6.63%) which comes after 79.7km of racing. It has a pretty hard first part while it get significantly easier after the halfway point. The descent and a short, flat stretch lead to the category 2 Alto de Alkiza (4.2km, 6.79%) which is followed by the category 2 Alto de Andazzarate (5.8km, 6.27%) which are both regular climbs.


From the top of the latter, 54.3km remain and the first part of those is made up of the easiest section as the riders follow a long, gradual descent to the finishing town of Aia. From there, they tackle a small circuit that will see them go up the brutally steep Alto de Aia twice, albeit from different directions. First the riders use the famous, very steep side (1.7km, 12.06%) which is an impressively tough small ramp. The top is located 18.3km from the finish and after the descent, they go straight up the climb again from another direction. This time it is a 3.5km ascent with an average gradient of 8.71%. Here only the first kilometre is very steep with a gradient of 12.5% and then it gets easier and easier until the final 500m average just 5.2%.


The summit comes with 4.2km to go and they consist of a very short descent that leads directly to the bottom of the final 1.5km ramp to the finish. It is a brutal affair as the first 500m average 12%, the next 500m have a gradient of 15% and the final 500m kick up at 17%. The final sharp right-hand turn comes just 200m from the finish.


The Alto de Aia last featured in the 2010 edition of the race when an impressive Joaquim Rodriguez made up for a disappointing performance in the previous stage by attacking on the steep ramp which came 18km from the finish. The tiny Spaniard held off his chasers and took a beautiful solo win in Orio. One day later it was also on the course for the time trial where Chris Horner beat Alejandro Valverde to take the overall win in the race.




The weather

A few days ago, it seemed that the riders would get the well-known rainy conditions for the final days of the Vuelta al Pais Vasco. However, it now seems that the riders will be spared the wet roads and it may be one of those rare years when the riders get to the finish without wearing a rain jacket at any point. Dry roads will be very important in tomorrow’s stage which features some brutally steep roads.


The first days have been very sunny but Friday is expected to be a cloudy day. However, the sun may come out in the afternoon and could give the riders pleasant conditions for the ride through the Basque Country. Furthermore, it will be the hottest day yet as the temperature will reach a maximum of 20 degrees.


There will be a moderate wind from a southerly direction which means that the riders will first have a tailwind before they turn into a crosswind near the coast. Then it’s a long headwind section before they get a tailwind in the final stretch to the finishing circuit. Here they will first have a tailwind before they turn into a headwind for the final climbs. However, there will be a tailwind on the short ramp to the finish.


The favourites

Today’s stage may have been described as the queen stage but that is actually more due to tradition than to toughness. When it comes to severity of the climbs in the finale, there is no doubt that the penultimate stage is the hardest and this is definitely the day when the biggest time differences can be made.


In fact, stage 4 failed to create much of a difference which is actually no big surprise. History proves that it has often been very hard to create a big selection on the Alto de Arrate whose pretty easy final part means that a small group often arrives together at the finish. This year it was no different and it was more of a gradual elimination than big attacks.


However, the climbers can still be pleased with the outcome as they managed to distance their biggest rival. Michal Kwiatkowski again showed that he is unable to keep up with the best on the longer climbs and he now finds himself in a difficult position if he wants to win the race as he will probably lose more time in tomorrow’s stage.


However, there are still a couple of good time triallists within 10 seconds of the overall lead. Tejay van Garderen, Simon Spilak, Ion Izagirre and Ilnur Zakarin are all known for their excellent TT skills and especially Spilak has always been very strong in the hilly Pais Vasco time trials. If Nairo Quintana, Joaquim Rodriguez and Sergio Henao want to win the race, they probably need to get rid of those four guys in tomorrow’s stage.


However, this creates an interesting situation for teams like Movistar and Katusha. Izagirre and Spilak both look like potential winners of the race if they can stay in contention. However, pre-race captains Quintana and Rodriguez need to blow the race to pieces if they want to win the race.


Stage 3 was one for the really explosive riders who excel on the steepest climbs while stage 4 was more for the pure climbers who need longer ascents to do well. Stage 5 is a mix of both of those two stages. The climbs will be longer than they were in stage 3 but they are also characterized by extremely steep gradients. The Alto de Aia is a beast that did a huge damage in 2010 and this time it comes much closer to the finale.


Today it took a long time for the early break to be established and today it is unlikely to be any different. Towards the end of a stage race, escapees always have a much bigger chance of success as everybody is a lot more fatigued and bigger time gaps have opened up. Several very good climbers are no longer in GC contention and they will find plenty of terrain to their liking in tomorrow’s stage. The hilly terrain will be very difficult to control and like today we may see, a big, strong group get clear after a fast start to the stage.


A breakaway definitely has a chance in this stage but the most likely outcome is still that the favourites will fight for the win. Quintana and Henao have emerged as two of the best climbers in the race but none of them have won a stage yet. This is probably their final chance and they will both do their utmost to come away with the win tomorrow.


Alongside Katusha, Sky and Movistar are clearly the strongest teams in this race and like today, we expect those teams to control the race. They will have to be on their guards in the early part of the race but they should be strong enough to make sure that a big, dangerous group doesn’t get clear. Like today, they will probably keep the break on a short leash. Furthermore, they want to make the race hard and so we can expect them to set a fast tempo on the climbs.


This means that the early break will probably be caught before the riders reach the key section of the race. The first passage of the climb will be extremely important. This time the riders will tackle it from the hardest side and it is very similar to the wall that featured in the finale of stage 3. Here the first passage tore the peloton to pieces and many riders missed out due to poor positioning at the bottom. Yesterday, however, they had time to get back in contention but tomorrow there are no flat roads to organize a chase. Instead, the descent leads directly to the final two climbs – which are almost like one as they are only separated by descent – and it will be very hard to get back in contention if you have missed the split the first time up the Aia.


This means that we can expect a huge fight for position before the riders get to the Alto de Aia for the first time and some riders will already have lost out by the time they turn onto the climb. While the big favourites will probably still keep their powder dry, teams like Movistar, Sky and Katusha will set a brutal pace that will only allow a very small group to be in contention when they hit the descent. It will be hard for anyone to rejoin the peloton and it will probably be a very small group that hits the Alto de Aia for the second time.


As said, the final two climbs may be treated almost like one climb and we are likely to see attacks already on the Alto de Aia whose steep first section is suited to accelerations. The final steep ramp to the finish is very tough though and surprisingly big time gaps can be created in those 1.5km. Depending on the situation, the biggest favourites may keep their powder dry for that final brutal section.


Going into this race, it was evident that Sergio Henao was already at a high level as he had been riding well in the Coppi e Bartali but even Sky have been surprised by his excellent performances in this race. In both climbing stages, he has looked like the strongest rider. Rodriguez had to dig very deep to bridge the gap in stage 3 and today Quintana was unable to follow when the race leader made his big move. In the end, the final part of the climb was too easy for an explosive climber like Henao but he clearly underlined that he is the strongest climber in this race.


Tomorrow Henao will again find himself in terrain that suits him much better. In the past he has won a stage of this race which finished on a similar steep wall and he is a former runner-up in the Fleche Wallonne. He is very strong on the steepest gradients and he will be able to make a huge difference on the final wall.


However, it has always been evident that Henao lacks a bit of calmness in the crucial moments. In both sprints, he hit the front way too early which made it impossible for him to win the stage. He is up against the experience of Rodriguez and to win tomorrow’s stage, he needs to be much wiser. However, the Colombian looks like the strongest rider and is our favourite to win the stage.


His biggest rival will probably be Rodriguez. The Spaniard excels in these finales where he is usually very hard to beat and he knows how to time his crucial accelerations. Even though he has won two stages, however, he doesn’t look as strong as Henao. In stage 3, he was clearly on his limit and today he rode defensively despite obviously needing to gain time on GC.


Rodriguez is only likely to get better but at the moment he seems to be one step below Henao. On the other hand, he has loads of experience in these finales and this could easily allow him to make it three in a row.


Quintana went into this race as the big favourite but the Colombian doesn’t seem to be as strong as he was in Tirreno-Adriatico. In stage 3, he rode defensively and today he had to give up when he tried to follow Henao. He was never able to launch the planned attack and he seems to miss the edge that will allow him to make a difference.


Tomorrow’s harder stage should suit a climber like Quintana a bit better and he is usually very strong on steep gradients. However, he finds himself up against riders who are a lot more explosive than him and who are usually stronger on this kind of walls. On the other hand, Quintana is the best climber in this race and he is likely to get better and better as the race goes on. Tomorrow it is time for him to make his big attack and there is definitely a solid chance that it will work for him.


Thibaut Pinot suffered a lot in stage 3 where he paid the price for poor positioning at the first passage of the wall. The Frenchman found himself in a second group and had to use a lot of energy to get back in contention. This cost him at the end of the stage but today he proved that he is actually riding at a very high level. Tomorrow’s stage will be the hardest which should suit him a lot better. It both has some very tough climbing and some longer ascents and this should make the Frenchman a contender.


It has never been a secret that Ilnur Zakarin is a huge talent but few would have expected him to ride at this level in his first WorldTour race for Katusha. However, he has been amazingly strong in both hard stages. He looked comfortable yesterday and today he launched a big attack before being able to keep up with Henao. Due to his status, he will be a less marked man and this may allow him to again make an attack in the finale. This time he could be strong enough to finish it off.


Going into this race, Michele Scarponi was a bit overlooked as he never reached his best level in 2014 but now he seems to be back to his best. The Astana rider did a huge work to bring Henao and Zakarin back and was also among the strongest in stage 3 where he went a bit over the limit. He is generally very strong on short, steep climbs and tomorrow’s stage should suit him well. As he is no great time triallist, he may not be heavily marked and this could open the door for him to attack in the finale.


Simon Yates was described as a bigger talent than his twin brother Adam but in their debut season, Adam had the upper hand. In this race, however, Simon has proved that he has stepped up his level massively and he is clearly one of the best here. The Australian is a pretty explosive climber and is perfectly suited to tomorrow’s stage. Furthermore, he is not a great time triallist and this weill make him less marked in the finale.


As said, a breakaway may have a chance in this stage and there are several very good climbers who could win the stage by going on the attack. After a very good start to the race, Rein Taaramae lost all his opportunities in today’s stage. There has been no information about any kind of illness and if he is at full health, he will be eager to bounce back. The Estonian is a very aggressive rider and when he makes it into a break, he is usually very hard to catch.


Alexis Vuillermoz has not lost an awful lot of time but as he is no great time triallist, he may have a chance to go on the attack. The Frenchman usually excels on the steepest gradients and tomorrow’s stage suits him really well. He has been climbing at a very high level all year and if he finds himself in the right group, he will be strong enough to finish it off.


Another rider that will be keen to attack is Mikel Landa. The Basque is riding on home roads and looked strong in stage 3. However, he suffered in today’s finale and is now no longer a GC threat. Astana have proved that they are prepared to ride aggressively in this race and Landa has won races in the past by going on the offensive. If he makes it into the right group tomorrow, he could make it all the way to the finish


CyclingQuotes’ stage winner pick: Sergio Henao

Other winner candidates: Joaquim Rodriguez, Nairo Quintana

Outsiders: Thibaut Pinot, Ilnur Zakarin, Michele Scarponi, Simon Yates

Jokers: Rein Taaramae (breakaway), Alexis Vuillermoz (breakaway), Mikel Landa (breakaway)



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