Let's face it: the Vuelta is about 90% over. Valverde versus a bunch of climbers who need to make up time on him is pretty one-sided. If you (Bobo? Evans?) didn't put the hurt on him in the Sierra Nevada, chances are you won't have much better luck over shorter Puertos around Ávila. Yes, the Puerto Navacerrada is hard, but harder? Assuming everyone's up for the fight still, little should change... except to the extent Valverde can poach more bonuses.
Consequently, all eyes now turn to Sammy Sanchez, sitting at 1.10 off the pace and licking his chops. Between Samu and Glory lie a defenseless Robert Gesink, mediocre at both descending and time trialling, and of course Valverde, who is at a disadvantage, though how much of which is the question of the day. Can the madly-descending, wickedly-time-trialing Olympic Champion reverse all 70 seconds he owes to Valverde and steal the Vuelta? Let's zoom in on the three remaining important stages.
Stage 18, Talavera de la Reina -- Ávila
The longest climb of the day, the Puerto de Mijares, is early and inconsequential, except to the inevitable breakaway. By conventional wisdom, the Alto del Boqueron will be the one that matters, being last and reasonably close to the line, but it's pretty tame by the race's lofty standards. Then a middlin' descent and a slight uphill to the line.
Samu's Worst Case: Valverde sprints for the bonus while Sammy gets nothing.
Samu's Best Case: I dunno... more than three riders survive the breakaway and prevent any bonuses. Hard to see something more dramatic here.
Prediction: The best case. Valverde would be under pressure to send his team after the inevitable break, but with the harder stage to follow, he'll probably accept a stalemate. Sammy isn't exactly a dead duck in a sprint, after all.
Stage 19, Ávila -- San Ildefonso (La Granja)
Sammy's big chance. Incidentally, history isn't much of a guide. When Sammy went berserk at the 2007 Vuelta, the stage from Ávila finished atop Alto de Abantos -- irrelevant to this stage -- and his big downhill adventure was three days earlier around Granada. In that latter event, which is somewhat comparable, Sammy (and Triki Beltran) put 24" into Carlos Barredo and Igor Anton, and 41" into the main cluster of climbers (Menchov, Sastre, Evans, etc.). That day the locale was the Alto de Monachil, 8km at over 8%, compared to the Puerto de Navacerrada, 10km at more like 7% or so. I have no idea how to handicap two distinct descents, but would hazard a guess that those 40" Sammy stole back in '07 is in the same ballpark.
Samu's Worst Case: He's descending like mad just to catch Valverde... only to lose the sprint and another 20 seconds.
Samu's Best Case: Puts a minute into the field and takes the 20 second bonus as well. In other words, he descends straight into Gold.
Prediction: I'll split the baby... Sammy narrows the gap to 20". I can see him taking half a minute or so. Dunno if the bonuses will still be available, though there's a strong chance of it given the fact that it's the last hard stage, and it's definitely hard. So give Sammy the stage and the bonus. Valverde will get a lesser bonuse to save his jersey, for now.
Stage 20, Toledo ITT
28 km, more or less flat. Not much to add.
Samu's Worst Case: Even with Valverde.
Samu's Best Case: Stage win and gold jersey.
Prediction: Sammy wins the stage and takes Gold by less than 10 seconds. CrAzY? Maybe, though remember, I'm basically predicting losing the Editors' League, so this isn't something I do lightly. Sanchez put 18" into Valverde in the earlier ITT -- a flat 30km -- and he has peaked late in past Vueltas. So that 18" might be more of a floor than a ceiling.
Translation: It may be down to a two-man race, but we still have a very, very tense week ahead. Incidentally, the closest Vuelta in history was 1984, when Eric Caritoux beat Alberto Fernandez by six seconds. Believe it or not, this record could be in play.