Stage 14: Vitoria -- Alto Campoo, 214km
Stage 15: Comillas -- Sotres, 175km
Stage 16: Luarca -- Ermita de Alba, 185km
I can think of multiple reasons to lump together this weekend's three Vuelta a España stages (it's a holiday weekend in the US). One, economy. Things are stretched a bit thin here at the Cafe right now. And most of the US is offline for the weekend anyway. Two, it's a wrap of "week 2," which means Conor and I can get a nice break all the way through the second rest day before coming back strong to tee up the final, decisive stages.
Three, the stages themselves. What would you say about Saturday that you wouldn't also be saying about Sunday or Monday? A few things, but not a lot.
The stages start on the eastern end of the Cantabrian mountains and move progressively westward. In the middle, particularly Sunday's stage, are the fearsome Picos de Europa, though nothing in Cantabria is exactly a picnic. The Cantabrian stages typically feature the most fearsome climbs of the Vuelta (e.g. the Angliru, which the peloton will skirt past on Monday), at least in years where they're not coming off a six-climb mega-stage in Andorra. Anyway, they are low in altitude but high in atti... I can't. High in steepness. OK?
Sunday... Sunday... SUNDAY!
And the capper, Monday
Like varied climbs? Short climbs? Long climbs? Steady climbs? Well, over the weekend you'll see short, varied climbs, one long, steady one, another long, varied one, and finally two medium-distance ones with steady, hellish gradients. Victors will be the guys who can bang out a hard burst of tempo, or keep a steady one going for a while. At the very least, be good at one of those styles and limit your losses in the other. But victory is purely relative; in the true sense everyone is going to suffer.
In full flight. Even overnight leader Fabio Aru's mom would admit that he needs to pad his lead before Wednesday's long time trial, with an incredibly resilient Tom Dumoulin breathing down his neck. With eight convincing riders set apart atop the GC by less than two minutes -- nothing, on roads such as this -- victory will likely go to whoever strings together the best run of energetic days in the saddle. Or to put another way, the last man to run out of gas.
Also very much in play, given that the standings feature Esteban Chaves (5th on GC), Dumoulin (3rd) and Alejandro Valverde (6th), with GC podium'ers Aru and J-Rod just off the points pace. It's fair to say that while no one stage may decide the GC, a string of three MTFs could decide the points.
Omar Fraille is still running away with the competition, but with so many points left on the table he'll have to take some early KOMs to assure victory in the end. Look for that to happen.
Doom could crack and lose all of his various high standings, but only then could Fabio Aru take over. Assuming a tighter contest on the road, this one probably stays put.
Aru looked like the best climber, apart from his teammate Landa. Could be a big weekend for Astana. Dumoulin seems to be able to handle the longer, easier tempo climbs, so Astana will have to hit him on the steeper pitches, particularly Sunday and Monday's finales. Katusha could make noise too if and when J-Rod has his one fantastic day in the saddle (pick a day) but any gains will come undone the next day. We could certainly see an outsider take one of these, and I'll go with Monday's stage to get nabbed by someone off the GC pace. By Tuesday's break, everyone will be awfully sick of climbing. I'll go with Aru, Majka and the field for the three stage wins.