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Vuelta Stage 14: Now they’re racing!

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Écija / Sierra de La Pandera, 175km

We are thirteen stages into the Vuelta, and we’ve already seen some big climbs and some summit finishes, and we’re developing sizable gaps in the GC. What we haven’t seen is an “especial” (HC) mountain. That changes on Saturday, with a mountaintop finish on the Sierra de la Pandera.



What’s it all about?

I mean, look at the map, people. It is all about the final climb. The first 140-odd kms are typical bumpy Vuelta fare, and the cat 2 Alto Valdepenas (8.5km at 4.8%) will thin the field slightly, but this stage starts mattering in the last 15km or so, which are really hard. The official site has this climb at 7.3% for 12km, and notes one stretch of a klick at 13%, which is very different to a restful Saturday on the sofa. Some comparatively gentle early slopes, and a slight dip before the final kick make the overall gradient sound nicer than it will feel.

There’s a philosophical question here, too, of the “when is a climb a climb?” variety, as climbbybike think of this as a 24km, 5.2% climb. They appear to be counting part of the preceding Alto Valdepenas in their analysis, which shows how close the two climbs are together, and stresses the difficulty the riders will face. This is a lengthy effort but it isn’t a rhythm climb. Riders will be changing pace and varying their efforts for the last 45 minutes or so, and it’ll be very hard to stay out of the red. The forecast (at least at ground level) is for heat and no wind, and there’s some decent altitude involved as well, so conditions won’t be easy.

The other complication is Sunday. You’ll notice I’ve used phrases like “really hard”. That’s because I’m saving “brutal” for the next preview. This is the Vuelta, and we have to grade on a curve. I don’t want to ruin tomorrow’s preview, but if you’ve read the boss’ piece, you’ll know there’s worse in store before the next rest day. So expect to see some serious effort from the GC boys, but they’ll know they need to keep something in their legs to get through Stage 15.

Did you know?

This is a serious cycling stage, and I am not going to descend into my usual nonsense about old rocks and bitter jam. What I’ll talk about is the only previous finish on this climb. That was in 2009, the year Valverde won the overall, and recent enough that we have results. Damiano Cunego won that day, but I would draw your attention to four things.

First, he won from the break; this is a tough climb (one report did use the “b word”, calling it “brutally steep”) but not an incredibly long one; a good climber in a break with a decent gap could conceivably steal this. Second, the weather that day was awful - so it may not be the same sort of race this time. Third is the gaps between the main contenders - don’t let Sunday’s headline finish make you think Saturday will be easy or neutralised.

Fourth and finally, have a look at that top picture. How great was Cadel’s pain face, even on a good day? That’s him finishing 7th overall, by the way, en route to his only Vuelta GC podium. He looks like me after a 5km run. Another sign that this isn’t a climb you can “diesel” your way up.

Pick to win

I can see three scenarios, and three separate winners:

  1. The bigs go all out, letting tomorrow deal with tomorrow, and the best climber in the field takes the win. Likeliest beneficiary: Chris Froome. Chances: 25%.
  2. The break gets caught and an elite group sticks together, with a few attacks allowed to go in the last couple of kms from guys who aren’t threatening the podium. Likeliest beneficiaries: Miguel Angel Lopez or Alberto Contador. Chances: 50%.
  3. A break gets away, fractures on the final climb, but a few good climbers from the group hold off the marauding GCers and take the win. Likeliest beneficiary: Rafal Majka. Chances: 25%.

I’ll probably be putting some fake bets on twitter once the odds are available for the stage (I’m writing this before stage 13, so we’ll wait and see) and MAL and Majka look like they might be available at a decent price. For now, I’ll go with Majka, just to run contrary to popular opinion.