The penultimate day of the Vuelta sees the last climbs and the last chance to shake up the general classification. Fortunately, it is a great chance, because this short stage packs in three enormous mountains, the last of which can best be described as barbaric.
What’s it all about?
It is all about the climbing. The first 12km have a rise of 440m (which I make 3.6%) and isn’t even categorised. There’s a relatively quiet period for the next little while, and we can expect the break to establish itself on the road to Proaza, but after that things turn nasty.
First up is the Alto de la Cobertoria, which averages 8.6% for 8.1km, but includes a few flat bits and some pretty nasty slopes. Expect this to soften legs and throw a few helpers out of the back of the peloton.
After what I fear will be a pretty hair-raising descent, there is no time on the flat to recover before the climb of La Sotterana, another 8.6% climb, this time shorter at 5.7km and steadier. Again, this will serve to soften legs and make life tough for all the riders. I would expect to see the break struggling by now, and don’t be surprised if you see one or two riders from the margins of GC contention making an early bid for heroism here.
All this, though, is little more than a prelude. The Angliru is the third and final climb of the day, and it is a monster. Rated especial, you can make a case that the entire race, not just this stage, has served as a prelude to this climb. Have a look.
There’s a way to make this sound not awful. I mean, it is always going to sound like a tough climb, but you can put it into some kind of context. You can mention that it is only 12.5km long, and some of the legendary climbs are more than twice that length. You could even, if you were feeling brave mention that a 9.8% average gradient isn’t too bad. Climbbybike have the metric that Will uses for mountain previews, and they say there are 32 mountains in Spain tougher than this one.
Well... yeah. Speaking as an accountant, I can tell you this: if you tell stories that only use numbers, you can tell some very silly stories indeed. I just did. Here’s the truth. There aren’t 32 harder mountains in Spain. Climbing twice as far on an Alpine Road isn’t twice as difficult. Most of all, looking at an average gradient for this mountain is just silly. Do you want a real metric for this mountain?
There we are.
I know you can show riders anywhere with a suffer-face, but just look at the steepness of the road, and where the central line is. Then cast your eyes back up to the slope profile and look at the ramps towards the top of the mountain. The average gradient isn’t the point; the point is that when the bigs are eyeballing each other and working out whether to make one last push, there are ramps of 23.5%. Twenty. Three. Point five. Percent. That’s basically one in four.
Froome comes into this stage with a lead that would be comfortable on almost any climb in cycling. Here it is enormously valuable and probably enough, but there’s nothing comfortable and the time gap is not insurmountable. This one is going to hurt every rider.
Did you know?
This is another stage where we’ll forsake my usual brand of stupid and look into the archives. This climb was last used in 2013 (before that in 2011, AKA Froome vs Wiggo, and the photo above is the 2008 edition) and it always produces separation. In 2008, 6 people finished within two minutes of the leader. In 2011, that number was 12, and in 2013 it was 11. That wasn’t because of a breakaway, either, it was a simple case of the mountain smashing the peloton apart. Expect that to happen again on Saturday.
Who does it favour?
That feels like a very positive question. Really we should be asking ourselves, who is least likely to be overwhelmed by this? The answer is, I suspect, small and athletic climbers who can cope with differing gradients and produce sharp efforts with massive w/kg.
There’s probably an advantage for guys who aren’t too worried about defending their GC position and can attack, too, as giving yourself some road before the steepest slopes is a pretty sensible tactic.
Who’s going to win?
First of all, it is worth noting that both Nibali and Froome have tasted success on this climb before and I don’t see either of them losing their current positions. Nor do I see them going all out for the win, even if they were suited to this stage.
Lopez looked awfully good last weekend but appears to have lost a little of his edge and I’m not convinced he’ll add this to his win from last Sunday. Majka is another who’s won in the mountains and has a chance (he could also get an early break, as he did in taking stage 14). Contador will try and this suits him in many ways, but I think the competition will be pushing too hard. I think our winner will be Ilnur Zakarin, and I think he’ll knock Kelderman off the podium as well as grabbing the Queen stage. He’s been climbing well this Vuelta and his win in last year’s Tour demonstrated again that a short, sharp mountain suits him.