Stage 4: Vélez-Málaga to Alfacar. Sierra de la Alfaguara (161.4 km)
Sunday’s uphill sprint was just a tapa to tomorrow’s main course, but who will be hungry enough to go for a win on a summit finish so early in the race?
What’s it About?
It’s an Andalusian stage from the beach to the “foothills” of the Sierra Nevada, with the “foothills” being proper Category 1 climbs, starting with the Puerto de la Cabra and finishing on the Puerto de Alfacar. If the first and second stage didn’t sort out the GC enough, this stage certainly will.
Profile of Alfacar:
Neither the Alta de la Cabra Montés Puerto nor Puerto de Alfacar is a super hard climb, with the former coming in at an average gradient of 5.9% over 15.7 kilometers and the latter at 5.4% over 12.4 kilometers. However, with a forecast temperature in the high 90s on typical-of-the-Vuelta exposed roads, this will be a tough day in the saddle.
Did you know?
This stage will pass through Granada and its rich history of Spanish-Islamic art and architecture. Expect to see lots of helicopter shots of the Alhambra. Sounds like a great place to visit, but just be sure when you are booking your flight to specify that you want to go to Granada with an “a” and not Grenada with an “e,” as happened to one unlucky couple from Washington DC in 2013 when British Airways put them on the wrong connecting flight to the Caribbean island instead of the Spanish city. Personally, I’d probably rather go to the Pink Gin Beach of the Caribbean nation instead of the Islamic fortress described as “a pearl set in emeralds” in Spain, but I can see why the couple would be a little upset. Unfortunately, the courts did not agree, and they lost their $34,000 lawsuit against British Airways.
Will there be fireworks?
Even by Vuelta standards, this is an awfully hard stage to come so early in the race. The common wisdom would be that the GC riders are going to ride conservatively as there is a lot of time that can be lost and many summit finishes to come. However, even though we are only on stage 4, the Vuelta has not gone to plan for many riders and there may be some GC riders looking to salvage their GC chances. Miguel Angel Lopez is already 54 seconds down on Michal Kwiatkowski. Michael Woods is over a minute back. Ilnur Zakarin is over a minute and a half down. Meanwhile, Vincenzo Nibali has already shipped over 4 minutes while Dan Martin is down 6 minutes. While some may be already thinking about (or publicly proclaiming) abandoning GC aspirations and going into stage hunting mode, the fact that there is no consensus favorite at the race (or in other words no Froome or Dumoulin) may have the riders believing that an attack is worth the risk.
While a breakaway could make it, I’m thinking this stage will be won by someone from the bigs’ group. First, even though there are time gaps, since we’re only on stage 4, there’s a good chance that someone who is still close enough on GC gets into the break, dampening their chances. Second, there is an awful lot of flat along the coast before the first climb of the day, which will make it harder for the climbier of the breakaway artists to get into the break. Third, Thomas de Gendt just hasn’t been living up to his “crazy” nickname this year— more like “mildly neurotic.”
Who will win?
It’s hard enough picking between the break, the sprinters, and the GC contenders at the Vuelta; trying to pick the winner of a stage this early in the race is a fool’s errand. Luckily, I’m foolish enough to give it a try.
Of the current top 3, I think the stage might be a little too hard for Michal Kwiatkowski, though it’s hard to remember a grand tour where he was able to chase his own ambitions. Wilco Kelderman has looked pretty damn good so far and the gradients of the final climb may suit his time-trialing talents. However, do you know the last time that Wilco has won a race outside of the national TT championship? Well, I didn’t either until I looked it up— it was back in 2013 at the Tour of Denmark. You can try to spin the lack of wins into “he’s due,” but I’m not biting. Alejandro Valverde has youth on his side and looked good on stage 2. The easing up in the gradient in the last kilometers on the Alfacar would suit him if he’s able to hang on, but I think it’s a little too much climbing for him. Maybe he can just use the climb to gain experience to win on it when the Vuelta comes back to it in 2027.
Nairo Quintana should have no problem staying with the front group but I doubt the gradients are steep enough to allow him to use his watts-per-kilogram advantage to solo away for victory. Thibaut Pinot will likely wilt under the Andalusian sun. The only thing that we can expect from Fabio Aru is some Aru-face screen time as he’s dropped on the last climb.
Miguel Angel Lopez performed well in the Vuelta a Burgos, winning a stage and only losing the GC to a young upstart Colombian. He’d probably prefer some steeper gradients on the final climb.
While the other riders are marking Kwiatkowski, it’s possible that David de la Cruz, who also had a good Burgos, can slip away as he is Sky’s putative leader.
Dan Martin can win this stage either from the break or from the front group, but his form is not certain after his Tour crash and his motivation is not certain after he spent his pre-Vuelta training building a nursery for the twins he and his wife are expecting in September.
After Adam resigned from his position as the Right Yates on stage 2, it’s clear that Mitchelton-Scott are working for Simon Yates. His team has been making noise about learning their lessons from the Giro, but I’m not so sure that any lesson has been learned or should be learned. Simon looked great in the Tour de Pologne, taking a stage victory on the last day. I can see him ripping one off in the last kilometers and soloing to victory. So let’s go with Simon to take the stage.