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Vuelta Stage 7: What is this for, exactly?

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Puerto-Lomberas – Pozo Alcon (186km)

Corbis via Getty Images

At some point, we should talk about the possibility that La Vuelta might be trolling the sprinters. Here we have one of the officially designated flat stages.

Pancakes. Danish mountainscapes. Stage 7 of the 2018 Vuelta. Tabletops. One of these things is not like the others.

I mean, they’re doing everything they can to convince us. There’s some bloody great hills early in the stage that they’ve just decided not to categorise, on the basis that nobody will notice unless there’s a little number above the summit. Still, they do acknowledge that there’s a category 3 climb 12km from the finish, which feels, I dunno, significant. The finish, incidentally, looks like this:

Still, the Vuelta website calls this stage “flat.” In other news, not too many pure sprinters turning up for the Vuelta this year. Go figure.

Anywhere else, you’d call this “transitional” and move on, but stage eight has transfers before and after it, so what good would a stage seven transition be? They’re not going to or from a major centre of population or a traditional finish. No beauty spots (well, the whole country is beautiful, but this isn’t anything famously gorgeous) and they effectively go around a national park. I don’t get it.

Last jibe, and then I’ll get on with the actual preview. Fernando Escartin’s commentaries on the stages have been weird and wonderful throughout, but today’s finishes with this gem: “the expected outcome is for less than 100 riders to reach the end with the option of winning the stage.” Now, some of that is translation. He presumably didn’t mean option, and the less/fewer thing is a pig if English isn’t your native tongue. On the other hand… well, 20 is a number lower than 100, I suppose. So is one. On that basis, he’s on the money. Bravo, Fernando. Bravo.

Who is going to win the stage?

Now that’s out of my system, let’s focus on what the route planners have left us with. It is a hilly stage that screams breakaway to me. We’re already seeing plenty of signs of a tired peloton, and of thriving breaks. There have been tough stages already, with two more days and some big climbs before we get to the first rest day on Monday. On terrain like this, launching is easy enough, and who is fighting to bring a break back?

As to who’ll make up the break, your guess is as good as mine. Always a good idea to look at the teams with firepower and no overarching reason to keep it back. Plenty of teams qualify, and I’d expect to see Katusha, Trek, BMC, EF Drapac and Dimension Data represented, along with Lotto Soudal (as ever), AG2R and the Spanish Pro-conti teams. So, likely representation from about half of the teams in the race. I hope that helps? I guess what this means is a break of 20-30, with some later splits is quite likely. Think stage 16 of the Tour.

Our winner, though, is someone who’ll be able to climb well when tired (that last categorised climb, after a rough week and 160km in the saddle will feel every metre of the 4.5km at 5%) and then finish sharply on a rising road. Gianluca Brambilla would be the sort if he’d shown better form this year and gone on Wednesday. Thomas de Gendt might have done it but he doesn’t look right this year. A few years ago, I’d have thrown Francisco Ventoso into the mix. You know what, let’s go for a pick nobody else is making. Why not Eduard Prades? His sort of terrain, good form this year, and he wins more than most.

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Back in the general classification, this will be a day of survival. Most guys, I think, will achieve that goal, but it is going to be hot, there are some challenging late climbs, and my guess is that we’ll see a couple of splits in the peloton. The likeliest outcome is that the guys who’re already losing time in chunks (Zakarin, Nibali, etc) will lose more, but we might see one or two currently in the top twenty get a scare or even lose a minute. Definitely not a day for the bigs to snooze through.

Who is going to win the Vuelta?

So, six stages have passed since I gave my rundown of the ten likeliest winners. What’s the story now?

Honourables:

Benoot – nowhere. Hi again, Jens!

Izagirre x2 – Gorka’s struggling, but Ion is looking good. Still, it was the mountains that bothered me, and most of them are still to come.

Mollema – losing time in chunks.

Formolo & Majka (& Buchmann) – Formolo is off the pace but Majka is looking good, and Buchmann is looking very good indeed. I may have been too quick to exclude him. Let’s keep an eye on him.

11. Uran – Lurking. Hard to see how he makes up time on the guys above him, but he isn’t out of it.

10. Kwiatkowski – Unless you count Molard, and you shouldn’t, he’s your de facto leader at the moment. Still a question as to how far his form, or motivation, will last, but he’s justified his place on the list.

9. Pinot – I had him as a wildcard, and so far he looks good. Needs to maintain his form, but threatening.

8. Yates – Looking strong in second and climbing nicely. His move on stage four was either encouraging or terrifying, depending on how many matches you think he’s burned so far. Me? I think he spent £50 for a 10p advantage, and I can see why his team are frustrated.

7. Martin – Seemingly tired and with thoughts (understandably) moving towards the maternity ward. Aru is looking better than we thought, though.

6. Bennett – Pretty good. I’m happy with this pick, but if you thought Kruijswick was the better rider coming in, you probably still do. The Lotto duo are looking good.

5. Kelderman – Yup. He’s where we thought he’d be.

4. Movistar/Valverde – I may have been too bearish on Quintana, though ask me again after the weekend. Valverde will slip back soon, right? Right? Ugh.

3. Zakarin – Nope. He doesn’t seem to have it. An early crash, the heat, and the Tour are doubtless all playing their part, but this won’t be his race.

2. Porte – Alas, poor Richie. There isn’t a mirror on the BMC bus he hasn’t broken. Then fallen over a black cat, trodden on the glass, cut himself, and picked up sepsis, gangrene, and (somehow) lupus. Poor bloke.

1. Lopez – I’m still confident. More so than I have any right to be as he’s hardly looked world-beating. On the other hand, I remember his climbing from the last Vuelta, and the competition looks weaker this time around.

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The bookies have taken a look at the current state of the Vuelta and collectively shrugged. Plenty of markets have simply closed, which is what I’d do, to be fair. As I write this, one market (Boylesports) shows Yates as favourite at 5/2, with Quintana 11/4, Lopez 4/1, Valverde 10/1, Kelderman 12/1 and 14/1 or better for everyone else.

So, the question remains, who is going to win? Even by Vuelta standards, there’s an “after the Lord Mayor’s Show” feeling of lethargy about this race. In the absence of threats from Team Sky’s primary climbers, or Porte or Dumoulin, it is wide open. I am still doubtful over Quintana’s performance level, Yates’ energy level and Kelderman’s climbing level. I like my existing bet on Lopez at 12/1 and there’s enough climbing left to make me happy. However, there is plenty of value deeper in the market, I think. Buchmann is 22/1, as are Bennett and Aru. This year, with this field, weird outcomes may not be all that weird.