By David Hunter
Orihuela – Cocentaina 182km
The big day in the GC battle is here.
This stage has an awful lot of climbing for February and it saves the best climb for last. The final climb is 4.6km at 8.4%, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The last 3km rises at around the 10% mark, with the final kilometre at 12%. It is a horrible little climb that kills the legs.
Just 7 degrees but at least it will be sunny. Expect to see plenty of leg and arm warmers in the peloton. The wind is coming from the north-west and is strong enough to cause a few problems, with most of the stage being a headwind, including the final climb. That will make it hard to escape the bunch.
Such a steep climb makes it difficult for teams to be clever. On slopes of 10%, you get very little drafting and it usually comes down to who has the best legs. Team Sky made a mess of Thursday’s stage, the pressure will be on them to try something. They certainly have the numbers, but when the slope starts to kick up, I think only Moscon and Poels are serious contenders. That makes it easier for the other teams to control. The headwind also makes it very difficult to create big gaps, no one will want to expose themselves to a strong headwind on such a climb.
Alejandro Valverde – doesn’t have the strongest climbing team to support him, but Jaime Roson will last for the majority of the final climb. As he has a 29 second gap to the Sky riders, Valverde can ride a defensive race and simply follow wheels, but the Astana duo pose a problem. It’s unlikely that Sanchez will last on this climb, but Fuglsang is a danger and no freedom can be given. Once Valverde has followed wheels, a final kilometre at 12% is perfect for him. He is the best in the world with a finish like this, no questions asked!
Jacob Fuglsang – after a great attack on Thursday, he finds himself in a great overall position. Can he put Valverde under pressure? On this kind of finish, it’s going to be very difficult for the Dane to beat Valverde, but he is an attacking rider, so I look forward to seeing him try. Astana have Sanchez and Bilbao to help set a fast pace, that is a very strong trio.
Wout Poels – Team Sky made more than one mistake on Thursday, but I also hold Poels to account. When Valverde attacked, he should have followed. We all know that the Spaniard was good in Mallorca and this was a chance for Poels to get away from the rest of the field. Then, I’m not sure why nobody followed the attack of Sanchez on the descent. It certainly wasn’t their finest hour. Coming into this stage, we will surely see a fierce pace on the final climb. I expect to see Moscon go crazy! It will then be over to Poels, but it will be very difficult to beat Valverde on a 12% slope.
Amaro Antunes – he might be in his first race for a pro-conti level and he might only ride for CCC, but the Portuguese star is a realistic option for this stage. Sitting 29 seconds behind Valverde, he could be allowed a little bit of freedom. Valverde will have to closely mark Fuglsang and Poels, which could open the door to a lesser known rider. He’s looked very smooth this week.
Primoz Roglic – despite my love of Roglic, when I look at this finish, it seems a little hard for him. He could well finish top 5, but I just don’t see him challenging for the win.
Merhawi Kudus – loves the steep stuff! The only man who tried to follow Quintana in 2017, the African is one that has a good chance of doing something special. Similar to Antunes, he could benefit from a small amount of freedom. Now 24 years old, I expect a big season from him.
With the big guns marking each other, I think we’ll see one of those “lesser” riders slip off the front in the final kilometre. My pick is Amaro Antunes, but Valverde will stay in yellow.
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