By David Hunter
Benidorm – Calpe 199.6km
The first road stage, and it’s typical Vuelta territory.
The stage begins with a long cat 2 climb, 20km at 3.6%. This is where we’ll see the morning break establish, but it could be a fight to join it. When a grand tour usually starts, the first few breaks simply roll of the front, but that’s because we normally have a sprint stage. As this isn’t a typical sprint stage, it’s one that a number of riders will be targeting the morning move.
Once everything settles down, the main action will happen on Alto de Puig Llorença, which you can see below.
Fans of the Vuelta will know this climb, it’s been used in the Cumbre del Sol stage in the past. This year, instead of turning left and heading up to the “usual” finish, the bunch will continue back into Calpe. This is a brutal climb, 3km at 10%, with lots of double-digit sections. It is far too hard for any sprinter to survive, even guys like Luca Mezgec. The bunch would have to take this slow for the quick men to stand a chance, but some teams will want a fast pace to boost the hopes of their punchy finishers.
With 26km remaining from the crest, an attack on the climb is unlikely to succeed. Once over the top, the roads are rolling, making it impossible for dropped riders to re-join the front group. If you get dropped on the climb, it’s goodnight Vienna.
The bunch go through the finishing line from the opposite direction, before they head towards the climb. This will allow everyone a look at the finish, but being in Calpe, it will already be well known to many of the riders in the bunch. The problem is the final kilometre, where the bunch have to negotiate two roundabouts.
The road book indicates that only the left hand side of the roundabout will be open, which will mean quite a large narrowing of the peloton. This could be a little dangerous as the bunch will be travelling very fast at this point. The first roundabout is with 700m to go, the final one is just 400m from the line. Do I need to tell you how important positioning will be in the final kilometre? I thought not.
Beautiful. It is Spain!
As I have already mentioned, the breakaway experts will be liking their lips. Who will chase in the bunch? Astana are in control of the red jersey, I expect them to honour the jersey and chase the morning move. They won’t be able to do it all by themselves, but I expect some help to come from Movistar, QuickStep and possibly EF. They must ensure that Thomas De Gendt doesn’t make the morning move, then they can relax.
Alejandro Valverde – the world champion will sense a big chance to start the race with a bang, but is his form where it should be? This season has not been what we normally expect from the great man, but his form did pick up for the Tour de France. What worried me is the way he rode in San Sebastián, a race that suits him very well. If I forget about this for a minute, this is a wonderful stage for him. All the sprinters should be dropped, and he’ll get to sprint from a reduced group. It would be special for him to take the stage in the rainbow jersey, in his home race.
Sergio Higuita – just 22 years old, the little Colombian is a huge talent. EF picked him up in May, and he was 2nd in California and 4th in Poland. He climbs very well, but more importantly, he has a very fast finish. Positioning in the closing kilometres could be an issue, but EF should have many riders still in the front group, and I would hope they put him into a strong position. He knows that winning the stage could put him into the red jersey, an opportunity he cannot pass up.
Paddy Bevin – on top form, I would be confident of him surviving the climb, but he isn’t. Bevin had to abandon the Tour, and didn’t manage to complete San Sebastián. I doubt we’ll see him contest the stage.
Philippe Gilbert – it all depends on how hard they hit the climb. Gilbert is good enough on steep gradients to be confident of surviving, and we all know he has a very fast sprint finish. QuickStep have come here to chase stages, and this is big opportunity for Gilbert to take his 6th Vuelta stage, and the red jersey.
Dion Smith – this is a stage Smith should be gunning for. The Kiwi is a tough rider, one that can cope with a few bumps. His recent form is good, finishing 14th in the Binck Bank Tour and looking strong during the hilly stages. The team will want to see if Mezgec can survive before committing to the Kiwi, but I think he gives them a realistic chance of success.
Alex Aranburu – can Caja-Rural take a stage? The Basque rider arrives in very good form, he recently won an uphill sprint in Burgos. The problem is that he’s much faster sprinting uphill than in a flat finish. I don’t see him winning this stage.
Omar Fraile – the Astana man should be involved in the final sprint. The big man is deceptively fast, he’s beaten Colbrelli in a sprint before. Astana have enough men to chase down the morning break without calling on Fraile to do any work.
Thomas De Gendt – breakaway hopeful number 1.
Ángel Madrazo – breakaway hopeful number 2.
Silvan Dillier – breakaway hopeful number 3.
Will someone take control of the peloton and chase the break? I think so early in a grand tour, it will happen, and we’ll get a reduced sprint. Looking at the riders, I think the fastest finisher is Sergio Higuita, and he’ll take a sensational victory.
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