Tuesdays with Wilcockson: A mountaintop overload at this Vuelta?

When the route for the current Vuelta a España was announced last fall, much was made of its record number of 10 mountaintop stage finishes, the most ever in a grand tour. Fans were excited that they’d be seeing so many spectacular days of racing. But they may not end up being so thrilled if all those uphill finishes turn the race into a too-predictable procession.

That’s what happened the last time a grand tour had an extreme number of summit finishes: the 2011 Giro d’Italia. After just two of that event’s seven uphill arrivals, Alberto Contador was solidly installed as the race leader, leaving the Italians Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali far behind in a duel for second place. Although Contador’s win was later voided because of his much-delayed suspension from a 2010 Tour de France drugs offense, that ultra-mountainous Giro was distinctly un-spectacular.

It can be argued that the Vuelta is a very different race from the Giro, that the climbs in northern Spain are often much shorter (but no less steep) than those in northern Italy. But judging by the action this week on the first two of the 10 summit finishes at the 67th edition of the Vuelta, the race looks as if it will quickly devolve into a four- or even three-man race—at least until the one individual time trial on August 29. After that, with nine stages and six summit finishes still to come, the Vuelta could be effectively over.

As he was at last year’s Giro, Contador is the central figure in what is his first grand tour since his doping suspension ended. The Spaniard’s half-dozen sharp, uphill accelerations on the steepest (13-percent) sections of the short Alto de Arrate climb on Monday were spectacular in their frequency, and only three riders were able to respond. His countrymen Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez were quick to match Contador’s thrusts, while British co-favorite Chris Froome was content to bridge up at a steadier, but still rapid, climbing pace. “There are a lot more climbs to come,” Froome reasoned.

Contador was able to launch his series of attacks after being helped immensely by Dani Navarro, the one Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank teammate able to stay with the 30-strong front group at the foot of the final climb. At the same time, stage winner Valverde had two Movistar teammates working for him in that group, Benat Intxausti and defending Vuelta champion Juanjo Cobo; Rodriguez had the support of Katusha teammate Dani Moreno; and Froome counted on his impressive Team Sky colleagues Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao.

With so many climbing stages ahead, and probably some flat stages in between, where wind and heat will be factors, the leaders will have to rely on strong teammates to keep them stay in contention and set them up for the summit finishes. The “team” factor could well work against Contador, especially on the stages with longer climbs where Froome, in particular, looks like enjoying greater strength in depth, with his two Colombian climbers Uran and Henao, Aussie all-rounder Richie Porte, Spanish worker Xabier Zandio and British national champion Ian Stannard.

All these Sky men were prominent on Tuesday, when they split the peloton in crosswinds shortly after race leader Valverde was involved in a crash. As a result, they helped Froome move into second place overall on the 13.4km, 5.2-percent climb to the finish at the Valdezcaray ski station, only a second down on new red jersey Rodriguez, with Contador in third overall.

There are two more summit finishes before next Monday’s rest day (which follows a 1,000km air transfer from Barcelona!). This Thursday, the Fuerte del Rapitán climb at Jaca is 3.8km long, with pitches of 12, 13 and 14 percent in its average 5.4-percent grade. And on Saturday, the only Pyrenean stage ends in Andorra with the toughest and highest ascent of the week, the Collada de la Gallina, which averages 8 percent for 7.2km.

Next Wednesday’s stage 11 is probably the most challenging long time trial at a grand tour since the extremely hilly TT along the Cinque Terre at the 2009 Giro. On a 39.4km course between Cambados and Pontevedra, this Vuelta stage starts and finishes at sea level on the Atlantic coast, and is dominated by the Alto Monte Castrove, which climbs through 1,466 feet in 10km and mostly descends the remaining 16km to the finish. It’s the sort of time trial on which Contador and Froome could gain two or three minutes on lesser time trialists such as Rodriguez and Valverde.

The race’s fifth summit finish comes the very next day at Dumbria. It’s just under 2km long but averages a nasty 13.1 percent! That’s just an appetizer for the horrendously hard Labor Day weekend that has three consecutive mountain stages, all with summit finishes. Stage 14 ends on the 9.5km, 8.1-percent Puerto de Ancares, stage 15 has the classic 13.5km, 7-percent Lagos de Covadonga finish, and stage 16 features the Puerto de Pajares ascent that’s been extended to a distance of 19.4km with the new-to-the-Vuelta Cuitu Negru summit with passages of more than 20 percent over the final 3km.

The mountaintop overload will be completed in the final week with stage 17’s finish up the 17.3km-long Fuente Dé (with only a 4-percent grade), and stage’s 20’s pièce de résistance: the mighty Bola del Mundo, a 11.4km climb that ends on a concrete-paved goat track with 23-percent back-breakers!

Whether the Vuelta’s final six mountaintop finishes will have any major effect on the race’s outcome remains to be seen. We hope they will, but they could end up being consolation stage wins for those who’ve already lost their chances for the final classification.


Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson

Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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  1. Wsquared

    It will be interesting to see if hotly contending the early mountain top finishes will wear out the favorites and other contenders who have been pacing themselves more conservatively will emerge later. it doesn’t look like Froome has very deep reserves.

    Regardless, so far, we’ve had some exciting racing. I like the formula of having relatively short, sharp climbs at the end of some days. I’m not a fan of flat 200k stages with sprint finishes. (Sorry, Cav.)

  2. randomactsofcycling

    I’m also not a fan of too many flat sprint stages but at least there is some excitement and a chance for the breakaways.
    What I am definitely not a fan of is this ongoing competition between the Vuelta and the Giro to see which race can be the most extreme.
    Padraig, as you have pointed out, having too many extremely difficult stages actually neutralises all but maybe 2 of them.
    And a 1000km transfer? C’mon?

    1. Padraig

      Random Acts: You know, I’ve been wondering if maybe, at a certain point, if you throw so many mountain stages at the peloton if that could start to open things up again. The question on my mind is, does being conservative take on a different cast if there are a dozen mountain stages? I’m interested to see how this Vuelta plays out and I’m not going to criticize the organizers for taking a chance.

  3. Markus

    I too would rather see more climbing stages and less flat stages. It makes for more individual riding, and less crashing.

  4. Big Mikey

    To be honest, too many climbing stages or no, there were probably only 4-5 riders ever in honest contention to win this year’s Vuelta anyway.

  5. Bret

    We are 5 days into the Vuelta and have already seen better gc racing than the entire three weeks of the tdf. I love the route, hilltop finishes right off the bat separates the field and allows the contenders to actually race instead of the tdf style where everyone spends the first week just trying not to crash but at the same time they all jockey for position at the front and end up doing what they set out not to do….crashing. The race should be decided with racing not a daily triage report where literally half of the top 20 contenders end up in ambulances. Yes I think bike handling, pack skills, and team strength all should play a part in the outcome, but when they become the most dominant factor (along with a big dose of luck) in a 3 week stage race, then I say its time for a change and if the Vuelta ends up being decided before the last week begins, then so be it, at least it will be decided with skill, daring and endurance instead of circumstance.

  6. sophrosune

    To argue that this many mountain top finishes would be judged a mistake if there were just four, or so, real contenders for GC victory is silly. There were always going to be just four or five main contenders to this race. But that said, after three of the 10 mountain top finishes completed, the top 20 riders in GC are within 51 seconds of each other. Add onto that, these have been exciting races, despite the Colorado-based Velonews characterizing them as uneventful. (BTW: How can the 10,000-foot-stunt race be eventful when they haven’t yet figured out how to broadcast any of the racing? Is there a race if no one can watch it?). The Vuelta organizers did a few smart things this year. First, they avoided the South entirely: Way too hot; they shortened the stages; and they added a lot of short but steep finishes that don’t actually constitute mountain stages. The Spanish should have been doing this all along: Make a race that is tailored to the Spanish rider.

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