By David Hunter
Puebla de Don Fadrique – Murcia 182.5km
We head to Murcia, a city where a certain Alejandro Valverde was born. Will it be a happy homecoming?
Certainly, the organisers have played ball and designed a stage that Valverde could win. The riders will be delighted about the first 140km of the stage. A huge downhill will be a relief after such a hard week. It also makes a large break harder to create. The cat 3 climb is climbed twice and will help to determine the winner of the stage. It’s 4.3km at 6.7% and has a maximum gradient of 15.4%, this is not an easy climb.
It has an easy start and finish, but the middle section is going to hurt. This section is 2km long and pitches up to over 10%, for 500m. This stretch is where we’ll see plenty of attacks, as riders try to deny Valverde a fairytale win.
As the climb crests with 17km to go, any type of sprint will be hard to organise. The climbs will reduce the peloton to around 50 riders and most teams will lack enough numbers to hold the race altogether. It’s a great stage for opportunists!
First thing to consider is the sprinters. I think the climb is too hard for most of these riders, but Sagan and Degenkolb will have other ideas, or will they? Both riders seem tired. They have completed the Tour, had a little rest, competed well in the opening stages, but now looked to be coming to an end of form. With the World Championships close by, they won’t want to go too deep. The heat is also a factor and is adding to the feeling of fatigue, in the bunch.
Valverde will want another stage win. To do so, he needs to eliminate all the sprinters. Expect to see Movistar setting a really fast pace, on both ascents. If you lose any ground, you won’t make it back to the bunch. It looks like Movistar v the sprinters! A win would be his 10th in the Vuelta.
Due to the downhill, the break won’t be huge and should be manageable. Movistar will look to control the peloton and that should be enough to shut down the move. The riders aren’t stupid either, they know that waiting till the last climb, gives you a much better chance of taking the stage.
Once the peloton is slimmed down, a huge number of riders could escape. Being good on the climbs is a bonus, as is TT ability. That brings me to Tom Dumoulin! This stage looks great for him. As he has already shown, he can climb with the best. Not only that, but he’s one of the best TT riders in the world. The Giant-Alpecin rider is certainly one of the favourites for the stage.
LL Sanchez is another threat to Valverde. He should be allowed some freedom, as Aru and Landa will not be under any pressure. The Spaniard is in good form and has similar abilities to Dumoulin. A great climber and TT rider. Despite his brilliant career, the Spaniard has never won a stage in the Vuelta. He’ll be wanting to correct that!
Other riders who will have an eye on this stage are: Adam Hansen, Julien Simon and Sami Sanchez.
As I have already said Degenkolb and Sagan could make the finish, if the climb is taken easy. The same could be said of Barbero, Reynes and Stuyven. In fact, the Trek rider will be confident of making the finish. At home in the hills of Belgium, he can cope well with short, steep climbs. He will hope for a steady pace and then a few riders to help position him and control the peloton.
Controlling the peloton, inside the final 10km is going to be impossible. Remember back to 2014 and the victory of Adam Hansen. That day, we had a difficult climb close to the end, but Degenkolb survived it. Giant lacked sufficient numbers and came under attack, in the closing stages. As he was the fastest sprinter, by a mile, no other team helped chase the attacking riders. Hansen timed his attack to perfection and took the win. This stage could produce something similar.
With all eyes on Valverde, Movistar can suffer under the pressure. Katusha might help, but Moreno cannot really be expected to beat Alejandro in a sprint. All the other teams will look towards Movistar, we’ll have to see how they cope with the pressure. Not having TT riders like Dowsett, Malori and Castroviejo is a big loss in a stage like this.
This stage is too hard to control for a sprint, so no fairytale for Valverde. A late attack will succeed but that might be on the climb or the run for home. I’m going for Astana and Luis Leon Sanchez.
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