Today is the toughest stage of this year’s Vuelta and the climatic finale to the last two day’s in the mountains. Despite not appearing to be on 100% form, Alberto Contador has ensured that the Red Jersey has remained upon his shoulders’ without looking in great distress at any point really. With five climbs over the 160.5km of Stage 16, the peloton will be blown to smithereens as the major protagonists remain fighting at the front of affairs late on. From San Martin del Rey Aurelio to Lagos de Somiedo, the day will stretch the riders across the only stage at the Vuelta which is packed with climbs instead of just the usual summit finish. Fireworks are expected once the favourites hit the La Farrapona finale, but whether anyone will have the legs to make a Vuelta winning attack is a big doubt after five Category 1 climbs.
On a normal stage the first four climbs of the day would attract a decent amount of attention upon viewing, but all the focus here is instead drawn by the last climb – La Farrapona. This climb stretches on for 16.5km, the longest of Stage 16, but not necessarily the hardest with the gradients being predominantly single digit. However, it will be hard for most to find a rhythm as these gradients do fluctuate throughout, on occasion swinging by 7% in a short period of time. It does ease before the immediate finish; though to get there will mean a last 3km which includes 12% ramps.
Instead of the three musketeers of Alejandro Valverde, Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez conspiring to ride Chris Froome out of his podium spot, the trio spent too much time watching each other and prevented real gaps from opening. Froome certainly did not appear to maintain his resurgence in form, but to suggest he looked weak on Stage 15 would be a great overstatement. Alberto Contador had Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez firmly stuck to his rear wheel today during his repeated digs and despite clearly towing them to the line, he still failed to make them work hard enough for that privilege; instead fearing attacks from over his shoulder. Valverde and Rodriguez really could have capitalised upon this anxiety yesterday, but perhaps the fear of today’s climbs prevented the major contenders from doing just that. A deciding factor when it comes to the fight for the red jersey could well be the strength and depth of each contender’s teams. Out of the top four, Alberto Contador would seem to have the weakest support network, Katusha for Rodriguez and Movistar for Valverde perhaps sharing the honour of strongest. If on an individual level it seems impossible to topple Contador, it could mean a huge team effort by Katusha, Movistar or Sky to blow him out the back.
Alberto Contador will still be the favourite here today, not only because of the finish, but due to the immense amount of climbing throughout the entire day. The reason why Rodriguez and Valverde failed to make the most of Stage 15 might just be that they felt they could not, a confident rider would not have feared a Contador riding below 100% and surely attacked. By placing all their hopes of taking the red jersey here means Contador can afford to sit back and wait for Valverde and Rodriguez to go on the offensive. If this happens, he will surely follow the wheels before counter attacking in the final 2km – 3km as a way of securing the title alongside a stage win at last. Valverde was strong on the previous day and will surely rue not attacking as La Farrapona does not look like the sort of terrain he could take time, only lose it. Should the trio of Spaniards spend their time attacking one another hard, Chris Froome could gently drag himself back into contention, but a stage win is a step too far. A high placed rider who might just be allowed the distance very late on is Fabio Aru, the long day in the mountains will create a more level playing field for him come La Farrapona and looks a chance for the stage win.
1st Contador 2nd Aru 3rd Valverde