The biggest contrast in regards to the styling of this year’s Vuelta a España stages is evident on day four, the second longest day in the saddle clocks in at unusually lengthy 209.4km for this Spanish grand tour. Thankfully for the peloton which has to contest this affair beneath a sweltering climate, the route is predominately flat and hostilities are unlikely to be ignited before the lumpy finish catches the eye of puncheurs and strongmen alike.
Leaving Estepona, the riders shall find themselves on extremely flat terrain immediately after their departure from the start. This heavily costal focused route will bring crosswinds into play, something which many could underestimate on a day which is meant to be tactically bland for the general classification motivated squads. Should gales indeed begin to howl and scythe their way through the peloton, panic will spread like wild fire as team leaders strive fervently to stay represented in the lead echelon on the road. Movistar and Alejandro Valverde will perhaps be the most aware of this threat after the Spanish rider lost any hope of a Tour de France placing in the 2013 edition of the race, due to an attack from Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo in the midst of such crosswinds.
A total absence of categorised climbs on Stage 4 means the breakaway will see little reward for their efforts beyond the usual desire of making it onto TV for the sponsors; especially the smaller teams racing here. The first introduction of climbing comes between 20km – 33km, but this is relatively rolling and will see a relaxed peloton snake their way across these minor hills. The day’s highest point comes at 70km and is followed by only a couple more lumps and bumps en route to the extremely tough finishing circuit in Vejer de la Frontera. Less than 5km will remain as the likely fireworks begin to erupt upon the final climb in order to survive and succeed through this harsh selection of riders who hope to contest the win.
This constant drag only lasts about a kilometre but encompasses gradients of 12% which swing upwards to 18%, despite its limited length. Over the top leads to a false summit which remains fluctuating minutely for a little over a kilometre, before then dropping down subtlety to 500m from the finishing line, at which point it becomes uphill all the way to the line. Had those eyeing up the win here not already deemed this a sufficiently testing run to the finish, the extremely technical nature of the conclusion will exaggerate the 12% – 14% slopes as the narrowing road encompasses a couple of hairpin bends in order to make the fight for space increasingly aggressive. It lessens to 4.5% in final meters to the line, which means any puncheur who possesses a strong sprint in order to dispatch any remaining rivals will be a clear favourite to win.
Alejandro Valverde is the clear favourite for the majority of pundits on a course finale which he would struggle to better if given the task of designing himself. On paper he has the skills required to attack on the short and relatively sharp slopes to the line, while also possessing a potent sprint to dispatch anyone still with him in the final meters; as we have seen many times before at the Ardennes. However, it is unclear as to what condition he is in exactly on the back of a middling Tour de France showing, not quite animating the race as expected on day two here either. Though this might have been predominately due to his teammate Nairo Quintana attacking earlier and not wishing to reel him back in unnecessarily. With his skilful bike handling and a great level of positional nous, the technical run into home also supports his claims to victory on Stage 4 of La Vuelta a España.
Peter Sagan executed a surprisingly dominant sprint finish yesterday in order to steal the win away from John Degenkolb, who looked certain to cross the line first before the Slovak champion and Nacer Bouhanni gapped him by some margin before the finish. The stronger than expected tailwind might have contributed to the unexpected display by Sagan, but there is little doubt about his condition in 2015 and today suits him even better. Theoretically, the inclines at the very end of Stage 4 should prove too much for Sagan, but this year he has consistently gone beyond expectation when competing upon ill-fitting terrain. Should he manage to pace this last charge to the line well, he is the fastest by far of those singled out for the victory today and certainly has the technical skills required in order to avoid being boxed in late on.
Daniel Moreno was working for Joaquim Rodriguez on Stage 2, but today should offer him the chance to stretch his legs on a finish which will prove an inviting prospect for the Katusha rider. The difficulty of the final climbs will prove well within his abilities, but most encouraging of all, is his powerful sprint finish compared to his likely rivals here. Assuming he avoids being unable to follow the key attacks through the narrow streets, Moreno will aim to steal a march on the favourites and hammer home his speedy advantage over anyone still on his wheel ahead of the line.
Dan Martin seems unable to catch much luck at the moment, often finding his attacks mistimed by only a handful of seconds, leaving him with nothing to show for his efforts. He waited and waited on Stage 2 for the main general classification riders to chase the earlier skirmishing moves of Nicolas Roche and Esteban Chaves, but the impetus was never forthcoming. This unexpectedly left Martin to chase solo with no reaction from his overall rivals, freedom he did not believe was likely to be provided to him, but certainly something he will take advantage of if offered again today. Though he is known for his punchy ability to reach these steep hilltop finishes in a good position, he should not be too disheartened if still alongside a couple of riders after the summit, as the Irishman is able to execute a convincing turn of pace in a sprint finish. The biggest issue for Martin is the narrow and technical nature of the final kilometres, an aspect which could once again expose his weakness for crucial positioning during this last moments of a race.
Diego Rosa is sure to be on team duties helping to support Fabio Aru, but if he should be allowed off the leash to attack here, he might prove to be in with a chance of a podium finish. He often comes to the fore on these town based finales which use steep hills to form the finish and evidently has the technical skills to survive the run in, having placed well (5th) at Strade Bianche earlier this year.
Tom Dumoulin is performing far beyond the expectations of him this season, not only in his favoured time trialling discipline, but also in races such as Tour de Suisse and Stage 2’s finish at this edition of La Vuelta. The Dutchman is proving to be a difficult man to dislodge during this lumpy finales and could be aiming to succeed in the final few kilometres today which play well into his strengths. The gradients, though steep, do not fluctuate to greatly, which means Dumoulin should be able to ride at his desired power level without having to burn too many matches early on. Its narrow streets are unlikely to faze the Dutchman and he will be difficult to beat in any resulting sprint to the line; a strong contender.
Joaquim Rodriguez is sure to have preferred a much more difficult hill to decide the outcome of today’s stage, but the Spaniard could still feature in the shake up for the win. He performed well on Stage 2 and probably would have been favourite for the win had the peloton not allowed Dan Martin, Esteban Chaves and Tom Dumoulin to vanish up the road so easily late on. There is a strong chance he might actually return the favour of Daniel Moreno and instead choose to support his teammate on a course which admittedly suits his talents more so than that of Rodriguez.
Louis Meintjes is having a very strong year for his team MTN-Qhubeka, putting on a great display during Stage 5 of this year’s Tour de France. The young South African finished 14th on the second day at this year’s Vuelta and has a strong chance of building upon that here on Stage 4. Though perhaps not quite as tough as he would liked it to have been, a gruelling day in the crosswinds could tire his punchier rivals and allow him to attack hard at the death with little response.
Gianluca Brambilla could well prove to be dangerously underestimated on this terrain and will no doubt make the most of his underdog status to launch a serious attack late on here. It seems to becoming apparent that Brambilla finds good form at La Vuelta a España and has already begun to demonstrate such condition at this year’s edition too. A threatening blend of strength and speed, he has the option to either seize the initiative and attack solo, or follow the wheels of his rivals through the winding streets and steal the win with a potent sprint finish. His combative nature could be what secures him the win most of all, as we have already seen too much eyeballing of the favourites during the final moments of such tense stages.
1st Daniel Moreno 2nd Gianluca Brambilla 3rd Louis Meintjes