Stage 6 is a return to the longer 200km+ days in the saddle at this year’s La Vuelta a España, with this one providing the most gruelling finish so far. The peloton will depart from the start in Cordoba and begin riding East towards the finish of Sierra de Cazorla, a summit finish which is making its debut at this race. Though some would label this as the type of transitional stage expected from a grand tour, the reality is a 200.3km ride which offers little time to relax, spending the vast majority of the day sending the bunch up and down hills in quick succession.
Excluding the finish, the only other recognised climb of the day comes after 132.7km have been clocked up, the ascent in question being the Category 3 Alto de Baeza. It is a steady climb which lasts a total of 11.8km and rarely strays beyond its average gradient of 3.9%, meaning the riders should find it easy enough to strike the appropriate rhythm to the top. Once summited, the road jaggedly works its way downhill in order to place the pack at the base of the climb which forms the day’s finale.
With a little over 20km remaining, the road builds steadily upwards and will instigate the fight for position from the general classification teams and those wishing to mount a convincing charge for stage honours here. As the riders approach the final Category 3 climb which serves as the finish on Stage 6, they will drop sharply downhill for a brief moment and then begin the 3.3km grind up to the line. The average gradient en route to Sierra de Cazorla is 6.3% and offers little in the way of uniform terrain, constantly fluctuating in intensity all the way to the summit. Around 8% – 10% will be inflicted upon the frontrunners in the opening kilometre, before then easing suddenly to 5%; a deceitful change ahead of what lies in store. The remaining 1.3km are then contested at stepper inclines, and once beyond the flamme rouge, those still in with a chance of victory will then face 10% – 13% in order to make it across the line. Like many of these intermediate Spanish summit finishes, several turns are present late on and this includes a tight right hand bend with less than 300m remaining; leading into a sharp 100m long decline. After this the road is uphill all the way to the finish and will have no doubt break plenty of riders who struggle to muster the strength required to kick again for the line.
Alejandro Valverde could well double up on victories after his Stage 4 efforts and earn himself another grand tour win; on that occasion managing to kick more than once on the final climb and shut the door on Peter Sagan ahead of the line. Once again his combination of technical prowess on these tricky finishes and an ability to make sprinting uphill look effortless marks him out as favourite once again today. Assuming that his team Movistar manage to reel in any late breakaways, then Valverde will be a very difficult many to beat on this leg breaking finish, which appears set to catch plenty of riders out in regards to its difficulty. The Spanish Champion is no stranger to following the necessary wheel to pull him to the front and remains a danger even if isolated during the crucial moments of this race.
Joaquim Rodriguez often brings his best on testing finishes such as this which stay within the double-digit gradient range for the most part. He attacked hard on Stage 2 and is clearly in good form despite walking away empty handed on that occasion; today is an even better fit for the gifted puncheur. Katusha are great at working for their leader and Rodriguez will not have to expend energy worrying about positioning as a result of this. What he will need to focus on however is the timing of his attack, too much eyeballing of rivals could cost him the win, instead he as to commit wholeheartedly to a move and ensure that anyone up the road is within catching distance.
Esteban Chaves has already made his presence here felt by winning Stage 2 and holding the leader’s Red Jersey until yesterday allowed Tom Dumoulin to relieve him of his burden by a margin of a solitary second. Having lost the jersey, Chaves remained upbeat and seemed confident of featuring in the mix for another stage win in the absence of being the most marked man in the race. There is no doubt of his condition right now and his prowess on such terrain makes him a contender for Stage 6, though plenty will surprisingly consider him an outsider.
Dan Martin has so far seen his stage winning chances evaporate on two occasions, once due to poor tactical decision making and the other due to wheel changes and crashes. Today suits him well once again, the Irishman possibly possessing a blend of climbing skill and sprinting ability only bettered by Alejandro Valverde. On this occasion he has to be the first man to make the move and force those behind to calculate the chase, any lead offered up to Martin is dangerous and could prove impossible to pull back on a finish such as this.
Domenico Pozzovivo has arrived at the Vuelta a España with the hope of saving a season marred by a horrendous crash during the Giro d’Italia, but he has since recovered well and put in encouraging performances at the Tour de Suisse and Tour de l’Ain. The diminutive Italian finished 7th and 14th on Stages 5 and 4 respectively at the Vuelta so far and should fancy his chances once again on a difficult and technical finale which may see him unmarked; providing him the freedom required to contest the win.
Gianluca Brambilla has not quite ridden as well as expected so far at the race, but he could see this opportunity as a way of rising to the challenge and strike upon a victory for his team. Brambilla has chances in both a breakaway or a late solo move and is likely to utilise his unmarked nature to steal a march on the bigger names.
Daniel Moreno is good at negotiating the technical demands of a finish such as this and is one of the fastest sprinters for this type of rush to the line. Unfortunately for him, it is likely that he will be used to help place teammate Joaquim Rodriguez into a race winning position during the final couple of kilometres. Should things not go to plan and Moreno is required to takeover leadership responsibilities for Katusha, there is a good chance of him getting the better of riders such as Valverde; having already pushed him close on Stage 4.
Louis Meintjes could be brought into contention on a run into home which will prevent many from striking a comfortable rhythm. The MTN-Qhubeka rider is no doubt on the hunt for a shock win at this year’s Vuelta a España, this perhaps being such an opportunity. Though much of the peloton is still yet to offer the charitable organisation the respect they deserve, Meintjes’ hopes today are supported by a strong team who will not shy away from an ‘elbows out’ type of finish.
John Darwin Atapuma is really here to support the ambitions of his team leader Tejay Van Garderen and to also aim for a modest general classification placing of his own. However, Stage 6 does offer a reasonable platform for the talented Colombian to launch his own bid for victory. If allowed to depart from his team’s demands to help shepard Tejay Van Garderen to safety, he might just manage to slip past the favourites and take the glory. Admittedly, the terrain is not perfect for him as it lacks the length and intensity of most typical ‘Colombian friendly’ finishes, while the brief 100m downhill section does not aid him much either.
Kenny Elissonde is a strange one to place in the mix for today, many remain unsure of his progress as of late and what exactly he is targeting as he develops into the supposed next general classification hope of France. His ambitions of a good overall placing here look to have evaporated already and it would not be a negative move to instead focus upon a possible stage victory instead. A longer and more regular climb to the line would have been a benefit, but he is the sort of dark horse who could smuggle himself aboard a late breakaway before the bunch realise who the FDJ.fr jersey belongs to.
Sylvain Chavanel is the eternally combative French favourite and could seize his chance to make a move during the finale of this stage, or perhaps even earlier. He is often most comfortable in a break which stays out for the whole day, so keep an eye open for his name in the day’s opening attack. Should such a group take it all the way to the line, Chavanel has a knack for sandbagging and often gives it everything for the win after most would look upon him as being a broken man.
Julien Simon is worth a mention after finishing an impressive 7th on Stage 4 and will fancy building upon this result on a similar day’s finish. Much like the previous two or three riders mentioned above, the Frenchman could choose to bide his team until the final kilometres or instead join a breakaway with the hope of being the strongest rider come the end.
1st Joaquim Rodriguez 2nd Dan Martin 3rd Alejandro Valverde