This year’s edition of La Vuelta a España has already showcased its talents for hard hitting and gruelling finales which require the riders to haul themselves over and up to the finish line. Stage 7 is no different in that respect, ratcheting up the level of difficulty once again and acting as likely bait for the general classification frontrunners to finally stretch their legs, though it does not seem certain that such a rider will win on the day; the door is open for an outsider to steal the show.
Exiting from the start in Jódar, the riders face a 191.1km rolling day in the saddle which only encompasses one categorised climb before the summit finish atop La Alpujarra’s Alto de Capileira; another climb making its debut at this Vuelta. First of all however is the day’s opening Category 3 climb of the Puerto de les Blancares, a 9km long drag which will prove to be an easy warm up for those with an eye on the stage victory given its modest average gradient of 3.3%.
A breather of sorts is offered to the peloton once over the top, the road slinking predominately downwards for almost 30km after Puerto de les Blancares. Though a few lumps and bumps are present on the stage’s profile en route to the intermediate sprint, it eventually drops down once again in order to place the riders at the foot of the day’s climatic finish up Alto de Capileira.
This Category 1 ascent which acts as the battleground for Stage 7’s outcome is 18.7km long and averages a moderate 5%; though any rider who has not done their research will learn how unrealistic this figure truly is soon enough. It opens easily enough for the bunch, the first 5km reaching a maximum of 8.5% while the majority swings between 3% – 6%. The next 5km are a plateau, of which the biggest drag is only 1%, from here the real test begins; all remaining 8km offering nothing in the way of relief from the draining slopes. Despite the intensity of the gradient dropping to as low as 4% – 5% at moments, the majority of it remains hovering around an arduous 8%. With just about 2km left of the climb to the line, a misleading lull of 6% will break the rhythm of most riders and make life even more difficult when the road immediately jumps up to 14% just a few hundred meters later. Even once this is passed, a deceptively difficult final kilometre still remains, one which is billed as a modest 6% but actually includes ramps of 13% and a final 200m set at 7.5%
Chris Froome has been keeping a low profile within the pack, following the required wheels and generally stay out of trouble as best as he can. The Sky leader tends to seize upon the chance to test his legs on the first serious summit finish of a grand tour, but this occasion is not quiet as ideal as it could be. The midpoint plateau will nullify the efforts of his teammates drilling it on the front early on and thus reduce ascent to a more realistic 8km battle to the line. Regardless, with a gradient as steep as 14%, he might well utilise his spiked efforts to spin up to a ridiculous cadence and test his rivals in the final kilometres; even the last 200m remain tough enough for Froome to benefit from.
Joaquim Rodriguez had a great chance of winning yesterday’s stage, but once again spurned his opportunity due to eyeballing rivals such as Alejandro Valverde instead of making a move. There is no question as to his current condition and he will be forced to make a move on a summit finish to anticipate the expected loss of time in the time trial. Katusha provide a great depth of talent to support him on these types of terrain and he has everything required to win Stage 7 if he chooses to do so.
Alejandro Valverde is a similar story to that of his fellow countryman Joaquim Rodriguez, though he has gone one better so far by winning Stage 4. Movistar have the necessary firepower to control the race on the final climb to the line and Valverde is possibly the strongest favourite from the general classification favourites; based on his performances so far. His punchy style will be enough to overcome the final tests en route to the finish, though it is unsure whether he will wish to dig unnecessarily deep for the sake of a stage win today.
Nairo Quintana has certainly not been forgotten, but it is safe to say that he has experienced a limited time in the limelight thus far. Of course, the main reason for this has been his team Movistar’s wishes to back co-leader Alejandro Valverde on a series of stages which suited his attributes much more convincingly. The Colombian has stayed clear of trouble so far and could finally decide to emerge out of the pack today with a feisty performance which will wake the likes of Chris Froome and co up to his condition. Alto de Capileira does not appear long or tough enough for Quintana to really inflict much damage, but he remains a noteworthy rider as ever when the roads head skywards.
Nicolas Roche has been in fantastic form at his favourite grand tour in the opening week and it would not be a great surprise should he attempt to kick for home and snatch a few seconds at the very least. His biggest issue however will be his current status as a marked man, though his compatriot Dan Martin thought the same on Stage 2 and was then surprised to see little impetus in order to bring him back having attacked during the day’s finale. If Roche should decide to go on the attack, it will at least make for interesting viewing as to how the peloton would react to such a move.
Domenico Pozzovivo suits this finale particularly well and should be afforded the freedom to attack if the race is altogether as they approach the final 8km of Alto de Capileira. The diminutive Italian has displayed convincing flashes of form already at this year’s Vuelta a España and holds a feasible chance of going all the way on Stage 7. Combining his unmarked status and race freshness compared to the major favourites, Pozzovivo is certain to at least attempt a move on the Alto de Capileira.
Rafal Majka is a similarly underestimated contender for stage honours on Stage 7 and will look to exploit the internal battle between Froome, Valverde, Rodriguez, Quintana and Aru in order to get a move to stick. This year has lacked the convincing performances of last season, but the Pole is innately talented and looks to have begun finding his legs once again after several skirmishing attacks in the last couple of days. If a Tinkoff-Saxo jersey flashes up the road in the final kilometres, it is sure to be Rafal Majka it would seem right now.
Esteban Chaves was stated by Spokenforks as being criminally underestimated to win yesterday’s stage in the wake of parting with the leader’s Red Jersey and this proved to ring true. Today does not quite suit him as well as his previous two stage wins, but it seems difficult to exclude the Colombian star when on such sparkling form. Steeper gradients and a longer uninterrupted ascent would have played into his strengths more so than today’s final 18km, but perhaps the biggest stumbling block to overcome will be a return to life as the most marked man in the race.
Daniel Martin yet again mistimed his final push for glory yesterday and seems to be haunted this year by small miscalculations which keep leaving him within spitting distance of the race winner. The run into the line would allow Martin to demonstrate his sprinting prowess, but the length of the ascent once over the plateau makes him a difficult man to back, as he would surely prefer a shorter climb to the finish. The gradients should not prove a big issue for the Irishman, but given the distance, if the peloton sets a high tempo on another hot day beneath the sun, he could well crack before he has the chance to attack.
Louis Meintjes has consistently put in solid performances behind the big name favourites in the opening week of 2015’s La Vuelta a España, but has not received the acclaim such showings deserve. He will no doubt be motivated to build upon his current condition by staking a claim to the victory on Stage 7 and he does offer a strong case to achieve exactly that. Though his goal here is to secure a good general classification placing for his team MTN-Qhubeka, the longer climb brings him into contention and it remains to be seen as to how worried the likes of Orica-GreenEDGE, Sky, Astana and Movistar would be if he chooses to attack on Alto de Capileira.
Tejay Van Garderen has gone totally unnoticed at the Vuelta up to now, but this tricky finish could be stated as suiting his style reasonably well. Of the obvious contenders for the overall win, he is likely to be one of the freshest as a consequence of being forced to abandon Le Tour de France earlier this summer. In regards to his normal tactics when targeting a stage race, the American prefers to defend a jersey, rather than attempt to take it late on in a race. Stage 7 is extremely early to execute such a plan, but he may wish to test his legs here and inadvertently walk away with the jersey as a consequence.
1st Domenico Pozzovivo 2nd Chris Froome 3rd Tejay Van Garderen