Having been afforded a day’s break from the Vuelta a España’s summit finishes in the first week, Stage 9 marks a return to a stage profile the peloton will have become accustomed to by now. Though the uphill finishes thus far have proved exciting, the expected stirrings from within the general classifications hopefuls have not quite materialised, Fabio Aru’s attack and Chris Froome’s ailing on the Stage 7 the only moments of note. Today should change this with a ruthlessly steep summit finish that will force a reaction should another general classification favourite decide to make his move late on.
The race begins heading towards the real mountains soon, Stage 9 acting as a bridge to the upcoming Pyrenees challenges which will offers us the first convincing insight of the battle for the Red Jersey. For now however, attention remains upon the short, intense and punchy finishes which have shaped the conclusion of the opening half of the race. Departing from Torrevieja, the peloton will begin their 168.3km journey to Dumbre del Sol-Benitatxell easily enough, the opening 125km or so tracing its way along the coast on easy going terrain.
By this point in time, the peloton will encounter their day’s major challenge for the first time, the Alto de Puig Llorenca. This tough finish appears once before the finale, allowing the riders a brief reconnaissance of the climb, but one which is curtailed as this is a Category 2 3.3km (8.9%) climb which lacks the summit finish of the second ascent; meaning the finish is instead recognised as a Category 1 obstacle.
A descent drops the riders back down to level ground in order to contest the intermediate sprint with a little over 10km left to race. Once completed, the Alto de Puig Llorenca begins looming large once again, but this time it’s the longer 4.1km climb at the same 8.9% gradient, upgraded to a more imposing Category 1 status. Like many of the summit finishes we have seen so far at this race, the opening couple of kilometres appear to be simple enough (5.3%), but this soon comes crashing down around them as they ride straight into a 500m long wall of 19% climbing. A short lived plateau offers brief relief, though the final kilometre remains flickering between 9% – 11%, all of which is combined with a series of tight bends en route to the summit. The final push to the top is set to be a brutal affair as the average gradients begin jumping rapidly to ramps of 13%, 16% and even a leg breaking 26%. Whoever does win on Stage 9, it shall certainly not be a fluke victory.
Nairo Quintana might finally break cover at the Vuelta a España on Stage 9’s gruelling summit finish. His condition is almost unknown as we have seen very little of him beyond the inability to follow the attacks on Stage 2, but this finale’s steeper gradients suits his skills much better. The recent days seem to suggest he is not struggling to mark his rivals right now and if he believes he has the legs for it today, the Colombian will prove a difficult man to reel back into the pack.
Esteban Chaves has enjoyed a supremely impressive opening half to this grand tour and there is little to suggest he cannot extend this further with victory on Stage 9. The diminutive Colombian climber tends to thrive on this steeper terrain, perhaps even more so than the finales which have so far earnt him two stage wins and ownership of the leader’s Red Jersey. Being the current race leader does mean he could end up being marked out of the race, though he seems to relish his current status and he remains as combative as ever. If everything is relatively together ahead of the final kilometre, Chaves will perhaps even become the favourite to win on these incredibly sharp ramps preceding the line.
Fabio Aru is the only general classification rider to have stretched his legs so far and won himself a handful of seconds over his rivals. The Italian is known for his explosive finishing ability, but it is unclear if these fluctuating steep gradients during the last kilometre will offer a positive or negative platform towards his ambitions on Stage 9.
Joaquim Rodriguez would historically be the standout favourite for a stage finish such as this, but his performances so far at 2015’s edition of La Vuelta a España have been rather underwhelming. At one point it seemed that he was simply restricted by his wishes to mark his rivals extremely closely, but subsequent inability to perform upon ideal terrain for the Spanish puncheur would suggest that he is actually struggling to stick the pace.
Alejandro Valverde is no stranger to steep gradients, most famously dominating the Ardennes’ classics on similar terrain, though today’s test will prove an exaggerated version of these races. Similar to Rodriguez, his form looks uncertain, despite having already taken a stage win during the opening week of La Veulta. Since that showing, he has not performed as well as expected on finishes which really should have marked him out as a favourite and offered him the chance to at least double up on his wins so far. With the Pyrenees looming large ahead of Stage 9, Valverde may decide he is better to keep his powder dry ahead of much more demanding days in the saddle next week.
Domenico Pozzovivo has remained a clear presence behind the obvious favourites for this year’s title and could emerge today as a real contender for Stage 9 honours. The Italian climber flourishes on these mind numbing gradients and is unlikely to be marked by any of the major teams should he decide to make a move. Pozzovivo finished safely alongside the general classification men on Stage 7 and will feel confident of achieving something today, having confirmed his condition with consistent riding already.
Louis Meintjes is ridding extremely impressively right now and there is no reason to think a stage win is beyond him at this Vuelta a España. Whether or not today is the ideal opportunity to do just that is not clear, but the South African should certainly be able to stick the pace of the general classification riders without a doubt. Given his surprising prowess on the climbs so far, MTN-Qhubeka may instead decide to focus upon cementing his overall placing, rather than investing heavily in attempting to secure a stage win.
1st Domenico Pozzovivo 2nd Esteban Chaves 3rd Nairo Quintana