It will not take long on Stage 11 for yesterday’s rest day at La Vuelta a España to feel like a distant dream, this mammoth challenge being labelled as one of the toughest stages in grand tour history; perhaps the hardest ever at La Vuelta. Curated in part by Joaquim Rodriguez, few riders will be pleased with his work to design this memorable mountain expedition between Spain and Andorra. Potent in nature, the brief 138km journey from Andora La Vella to the Category 1 summit finish of Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp will test the resolve of many and is certain to send plenty of riders heading home, as the race to make the day’s time cut causes the gruppeto to fracture under the riders’ anxieties to finish inside the time.
As soon as the riders depart they will open their account for the day with the Category 1 Collda de Beixalis, a 6.5km ascent which maintains an average gradient of 8.7%, though large parts are double digit gradients between 10% – 14%. The subsequent descent heads immediately into the base of the next climb, something which will be a recurring theme throughout Stage 11 and ensure no respite (physically or mentally) until the day is over. Next comes another Category 1 in the shape of the 9.9km long Colle de Ordino, a somewhat more forgiving climb due to its regular gradient which does not fluctuate far beyond 6% – 8%. At this point they head back to return to Andorra la Vella and begin the third climb of Stage 11, another Category 1 challenge which on this occasion is the Col de la Rabassa. A difficult start with slopes reaching 12%, which then give way to a more regular gradient which softens towards the summit, though double-digit gradients are dotted throughout the journey from bottom to top.
Another expectedly rapid descent follows suit from the summit, leading downwards to the more familiar Category 1 Collada de la Gallina which has appeared as a stage finish in recent editions of La Vuelta a España, though it is hard to imagine anybody thrilled by being reunited with this old ‘friend’. The 11.7km ascent is a true introduction to hell during Stage 11, the average gradient of 8.6% not truly revealing the nature of this beast however. The slopes here sit on a knife’s edge between double and single digit figures, making it difficult to establish a satisfying rhythm during the majority of this climb. The final major descent sends them back once again towards the Andorran capital and day’s starting point, but this time on an alternative passage which directs them up the Category 2 Alto de la Comella instead; a short 4km climb which remains challenging at 9.5% average gradient.
An extremely brief downhill section then places the bunch at the foot of the next and final major climb of the day, Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp’s Category 1 summit finish. This final beast is more about gradient than length, clocking in at 8.7km and averaging a draining 9.2% of paper, yet reality will see this exaggerated yet further. The slopes do not lower a great deal at first, spending the majority of the time hovering anywhere between 9% – 11.6% for the opening half of the ascent. After this, the second half lessens slightly to a more measured 7% – 8% almost right the way to the summit, also forcing the riders to trace their way through an array of tight hairpin bends which do not cease until 200m from the line. A stage win at any of the grand tours is a career defining moment, but to be crowned champion on this day in particular will no doubt assure the victors place in history as a result.
Chris Froome appears to be riding himself into this race and cementing himself as a serious contender off the back of a dominant performance in July, which led him to win Le Tour de France for the second time in three years. Today consists of extended ascents which suit the Sky leader better than the more explosive finales we have witnessed so far, as well as a variety of descents which many will scramble to cite as definite weakness of Froome’s. However, as this season has demonstrated, he is nowhere near as fearful of descending as many would have you believe and Froome has often been able to stick the pace of one of the most talented descenders; Alejandro Valverde. The most likely scenario on the day will be Froome concentrating on his own race and tempo, ensuring he does not go into the red trying to follow the attacks and instead aim upon staying within a minute of his rivals come the finish. If he feels as good as he did on Stage 9, then he will certainly aim to kick on and attempt to land a punch on at least one of his rivals during this curtain raiser to the more hellish side of 2015’s Vuelta.
Nairo Quintana also came here after competing at this year’s Tour de France and has maintained a relatively low profile so far at this grand tour. The Colombian rider was suffering in the immense heat of the opening half of the race, but today could prove the polar opposite, with extended downpours forecast at the time of publishing. These longer climbs with relatively even steep gradients certainly play into his natural strengths as a climber, though he does admit that his condition right now is not as good as it was during July in France. If he can overcome the Tour de France hangover and find a degree of freshness after the rest day, he stands a great chance of performing strongly on this brutal stage.
Fabio Aru is the freshest of the overall general classification contenders on paper and has displayed a combative mindset so far which has perhaps only been bettered by Chris Froome. The Italian Astana leader has a unique dynamic between himself and his rivals for the title; below them in current climbing ability, but much better prepared for the race in regards to peaking when it counts most. His talents for attacking sharply to establish a gap on his rivals, before going on to maintain it during theses long and arduous climbs are well suited here, more so than the summits we have experienced until now. Aru should be given a slightly greater amount of freedom to attempt such a move compared to his rivals and will not hesitate to gain time ahead of the individual time trial if possible.
Alejandro Valverde is a difficult man to predict on a day as testing as this, the Spaniard renowned more for his puncheur abilities than competing as a pure climber at grand tours, though it is not to be forgotten that he did win 2009’s La Veulta a España. Taking into account his brilliant talent for reducing the gains of those more adept to these big mountain stages, especially when utilising descending abilities, he should not collapse entirely here despite his work being well and truly cutout. A noteworthy consideration when judging his performance today is the fact he did crash heavily during Stage 9 and has since confirmed limited mobility in his upper body and arm.
Kenny Elissonde is perhaps one of the strongest outsiders for victory today, the Frenchman having ridden an eye-catching race so far and also possesses the history for winning gruelling days such as these having already won on the Angliru at this race a couple of years ago. He thrives on these occasions which have the road solely going up or down and sits far enough back on the general classification at the moment, to be allowed to attack without having to worry a great deal about being shut down.
Esteban Chaves has relinquished his hold of the the leaders Red Jersey once more and can again be considered to feature here with a reduction in the degree of marking as a result. The Colombian has been the star of this Vuelta a España during the first half of the race, but it is difficult to anticipate how he will perform after his losses on Stage 9, as well as a rest day in between. Had he not already invested so much in protecting his interests, he would be a standout favourite to challenge for the win on a day full of climbing, but it just seems too much to ask of him right now.
Joaquim Rodriguez has played a part in designing this stage, so already has a head start in understanding the demands expected of those wishing to perform well here. Though seemingly riding well in the first half of this contest, never losing touch with his rivals, Rodriguez has failed to capitalise upon stages which suited his strengths nicely; something he needs to do before the individual time trial. Because of this, it is possible to raise the question as to whether or not he has been riding conservatively so far in order to seriously compete here and forever write his name into the Vuelta’s history books. What may improve his slim chances of victory is the possibility of poor weather conditions; a cold and wet day able to sap his rivals’ energy and level the playing field in his favour.
Dominico Pozzovivo is pleased by his performances so far at La Vuelta a España and has seen Ag2r La Mondiale confirm their support for the Italian’s quest of at least a top ten general classification placing come Madrid. If he maintains this level of competitiveness into the latter mountain stages, then it seems certain he will try his luck of taking a stage victory; today is perhaps not the ideal opportunity to attempt such a move.
Louis Meintjes is looking very strong at the moment and has a great chance of turning in a high general classification placing for MTN-Qhubeka, a factor which makes it difficult to predict how he will perform today. Was it not for his overall ambitions at this race, then today would be perfect for him to join the breakaway and attempt to push it all the way to the finish line. Regardless of which option he does decide to pursue on Stage 11, Meintjes is a man to watch throughout the day in order to assess the likelihood of him maintaing his current form all the way to Madrid.
Pierre Rolland has been anonymous up to this point, but could be lured out into action on a day suited to his pure climbing exploits. The Frenchman has recently confirmed his departure from Team Europcar and could decide to celebrate his move to Cannondale-Garmin with a fantastic showing on a truly historic stage. His strengths in a breakaway will be welcomed by many fellow escapees and he has everything required to push the peloton’s ability to reel him back to the limit.
Maxime Monfort is likely to be tasked with Lotto-Soudal’s daily attempt to get into the breakaway and pull off a shock victory at this year’s Vuelta a España. His season has been modest this year so far, but given the current tactics within his team, this could be his best opportunity to roll back the clock and resurrect some of his previous best form at grand tour races.
1st Nairo Quintana 2nd Fabio Aru 3rd Chris Froome
Outsider: Kenny Elissonde