Today is the opening barrage from a mountainous trio of days which shape the three oncoming stages for the peloton, this assault intended to shine the brightest light thus far onto the general classification contenders. For those less suited for life against the clock on Stage 17, these three stages will be crucial in establishing as much time as possible in order to defend their position near the top of the overall classification. Though Stage 14 lacks the total altitude gains of Stage 11, it poses two sufficiently testing ascents which will find their characteristics exaggerated by the mounting fatigue which begins to bed in as we pass the midway point of this grand tour.
Of this 215km stretch from Vitoria to Alto Campoo (Fuente del Chivo), the opening 107km are relatively simple enough, after which point they officially begin climbing for the first time of the day. The Category 3 Puerto Estacas de Trueba averages an extremely modest 2.9% over its slopes, but will take a total of 11km to complete from bottom to top. Its summit tips immediately into a sharp descent which lasts for around 20km and is bound to increase anxieties as everyone attempts to navigate a safe passage down to the valley floor. Once they reach the end of this downhill run, the peloton turn straight onto the Category 1 Puerto del Escudo, a climb who’s average gradient of 6.4% is rather misleading during its 11.5km entirety. The reality being that there is no relief from the 10% slopes, which begin after several kilometres, and only stop just ahead of the summit.
These next 40km are ridden on a plateau and eventually exit out onto the opening slopes of the ascent which will haul the riders up to the day’s summit finish. It looks set for the Category 1 Alto Campoo to lure some activity out from the big names eyeing the Red Jersey here, riders pondering such a move having 18km to make up their minds as to make a move or not. The average gradient of 5.5% is a fair representation of the climb itself, most of which will be contested between 3% – 6%, though a tough section of 9% – 11% is present in the final kilometre. With only a couple of hundred meters remaining of the stage, the road will see its gradient dip down to below 2% and perhaps instigate a sprint amongst a possible breakaway group which makes it to the line.
Fabio Aru has been utilising his Astana teammates to the maximum already and he will look to do the same during Stage 14, placing them on the front and keeping all moves on a tight leash. Aru is evidently the freshest out of the major favourites for the overall win here and could decide to reel everything back in late on, attacking en route to the summit in order to cement his lead further at the first time of asking. Though he may have to concede the stage win to an earlier breakaway, Aru could be anxious enough to force a move here and hope to make the oncoming tougher mountain stages an easier affair before they even begin by increasing his lead here.
Mikel Nieve will only secure a podium placing by the time the peloton reach Madrid if he strikes out during the next three stages, with tomorrow an appealing option. The Spanish climber is now Sky’s best hope of a high general classification placing, but is extremely vulnerable to those around him in the standings who time trial much more convincingly than he does. This should all force his hand in the coming days and mark him out as a man to watch for a stage win.
Rafal Majka is a strong candidate to feature in the mix for stage honours today, the Polish rider having looked extremely strong thus far, only really wobbling on Stage 9. The finale here suits his swashbuckling exploits which previously won him the Polka Dot Jersey at Le Tour de France, but on this occasion he remains a general classification danger and will not be afforded a great deal of freedom on the last climb.
Frank Schleck came here in good condition and has demonstrated this already at La Vuelta a España, but has unfortunately seen his general classification hopes evaporate through sheer bad luck. The Luxembourg rider could subsequently become a good bet for the breakaway during these remaining mountain stages, trying to grab a piece of the success which has so far been rather forthcoming at Trek Factory Racing.
Nairo Quintana has slipped down the general classification and has subsequently admitted to suffering from a degree of sickness in the last few days. This means Stage 14 will come as a real litmus test of his condition and true ability to ride competitively during this gruelling mountainous long weekend. Should he suffer badly due to illness, he could even walk away from the race altogether, having already ridden the Tour de France this summer.
Alejandro Valverde injured his upper body earlier in the week and had seen his performance dip as a consequence, though there was an expectation for this to happen as a consequence of accumulative fatigue since riding Le Tour de France instead. Much like his Colombian teammate Quintana, this will come as an important test in order to gauge the realistic hopes of Movistar rescuing a podium place with Valverde ahead of these three summit finish stages and the individual time trial yet to come.
Joaquim Rodriguez has ridden a tactically astute race up to now at his home tour, perhaps avoiding the temptation of digging deep for a stage victory in order to maintain his tilt at the overall win. He appears to be the least affected by the combined fatigue of Tour de France and Vuelta a España of the original favourites for the title here and today’s finish is relatively friendly to his attributes once again. It is hard to imagine Rodriguez emerging from the time trial having not shipped a great deal of time to his rivals, meaning that he must attack during the next three stages if he hopes to maintain a podium placing; let alone win the entire affair. Due to his current placing, it will be difficult to find the space in order to attempt such a move and with Aru having Landa as his attack dog right now, Rodriguez’s work is cut out for sure.
Daniel Moreno appears to be unexpectedly strong and offers a superb alternative for Katusha on Stage 14, perhaps having enough strength right now to kick on for a stage win. As is well documented, Moreno’s most potent weapon within his arsenal is a fantastic turn of pace for these summit finishes which has buried many a rival over the years from a reduced kick.
Fabio Duarte is an interesting possibility for the win today, the only man in the peloton with form on this summit climb which has never featured in La Vuelta a España until now. Alto Campoo has proven to be a familiar feature of the Circuito Montañés over the years and Duarte won on the ascent to Fuente del Chivo in 2010 by an impressive margin of 2’45”. His Colombian team are always eager to animate these stages in the mountains and Duarte must surely have circled this stage weeks back as a day on which he could emerge victorious.
1st Fabio Aru 2nd Mikel Nieve 3rd Rafal Majka
Outsider: Fabio Duarte