Day two of this three day onslaught of mountain top finishes is set to seriously shake the top of the general classification up for the first time since Stage 11. The majority of today’s 175.8km journey from Comillas to the summit finish of Alto de Sotres is simple enough terrain, many riders wishing to take it as easy as possible ahead of a testing ascent to the line in the final 15km.
More than 70km will have passed before the peloton ride onto the first genuine piece of climbing, this being an unrecognised bump on the profile which will not have any real effect on the day’s outcome. Off the back of the descent, the bunch begin climbing the only other official ascent beyond the day’s summit finish in Cabrales. This Category 2 climb being the Alto del Torno, a 10.1km challenge which is billed with a misleading average gradient of 3.2%; the reality being much harder when taking into account two downhill sections en route to the summit.
The day’s intermediate sprint will be the only official task left ahead of the summit finish, though another unrecognised climb is apparent on the profile with around 30km to go. After this however, all eyes will be focused upon the Category 1 Alto de Sotres, the peloton arriving at the base of the ascent having ridden 163.1km. Totalling 12.7km and averaging 7.9%, this climb differs from the many slow drags we have already come across in La Vuelta a España. Failing to strike a steady gradient throughout its entirety, these differing slopes will favour the type of climber who is able to repeatedly change gear and battle against the ever changing pitch of the road. A large amount of the opening 4km are in and around the double-digit mark, only lessening to 6.5% as they haul themselves upwards to the midway point. During the next 3km, the road almost plateaus to 1.25%, eventually averaging out around 4% – 5% as the bunch make their way into the final 3km of this difficult climb. Here the road kicks up considerably, beginning with a ramp of 13.33%, maintaing double figures right the way to the summit from hereon in. Whoever ducks beneath the flamme rouge first will have a huge challenge to overcome, as the final kilometre alone averages 13.13% right the way to the line; the winner of Stage 15 could inflict major damage on the general classification.
Fabio Aru was well fancied to make a move on yesterday’s easier slopes in order to begin extending his lead ahead of the individual time trial. Instead however, we saw the punchy Italian failing to make his earlier strong performances count for much during the finale, though it is possible to blame his extended period riding on the front during the ascent as having blunted his potency. There is little doubt that Aru and his incredibly strong Astana teammates will have previously circled today as a good opportunity to secure a stage win at this year’s La Vuelta a España, but he will certainly need to be on top form to get the better of his rivals.
Nairo Quintana demonstrated flashes of his combative nature yesterday, though still ultimately rode relatively conservatively en route to the summit. The Colombian is without a doubt the best climber left in this race, but is still recovering from an earlier illness which has caused him to concede more time than any would have expected by this point of the race. Assuming that he is on an upwards curve off the back of his sickness, Quintana becomes more threatening than ever at this race, an unknown quantity who could suddenly strike upon his best form. There is certainly a chance of this happening, these steep and irregular gradients to the top of Alto de Sotres are combined with a long enough distance for Quintana to really begin pulling time back on those around him in the battle for the general classification.
Domenico Pozzovivo has been turning in greatly understated performances throughout this year’s La Vuelta a España and today’s steep finish could see him finally strike out in an attempt to win the stage. The Italian rider has a good record on such hard summit finishes, though he would have perhaps favoured something a little shorter; the first 4km will not prove an issue however.
Joaquim Rodriguez has been fairing much better than expected at this grand tour, but it is easy to envision today’s finale as being the occasion at which he begins to crack. The extended nature of the high gradient slopes do not suit his puncheur style of riding and he will have to rely on pacing himself well in order to stem his losses on Stage 15. Realistically, the best Rodriguez can wish for is an ongoing stalemate amongst the favourites during the harder sections, allowing him to remain in contention and sprint for the win.
Giovanni Visconti won the mountains classification outright at this year’s Giro d’Italia and he could certainly try to win this stage which suits the purest of climbers the most. The biggest negative against him is the fact that all team effort is bound to be tied up in protecting Nairo Quintana, though it is plausible to suggest that he could be sent up the road in order to reduce their need to chase.
Esteban Chaves seems to be bursting at the seams with limitless energy and he could well prove this once again on Stage 15 today. Though his ability to attack so aggressively on these steep gradients is a brilliant weapon, it is perhaps instead Chaves’ skill at identifying when is best to make his move which is so deadly. So far the Colombian has secured a pair of stage wins by attacking when others around him have been experiencing a lull in the race. If the bunch is relatively together during the final kilometres, Chaves is perhaps one of the most dangerous men to steal another stage victory at this year’s La Vuelta a España.
1st Nairo Quintana 2nd Fabio Aru 3rd Domenico Pozzovivo