Today is the final instalment of the three day tour around some of the most gruelling mountains the Vuelta a España organisers could muster up this year. Though much attention at this race was stolen by the profile of Stage 11 and its Queen Stage status, Stage 16 is a ruthless test which pits those wishing to cement their overall ambitions against the steepest gradients present at this year’s Vuelta.
Having left the start in Luarca, the riders will begin their 185km trip to Alto Ermita de Alba by climbing immediately once the race flag has gone down. The Category 3 Alto de Aristebano (14.6km, avg 3.4%) opens their account as the first of the day’s seven categorised climbs, though the majority by far are typical Spanish drags on Stage 16. The terrain remains rolling and leads the bunch straight into the base of the Category 2 Alto de Piedratecha, a similarly styled climb as its predecessor, it is 10.6km in length and averages a steady 4.8% throughout. After this an extended period of lumpy riding follows before the start of the long descent which traces it way down to the base of the next climb of the day; number three of seven.
Simple enough to conquer, the Category 3 Alto de Cabrunana (4.8km, avg 6.7%) will not trouble the riders a great deal and also gives the green-light to start the harder second half of this testing stage. This is signalled by the Category 2 Alto del Tenebredo, the 3.7km ascent offering up a significantly steeper average gradient of 8.9%. From here the last remaining stretch of flat roads will offer the peloton a chance to take on food and drink, position themselves well and generally prepare ahead of a triple header of mountains which offer no level terrain for the rest of the day.
The Category 2 Alto del Cordal will act as the springboard into this next passage of climbing, the 8.5km long and 5.7% average gradient ascent breaking the legs into the impending upheaval of the remaining two climbs. Having completed the descent from the summit, the bunch begin climbing the Category 1 Alto de la Cobertoria, this 9.8km worth of climbing billed as a misleading 8.7% average gradient, whereas the riders will soon discover that this extremely steep ascent spends most of the time in double-digit percentage figures; the final 2km only offering light relief.
Even the descent will be a testing and stressful affair given its rapid and technical nature with less than 20km remaining by this point. Having finished their plummeting downhill run, they reach the base of the day’s horrendous summit finish, the Category 1 Alto Ermita de Alba being 6.8km in length but averaging a soul destroying 11.1%. For nearly the entirety it remains above 10% and almost doubles its average gradient at one point to reach a staggering 21.67% around the midway point. The easing to the summit is only relative here, gradients of 17% and 14% appearing with only a kilometre to go. It will take a gargantuan effort to simple survive this climb in good shape, let alone win it and take time over the winner’s rivals; the race for many will be lost here.
Joaquim Rodriguez executed his performance yesterday exactly as forecast by Spokenforks, pacing himself during the standoff between Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru, eventually kicking away solo in order to drop everyone else, win the stage and only miss out on the leader’s Red Jersey by a solitary second. Having resisted the temptation to expend his energy in order to win stages earlier in the race, Rodriguez now appears to be peaking at the perfect time as his rivals struggle to match his pace. There is no doubt that the Spaniard will have to make yet another strong move today, this summit is the final chance he can make gains in the general classification by winning and taking bonus seconds ahead of the individual time trial. If the big names take it easy once again on the final climb, it will tee Rodriguez up neatly to launch another late blistering attack upon the type of steep gradients he is notorious for dominating upon.
Fabio Aru appears to be wobbling somewhat and is lucky to still be enjoy life as the overall race leader at this year’s La Vuelta a España. He similarly needs to gain time here in order to accumulate a cushion ahead of the individual time trial and will possibly benefit from this much more attentional conclusion to the day. Though he does have a good burst of speed for on these gradients, he will struggle to match Rodriguez in his current form, but could instead attempt to set a much harder pace from the start of the climb in order to blunt Rodriguez before he can attack.
Nairo Quintana is still on the up since being ill in the opening week, but still under performed in the eyes of many on yesterday’s summit finish. He is likely to ride more conservatively than his rivals, utilising his teammates to set a strong pace on the front, before a process of elimination leaves only a handful of riders left. The Colombian is better suited to today’s finale than yesterday and if he decides to almost time trial his way to the top, rather than attacking hard to drop the likes of Rodriguez and Aru, he has a strong chance of winning.
Mikel Nieve has a had a very good performance since taking over leadership duties at Sky in the wake of Chris Froome’s abandonment. The Basque rider is a pure climber and on extremely steep roads such as this, it is easy to envision him coming to the fore and challenging for the win. Much like Quintana, he will benefit from a high, yet even tempo throughout the climb, rather than having to match the potent accelerations of riders such as Fabio Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez.
Rafa Majka is really improving his claims to the overall win in the last couple of days and should now be considered a serious danger-man to those billed as the favourites to walk away from Madrid as the champion. The Pole has the form for flourishing in the mountains having previously won the Polka Dot Jersey at Le Tour de France, making it difficult to doubt his credentials for a great showing on Stage 16. Ultimately, due to his status as a lesser contender for the Red Jersey, Majka will be allowed to follow the wheels on the final climb and this might make all the difference once fireworks begin erupting.
1st Nairo Quintana 2nd Mikel Nieve 3rd Rafal Majka