The penultimate day of La Vuelta a España shall once again pivot around a testing day in the mountains, designed to offer the riders one final chance to dislodge the Red Jersey from the shoulders of this year’s current leader, Dutchman Tom Dumoulin. However, the most obvious contrast compared to previous editions’ last hurrah is the lack of a summit finish, a factor which could ignite the battle much earlier than we have witnessed on these penultimate stages recently. Four recognised ascents feature on this day for the climbers, which is realistically two climbs tackled twice from opposing sides and should entice at least one general classification rider to make the most of the slopes and utilise them as a race changing springboard.
In total, it will be 175.8km from the departure in San Lorenzo de El Escorial to the extremely anticipated finish line situated at Cercedilla. Beginning with only 17km of riding before the peloton roll their way onto the foot of the day’s opening climb, the Category 1 Puerto de Navacerrada, which they shall also meet once again from the other side as the day’s finale ascent. On this occasion however, the climb is 9.4km in length and averages out at 6.6% gradient. Like many of these Spanish slopes, the upper sections are tougher after an easier opening period, maxing out at 11.25% just before they crest the summit. A brief plateau then follows, leading into the descent which sends the bunch head first into the day’s second ascent immediately.
The second Category 1 climb of Stage 20 is Puerto de la Morcuera, a longer challenge of 11.5km, but one with a softer and more regular gradient of 5.4%. From the summit the peloton will have clocked up a little under 70km worth of racing, leaving them with just over 100km still remaining of the decisive day. The descent from the summit passes down to the base of the valley, before then building again and starting the third climb around the 116km marker. Though differing in nature, this is in fact the same as the previous climb, a consequence of the racing beginning to loop back on itself en route to the finish in Cercedilla. The Puerto de la Morcuera’s second appearance of the stage comes from its opposite side, making it a 10.4km climb with an average gradient of 6.6%, only possessing a short lived maximum incline of 9.5%.
A shorter descent than previous then follows, passing through the intermediate sprint and onwards to the final ascent of the day. Puerto de Navacerrada appears once again, though experiences a name change to the Category 1 Puerto de Cotos as a result of the alternative approach, averaging 5.4% and totalling 11km from bottom to top. Once again the opening slops are simple enough, riding upwards to a sustained 6% – 7% run of gradient, peaking yet again ahead of the summit to a maximum of 8.5%.
Less than 20km will separate the frontrunners from Stage 20’s finale, nearly all of which is a sustained descent right the way down to the final kilometre pennant ahead of the line. The road maintains an ever so slight incline of between 2% – 3% during the last kilometre and does not pose a great deal of technical issues which stage winning hopefuls will have to worry about.
Tom Dumoulin remains the strongest looking rider in the final week of this year’s La Veulta a España, but his workload will be immense to retain the lead on a day which is bound to isolate him and leave the Dutchman spinning plates as he calculates who to chase and who to let slip. He took three further seconds from Fabio Aru during the cobbled finale of yesterday’s stage, though it will be surprising if after everything which has preceded this last mountains stage, that such a tight advantage has a huge affect on the overall race outcome. That is to say, on Stage 20’s parcours, Tom Dumoulin will either stick to the wheel of his rivals like glue and cross the line in their shadow, or he will finally be overcome by the attrition rate and crack entirely. Whichever of the two rings true today, spectators are sure to witness an intriguing climax to 2015’s final grand tour.
Fabio Aru hit the deck hard yesterday, lost time to Dumoulin and even appeared to struggle with the pace on the day’s final descent into town; not encouraging signs. The Italian has to make a big move today if he hopes to bury his Dutch rival and take the Red Jersey at the final time of asking. Astana have the strength and depth to make life difficult for Dumoulin, a man who came here with little support due to the unexpected position within which he now finds himself, instead now relying on the likes of John Degenkolb to offer him assistance; something Astana are bound to exploit. Despite it being an unpredictable stage as to when the fireworks will truly erupt, for Fabio Aru, it seems that he will invest everything into cracking Tom Dumoulin on the final ascent. His biggest issue is that the gradients are not favourable and nor is it a summit finish for the Italian to strike for. Coupled with the long descent into the finish and Dumoulin’s apparent strength in the midst of the hardest days, Aru will have to conjure up something spectacular to win 2015’s La Vuelta a España.
Alejandro Valverde performed convincingly during the last three stages and even appeared to be toying with the elite group of riders during the descent into yesterday’s finish; upping the tempo and looking round to gauge their reaction. He could have seriously targeted several of the stages in the final week of the race, but today could certainly emerge as the most worthwhile day to put his talents on the line for another stage win. Given his swashbuckling nature, Valverde will not fear risking everything in order to bridge back to the front group on the descent, nor push on to put the likes of Aru or Dumoulin under pressure if he is already present. Due to the general classification dynamic which imbues the day with greater aggression and anxiety, it seems likely that the usual top 15 – 20 riders will catch the breakaway and come to the line together. In this scenario, Alejandro Valverde will be confident of executing his great turn of pace to secure victory in Cercedilla.
Rafal Majka must not be placed beyond the picture of today’s contest, the Pole knows he still has plenty to race for and could be enticed to attempt something unexpected as a result. Joaquim Rodriguez will be most concerned by any activity from Majka, as both are still fighting desperately to secure a podium spot. Unlike his Spanish rival, Majka appears to have sustained a greater level of condition into this final week of the race and is more likely to drop Rodriguez than vice versa.
Nairo Quintana is another man on the general classification who might fancy his chances of making gains on the final day and impact upon the final standings. The Colombian has not been at his best during La Vuelta due to a combination of Le Tour de France hangover and a viral infection of sorts, though he could muster something here. It appears that his form is now beginning to come round at last, his superb effort in the individual time trial being the strongest marker of that thus far. Rafal Majka and Joaquim Rodriguez will both need to stay alert to his movements, as out of the three, Quintana would be able to inflict the greatest damage if indeed riding as strongly as believed.
Domenico Pozzovivo has appeared in convincing form throughout the race, but has just fallen short of riding the sort of day which earns a rider a stage victory. Today is his final chance to remedy this and he could finally discover he has the freedom to attempt precisely that. Given his placing on the general classification, the impetus to close him down will come from further down on the standings and from one rider only; Louis Meintjes. Should these two indeed instigate a sparring session between them, it is easy to imagine those sitting more comfortably at the top of the standings allowing them to vanish up the road and possibly even allow them to decide the stage outcome amongst themselves.
Daniel Moreno‘s race is not over and he could still yet be crowned with a stage victory at the final time of asking. A cagily ridden race would help Moreno stay in contention with the likes of Alejandro Valverde as they reach the summit of the final climb, after which he is bound to fancy his chances in a sprint from an elite group where his compatriot Valverde will be his greatest adversary present.
Those who could also be encouraged to animate the race in order to aid a team leader in a late attack or climb up the general classification themselves are: Gianluca Brambilla, Romain Sicard, Kenny Elissonde, Esteban Chaves, Fabrice Jeandesboz and Giovanni Visconti.
1st Alejandro Valverde 2nd Gianluca Brambilla 3rd Daniel Moreno
Outsider: Nairo Quintana