As the last rest day of 2016’s La Vuelta a España begins to fade rapidly in the memory, Stage 17 signals the beginning of an attritional final week which shall truly test those with an eye upon the general classification. Covering 177.5km from Castellon to the frighteningly steep summit finish of Camins del Penyagolosa, the peloton shall tick off three categorised climbs en route to the day’s gruelling finale. First to be conquered is the Category 2 Alto del Desierto de las Palmas, a 7.3km long climb which averages a gradient of 5.1% and shall immediately give an indication as to how riders feel after their rest day. The longer Category 2 Alto de la Sarratella follows next (14.5km avg 3.6%) and soon leads into the Category 3 Alto de Benasal; lasting 11.2km with a tame average gradient of 3%. Anticipation will begin to boil over as the peloton makes its way downhill and onwards to the foot of the day’s final climb; the Category 1 Alto Mas de la Costa. Lasting for only 3.8km, the ascent possesses an agonising average gradient of 12.5% and secures the title of steepest average climb at this year’s Vuelta a España. The bunch will battle against gradients between 15% – 20% for the most part, but the hardest ramps appear within the final kilometre and shoot skywards to 21%.
Chris Froome will have to find his feet rapidly on the final climb, as several rivals appear to be better suited to this explosive and steep summit finish than he does right now. Froome needs to hit today with everything if he is to have any hope of eating into the current lead of Nairo Quintana, especially as pinning everything on overturning the deficit during the individual time trial now looks unlikely. Historically speaking, Froome does have encouraging form on short battles such as these, but his condition in recent days has not been totally reassuring.
Nairo Quintana seems to finally have begun living up to expectation and finds himself in a favourable position as the race enters its final stages. The Colombian has established a great enough advantage now to ride defensively, meaning he has a great chance to live in the wheels and Froome today, looking to strike out for victory only after his main rival has towed him up to the summit.
Esteban Chaves meets much of the criteria to perform well in the final moments of Stage 17, though has not produced the level of performances required to mark him out as favourite today. The steep slopes in the final kilometres typically prove happy hunting for Chaves and he could definitely push onto victory if given the freedom by the likes of Froome and Quintana.
Alberto Contador is interested in forcing himself onto the podium by the end of the week and is currently only 5 seconds from achieving this ambition while situated behind Chaves on the general classification. Though it is likely he shall attempt a move of some sort, it is less clear whether he truly has the legs to finish it off successfully.
Kenny Elissonde shall be the first on the list of many looking to those outside of the general classification to contest the win on Stage 17. The Frenchman seems to relish horrendously steep finales like the Alto Mas de la Costa and has looked in brilliant form throughout La Vuelta thus far. He knows that his condition deserves a stage win, so there is no doubt that Elissonde will be active throughout the final week’s worth of stages.
Riders who could all strike out from part of a breakaway are; Michele Scarponi, Omar Fraile, Robert Gesink, Hugh Carthy and Jean Christophe Péraud.
1st Nairo Quintana 2nd Chris Froome 3rd Esteban Chaves
Breakaway: Kenny Elissonde