After three flattish stages, the high mountains kick in again on Saturday in the Vuelta a España, with three consecutive summit finishes lined up set to start a second – and more definitive – sort out amongst the favourites.
The first, on stage 8, is a 14.5 kilometre ascent to the Altos de Peñas Blancas on the Meditteranean coast. The second, on Sunday's stage 9 is Spain’s ‘Mur de Huy’, the kilometre long ascent in Valdepeñas de Jaén and the third, on Monday, is the 15.8 kilometre Alto de Hazallanas. On Tuesday, the race has a long transfer northeast and its first 'rest day'.
Each one is preceded by approaches through seriously hilly terrain, in increasing order of difficulty on each day. There are no classified climbs beforehand on Saturday’s stage through the hills of Malaga, while on Sunday there is a second category ascent in the sierras of Jaén immediately prior to the Valdepeñas ‘wall.’
On Monday, the Alto de Monachil first category ascent is a viciously steep ‘warm-up’ for the Guejar Seirra-Hazallanas climb, which according to Movistar director José Luis Arrieta, is by far the steepest and hardest of the three even though it has a small descent midway up. The racing on Galicia’s summit finishes, he says, constituted skirmishes in comparison to the real ‘war’ which is on the point of breaking out in Andalusia’s triptych of mountain stages.
“I think tomorrow will be like the first real contact with the mountains of a Grand Tour, and there will be casualties,” Arrieta told Cyclingnews on Friday morning.
“But the stage on Monday to Hazallanas is the first time in this year’s race where the eventual winner of the Vuelta will have to show exactly what kind of climbing performance he is truly capable of producing, and what he will need to produce to win the Vuelta.”
Would it therefore be too early for Valverde to try to take the jersey? “The ideal strategy would be to take the lead on the Angliru,” Arrieta says, before adding somewhat cryptically, “but you never say ‘no’ to taking it, either.”
“Getting the jersey so early on means a heck of a lot of energy is going to be used up and there is a long way to go to Madrid, two thirds of the race. But you have to defend it, too.”
The majority of the Movistar riders know the Hazallanas climb, situated in the foothills of Sierra Nevada, he says, including Valverde, even though like Peñas Blancas it’s never been used before in the Vuelta.
“They’ve nearly all been up the climb because it’s so close to where they were training at altitude. And for Alejandro it’s a good climb, it’s harder than Peñas Blancas which is more a series of ‘steps.’ It is much more gradual an ascent, and it will give riders more chance to recover.”
Arrieta’s biggest concern, he says, is not “Alejandro’s form or motivation. It’s more that when you’re going for a second peak of form in a season, it’s usually far more uneven and unpredictable. At this point of the year, anybody can have a bad day. But so far, he's been doing very well.”
Either way, after such a hard triple-whammy of mountain stages, Arrieta is convinced that there will be “just three or four riders really in contention for the Vuelta.” Combined with the individual time trial on Wednesday, then, a clear leader should emerge before the Pyrenees.
“Last year, there was no real difference between the top four [Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Valverde and Alberto Contador – ed.] for ages, right the way into the end of the second week. But it was pretty clear after three or four tough stages who those contenders were going to be.”
“So far we’ve seen [Vincenzo] Nibali (Astana), us, Horner (RadioShack) and Katusha with Dani [Moreno] and Joaquim and Saxo-Tinkoff at the front. But the group will be whittled down a bit more and each day the Vuelta spends in the mountains we’ll see somebody else fall off the wagon.”