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Race leader Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) surrounded by his teammates
Ascent suits strong teams like Sky and Movistar
The haul to Valdelinares at the end of stage 9 brings the curtain down on the opening act of the Vuelta a España and allows scope for an additional shake-up of the general classification ahead of the race’s first rest day.
At eight kilometres in length, the climb is twice the length of the Vuelta’s previous summit finish above La Zubia on stage 6, but unlike that short, sharp grind in Andalusia, the gradient is far shallower throughout and there are several flat sections that allow for recovery. It does not seem, then, that the climb to Valdelinares will whittle down the leading group quite as mercilessly as the Alto Cumbres Verdes did on Thursday.
Certainly, Cyclingnews’ reconnaissance of the climb on Sunday morning suggested that the race organisers had been generous in designating it as a category 1 ascent, although Valdelinares did provoke significant gaps on the Vuelta’s only previous visit in 2005, when Roberto Heras (who subsequently tested positive for EPO) finished 13 seconds clear of Denis Menchov (who is currently serving a belated ban for biological passport violations).
The first two kilometres of the climb are evenly graded, with only sharp corners after 500 metres and 1.5 kilometres reaching much beyond the early average gradient of 7.5 per cent. It will be difficult for a lone rider to get away here, and the selection should instead come from the back – the climb is perfectly-suited for a strong team such as Sky or Movistar to impose a brisk tempo and reduce the size of the leading group.
The road stiffens out to eight per cent with a little over five kilometres remaining, but its effect is negated somewhat by the shallow descent that follows after the four-kilometre to go marker, which could allow dropped riders to claw their way back up to the leading group.
The toughest segment of the climb comes with three kilometres to go – even if the road book’s average gradient of 8.5 per cent for this section seems a little generous – and this is precisely where Heras launched his first attack in 2005, before jumping away on the final ramps with 1,500 metres to go.
The climb flattens out dramatically and even briefly descends in the fast final kilometre, and in the event of a group finish, a little foreknowledge of the finale could prove decisive, as negotiating the roundabout with 500 metres to go is bound to cause confusion.
Temperatures atop Valdelinares are distinctly cooler than in Andalusia during the week (15 degrees rather than the 40 plus at La Zubia), and the forecast rain arrived as predicted on Sunday afternoon, with heavy thunder showers buffeting the climb.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) is among those who does anticipate major changes in the general classification at Valdelinares – “I don’t think it will make big differences. I’ll pay attention to all the moves, but I’m more worried about the time trial on Tuesday,” he said at the start – but it remains to be seen if the conditions alter the complexion of the final climb.
“A colder climate will facilitate things,” said Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). “I’ve suffered the heat at La Zubia, but I expect to do better today.”
Not surprisingly, given the potential for a sprint from a small to medium-sized group at the summit, red jersey Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was enthusiastic about Sunday’s finale. “Valdelinares is a climb I like,” he said.