And so, somehow and somewhat unbelievably, we’re finally here: at the far end of a fraught, disjointed and hugely unpredictable season, about to tackle the last summit finish of both the Vuelta a España and the 2020 UCI WorldTour.
All that’s left on Sunday evening before the curtain falls for good on 2020 road racing – and the Vuelta teams’ mass stampede for the Madrid-Barajas airport and that last flight home - will be one hotly disputed, bunch sprint stage, and the podium ceremonies as November darkness falls on Madrid’s main boulevard, Paseo de la Castellana.
Before that, though, on Saturday we’ll be able to enjoy a spectacularly difficult, last summit finish, the seventh of the 2020 Vuelta, and certainly the most important. After all, the GC is still undecided, and at the end of a rollercoaster season Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) is looking to defend his second overall Grand Tour title and Vuelta in two years, but with less than a minute’s advantage in hand.
There’s everything to play for, then, and multiple different outcomes still on the table, from Roglič going on the attack and taking a fifth stage win, to all or any of his rivals trying to push him over the GC precipice.
On a stage with six classified climbs, the last and most important, the Alto de la Covatilla, has been tackled four times before in the Vuelta a España - in 2018, 2011, 2006 and 2002. But there’s a crucial difference. Each previous occasion La Covatilla has acted as a springboard for early GC action in the first week, which could explain why the differences two years ago, for example, were only a minute between the main favourites, on a day where Ben King tracked down Bauke Mollema for a second lone stage win, and Simon Yates began a brief, somewhat unanticipated, first spell in the overall lead.
At 11.4 kilometres long, ranked Hors Categorie and with an average gradient of 7 per cent, la Covatilla was originally built as an access road to the ski pistes on the Sierras de Gredos, the same mountain range where the Vuelta had its final mountain stage last year.
“The climb is exactly the same as it was when I won it,” retired racer Santi Blanco told Cyclingnews. He was the first-ever rider to triumph on La Covatilla way back in 2002 and now is working with Unipublic on the Vuelta.
"The only thing that can change is the weather, which can have a big effect on a climb as wide open and exposed as that. If there’s a headwind, and it’s often really windy on top there, it’ll be much harder to establish any big gaps.”
In early November, as you might expect, the weather is not expected to be pleasant. As for Friday lunchtime, strong winds of up to 80 kph and heavy rains were forecast overnight for the summit. Although the wind is expected to drop and the rain to decrease throughout Saturday, temperatures at the race finish late in the afternoon are forecast to inch up to a very chilly maximum of five degrees Celsius at best. Brrr.
Although the Vuelta’s official race manual says that the middle section of La Covatilla is the hardest, with a good third averaging over nine per cent, Blanco - born in Bejar, the town at the foot of the climb so he knows the region like the back of his hand - sais in fact the climb is hard from start to finish.
“There’s some very hard ramps early one, and you’ve got to get a good pace right from the start,” he noted.
The one downhill segment that matters the most is with two kilometres to go, “but then it kicks up again, and the last part” - this will be dependent on exactly where the finish is located - "is pretty steadily uphill as well. But the road is well surfaced and wide, and that won’t be any problem for the riders, at least.”
Interviewed on Friday about the same climb by Spanish TV, four-time Vuelta winner Roberto Heras, also born locally, coincided with his compatriot Blanco about the climb.
“If I was going to attack the leader, I’d go for it right from the bottom where it’s tough,” he argued. “And that little descent near the top, I think it does more harm than good.” Heras also pointed out that there are almost always headwinds on La Covatilla.
Although the climb reaches nearly 2,000 metres on its windswept summit, Blanco said he didn’t believe the altitude would have much of an effect. Rather there are some unsuspected dangers prior to the Covatilla such as the second-category Puerto de la Garganta, never used before in the Vuelta, which has its summit just 17 kilometres before the foot of the Covatilla.
And in between the two classified climbs, there’s a short, fiddly ascent, through the village of Candelario too, the last part in a narrow cobbled street. That’s followed by a twisting, narrow, but not too technical, drop back down to the main road up to the ski station.
“The Garganta is a long one” - about 12 kilometres - “and it could see some action, particularly by people who are further down overall,” Blanco observed. “We’re in the last chance saloon, after all.”
On a day with six categorised climbs, there could even be an attack from further out. The first-category Puerto del Portillo de la Baluecas at kilometre 49 forms part of the Sierras de Francia which the race visited on the Friday.
“It’s going to be a challenge. The climb is the descent off the same first category that they tackled on Friday on the way to the finish at Cuidad Rodrigo,” Blanco said. “It’s tough. In my opinion, La Covatilla and the Portillo de la Baluecas are the two hardest climbs in the whole of this region of Salamanca, and they’re going up both in the same day.
“It’s true that the climbs that follow are third and second category, but it’s a continuous up and down all day. You’ve got to remember, there’s 4,100 metres of climbing and they’ve just come off three hard days through Galicia and the mountains on Friday, too."
GC could still change at La Covatilla
Of the favourites, with both Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling) and Richard Carapaz (Ineos Grenadiers) the closest on GC and trailing by less than a minute, there’s no doubt whom Roglič will be watching the hardest. But that said, Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation), fourth overall on GC, is far and away the challenger who knows La Covatilla the best.
Back in 2011 Chris Froome – for whom Saturday will be another trip into the earliest part of his racing history – guided Sky’s Bradley Wiggins towards the summit and a podium placing on GC. A little further up the road on that occasion, Martin was in the process of outgunning fellow breakaway rider, and family relative, Nicolas Roche. The most memorable moment came when the two cousins opted simultaneously - and needless to say, unintentionally - to attack, on opposite sides of the road. As Martin, finally victorious, said afterwards about the Roche-Martin family battle on the Covatilla, “you couldn’t have made it up.”
As for the other favourites this time round? “We could see some changes in the overall,” Blanco said. “Friday will likely be a day which we end more or less where we were before. But on Covatilla, it could all change.
“Roglič’s been racing well up to now, but don’t forget, the day he really suffered in the mountains was at Formigal in the Pyrenees, when the weather was lousy. So did Sep Kuss, his best climbing support in Jumbo. And on Saturday, it’s forecast to rain.
“A thousand things can still change,” Blanco concluded, a Spanish expression that translates, albeit poorly, into English as, ‘it ain’t over til it’s over.’ Certainly not before Madrid, anyway.
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