Into the mountains: Vuelta a Espana hits first summit finish on stage 5

The Vuelta a España's first trio of key mountain stages kick off with Wednesday's lengthy incursion inland from the coast to a tougher-than-usual first-week summit finish at Javalambre.

Urán well positioned in third overallGoing for time bonusesRace leader Roche's predictions

Situated deep in the sierras of the remote region of Teruel, the 11-kilometre Alto de Javalambre has several 16-per cent 'ramps', making it a fearsome challenge.

Stage 6 on Thursday will be through relentlessly rolling mountain terrain, finishing with the lengthy third category grind to Ares del Maestrat. Then Friday's stage culminates with the brutally steep Mas de la Costa ascent.

That's nearly 10,000 metres of vertical climbing and three summit finishes in three days of the first week of a Grand Tour, representing a major challenge. EF Education First manager Juanma Garate tells Cyclingnews that rather than focusing on a single day, the trio of tough stages should be taken as a whole.

"The three days form a very hard block of climbing for the first week of a Grand Tour," Garate said. "OK – we saw them going for it quite a bit on stage 2, but Javalambre is going to be the first big occasion to see all the GC favourites in action.

"Then, on the second day, normally there should be a break after the favourites have opened up some big gaps on the GC on Javalambre, because even if it's a good stage for the overall riders, they'll be aware that they've got a lot of challenges coming up afterwards. So they may ease back."

Friday's 3.8-kilometre ascent of Mas de la Costa was last tackled at the Vuelta a España in 2016, with virtually no differences between the main favourites. However, in 2017, Nairo Quintana won there 'with one leg', as the Spanish say, in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in February, in what could be an omen of what's to come in two days' time.

"That's a stage that's very complicated, right from the start in Onda," Garate said. "It has a lot of terrain for possible ambushes and then Mas de la Costa itself is a real wall, like the one we had on Sunday [stage 2] close to the finish, but way harder.

"It'll be good for pure climbers; these kinds of ascents are so steep that they can really open up some gaps. Riders like Miguel Angel Lopez [Astana] and Primoz Roglic [Jumbo-Visma] can really do damage there."

Urán well positioned in third overall

As for EF Education First, Garate says, things are going well, particularly given their leader Rigoberto Urán was in the 'gang of six' that broke away late on stage 2 and is currently third overall.

Although Urán crashed late on stage 4, Garate told Spanish TV shortly afterwards that any damage appeared to have been superficial.

"Hopefully it's nothing too serious. We'll check it out later to confirm, but, for now, it seems OK," he said.

"The whole team is here to perform well," Garate told Cyclignews before the stage 4 start. "We've got Rigo in third, but also Tejay [van Garderen], Dani [Martinez] and a lot of other riders up there.

"Dani's coming back after a spell away because of the problems he had" – injuring his hands just before the Tour in a training crash – "and with a bit of patience, he should be up there.

"But Rigo's going well. He finished the Tour in good shape, then went to a training camp at altitude, and he's very focused on this," said Garate.

Going for time bonuses

Sergio Higuita's nabbing of a time bonus on stage 3's intermediate sprint didn't go unnoticed by EF's rivals, either, particularly as the pint-sized Colombian is currently lying seventh overall.

"Well, if Roglic can go for time bonues – and he has been since Calpe as he lost time in the opening team time trial – then so can we," Garate said.

"Sergio's up there overall, and he's close to the best young rider's jersey. It's not a specific goal, but he's a courageous rider. He weighs 57 kilos and when he's able to win a sprint like that at 70 kph, that's impressive."

Nor is Higuita their only promising young rider in EF's roster for the 2019 Vuelta.

"Hugh [Carthy], too, had the order to destroy the group on stage two on the climb, and he did that really well because we wanted to try to get the lead with Sergio," Garate added.

"In fact, it was the leaders on the GC that really came to the fore, and there wasn't that option anymore. But Hugh did very well and Sergio did a very good sprint on stage three all the same."

As for Wednesday and the upcoming challenges, "There's going to be a real war. The top names will be up there: Nairo, Rigo and Roglic. There's not going to be a breakaway.

"As it's the first uphill finish, the big names might do a bit of poker playing, and hesitate a bit too long, and somebody like [David] Formolo [Bora-Hansgrohe], one of the second-levellers on GC, could do something, and take advantage of that. Or even Sergio," Garate said.

Race leader Roche's predictions

Interestingly, one top name who is predicting that Uran will be in red by the end of Wednesday is race leader Nicolas Roche (Sunweb).

"Rigo for the lead, and Miguel Angel for the stage win," Roche told reporters after stage four.

As for EF's continued hopes for the overall, Garate said: "It's very early to say how our guys are really going, as we've only done a few stages. For now, it's going well. But there's a long way to go to Madrid yet; it's too early for too many predictions."

Regarding Wednesday's stage, though, it seems clear what kind of battle we can expect: a no-holds-barred one.

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.