Just like in 2010, the final overall classification of the Vuelta a España will once again be resolved on the 11.4 kilometre Bola del Mundo climb. Alberto Contador looks to have the race sewn up, but as the Vuelta (and Contador) have already proved this year, nothing can be taken for granted in a Grand Tour....
Like the Cuitu Negru, the Bola del Mundo consists of two very different segments - in the Bola’s case, starting with the better-known, longer, better-surfaced Navacerrada climb. Then comes the really tough three final kilometres, which take the riders up a single vehicle-width concrete track, with ramps of 23 percent, leading up to the lone refuge hut and TV antennae that normally are the only signs of human activity on the windswept, empty summit.
Once the riders head off the well-surfaced Navacerrada climb and onto the Bola del Mundo’s final segment, after 300 metres there is a first steep ramp of 16 percent, and another of about the same percentage after approximately one kilometre. The 23 percent segment, which is the hardest of all, comes just 500 metres before the finish, just when the riders will be on the verge of running out of energy.
Gearings will be similar to those used on the Angliru or Cuitu Negru: Contador reportedly will have a 36x28, Valverde a 36x27 and Rodriguez a 38x28. Cars cannot follow the riders right up to the summit, with the sports directors of the top three switching from their team-cars to motorbikes for the final part of the climb.
The climb rises to 2,247 metres above sea level, the highest point of this year’s Vuelta, and that high altitude will be an additional challenge to the riders. This morning the weather at the summit of Navacerrada is good - dry and clear, although thunderstorms and occasionally strong, gusting winds are also forecast for later. Temperatures this afternoon will be a fairly pleasant 15 degrees although compared with the 27 degrees in the valley where the climb begins, that will be quite a difference for the riders to handle.
In the 2010 Vuelta, the only previous occasion when riders have reached the summit of the Bola del Mundo in a bike race, there were no changes overall. The victory went to Ezequiel Mosquera - later stripped of his runner’s up spot after testing positive - but it was a largely symbolic one as Vincenzo Nibali secured the overall win. Joaquim Rodriguez took third, but could not squeeze Peter Velits, winner of the Peñafiel time trial a few days before and eighth on the Bola del Mundo, off the third spot on the podium.
This time, there are rumours flying around that Katusha could try an attack earlier on the stage (there are a mere three first category climbs and a second category beforehand). Valverde, too, has promised ‘war’, whilst Contador, currently focussed on defending his overall lead of 1:35, has said he is taking it for granted that both Valverde and Rodriguez will attack. For the tens of thousands of fans who are currently massing on the slopes of Navacerrada - many of them supporting Contador, who trains regularly in these sierras and who lives just an hour’s drive away - it seems all but certain they will see a spectacular finish to the race.