The Vuelta a España moves into the high mountains for the first time since Andorra on stage 11 at Calar Alto in Spain's deep south, in what will be a much more serious test for the GC candidates.
Although the three climbs in the Pyrenees on stage 3 nine days ago did do some damage - just ask Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), whose GC bid took a significant hit there - Wednesday's double ration of long, tricky ascents in the little-known Sierra de Filabres are a different story altogether.
First on the menu on a day with 3,490 metres of vertical climbing - nearly 500 more than in the Pyrenean stage and almost entirely packed into the finishing third of stage 11 - is the Alto de Velefique. It is 13.2 kilometres and hosted a finish in 2009 when it was won in a breakthrough victory by Canada's Ryder Hesjedal. But the main ascent to Calar Alto, which comes straight afterwards, is the Vuelta's first high mountain summit finish at 15 kilometres long and reaching a maximum altitude of 2,120 metres above sea level.
The finish line is near a space observatory, their igloo-like structures the only buildings as far as the eye can see on a bleak, dry mountain range with very sparse vegetation. Bradley Wiggins once said the area reminded him of Oman, and there's certainly a feel of the desolate rockscape beauty of Green Mountain (Jabal Al Akhdhar) to the Filabres, although Igor Anton (Dimension Data) describes it "like being on the moon."
The last winner on the ascent with a solo attack way back in the 2006 Vuelta, Anton says, "Calar Alto is a very tough climb, but more for the length, than the gradient, and because of the wind, which can be very strong and have a big effect because it's so open and empty."
The gradient averages out at 5.9 percent, although there are a few ramps of 12 percent on the fairly wide highway. "There are a few breaks in the climb, there are even a few false flats and downhill sections, and it's not got too bad a road surface," explains Anton. "Although it was quite cold and misty when I won there, the heat could be a big factor, and so, too, is the altitude, because we go up to over 2,000 metres."
In fact, Wednesday morning forecasts said it was expected to be very cold at the summit, although recent rainfall in the area has apparently eased off.
"We didn't go over Velefique in 2006, there are quite a few different approach roads in the area, but I remember from 2009 that I think Velefique was harder than Calar Alto, with some ramps, and the road surface is worse, too.
"When I won, it was a hugely important victory for me, my first as a pro, and it gave me a lot of confidence, being so young and Euskaltel-Euskadi gave me more responsibility." The two top favourites of the race, he recalls, Alejandro Valverde and Alexandre Vinokourov "just sat and looked at each other when I went away with about six kilometres to go."
"It's a stage which will bring back really good memories, and I'm trying to get into breaks as much as I can to go for a win here. But I think it's more likely to be a day for the GC, some kind of surprise, because the gaps are small for now, we're into the second week, and people will need to test Froome. But he's looking very strong, that's for sure."
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