Following the dramatic finale that was served up on the Vuelta's first visit to this ridiculously steep Cantabrian summit finish in 2017, there was never much doubt that the race would make a quick return. Two years ago, Stefan Denifl took a fine solo win for the Aqua Blue team, but the main story, at least initially, was the time that race leader Chris Froome leaked to his rivals on the abrupt slopes of the final ascent, which opened up the GC contest again. Denifl, of course, was stripped of this win earlier this year having admitted to blood doping.
Route director Fernando Escartín sees this as the most critical stage so far in the battle for the overall title. It is considerably tougher than the route that put Froome in so much trouble, with seven climbs on the menu compared to just three in 2017. It's interesting to note that the riders won't go above 900 metres at any point, yet will clock up almost 3,800 of vertical gain as they pass over a series of second- and third-category hills on the way to the special-category finale.
The stage begins in the shadow of the San Mames football stadium in Bilbao and heads west across the Basque Country, crossing the first two third-cat passes on the way. The majority of the climbing is packed into the second half of the stage in Cantabria, the riders tackling the second-cat Asón and Alisas passes, the latter the last climb before Los Machucos two years ago. On this occasion, Escartín has added two more category three ascents in the closing 30 kilometres of the stage, which should mean the red jersey group has already been well thinned out before it reaches the final and most difficult test.
Just 6.8km long, Los Machucos averages 9.2 per cent, a stat that cloaks its difficulty. There are three distinct steps in the ascent, two of them descending slightly, with the sections in between all double digit in terms of percentage, the toughest sections reaching 25 per cent. As Alberto Contador showed in 2017 when he gained more than a minute on Froome, the climb suits pure climbers perfectly and could cause huge problems for the diesel-like riders who thrive on more regular slopes.
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