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Vuelta a España 2022 stage 18 preview - Evenepoel and the race continue their voyage into the unknown at El Piornal

Remco Evenepoel at the end of stage 17 of the Vuelta a España 2022
Remco Evenepoel at the end of stage 17 of the Vuelta a España 2022 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

Stage 18: Trujillo - Alto de Piornal

Date: Thursday, September 8, 2022

Distance: 192km

Stage timing: 12:10-17:30 CET

Stage type: Mountain

The 2022 Vuelta a España may be nearing its conclusion but both race leader Remco Evenepoel (QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl) and the race itself will head into unknown territory on Thursday as it tackles the unprecedented summit finish of Alto del Piornal, not once but twice.

El Piornal is both a climb and a village, named after the dense forests of piorno [Spanish broom trees] in the area and famous locally for being situated at 1135 metres above sea level, the highest locality in Spain's westerly region of Extremadura. Extremadura is only visited very rarely by the Vuelta, but it went there last year for two second-week stages after a longish absence, and this summer, after the first summit finish at the Monasterio de Tentudia, a second, much harder and equally unfamiliar uphill finish will form a much more difficult Extremaduran challenge for the GC contenders.

Part of that challenge is, of course, that the entire day runs for just over 190km through rugged hill country totalling a respectable 3,500m of vertical climbing, plus temperatures soaring into the mid-thirties for much of the day will not make the peloton’s life any easier. But the real difficulties all come at the end of the day. After a second category climb of La Desespera at 109km in to the race is used an early warm-up call, the peloton will then tackle the Alto del Piornal twice in the last 60 kilometres, from different approaches.

El Piornal is used in one of Spain’s biggest amateur stage races, the recently revived Vuelta a Extremadura, but given the event was cancelled for ten years until 2021 and is nowhere near any of the familiar stomping grounds for altitude camps like Sierra Nevada and Andorra, very few riders in the modern-day peloton will have seen the climb before Thursday. It also featured in two editions of the Vuelta, as an early climb on stages in 2004 and 2006. But of the current peloton, while a fair number of sports directors will have been in those races, when it comes to riders only Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was present in those editions.

“I think there is a maximum of 6-7% slopes on the climb so it will be easier to sit on the wheel. But because it’s the third week, it won’t be easy on the legs,” was how Evenepoel himself described the climbs that await on Thursday. 

And quite apart from the relatively easy gradients, although El Piornal is first tackled up its very marginally harder side, with only one ramp near the top maxing out at 12%, whatever effect it has, the summit is 41km away from the stage finish. So barring a very improbable long-distance attack the initial ascent likely will have little effect.

“The climb doesn’t have any of those ultra-steep slopes that are so popular nowadays,” Benjamin Prades, an amateur racer who knows El Piornal well  from when he won the Vuelta a Extremadura in 2021, told the Vuelta’s official newspaper, AS.

“But it’s long and steady and a great climb.”

The road up to El Piornal itself is not a challenging one: broad and well surfaced, with very open, easily negotiable hairpin bends. On its second, definitive ascent, there’s only one 11% ‘ramp’, with most of the gradients oscillating between 5% and 7%. 

“It’s a stage which takes place in the Vuelta’s third week when people are really tired,” Prades told AS. “ I don’t think it’s one made for an out-and-out climber, rather I think they’ll go up it really quickly. How it will play out will depend very much on what’s happened on the previous stages of the Vuelta and also on what’s happened in the climbs of La Desespera and El Piornal for the first time.”

The biggest potential disruptive factor, according to Prades, could be the wind. “In some of the most open areas, that could have a big effect, and if it’s a headwind, it could break any attempts to get away.” He estimates, though, that riders will be tackling the climb at a relatively high average speed of 25km/h, and that “it’s a big watt ascent. If I was going for it, I’d wait right until the end of the stage.”

All of these factors are uncertain, but one feature of stage 18 is all but guaranteed. Friday is a regional holiday in Extremadura, so there will be plenty of local fans on the roadsides on the last few climbs to cheer the riders on.

What kind of spectacle the Piornal will offer is harder to predict, but with the finish in Madrid being so close and tired legs notwithstanding, many riders will surely be ready for one last throw of the dice. Here's hoping.

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