Stage 9 will be remembered above all else for the superb performance of Etixx’s David De La Cruz. The Spaniard was in the morning’s break, which took around four and a half minutes on the peloton and held that gap for most of the day. Movistar seemed keen to keep things under control, not least because De La Cruz was only 2:46 behind the red jersey wearer Quintana. The early action centred around Alexandre Geniez and Thomas De Gendt, who battled it out for KOM points on the series of categorized climbs; De Gendt came up trumps, and is now leading in the polka dot contest.
However, as the race entered the final 30km things really picked up, as attack after attack went from the breakaway and the pace went up and down. It was becoming clearer and clearer that De La Cruz had a very real chance of nicking the red jersey, if only for a day, off the shoulders of Quintana. Recognising that opportunity, De La Cruz attacked hard with IAM’s Dries Devenyns, and the duo rapidly built up a large gap on their fellow breakaway men. The sense of De La Cruz’s determination was palpable as he drove hard on the front, and, when Devenyns appeared to suffer from a mechanical, he made on final dig and rode the last 500m on his own. His winning margin over the other breakaway riders wasn’t enormous, but his gap to the peloton stuck — he took the stage win and the red jersey, thanks to a combination of tactics, opportunism, and sheer power. Chapeau!
If De La Cruz wants to hold on to his red jersey for long, though, then he might have another thing coming. Stage 10 brings with it the first especial climb of the tour, the climb up to Lados de Covadonga. It’s a 12.2km climb at an average of 7.2%, with plenty of sections that rise over 11% to boot. What’s more, the official start of the climb comes only 28km after the riders will have crested the Alto del Mirador del Fito, itself nearly 7km at 7.8%. Make no mistake, this is going to be a tough final 50km. It’s also noteworthy that the last climb features a slight dip into the final kilometre, and then it ramps extremely steeply at the line. If a pair or more riders arrive at the same time, it’s going to be an extremely painful sprint finish.
The course offers very little else in the way of features, with rolling terrain and no early sprints. One for the breakaway? Despite the race repeatedly proving us wrong, we’re not convinced this time. We’re now riding right towards Tuesday’s rest day, and the G.C. contest has now got really interesting; the top ten comprises two Etixx riders (De La Cruz 1st, Brambilla 9th), two Movistar riders (Quintana 2nd, Valverde 3rd), two for Sky (Froome 4th, König 6th), and two BMC (Atapuma 8th, Sánchez 10th). Throw in Chaves for Orica and Contador for Tinkoff, and it should be clear that all the big G.C. teams now have plenty to keep fighting for, and plenty to lose if there’s a big reshuffle. In theory they could let the right breakaway go, but we’re expecting the big teams to be twitchy on the front, and to control the pace towards the final climbs. A breakaway would need either extremely talented riders or an exceptionally large breakaway at the start of the last climb to win this one. But hey, stranger things have happened.
We’re going to look at the G.C. men for this one, at any rate, and it should be a favourites game. Nairo Quintana surprised us all by showing a flash of his former style, by laying down a punishing and lasting attack on stage 8. Froome had to fight hard to hold on, and Contador, who was recovering from injury, managed to get by him. Valverde had a hard time holding on, though he barely lost touch. Chaves, though, didn’t perform as we’d hoped or expected. He’s currently fifth in G.C., but could easily drop from the top 5 if Contador goes on the attack, or if BMC play a strong tactical game for whichever of their riders they finally decide is leader. With that in mind, Orica have two options. If Chaves is feeling good, they’ll throw all they can into keeping him in a good position, and that means burning Simon Yates on the last climb. But if there’s any doubt at all over his form, then their best bet will be to let Yates go on the attack, perhaps two thirds of the way up the last climb. Not only does his form promise a stage podium or perhaps a win here, but Yates could easily drag himself back into the top ten with a good showing. The same goes for Dani Moreno, and it’s possible that Movistar might take a little pressure off their dual leaders by sending him up the road early and letting other teams do the chasing (it would be BMC if Moreno went). We expect Sky to take up a lot of the work, and we could see König fade early if he’s made to work hard for Froome.
It’s really hard to look past Quintana here, so we’ll back him for the stage win. The climb suits him, and he’s clearly flying at the moment. The big threat is very likely to be Alberto Contador, who we’ll make our podium pick. Contador claims to be recovering already from his crash, and, given that he attacked Froome in the finale of the stage after his crash, that surely says good things about his form. It’s going to be a great one to watch, with a guaranteed cabinet reshuffle in the top 10. Here’s hoping Froome can hold on.