Stage 11 ended as we all predicted, with an almost (n.b: almost) unstoppable attack from Quintana on the final climb. However, there was time before that for a brief go by Chaves, in a move that looked well timed and well executed, but was ultimately destined to come to nothing. Tinkoff rode hard all day to ensure that the morning’s break barely held a gap at all at the foot of the final climb, and Movistar duly took over on the front as things went uphill. Chaves put in his attack with a couple of kilometres left, but as Valverde led out Quintana, who soon after attacked, his 15 second lead came tumbling down, and the riders came rushing past.
For a while it looked like Quintana had another grand tour stage win to add to his palmarès, but that was before Froome launched his own attack on the by now tiny chase group, and clawed out a gap between himself and the likes of Contador and Valverde. Pursuing Quintana into the final kilometre, he got by the Colombian but looked reluctant to lead him out in an uphill sprint. However, he took whatever disadvantage there is from the wind on a 20% gradient, and rode first round the final corner with only 25m remaining. A one-second gap opened up, and Froome hit the line first, waving his arms wildly in ecstasy. We do not usually see the sometimes sombre, sometimes nonchalant Froome allow himself such displays, and it was testament, no doubt, to the real hard work he had to put in to get even a second over an ever-strong Quintana.
Behind, Valverde was hot on Froome’s heels, but has, for now, traded second place on G.C. for third with the Briton. Leo König led in Contador and then Simon Yates, who was on another strong ride. Our pick Scarponi led Chaves across the line, and climbs another place in G.C., into 8th. But it’s still tight at the top, with Froome only 54 seconds behind Quintana, and Valverde only 11 seconds down on Froome.
We enter the Basque country for the first time this Vuelta, the cycling fanatic’s capital of Spain. It’s also an area of fierce political activity, so there is always a risk of protests, perhaps more this year with the fight for independence being inspired by the UK’s Brexit vote. Look out for plenty of white and green crossed red flags along the roadside.
At 193.2km, this is one of the longer stages of this year’s Vuelta, and the initial few kilometres are all uphill, before a short descent leads the riders on to a 40km section of flat road. This leads to the first, and hardest, climb of the day. The category 1 Puerto de Las Alisas (10km, 6%) has a max gradient of 8.5% and is a fairly regular climb, with no truly sharp inclines. Another descent follows, and by this stage we would expect a sizeable break to have formed with a decent advantage on the peloton. After a flatter section, the riders reach the foot of the the category 3 Alto La Escrita (6.4km, 4.5%) , and the subsequent descent which is elongated out over the following 20km. From then on, it’s a race to Bilbao.
The riders will reach the Basque capital with just under 60km still remaining, then embark on two 28.5km circuits of the southeastern outskirts of the city. The focal point of each will be the the category 2 Alto El Vivero (4.2km, 8.5%). After they have crested this for the second and final time there will be only 12.9km to go. From this point the riders will negotiate the 8km descent and then it will be a frantic flat 5km run in to the finish. This includes some sweeping bends and road furniture to negotiate, making difficult any chase down from the advancing peloton.
So, stage 12 looks like a day for the KOM hunters, which might be good news for some considering Quintana’s strong summit finishes have ensured he now leads the polka dots contest. There are four categorized climbs here with plenty of points on offer. Expect to see Omar Fraile, Thomas De Gendt, Alexandre Geniez, and perhaps Luis Angel Maté (whose Cofidis’ team bike sponsor, Orebea, are based close to today’s finish and would love a bit PR with a stage win!) get in the break here. Unfortunately, there is no local boy Igor Antón to contest for the win in Bilbao, as he did in 2011, but Fraile will have had this stage marked down as a major target to please the Basque faithful.
Other riders who aren’t in the hunt for polka dots but are hunting stage wins are Gianluca Brambilla and Fabio Felline. Both were supposedly mounting a G.C. challenge, but now sit 9:09 and 17:52, respectively, behind Quintana so they will be given freedom to join the breakaway. Both go well on this type of terrain and the final Cat 2 climbs and run into the finish is reminiscent of Brambilla’s Giro d’Italia stage win early this year – which he won from the break. Another breakaway candidate is fellow Italian Moreno Moser, who was 3rd on an equally lumpy Stage 9 and, with the abandonment of Simon Clarke, he currently looks like Cannondale’s best bet for a stage win at present.
As mentioned previously this looks to be a day for the break, giving the G.C. men a rest (which they will also likely get on stage 13) before a big weekend. Omar Fraile looks in good form and will be wanting to pick up both KOM points and get a win in front of his home crowd so he is our main pick. For an outsider (albeit a strong one) we’ll go for Brambilla.