Well, what a stage. This Vuelta is doing a very fine job of showing up its older brothers the Giro and Tour, by bringing to our screens some of the finest mountaintop finishes we’ve seen this year. Classic one-on-one battles between G.C. favourites have replaced the modern staple of late attacks from bunches of riders led by a dominant team or two. It’s given the racing a more unpredictable element (although it’s worth noting, of course, that Quintana and Froome were both the favourites to win this tour before it started), and it’s made for a largely fluid top ten. Stage 14 gave us just such a reshuffle.
The morning break was colossal, with 39 riders originally making it across, including our prediction Robert Gesink as well as KOM candidates Alexandre Geniez and Omar Fraile. Fraile mopped up the max points on the early climbs, which made him the leader in the polka dot contest on the road — though he would lose it by the end of the day. As a hard day in the saddle wound on, the gap never got too large — maxing out at around 6 minute — and the break, as always happens in groups of above 20 riders, slowly began to splinter on the climbs. But, under all of our noses, and largely undetected until the key moment, a plan was coming into fruition.
We refer to the stunning tactical game of Orica-BikeExchange, who landed three men in the breakaway: Simon Gerrans, Magnus Cort Nielsen, and stage 12 winner Jens Keukeleire. None of them looked much of a threat to the G.C. men, nor to their fellow breakaway riders — after all, they’re not the finest climbers in the pack, and the last climb was a brute. However, they rode a fierce pace on the flats to open up the gap back to the field, and slowly, one by one, they dropped away on the penultimate climb of the Marie-Blanque. It was not clear what they were playing at for the longest time.
But then Jack Haig attacked from the peloton on the climb. He worked away, and took only twenty or so seconds on the bunch before Simon Yates pursued him. With over 35km remaining, the G.C. men saw no threat, and let him go. Herein lay the genius of the manoeuvre. Yates bridged to Haig, who did all he could for the Brit from then on. Timing it perfectly, they caught up to the rest of their team at the summit of the climb. Suddenly there were four Orica men working to get away from the peloton, with Yates barely having to put his face in the wind. The gap opened, and they sped towards the last climb.
To cut a long story short, Yates went it alone for nearly the entire 12km climb up the Aubisque, and held a decent enough gap over most of his rivals to land himself fourth on G.C., just behind his teammate Chaves, who had pulled himself into third thanks to an ailing Contador. It was a brilliant performance, and a masterclass in strategic cycling. It was as if, out of thin air, Orica suddenly produced a team time trial worthy of their former glory days in that discipline, and they worked as a unit to bring Yates within reach of the podium. Truly tremendous.
Meanwhile, Robert Gesink had indeed risen out of the breakaway, and had taken with him FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde and Katusha’s Egor Silin. As we wrote in our preview, Gesink had the form to lead the way up the climb, and the strong finish required to drag himself away Elissonde and Silin at the line. It was a well deserved win, and a true display of power. Gesink looked overwhelmed as he crossed the line, and, after his second place to Quintana last week, it was easy to feel good for him as he punched the air.
But we’re not done yet. Behind all these dramas, Quintana and Froome were pulling away from Contador. Chaves attacked late in the stage, and led them both into the final kilometres. Sammy Sánchez repeatedly attacked and then was drawn back, attacked and was drawn back, finally coming in seconds behind the favourites. Dani Moreno, out the back of the original breakaway, kept pulling back to help his teammate Quintana, who alternated between strong attacks and, seemingly, pulling on his brakes to keep Froome guessing. Meanwhile, Valverde had disappeared, and lost over 10 minutes on Gesink on the line — fatigue finally seems to have got the better of him. Froome and Quintana sped up and slowed down several times in the final kilometres, not caring about any riders besides from one another. Neither could shake the other, though, and the two matched one another as Froome finally took Quintana’s wheel and rode across the line behind him — losing not a single second. They were in a class of their own, and they knew it. It was everything the Tour de France was missing — a real challenger to the current leader’s climbing abilities. It’s going to be a thrilling race on stage 15.
Stage 15, then. After nearly 200km and several thousand metres of ascent the previous day, the riders are in for a much shorter stage here. However, there’s still a ton a climbing to be taken on, and, as we’ve seen in recent years, these short, sharp mountain stages are invariably raced at breakneck speed from start to finish. In theory this will make it even harder for a breakaway to win, and we can expect to see both Movistar and Sky mobbing the front of the peloton to drive a fast pace from the gun. It will be interesting, too, to see if Orica take up some of the pace-setting responsibilities — they do have two riders in the top five, now, after all.
We’ll also be curious to see if Kenny Elissonde fancies another turn in the breakaway. If he doesn’t, he could well lose the polka dots again to Omar Fraile, who has been very motivated in that competition so far. As Geniez is now falling behind in that contest, you can bet Fraile is beginning to smell overall victory there, though he must be getting tired.
The final climb is once again the real meat of this stage, and it should be similarly explosive. We’d expect a smaller gap to the breakaway than on stage 14, meaning it should be all about the G.C. riders here (we don’t think Gesink is
likely to feature, nor to want to very much). Now, the climb itself is 14.5km, at an average gradient of 4.6%. That average is cut by two plateaus, one with a slight bit of descent in fact, at around 7.8km up the climb. The average gradient of the ramped sections is probably more like 6-7%, though it’s not terribly irregular, maxing out at 10%. It’s the sort of climb that would suit those riders who stay in the saddle and grind out a big gear — the classic examples in our minds are Rigoberto Uran, who isn’t here, and Tejay Van Garderen, who, regrettably, might as well not be here. But actually that’s precisely how Simon Yates just climbed the Aubisque, and he must be feeling extremely motivated after rising in the overall ranks. It also looks like it will be kinder on Michele Scarponi and Samuel Sánchez, who are both holding tight within the top 10.
That doesn’t rule out the more aggressively attacking men, though, and we still think this is going to be a fight for the stage win between Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome. Alberto Contador will have to find something special to finish in the top 5 now — Leopold König leads him by a minute, and looks determined to lay down a result that might mark him out as a potential grand tour leader if and when he moves to another team. We’re not sure Bertie will find that form now, and might lose more ground. Esteban Chaves, though, is going from strength to strength, and after his performance on stage 14 we would fully expect him to be amongst it here, defending his podium place. However, Froome and Quintana didn’t chase down Chaves on the Aubisque precisely because they were only interested in the movements of each other, and the stage win had long gone to Gesink. If the stage win is still available here, and we think it will be, then Chaves will have a hard time beating those two. Valverde‘s season, meanwhile, looks to be drawing to an early close. But, this deep into his third grand tour of the year, who can blame him?
Who are we going with, then? Well, given the slightly (but really only very slightly) kinder gradients, this suits someone who can grind it out more than an explosive attacker, and, as we saw on stage 14, Quintana can’t always lose Froome when he goes. We’re going with Chris Froome, who has the better sprint on him, and who would like to take as many bonus seconds as possible. Expect him to hold Quintana’s wheel once more, but to find extra motivation in the final kilometre to get the win. We’re going to go completely nuts now, and make Simon Yates our podium pick (though we don’t think he’s going to beat Quintana). Two Brits on one podium? Hey, why not.