As subdued as the race may have been thus far, Wednesday’s seventeenth stage should shake things up and breathe life back into the 76th edition of La Vuelta. Norway’s Odd Christian Eiking performed admirably in the Montes de Toledo last weekend and his Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert team defended the maillot rojo with pride – just as they did earlier in the race for Rein Taaramae, the previous rider to depose Primoz Roglic of the red jersey.
But on the first of two stages in the breathtakingly beautiful Asturias mountains, there will be nowhere to hide – especially if the weather forecast of heavy rain and thunderstorms proves correct.
Interestingly, the damage on Wednesday may be done before the final climb up to the eerie Covadonga lakes, with the riders taking on two loops and an unprecedented double ascent of La Collada Llomena, a climb being used for the first time in Vuelta history. Almost 8km long and with an average gradient of 9.3% peaking at 14%, it’s a Cat.1 test sandwiched by a Cat.3 leg-stretcher and the 22nd ascent of the summit finish at Lagos de Covadonga.
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When introduced in 1983, Lagos de Covadonga was touted as Spain’s answer to Alpe d’Huez and quickly became an iconic climb in the Vuelta. With its two lakes beneath the summit and stunning views over the Picos de Europa range, it was a climb of unspoilt natural beauty which boasted a stinging double-digit ramp, La Huesera, seven kilometres from the summit.
Several ledges and the downhill segment towards the lakes ahead of the final rise conspire to give the 12.5km climb a misleading average gradient of 6.9%. But it’s far tougher than that damning statistic suggests, with the Huesera ramp hitting a gnarly 16%.
While this Vuelta – which includes a total of 10 uphill finishes and a whopping 45 categorised climbs in total – doesn’t take in the giddy gradients of the Angliru or Los Machucos, Stage 18 concludes on a slope which could well prove to be even more savage.
The Altu d’el Gamoniteiru, or Alto de Gamoniteiro, is the highest reachable peak, by road bike, in Asturias and is making its long-awaited debut in the Vuelta. The isolated, rocky and remote peak is beautiful, barren and barnstormingly brutal, its narrow access road sweeping up towards the weather station on a gradient that consistently fails to drop below the 10% mark for most of its 14km ascent – with the concrete goat track ramping up to a leg-stinging 17% on the final twist to the finish.
While the weather station gives it echoes of Mont Ventoux, it's undeniably similar to the nearby Angliru, but perhaps a touch harder because there's no easing up in the gradient while the consistently coarse road surface is even more weather beaten.
In what is arguably the queen stage of the race, the 163km slog includes three incredibly tough climbs before the riders can even begin to think about the hell that’s in store for their final slap in the face. The Cat.1 Puertu de San Llaurienzu is 10km long at 8.6% - a fiendish challenge which eases on three short and forgiving steps with break up the brutality, but disrupt the rhythm.
The same average gradient is seen in the 8km Cat.1 Altu de la Cobertoria before the gentle Cat.2 Altu la Sega o del Cordal (12.2km at 3.8%) tees things up nicely for the summit showdown, where a single ledge halfway through is a curtain-raising precursor to the ultimate pain cave.
All this ahead of a medium-mountains day and then a penultimate stage which features five categorised climbs, 4,307m of altitude gain, and hardly a kilometre of flat road over the course of its ambush-friendly 202.6km route. With the TT following on the final day in Santiago de Compostela, you’d be hard pressed finding a tougher finale to any Grand Tour in recent years. Which is just as well – because it’s high time we had a spectacle.
What to expect in the Asturias mountains
While Eiking will surely not be able to maintain his form, the true condition of Roglic remains to be seen. The Slovenian looked fairly assured earlier in the race – to the point that he wilfully conceded the red jersey on two occasions. But two crashes in three days make have taken its toll on a body still overcoming the injuries sustained in July during the Jumbo-Visma rider’s ill-fated Tour de France.
If Eiking pops, it wouldn’t be inconceivable if Roglic goes the same way – forcing Jumbo-Visma to play their joker card in Sepp Kuss. The American is in ninth place and five minutes down on the Norwegian – but the gaps on both Stages 17 and 18 could be huge.
Enric Mas (Movistar) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis) both went down in the early crash that ended Italy’s Giulio Ciccone’s Vuelta on Tuesday. Neither were badly hurt, which is just as well, for the Spanish climber has been in the form of his life in this Vuelta and could emerge as the favourite at Covadonga – channelling the likes of Marino Lejarreta, Pedro Delgado, Alvaro Pino and other home stars to win on the legendary climb.
What is uncertain is how Movistar will play things with their two leaders: the Spanish team currently have both Mas and Colombia’s Miguel Angel Lopez in the top five and for one of them to have a good shot of red, the help of the other may be crucial. Lopez, given his time trial fallibility, may be put to work in the services of Mas – but how would that affect the team dynamic?
There is also the Ineos duo of Egan Bernal and Adam Yates to consider, as well as the under-the-radar performances of Australia’s Jack Haig (Bahrain Victorious). Colombia’s Bernal and Britain’s Yates have not been firing on all cylinders but they both remain within three minutes of Roglic – time they could easily recoup with a solid showing over the next two days.
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