03/09 - Stage 11 - Pamplona to Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar - 153.4 km

Today’s stage will give us another crucial fight between the top contenders for the overall classification. After Tuesday’s time trial, many will be eager to take back time as soon as possible.

The route
From the start in Pamplona, the majority of the first 100 km of the stage are relatively flat. Despite a light headwind in the beginning, a morning breakaway will be able to get a solid gap on the peloton. However, since this could be a good stage for a breakaway to make it, many riders will try to be a part of it. This will set for a very fast start.

Upon reaching the second intermediate sprint of the day, in Estella, the peloton turns right. A mild tailwind will accompany the riders for the remaining part of the stage. Even though we might see a few showers in Pamplona, the weather forecast shows another sunny day on the bike.

With 50 km to go, the riders take on the first categorized climb of the day. Puerto de Lizarraga is set to be 18.3 km long with an average gradient of just 2.6 %. However, due to a long flat part in the middle, the actual uphill gradients are much higher. The first 6 km kick up with about 5 % while the last 2.5 km towards the top have an average gradient of 6.5 %. From the top of Puerto de Lizarraga, there are just 20 km until the riders face the final struggle of the day.

The finish
The 9.9 km towards the top of Alto de San Miguel de Aralar have an average gradient of 7.5 %. Several times the riders will have to overcome parts of over 10 %. One of the steepest parts (of 14  %) comes in a hair-pin corner with about 2.6 km to go. On the final kilometer, the climb evens out a bit. After struggling with the poor road conditions all the way up, the riders will get a bit of relief, as the final 300 meters take place on an asphalt road in much better conditions.

Alto de San Miguel de Aralar has never been used in professional cycling before. Seeing the road, you will understand why. Due to the poor road conditions, the city council has decided that no vehicle (bike, scooter, car etc.) is allowed to ride faster than 20 km/h up the climb. The cement surface is in very bad shape. It’s bumpy to ride on and there are numerous big cracks in the road. There have already been several accidents involving cycling tourists. Hopefully, there won’t be any misfortunes today. The following photos were taken last weekend. Since then, some of the cracks have been patched up but not all of them.

Vuelta a España 2014 Preview

The favorites
Before this Vuelta started, I would have picked Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana as the two top favorites for this stage. However, both had a horrible day on their time trial bikes on Tuesday. Despite a strong start, Froome struggled heavily on the climb in his high gears. Quintana did very well on the steep part but crashed on the tricky descent. At the end, Froome lost 53 seconds to Alberto Contador while Quintana crossed the line 3:28 min behind the Tinkoff-Saxo captain who’s now leading the race overall..

Naturally, both Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana will be eager to take back time today, but it won’t be easy. To me, Alberto Contador is the prime pick for the stage win in San Miguel de Aralar. Despite fracturing his tibia during the Tour de France, Contador doesn’t seem to lack much power on the bike. Not even on the steep gradients. When at his best, few in the world can match Contador’s explosive attacks on the climbs. The way I see it, if he wants to win this stage, he will. Despite wearing the red jersey, Tinkoff-Saxo is still without a stage win in this year’s Vuelta a España. Seeing how strong Alberto Contador is now, I would say they should go for the win today. Also because of the 10 bonus seconds on the line. Even though it seems unlikely, Contador’s injury may get worse later in the race or he could crash. Therefore, he needs to gain as much time as possible while he’s on top. He will also be able to beat his rivals psychologically with another strong performance today.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez did very well in the time trial, losing only 1:10 min to Alberto Contador. Purito is in great shape right now and today’s final climb suits him perfectly. If he manages to stay close to Contador, he should be able to outsprint him on the line. He’s 1:37 min down in the general classification, meaning Contador may not chase him down immediately if he attacks near the top. Of course, Contador won’t let Purito get a big gap but he could look to riders like Alejandro Valverde or Chris Froome to close the gap.

As the climb evens out a bit near the top, Alejandro Valverde might have a chance of winning this stage in a sprint. As explained numerous times, Valverde always manages to find extra energy when he sees the finishing line. Nobody in the professional peloton has the same killer instinct as him. You may remember how Valverde and Purito caught Contador on Collada De La Gallina in 2012. This could happen again today…

The outsiders
We can’t count out Chris Froome just yet. He’s only 1:18 min down in the general classification and the plan has always been to get stronger as the race progresses. However, nobody expected him to lose time in the ITT. Today, I’m sure he will do whatever he can to prove that his race is not over yet. Luckily for Chris Froome, he has one of the best climber domestiques at this service.

Mikel Nieve looked very strong in La Zubia and once again on Aramón Valdelinares. Had he not been held back to pace Froome, he might have been able to follow the attacks. Since Alto de San Miguel de Aralar has never been used before, few know what to expect. The one who does is Mikel Nieve. The Basque climber has recently been training on the ascent. I doubt anybody in the peloton knows this climb as well as he does. Looking at the length and the gradients, Alto de San Miguel de Aralar shares many similarities with the ascent on Cotobello. The Vuelta used this climb back in 2010 with Mikel Nieve as the winner. In case Chris Froome doesn’t have a good day, we might see Team Sky letting Mikel Nieve get his own chance. No matter what, I expect a strong performance from Frosty today.

On paper, this climb also suits Esteban Chaves perfectly. The steeper it is, the better the young Colombian gets. He had a very hard day in the time trial, losing many minutes in the general classification. He’s now 6:37 min behind Alberto Contador and he won’t be of much concern should he attack on the climb. We might even see him join the morning breakaway, if it’s strong enough to make it all the way. This is Chaves’ first grand tour and it’s hard to tell how his body reacts after a rest day and a difficult time trial. If he’s okay, however, I think he could do something great today.

I also have high expectations to Fabio Aru. He hasn’t shown much of himself yet but he’s still very much in contention for a good overall result. Due to an ill-timed puncture before the final climb on stage 9, Aru had to spend a lot of energy getting back to the peloton. When the attacks started, the young Italian lacked a little but still managed to stick with Valverde and Froome. After the time trial he’s now 2:27 min behind Alberto Contador in the GC. His big goal is the overall podium, meaning that he has to attack now. On Montecampione in the Giro d’Italia, Fabio Aru proved his huge potential when he distanced everybody, including Nairo Quintana, and won the stage. He’s not afraid of attacking and I think he might give it a go again today.

In case a strong breakaway makes it all the way, look to good climbers out of the general classification like: Julian Arredondo, Johann Tschopp, Romain Sicard, David Arroyo, Kenny Elissonde and the South African champion Louis Meintjes. Team Sky might also try to send Vasil Kiryienka up the road early on. The Belarussian rider is very strong right now and he has often finished off a long breakaway in the mountains with a beautiful solo victory.

To spice up the previews, once again, I’ve asked Eurosport’s on-site Vuelta reporter, Laura Meseguer, to pick a stage winner for each stage of the race. Laura is interviewing the riders before and after the stages and she knows what’s going on inside the peloton.

Today, Laura picks Tinkoff-Saxo's Alberto Contador to win.

For live coverage of the stage, go to steephill.tv.