07/09 - Stage 15 - Oviedo to Lagos de Covadonga - 152.2 km

Today’s finish in Lagos de Covadonga is a true Vuelta a España classic. Usually, a morning breakaway makes it all the way. It will be interesting to see if the GC riders let this happen again today.

The route
From the start in Oviedo, the riders head north towards Gijón. From here, they continue east, alongside the coastline, towards the last intermediate sprint of the day in Ribadesella. These first 100 km on the bike may not look like much on the profile. In this area though, there are no easy parts. It’s constantly up and down and just because the hills aren’t categorized, it doesn’t mean they aren’t tough to climb.

Upon reaching Nueva, the riders take on the 7.2 km ascent towards the top of Puerto del Torno. The road book sets the average gradient to 8.2 %. However, due to a couple of semi-flat kilometers in Riensena, the actual uphill gradients are steeper. The road is narrow, which makes the following very technical descent even more dangerous. There are even a few uphill sections with over 10 %. These parts will stretch out and break apart the peloton significantly.

After coming down from Puerto del Torno, there are less than 10 km until the peloton starts on the main attraction of the day.

The finish
As mentioned in the beginning, Lagos de Covadonga is a classic Vuelta ascent. It features in the race almost every second year, which means most of the riders know what to expect. The 12.2 km towards the top have an average gradient of 7.2 %. Again, due to a couple of descents near the top, this is lower than actual uphill gradients. The first 9 km kick up with about 9 % all the way. You can see a detailed profile of the climb by mousing over the area on the stage profile at the top of the page. The weather forecast shows rain, which will only make this climb harder for the riders.

In 2012, we saw an amazing fight between Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde on the last 6 km of the stage. Let’s hope we will get to see another great battle between the best riders on the steep slopes of Lagos de Covadonga. If you want to re-watch the stage from two years ago, click here.

The favorites
On stage 14, once again, Katusha and the rest of the GC teams missed out. They let the breakaway fight for the win and lost valuable bonus seconds for general classification. Usually, a breakaway makes it all the way on Lagos de Covadonga. However, after seeing that Alberto Contador can be beaten, Katusha and Team Sky should try to control the race today. Still, they have failed so many times in the Vuelta already that I wouldn’t be surprised if a break makes it again today.

If, however, the top GC riders end up riding for the win, my pick is Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. On La Camperona, he proved he could stay with Contador on the steep gradients. Today, the finish suits him very well with a short uphill kick towards the line. He’s still 1:29 min behind Alberto Contador in the general classification so he has to take back time as soon as possible. Due to the few descents near the top, I doubt Purito will be able to drop Contador. Therefore, he needs to win the stage and take the 10 bonus seconds on the line. Despite missing out for the fifth time in this race, I’m sure the morale must be good at Katusha after taking a few seconds on Contador on stage 14. Now, the Russian team needs to step up and show that they are here to win this Vuelta a España overall.

The same goes for Chris Froome and Team Sky. The first 9 km of Lagos de Covadonga is a very steady, which suits Froome perfectly. He’s not trying to follow the explosive attacks from the other GC riders. Instead, Froome is riding extremely calculating, always looking at his power output. I think Team Sky will set a furious pace on Lagos de Covadonga, which, surely, will see many riders losing their motivation and ability to attack. Then, if Chris Froome is together with the other top contenders at the end, I think he should try to attack before the downhill section. If he gets just a small gap, I doubt the other climbers will be able to bridge across on the descent.

On the final steep part of La Camperona, Alberto Contador showed his first sign of weakness in this Vuelta. Despite attacking earlier on the climb, he couldn’t follow Froome and Purito at the end. In 2012, Contador put on a spectacular show on Lagos de Covadonga with countless attacks. Purito managed to respond to all of them but clearly, this is a climb Contador likes. Today, the roles are reversed. Now, Purito needs to attack while Contador can focus on keeping his wheel. However, this is not a tactic, which Contador usually relies on. He’s a natural born fighter and he’s best when he’s constantly changing rhythm. He won’t attack early on the climb but if he feels good on the final 4 km, I’m certain El Pistolero will try to gain more time on his rivals.

The last one of the top favorites is Alejandro Valverde. He cracked on the steep gradients on stage 14 but managed to limit his loss to only 23 seconds to Contador. In 2012, Valverde was definitely the weakest of the three top contenders. Had Nairo Quintana not been there to help him, I doubt Valverde would have been able to stay with Contador and Purito. Still, it’s important to remember that this finish - with a couple of short descents and an uphill kick towards the line - is perfect for Valverde. The other GC riders know this and they should be eager to drop him as soon as they can. If Alejandro Valverde is still with the front group on the last 2 km, he will be extremely difficult to beat.

The outsiders
My personal outsider today is Dani Navarro. He’s on home soil in Asturias and he’s been very strong so far. He took an impressive stage win in Obregón the other day but I’m sure he’s not done yet. In 2012, while riding at Tinkoff-Saxo, Navarro worked hard to set up Alberto Contador on Lagos de Covadonga. This time, he will have a team working for him. Before the Vuelta, Cofidis prolonged their contract with Navarro. Therefore, the Spaniard started out this race eager to pay back his French team for their trust in him. He did so on stage 13 but if he could pick, this would be the stage for him to win. Dani Navarro is 5:10 min behind Alberto Contador in the general classification, meaning that the other GC riders won’t chase him down immediate should he attack in the final. As good friends and former team mates, naturally, Contador would be happy to see Navarro win the stage and take some of the bonus seconds out of the equation again.

Another strong rider from Asturias is Samuel Sanchez, who’s actually from Oviedo where the stage starts. Sanchez entered this race as a bit of a dark horse. He currently sits 7th in the general classification. He’s been consistent without showing much of himself. Usually, Sanchez always gets better as the race progresses. He doesn’t have a strong kick on the steep gradients but he’s very experienced and knows exactly when and how to attack his rivals. I think it will be difficult for him to stay with Froome, Contador, Purito and Valverde when they start to attack each other. However, if Samuel Sanchez can find a good rhythm, he might be able to come back and put in a strong attack on the descent. If he gets just a tiny gap, he will do whatever he can to win on home soil.

In case a breakaway makes it again, look to strong climbers down in the GC like Laurens Ten Dam, Maxime Monfort and Sergio Pardilla. This might also be a good day for young Adam Yates to try his luck. Not to forget Gianluca Brambilla. The Italian seems to be flying at the moment. If OPQS gets him carte blanche today, I’m sure he won’t hesitate to make the most of it.

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 Cofidis' Dani Navarro to win.

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