11/09 - Stage 18 - A Estrada to Monte Castrove. Meis - 157 km

This is the penultimate uphill finish in this year’s Vuelta a España. Those who seek to take back time in the general classification can’t afford to miss out today.

The route
Starting in A Estrada, the peloton heads towards the coast. From here, they will continue alongside the sea down to Sanxenxo (finishing town of stage 1, last year) where the first intermediate sprint is located. The riders can expect a gusty crosswind and rain for the remaining part of the stage. Soon after reaching Pontevedra, it’s time for the main attraction of the day.

Alto Monte Castrove is 6.5 km long and has an average gradient of 7 %. After about 1.5 km, the climb evens out a bit, before the last 3.5 km kick up with numerous sections of double digits gradients. The road surface is good all the way towards the top. However, in A Escusa, the road is very narrow (see photo below) and very steep. The peloton will be stretched out significantly at this point, meaning it’s very important to be near the front.

From the top of the Alto Monte Castrove, there are 23.9 km to go. After a 10 km long descent, the riders reach the last intermediate sprint of the day in San Xoán de Poio. Here, they turn left and start on Alto Monte Castrove once again, from the same side as before. Upon reaching the top of the climb, the final 700 meters are downhill towards the finishing line. The road bends gently to the right. Therefore, it’s important to have the inside track if this comes down to a sprint.

Vuelta a España 2014 Preview

The favorites
Due to the importance of the bonus seconds on the finishing line, my prime pick today is Alejandro Valverde. The climb and the fast finish suit him perfectly. Movistar simply has to control the race today. Valverde is obviously in great shape right now and he’s very keen to hang onto his 2nd place overall. Of course, if the opportunity presents itself, he will be gunning for the red jersey as well. In any case, he has to gain time today. If Valverde could design his own perfect finish, I think it would be very similar to this one. Despite his good condition, the Spaniard has only won one single stage in this year’s Vuelta a España. This close to the World Championships, on home soil in Spain, I’m sure Alejandro Valverde would like to make a strong statement with another win today.

The same goes for Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez. Despite several tailor-made stages for him, Purito and Katusha are still without a win in this race. Purito is fourth overall in the general classification and it would take something truly special to drop Valverde or Chris Froome in order to make podium. On Monday’s rest day, Purito showed some signs of resignation, saying he just hoped to win a stage in the remaining week. Today he has another good chance of doing so. The finish reminds me of the classic one on Arrate in Vuelta al Pais Vasco. If you can make just a tiny gap before the descent, or on it, the chasing group probably won’t catch you. 

Chris Froome is getting better day by day. He’s still 1:39 min behind Alberto Contador and, naturally, he has to attack. Today’s climb may be a little too short for him to make real damage. However, if Team Sky takes control and sets a furious pace on the first time up Alto Monte Castrove, we could see a huge selection already. Then, if Froome feels good, he should put in a strong attack early on the final ascent. It may not crack Contador, but it may be enough to drop Valverde. For Alberto Contador, the main objective is to follow these eventual attacks from Froome or Valverde. If Purito attacks, he doesn’t have to respond immediately. It’s up to the others to chase him down in order to keep their podium spot. In case they don’t, Purito may end up being the big winner today.

The outsiders
Today, I doubt the breakaway will make it. Movistar and Katusha can’t afford to miss out any longer. Both Valverde and Purito desperately need the bonus seconds.

My personal joker today is Samuel Sanchez. I mentioned that this finish reminds me a little of Arrate. A finish, which Sanchez used to own. He didn’t manage to win on home soil in Asturias, today he has another chance to take a much wanted stage win. Being 6:55 min down in the general classification, he’s no threat to the top favorites. Therefore, he won’t be the first rider they start chasing down if he attacks. In case the front group is still together near the top, I’m confident Samuel Sanchez will put in a strong attack over the top and sail away on the short descent. Few in the peloton master this like he.

Dan Martin is also fast on the line and far enough down in the GC, in order to not be an eminent threat if he attacks on the final climb. It will be more than difficult for Martin to improve his 6th place overall. However, seeing how strong he has been lately, a stage win is definitely within his reach. Due to his crash in the Giro d’Italia earlier this year, Dan Martin hasn’t been racing much this season. Therefore, he will be much fresher than the rest of the rider in the Vuelta. This might help him today.

In case Movistar and Katusha miss out again, and a breakaway ends up making it all the way, look to strong in-shape riders like Wout Poels, Luis Léon Sanchez, Ryder Hesjedal and Alessandro De Marchi. Not to forget youngsters like Adam Yates, Romain Sicard and Alexey Lutsenko. Michael Matthews could be a good joker as well. He proved on stage 18 that he’s still in great shape. As mentioned numerous times already, Matthews has been working hard on improving his climbing skills. He proved this in Paris-Nice earlier this season and again in Giro d’Italia when he won the uphill finish on stage 6. In case the GC riders won’t go too fast up the final climb today, Michael Matthews may be able to stick to them and sprint for the win.

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 Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez to win.

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