24/08 - Stage 2 - Algeciras to San Fernando - 174.4 km

After the opening team time trial on Saturday, it’s now time for the first regular stage of this year’s Vuelta a España. Today, anything but a bunch sprint would be a surprise.

The route
On the contrary to the remaining part of this stage, which is fairly flat, the riders start climbing right at the beginning of the day. Alto del Cabrito offers 3 points to the first rider over its top. This is the only categorized climb of the day, meaning whoever wins the KOM sprint will be take the first polka dot jersey of the race. We can expect the wild card teams and those without riders for the general classification to put up a fierce fight for an early moment of glory. Look out for the MTN-Qhubeka riders. Their morale must be sky high after the impressive performance in the TTT.

From Tarifa, the peloton continues northeast close to the coastline towards the finishing town San Fernando. With a relatively strong crosswind coming from the sea, we might see the peloton split up into echelons during the last 150 km. The wind direction will definitely make it difficult for a morning breakaway to make it all the way today.

Upon reaching El Puerto de Santa María, the riders start to head back south towards San Fernando. The most challenging part will be the two long completely open stretches on Avenida Vía Augusta Julia surrounded by the sea. If the wind is strong enough, it could easily blow apart the peloton. Everybody will be extremely nervous and crashes seem almost inevitable.

The finish
The majority of the last 5 km is pretty straightforward. There is only one turn and a roundabout to overcome. The final kilometer, however, is very difficult.  With 800 meters to go, the riders turn left in a sharp 90° corner. From here, the next 250 meters are uphill. Another sharp corner follows before the final 400 meters go slightly downhill towards the finishing line. It will be very important to be well-positioned. The slightly downhill run-in also means that you can start your sprint earlier than you usually would. If you don’t have a kick to beat the best sprinters, you might want to try to take them by surprise with a long sprint.

The favorites
Despite the crosswind and possible echelons, this stage should finish with a regular bunch sprint. The terrain is flat and all pure sprinters will be ready. Nacer Bouhanni is on top of the list right now. He won three stages in the Giro d’Italia and recently won the last bunch sprint in Eneco Tour. The technical finish suits Bouhanni perfectly. Few can move up in the peloton on the final kilometers as well as Bouhanni. As a former boxer, it’s close to impossible for the other riders to deny him his space. Furthermore, he’s extremely fast. Of the pure sprinters in this year’s Vuelta a España, Nacer Bouhanni is definitely the fastest one. FDJ isn’t aiming big at the general classification. Therefore, they can put all their focus into helping their fast Frenchman on these flat stages. The first regular stage of a grand tour is always unpredictable, especially with these wind conditions. However, it’s hard to see past Nacer Bouhanni as the big favorite for stage 2.

Next in line amongst the top favorites for today is John Degenkolb. No matter what team they bring, Giant-Shimano always has a top contender for the sprint stages. When it’s not Marcel Kittel or Luka Mezgec it’s John Degenkolb. The strong German isn’t particular fond of being labeled as sprinter but there is no denying his power in the sprints. In 2012, Degenkolb won no less than five stages in the Vuelta. Due to crashes and bad luck he didn’t manage to win a stage in the Tour de France this year. With a strong leadout train, John Degenkolb has a good chance of taking revenge today.

Michael Matthews is another good candidate today. A crash just a few days before the start of the Tour de France, prevented the young Australian from taking part, despite being stronger than ever. Matthews came back with style, winning the opening stage of Tour de Slovénie and finished 2nd and 3rd in two bunch sprints in Tour de Pologne at the beginning of August.  The more demanding stage 3, 4 and 5 may suit Matthews a bit better than this regular bunch sprint. However, I wouldn’t put it behind him to win in San Fernando this afternoon. If he wins, Bling will also take the leader’s jersey due to bonus seconds.

The same goes for in-shape sprinters like Andrea Guardini and Yauheni Hutarovich. Guardini won stage 2 and 4 of Tour of Denmark and the opening stage of Eneco Tour last week, while Hutarovich won stage 1 of Tour de Pologne. Both, the Italian and the Belarusian sprinter, seem to have timed their shape perfectly ahead of the Vuelta.

The outsiders
One of my personal jokers for the bunch sprints in this year’s Vuelta a España is Moreno Hofland. He started out the season very well, winning the final stage of Ruta del Sol, before going on to outsprinting Bouhanni, Degenkolb and Kristoff on stage 2 of Paris-Nice. He had a long break after Tour of California in May, but it didn’t seem to hold him back. In Tour of Utah, Moreno Hofland won stage 1 and 2, before he withdrew due to a respiratory tract infection. This is the first grand tour for the young Dutchman. It’s hard to say how he will perform. Personally, I think he’ll do very well and if he’s back at his 100 % again, I wouldn’t be surprised if he won a stage during the race.

I’m also very much looking forward to following Matteo Pelucchi in his first grand tour. The Italian sprinter has had a great season with IAM Cycling and he now hopes to prove his huge potential on the big scene. Having been a personal favorite of mine for a few years, I wasn’t surprised when Pelucchi stormed to win stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico this season. Against the likes of Cavendish, Greipel and Démare, Pelucchi beat them all in a clean sprint due to his raw power. This slightly downhill sprint today suits the Italian very well. Without anyone for the general classification, IAM Cycling will have plenty of riders to support Matteo Pelucchi. It will be interesting to see if he can take the peloton by surprise once again.

For other strong outsiders in the bunch sprints, look to Gerald Ciolek, Roberto Ferrari and Jens Debusschere. Not to forget Peter Sagan. He's probably more a favorite than an outsider. Still, since the Tour de France, Sagan has only started one race, Clasica San Sebastian, which he didn’t finish. It’s hard to predict in what kind of shape the strong Slovakian will arrive at the Vuelta. On paper, he’s definitely good enough to win. However, like Matthews, Sagan will probably have a better chance in the upcoming days with a hillier terrain.

A super joker could be Fabian Cancellara. His bike-handling skills are exceptional. If Cancellara manages to get a small gap in the sharp corners, he may be strong enough to keep the peloton at bay with a slightly downhill run-in. The Swiss is only 9 seconds down in the general classification. With 10 bonus seconds on the finishing line, he could take the red jersey today.

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 Giant-Shimano's John Degenkolb to win.

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