13/09 - Stage 20 - Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil to Puerto de Ancares - 185.7 km

The Vuelta organizers have saved the most difficult climb for last. Nothing is settled in the general classification until the riders have crossed the finishing line on Puerto de Ancares.

The route
Today is not only the last day for the climbers to move up in the GC. It’s only the last day for those riders who are not good against the clock, to win a stage in this year’s Vuelta a España. Therefore, we can expect a furious fight to make it into the morning breakaway. From the start in Santo Estevo de Ribas de Sil, the first 20 km are more or less downhill. Then, after 30 km on the bike, the riders take on the first longer climb of the day. Despite its 7 km of 6.5 % this ascent hasn’t been categorized. Most likely, the final breakaway will be established here.

After the climb, the riders continue north towards the intermediate sprint in Sarria. From here on, the remaining 90 km of the stage are more or less identical with the final part of stage 14 in 2012. All the four top GC riders were in the race back then and they know exactly what to expect. These are the categorized climbs the peloton has to overcome before taking on Puerto de Ancares:

Alto de Vilaesteba (6.4 km / avgg. 5.3 %)
Alto de O Lago (8.4 km / avg. 4 %)
Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas (9.7 km / avg. 6.7 %)

Upon reaching Robledo de Rao, the riders start on the final ascent of this year’s Vuelta a España. A truly brutal one.

The finish
The 12.7 km towards the top of Puerto de Ancares have an average gradient of 8.7 %. It’s known as the “Spanish Mortirolo” and even though it’s not quite as steep as the Italian climb, you can easily see the similarities. The steepest part comes after 4 km where the road kicks up with nearly 20 %. This is followed by a part of 5 km where the gradients barely drop below 10 %.

With about 3.5 km to go, the climb evens out a little bit with gradient of just 2-4 %. However, just after passing the 2-km-to-go-banner, the road kicks up once again with over 10 % for the remaining part of the climb. This is where Alberto Contador put in his - what seemed to be - winning move in 2012. Unfortunately for Contador, he struggled on the steep parts of 13 % on the final kilometer, which allowed Purito Rodriguez to come back and drop the Tinkoff-Saxo captain on the final 200 meters.

The favorites
If Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez were in the same shape as in 2012, he would have been my prime pick. This is not the case, however. Purito seems to lack a little and unless all the five top GC riders are still together on the final kilometer, I doubt he will be able to repeat his impressive win from two years ago. However, this is Katusha’s last chance of a stage win. If they don’t put a rider in the breakaway, they have work in the peloton and hope Purito has a super day on the bike.

To me, the number one favorite is Alberto Contador. On the contrary to 2012, Contador now doesn’t need to attack in order to win Vuelta a España. Basically, he only has to pay attention to Chris Froome, who is 1:19 min behind him starting this stage. Everybody knows that Froome has to attack today. I think Team Sky will set a furious pace on Alto de Folgueiras de Aigas, thinning out the peloton significantly. Then, on the final climb, it’s up to guys like Philip Deignan, Pete Kennaugh and Mikel Nieve to set up Froome. Naturally, Contador knows this is the most likely scenario and I’m sure he will be glued to Froome’s wheel on Puerto de Ancares. I think we will get to see a rematch from stage 16 with Contador and Froome in front with the rest struggling behind.

One could say that Contador doesn’t need to win this stage as long as he just stays with Chris Froome, who still hasn’t won a stage in this year’s race. However, don’t forget how Froome made Contador look like a junior rider in the Tour de France last year. Contador was not even close to following Froome in the high mountains. Now, the two champions are on a more similar level and I’m sure Alberto Contador wants to prove that he can beat Chris Froome. Also, after missing out on the win on Puerto de Ancares in 2012, I would expect Contador to be extra eager to get it right this time. It should be a great fight between the two best stage race riders in the world. If the GC riders end up fighting for the stage win, I would be very surprised if neither Contador nor Froome took the win.

The outsiders
Personally, I don’t think this climb suits Alejandro Valverde very well. He will be near the front, of course, but I seriously doubt he will be able to drop Contador and Froome. Naturally, Valverde would like to take back the 2nd place overall. However, Movistar knows it will be more than difficult. Now, the most important thing is to keep Valverde’s spot on the podium and not to let it slip away like in the Tour de France earlier this summer.

The only rider who seems capable of following the top duo is Fabio Aru. He has already won two stages after strong attacks on the final climbs. Despite being 1:43 min behind Alejandro Valverde, Aru still hopes to make it onto the final podium on Sunday. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last attack from the young Italian. Contador won’t mind if Fabio Aru attacked on Puerto de Ancares. It’s up to Purito and Valverde to close the gap if they want to keep the position in the GC.

In case a breakaway makes it all the way, look to good climbers out of the general classification like Esteban Chaves, David Arroyo, Alessandro De Marchi, Ryder Hesjedal and Mikel Landa who aims at this stage. Personally, I would like to see the young South African champion Louis Meintjes give a go as well. He’s been doing extremely well in his first ever grand tour. If he still has something left in the tank, today could be good chance of making another great result in this race. We can also expect Luis León Sanchez to be a part of the morning breakaway in order to gain enough points to win the KOM jersey.

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 Team Sky's Chris Froome to win.

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