26/08 - Stage 4 - Mairena del Alcor to Córdoba - 164.7 km

Monday’s uphill finish had the pure sprinters struggling to keep up. Today they will have another chance to shine. However, a hilly second part of the stage won’t make it easy to stay in contention for the win in Córdoba.

The route
Starting out in Mairena del Alcor, outside of the Andalusian capital Sevilla, the peloton starts heading northeast, a course they will be keeping for the majority of the day. The first 100 km of this stage are flat. The biggest struggle will be the high temperatures of around 40°C. A morning breakaway will have plenty of time to get a solid gap on the peloton on this long flat part.

With a little bit less than 60 km to go, the riders take on the first climb of the day. Alto de San Jerónimo is 4.6 km long and has an average gradient of 4.6 %. There are a few steep sections in the hairpin corners but it shouldn’t be enough for the sprinters to get dropped already. Even if somebody struggles to keep up, they will be able to rejoin the peloton on the descent or on the following flat part towards Córdoba. Here, the riders will cross the finishing line for the first time before taking on a 38 km loop around the area.

This loop includes the first category 2 climb of this year’s Vuelta a España; Alto del Catorce por Ciento. Despite the fearful name, most of the 8 km towards the top aren’t very steep. The average gradient is set to 4.7 %. However, about a kilometer from the top, the climb lives up to its name of 14 %. This is where teams like Giant-Shimano, Cannondale, GreenEdge need to push hard in order to drop Nacer Bouhanni and the pure sprinters. The following 10 km are up and down before the actual descent starts. This lumpy part, with a few steep sections, will make it very hard for dropped riders to make it back to the peloton.

The finish
Since the riders have already crossed the finishing line once today, they know what to expect. The last 8 km only include a couple of corners and a few easy roundabouts. The last kilometer takes place on the big Avenida Conde de Vallellano before a soft left-right s-bend takes the peloton onto Paseo de la Victoria with the final 400 meters straight-out towards the line.

The favorites
Given the steep final part of Alto del Catorce por Ciento and the following undulating kilometers, I think it will be difficult for the pure sprinters to rejoin the peloton in time for the expected sprint.

The only one who seems capable of doing it is Nacer Bouhanni. He performed surprisingly well on the uphill finish on stage 2, showing his climbing legs are definitely good at the moment. In a clean sprint, nobody can match the Frenchman’s speed in this field. FDJ is not aiming at the general classification. Therefore, they will be able to put all their focus on helping Bouhanni stay in the peloton on the climbs. It’s a tall order and, personally, I doubt they will be able to pull it off. However, if they manage to do so, Nacer Bouhanni is definitely the man to beat. Don’t forget that Bouhanni has his eyes on the points jersey which he’s wearing today. He’s only four points in front of Michael Matthews who’s also aiming at the green jersey.

If Nacer Bouhanni doesn’t manage to stick to the front, John Degenkolb is the prime pick. After finishing second twice in the Tour de France and once again on stage 2 of this race, Degenkolb is now very eager to finally get it right. He didn’t have the legs to follow the punchy riders on stage 3 but he proved on stage 2, that he’s extremely strong right now. Today, the most likely scenario is a sprint within a reduced group. This is where John Degenkolb excels. The finish suits him very well and, to me, the fast German is the number one favorite for the stage win.

Michael Matthews won’t have any problems coping with the climbs today. As I’ve already mentioned numerous times in the previews this year, Matthews has been working hard to improve his climbing skills. It doesn’t seem like he has lost any speed and he’s definitely one of the favorites for the win today. As expected, Bling won the uphill finish on stage 2 taking the leader’s jersey as well. This means GreenEdge now has to control the race, which might leave them short of leadout riders in the final. Therefore, Matthews most likely has to rely on the leadout of Giant-Shimano or other teams. The main goal is to keep the red jersey and without any incidents, I can’t see it being a problem. Mano-a-mano with John Degenkolb, Michael Matthews may lack just a tiny bit of speed. However, the heat is definitely favoring the Australian. I’m sure it will be a very close fight for the win today.

The outsiders
With a stage profile like today, there is always a solid chance for a breakaway to make it all the way. However, I’m sure GreenEdge will be very eager to keep the red jersey and, of course, wants to contest for another stage win as well. Therefore, I doubt we will see a break taking the peloton by surprise. If so, it will be riders from the peloton attacking over the top of the final climb, hoping Degenkolb and Matthews won’t have enough team mates left to organize a chase.

My personal outsider for a sprint within a reduced peloton is Oscar Gatto. Peter Sagan clearly isn’t interested in contesting in the sprints. Gatto, on the other hand, is arriving in top condition and he has to take advantage of this rare opportunity of being the designated sprinter in a grand tour. The Italian won two stages in Tour of Austria in July and finished off Artic Tour of Norway with a fourth place in the final stage. He came in 6th on stage 2 of this race on a finish which didn’t really suit him. Gatto is definitely best in the undulating terrain. Peter Sagan has no problems helping his soon-to-be former team mate. Many may remember the opening stage of Driedaagse De Panne this year. Trying to leadout Oscar Gatto to win, Peter Sagan was simply too strong. Even though the Slovakian hit the breaks in the sprint, he still managed to win the stage. I’m sure Peter Sagan would be happy to help his loyal team mate to finally cross the line first. However, against the mentioned riders above, it’s won’t be easy.

For other strong outsiders in a sprint, look to: Vicente Reynes, Lloyd Mondory, Gerald Ciolek and youngster Jasper Stuyven who finished 4th on stage 2. Not to forget Tom Boonen. The Belgian superstar is targeting the World Championships this year and he’s using the Vuelta to fine-tune his shape. Boonen is now willing to take part in the bunch sprints again and he should be able to stay with the peloton on the hills today.

Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing how Moreno Hofland will cope with climbs and the high temperatures. He had a difficult day on stage 3, but, without an uphill finish, he may have a chance today. However, it’s important to remember that this is his first grand tour. In case the young Dutchman isn’t up for it today, Belkin still has a good candidate in Paul Martens. The German sprinter is strong enough to survive the climbs, which he proved on stage 3, and he will be eager to do even better 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.