28/08 - Stage 6 - Benalmádena to La Zubia - 167.1 km

This is the first real uphill finish in this year’s Vuelta a España. A steep drag towards the line could easily turn the general classification upside down.

The route
From the start in Benalmádena, the riders go to Málaga before heading east alongside the coastline towards Torre del Mar. Here, the peloton starts getting back into the country before taking on the first categorized climb of the day; Alto de Zafarraya. This category 2 climb is 12.3 km long and has an average gradient of 5.7 %. It’s a very steady ascent with just a few steep sections on the last part of the climb.

From the top of Alto de Zafarraya, the following 40 km are a constant up and down, including the category 3 climb, Alto de los Bermejales (5.8 km / avg. 5.8 %). From here, the riders head towards the two intermediate sprints of the day. The road goes downhill most of the time, making for a fast pace. A morning breakaway won’t stand much of a chance when the fight for positions starts in the peloton.

The finish
With 5 km to go, the riders enter La Zubia. The peloton will be going extremely fast at this point as all the GC riders want to be near the front. 500 meters later, the riders turn left onto the narrow Calle Cruz de San Antón. This is where the final climb begins. The first part is steep. Then, it evens out a bit, before the last 3.5 km kick up with an agonizing average gradient of over 10 %. What characterizes this ascent is the lack of corners. It’s straight-out all the time, making it a mental challenge as well. There is no place to recover before the line.

According to Luis Angel Maté, who knows this climb well, it’s a very regular ascent but without any easy parts as the gradients constantly stay above 10 %. Furthermore, as it’s located in the middle of the forest, it will be extremely hot. However, in regards of changes of rhythm, it’s not a complicated climb. Maté explains that as long as you know yourself and how to manage your energy levels, you will be fine.

The favorites
There are a lot of explosive riders in this year’s Vuelta a España. However, to me, there is only one true favorite for a finish like this. Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez is the best rider in the world on a short and steep ascent as we have here. There is simply nobody in the peloton who can match his kick on the steep gradients. Purito knows that he will lose minutes against the clock on stage 10. Therefore, he has to take advantage of every given opportunity to gain time on his rivals. With 10 bonus seconds on the line today, he can’t afford to miss out. What Giant-Shimano is in the bunch sprints, Katusha is on these kind of finishes. With Kolobnev, Caruso and Moreno, Purito couldn’t ask for a better leadout. On stage 3, they messed up when Caruso ended up getting a gap alone. Naturally, Purito should have been on his wheel, ready to counterattack. He had to settle for 3rd place knowing he missed a golden opportunity. Now, he’s eager to make it right.

Except for his teammate, Dani Moreno, the biggest threat to Purito today is probably Dan Martin. After crashing out in the opening team time trial in the Giro d’Italia, Martin quickly changed his focus to the Vuelta. Nobody arrived at this Vuelta as fresh as the Irishman did. On stage 3, he proved to be in excellent shape, only being overtaken by a brilliant Michael Matthews on the last few meters. Dan Martin doesn’t have the same powerful kick on the very steep gradients as Purito, but he’s not far off. Furthermore, he is very fast on the line should it come down to a sprint for the win. Last year, in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Dan Martin overtook Purito on the final kilometer to win the race. It will be interesting to see if he can repeat that performance today.

Movistar has a dangerous duo for this stage as well. Nario Quintana is second in the general classification and has a good chance of taking the leader’s jersey just by following the other GC riders today. The same goes for Alejandro Valverde. He’s seven seconds behind Quintana, in third place, meaning he has to win this stage if he wants back the red jersey. Valverde is very strong at the moment and this kind of finish suits him very well. He proved this in Flèche Wallonne this year, when he powered by everybody else on Mur de Huy. However, he couldn’t follow Purito Rodriguez on the steep gradients in Clasica San Sebastian earlier this month. Had the finishing line been on top of the last climb, Valverde most likely wouldn’t have won that day. It would be foolish to write off the strong Spaniard today but, personally, I doubt he will be able to beat Purito. Of course, for Valverde, second place can be enough to take back the leader’s jersey, if he manages to distance Nairo Quintana with just one second.

The outsiders
Given the importance of the bonus seconds, especially for a rider like Purito Rodriguez, I seriously doubt a breakaway will make it today. Katusha will be eager to control the race, just like GreenEdge did on stage 3. To me, it’s hard to see anybody else than the threeriders mentioned above take the win on Alto Cumbres Verdes today.

However, even though it’s not his specialty, Chris Froome might be able to give Purito a good fight. He doesn’t have the same kind of kick as Purito but he has proven to be very strong on the steep gradients. Don’t forget his late attack on final steep ramp of La Planche des Belles Filles in 2012. Despite a terrible TTT by Team Sky, Froome has looked very good so far in this Vuelta. He’s constantly near the front and it was also him who closed the gap to Caruso on in the final of stage 3. I imagine Chris Froome will put in a strong attack in the beginning of the last 3.5 km, shaking the tree. It might not be enough to win the stage but I still expect him to finish around top5.

The big question today is how well will Alberto Contador be able to perform? This is the first serious task for the Spanish super climber after fracturing his tibia in the Tour de France. So far, he has shown no sign of weakness what so ever. Despite starting out this Vuelta saying he just wanted to go for a stage win in the last week, it has been clear to everyone, that Alberto Contador is here to fight for the overall win. He lacked just a little bit in the uphill final on stage 3 but he looked very good on the climbs on stage 4. Given his injury and lack of training days, he shouldn’t be able to contest for the win today. Then again, he shouldn’t be able to be in the race at all. One thing is certain: Contador is only getting better as the race progresses. Therefore, his rivals have to gain time on him early in the race. If they wait too long, it might end up being too late.

Cadel Evans is another strong outsider today. The Australian veteran actually won in La Zubia in 2008, in Ruta del Sol. However, back then, the finishing line came before the last steep part. Evans seems to be getting stronger day by day, but he may still lack a little. Julian Arredondo is also a very interesting rider for this finish. He has been suffering within the last couple of days, losing ground in the general classification. This means he might not be the first rider, the other GC riders start chasing down if he attacks. When in tip-top condition, this finish would be perfect for Arredondo. His idol is Purito Rodriguez, and the two riders share a lot of qualities. In the future, Julian Arredondo could very well be the number one favorite on these kinds of climbs.

If you are looking for a super joker today, look to Adam Yates. The young Brit has had an absolutely brilliant season as a neo-pro, winning Tour of Turkey, finishing 5th overall in Tour of California and 6th overall in Dauphiné. In Clasica San Sebastian earlier this month, Adam Yates managed to stay near the very best riders on the final climb, putting himself in contention for the win. Unfortunately, Yates crashed on the descent, with no chance of coming back to the front. On stage 4 of this Vuelta, he proved to be in great condition still, when he easily followed the attack from Winner Anacona. Michael Matthews will most likely take it easy today, trying to save energy for stage 7. If GreenEdge’s GC hope, Esteban Chaves, is feeling good, I wouldn’t be surprised if Adam Yates got a carte blanche to try an attack in the final.

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'Joaquim 'Purito' Rodriguez to win.

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