29/08 - Stage 7 - Alhendín to Alcaudete - 169 km

After Thurday’s showdown between the overall contenders, today, we might see the first successful breakaway in this year’s Vuelta. However, it could easily end up in a sprint within a reduced group once again.

The route
From the start in Alhendín, the first 30 km of the stage are either downhill or flat. Given there is a solid chance of a breakaway making it all the way today, we can expect a fast start with many riders wanting to get up front. In Íllora, the riders take on the first of today’s two categorized climbs. The 6.8 km towards the top have an average gradient of 6.6 %. This is most likely where the final break will be established. After the descent, the following 50 km are up and down.

With about 55 km to go, the riders cross the finishing line in Alcaudete for the first time. However, as they approach the town from the south, only the last 2 km are the same as when they come back again later fighting for the stage win. After crossing the line, the peloton continues towards the top of Alto Ahillo. The following 8.2 km have an average gradient of around 4 %. However, due to a couple of flat parts, the actual uphill gradients are more towards 6 %. The descent is long, over 30 km, with a couple of up uphill sections.

As the riders exit Noguerones, the road starts to kick up again. A short but steep part of over 10 % is followed by 1.2 km of around 4 %. The following 7 km are constantly up and down on a relatively big road. At this point, the riders will be battling a crosswind. The area is widely open with no place to hide. If the wind is strong enough, we might see a few teams try to blow apart the peloton like they did on stage 5. Everybody needs to be extremely focused when taking on these last 13 km of the stage.

The finish
Upon reaching Alcaudete once again, the riders start to climb with about 4.5 km to go. This is followed by a slightly downhill section before the last 2.2 km are uphill towards the finishing line. The first 1.5 km have a steady average gradient of 5-6 %. Then, as the riders turn right after passing the 1-km-to-go-banner, it evens out for a short while before the last 600 meters kick up with about 3.5 %. There is a soft right-hand bend with just under 200 meters to go. The first rider out of this bend will most likely win the stage.

The favorites
This may start to sound like a broken record but, once again, my number one favorite for the stage is Michael Matthews. After making sure that Esteban Chaves was near the front, Matthews took it easy on final climb of stage 6. Today’s finish is pretty much tailor-made for the young Australian. If he has been able to recover from his earlier efforts, I think he will be extremely difficult to beat if it comes down to another sprint within a reduced group. In a clean sprint on flat road, Matthews may not be able to beat the likes of Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb at the moment. However, in this kind of uphill sprint, few in the world can match Bling when he’s in top condition. I won’t be easy for GreenEdge to control the breakaways on their own. Therefore, they probably need teams like Giant-Shimano and BMC to help.

John Degenkolb has already won two stages in this year’s Vuelta a España. He’s leading the points classification, which seems to a goal for the remaining part of the race. Therefore, he needs to take points whenever possible. This finish suits him well. On stage 3, Degenkolb didn’t have the strength to follow the punchy riders in the final. Today, however, the gradients are lower and this favors the strong German. It will be very interesting to see Degenkolb and Matthews going head-to-head in Alcaudete.

After a poor start to the race, feeling sick, Philippe Gilbert proved to be back in the game when he finished 7th on stage 5. BMC tried to set up Gilbert for the win but they probably started the sprint a bit too early. However, it’s clear that Gilbert feels better. When the Belgian is at his best, this is a finish which suits him perfectly. Right now, he doesn’t have the same speed as Degenkolb or Matthews but I’m certain he’s eager to give it a go. In case the peloton splits up in the crosswind and some of the favorites are missing in front, Gilbert has a golden opportunity to take a stage win in the Vuelta for the third year in a row.

The outsiders
If a strong break gets away on the first climb, it will be very difficult to rail them back in. Riders like Damiano Cunego, Rinaldo Nocentini and Luis León Sanchez all have the needed qualities to win a stage like this one. All three are good on climbs and very fast on the line, especially in an uphill sprint like this one. I wouldn’t be against any of these if they manage to make it into the winning a break. For other breakaway candidates, look to Bob Jungels, Romain Sicard, Amets Txurruka and Alexander Kolobnev.

If the stage ends in a sprint, the outsider picks will be riders like Vicente Reynes, Lloyd Mondory, Alexey Lutsenko and Paul Martens. Maybe even Nacer Bouhanni. If he gets over the climbs, the finish may not be too hard for him. He did surprisingly well on stage 3. On a good day, he could be up there as well. Peter Sagan tried to make the morning break of stage 6. Maybe he wants to have a go as well. If not, Cannondale will put their focus on Oscar Gatto, whom this finish suits perfectly as well.

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 GreenEdge'Michael Matthews to win.

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