30/08 - Stage 8 - Baeza to Albacete - 207 km

After many undulating stages, it’s now time for the pure sprinters to shine again. Anything but a bunch sprint will be a huge surprise.

The route
On paper, this may be the easiest stage of this year’s Vuelta a España. Today, there is not a single categorized climb on the menu. The pure sprinters haven’t had a real chance since day 2. They will all be very eager to get in the mix this afternoon in Albacete.

A small breakaway will most likely get away early in the stage. Everybody knows the break is doomed today but there are still sponsors who need TV-time. A tailwind will make for a very fast first part of the stage. However, as the riders approach the intermediate sprint in Alcaraz, the wind direction changes. Just before reaching El Cobillo, the peloton turns right. From here, they will be battling a cross wind for the remaining part of the stage. In case the wind is strong enough, we might see teams like Tinkoff-Saxo and Movistar trying to blow apart the peloton once again. On a stage like this, it’s easy to lose focus. If some of the GC riders don’t pay attention, they could end up losing minutes before Sunday’s mountain stage. Therefore, it’s very important to be near the front on the final 65 km.

The finish
The run-in towards Albacete is pretty straightforward on a big road. However, with 3.5 km to go, the road narrows to half its size. You can easily end up losing many positions if you’re not well-placed at this point. Crashes will maybe occur and since the 3-km-to-go-rule won’t apply, the GC riders will, too, be eager to enter the city first. One could argue that the race organizers should extend the 3-km-to-go-rule when making a finish like this.

There are no less than three roundabouts to overcome before the road opens up again with 1.5 km to go. It will be extremely difficult to move up in peloton. After passing under la flamme rouge, the riders turn right in a sharp corner out of the roundabout. This too will stretch out the peloton significantly. You need to be amongst the first five riders out of this corner if you want a chance of winning the stage. The final 800 meters are straight-out on Paseo la Cuba.

The favorites
In a clean bunch sprint, I’ll still put Nacer Bouhanni on top of my list. Nobody in this field can match the Frenchman’s kick in a flat finish. Bouhanni made a mistake on stage 5 when he tried to pass John Degenkolb close to barrier. He seemed to have the speed to overtake the German but should have gone around him the other way. Now Bouhanni has a chance to make up for his mistake. Few can move around near the front of the peloton on the final kilometers like he can. This technical finish should suit Nacer Bouhanni very well. If he’s in a good position, coming out of the last corner, I don’t think anyone can prevent him from taking his second stage win of the race.

Having won two stages already, John Degenkolb is, naturally, one of the top favorites today. At least on paper. Degenkolb crashed on stage 7 and it’s hard to say how his body will respond today. If he’s fine, he will definitely be up there again. Giant-Shimano has the best leadout train in the race. However, usually, they don’t hit the front on the final 2 km. Today, they can’t afford to wait this long. They need to be at the front when the road narrows with 3.5 km to go. If they manage to do so, they will be very hard to overtake. The ideal scenario would be to have Ramon Sinkeldam and Koen de Kort leading out John Degenkolb as they reach the last right-hand corner. In case Degenkolb doesn’t feel good after his crash, we might see young Nikias Arndt getting a chance to show his huge talent.

The outsiders
I have already mentioned Moreno Hofland numerous times in the Vuelta previews. He proved his great potential when he finished 3rd on stage 5. Still, it’s important to remember that this is his first grand tour. After 7 days in the saddle with extreme temperatures, Hofland may lack a little in the sprint today. Furthermore, the young Dutchman has been on antibiotics within the last days. It could take a few days for him to recover. However, if Moreno Hofland feels good, I wouldn’t be surprised if he made podium again today.

The same goes for Michael Matthews. Despite a tailor-made finish for the Australian, GreenEdge never joined the chase on stage 7. In a flat sprint, Matthews may not be able to match Degenkolb or Bouhanni. The most crucial part is his positioning. After having focused a lot on improving his climbing, it seems like Bling has lost a little bit of recklessness in the sprint. However, if he manages to get on the wheel of either Bouhannni or Degenkolb, he will definitely give them a run for the money.

One of the positive surprises in this year’s Vuelta a España is Jasper Stuyven. The young Belgian finished 4th on stage 2 and again on stage 5. He’s obviously in great shape at the moment. On stage 7, Trek tried to set him up for the final sprint. However, Stuyven didn’t have the necessary punch to follow the likes of Philippe Gilbert and Dan Martin. Today’s finish suits him much better and I’m sure he will be eager to pay back his team for their big effort yesterday.

Astana’s Andrea Guardini crashed the other day and may not be up for the challenge just yet. However, Guardini at 100 % would definitely be a strong contender for the win in Albacete today. For less-known riders with a fast finish, look to Francesco Lasca, Yannick Martinez and Matteo Pelucchi.

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 FDJ'Nacer Bouhanni to win.

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