31/08 - Stage 9 - Carboneras de Guadazaón to Aramón Valdelinares - 185 km

The sprinters had their say in Albacete on stage 8. Now, it’s time for the GC riders to fight for the red jersey on the first real mountain stage of this year’s Vuelta a España.

The route
Today’s stage is divided into two parts. Starting in Carboneras de Guadazaón, the first 100 km are relatively easy. A morning breakaway will be able to gain a solid gap on the peloton on this long stretch. Upon reaching the intermediate sprint in Teruel, the terrains gets hilly. Puerto de Cabigordo is the first categorized climb of the day. Due to several descents before the top, the 18 km are set to have an average gradient of just 3.8 %. In reality, the uphill sections are much steeper. A tail wind will accompany the peloton on this climb. 

The second intermediate sprint is located in Cedrillas with just over 50 km to go. At this point, the riders will be battling a headwind, meaning the peloton most likely will be able to take back a lot of time on the breakaway. Another important change is the weather. After struggling with extreme temperatures in Andalucía, the weather is now completely different. Rain is expected and the temperatures will be half of what we saw just a few days ago. Some riders will be definitely having a hard time adjusting to these new circumstances.

With 25 km to go, it’s time for the penultimate climb of the day. Alto de San Rafael is 11.5 km long and has an average gradient of 4.2 %. However, due to a few kilometers of flat, once again, the actual uphill gradients are much steeper. There are even a few parts of double digits gradients on the last part towards the top.

The finish
The ascent up to Aramón Valdelinares is 8 km long. On the contrary to the previous climbs today, the gradients are much steadier here. You can see a detailed profile of the climb by mousing over the profile at the top. The steepest part comes with 3 km to go. Here, Roberto Heras attacked when he won on the climb in 2005, the last time it was used in the Vuelta. After passing under the last-kilometer-banner, the road evens out in the big left-hand corner. There is even a short descent before the last few hundred meters kick up with about 2 %. In case the GC riders can’t drop each other, we might end up seeing a sprint finish.

The favorites
Due to the sudden change of weather, I’m sure one or two of the GC contenders will miss out today. There is no saying how the body will react after going from sunshine and 45°C to rain and down to 15°C. Furthermore, this is the first real mountain top finish of the race. It would be a surprise, if nobody had a bad day.

The way I see it, there are two top favorites for this stage. The first one is Chris Froome. He had a scare when he crashed on stage 7 but finished in a very strong way by gaining time on his rivals. Froome says he’s still far from his condition going into the Tour but don’t be fooled. He looks very trimmed and, so far, he’s been one of the strongest riders uphill. Don’t forget it was Froome who closed the gap to Giampaolo Caruso on stage 3 and again to Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez on stage 6. On a semi-flat finish like this one, Froome won’t be able to beat Valverde or Purito. Therefore, he has to attack on the steep part with 3 km to go if he wants to win. In Mikel Nieve, Chris Froome has one of the strongest domestiques in the mountains. I expect the Basque climber to be in the group of favorites when there are less than 10 riders left.

The biggest threat to Chris Froome is Alejandro Valverde. In La Zubia, Valverde did an amazing performance. Despite having to work hard on the steep gradients, Valverde was still the only rider able to follow Purito’s punchy attack. The Spaniard is probably the strongest one of the favorites right now. However, I’m sure he will fade towards the end of the race when Nairo Quintana, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador start to reach top level. This means that Valverde has to gain as much time as he can whenever possible. If Chris Froome puts down the hammer with 3 km to go, it will be difficult for Valverde to follow. However, if he can stay near Froome, he might end up winning the stage after all. Whenever Alejandro Valverde sees the finishing line, somehow, he finds extra energy to sprint. Nobody in the professional peloton has the same killer instinct.

Alberto Contador came to the Vuelta “hoping to win a stage in the last week”. It didn’t take long though, before it was clear to everybody that Contador would be a serious candidate for the overall win. Tinkoff-Saxo has used any given opportunity to try to gain time. Contador responded well on the short and steep finish on stage 6. Today is a different challenge and even though I doubt it, Alberto Contador may lack a little on the final climb.

The same goes for Nairo Quintana. Despite having Valverde working for him in La Zubia, the Colombian turned out to be the weaker one of the two Movistar riders. Still, it’s important to remember that Quintana started out this Vuelta with just five race days in his legs after winning the Giro d’Italia. It’s only to be expected that Nairo Quintana needs a little time before he flies in the mountains again.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, on the other hand, started out this Vuelta in tip-top condition after using the Tour de France and Clasica San Sebastian to fine-tune his shape. He made a mistake by attacking too early on stage 6, thinking that Valverde would be cooked after his impressive work. However, if Purito wants to win today, he needs to attack from afar again. This finish is far from ideal for him. He’s fast on the line but it will be difficult for him to outsprint Valverde on the flat. Luckily for Purito, he’s one of the few riders who knows this climb. In 2005, he finished 11th on the stage after Roberto Heras. He knows what to expect and where to put in his attack.

The outsiders
Given this is the first real mountain top finish, I think the GC riders want to fight for the win. This year’s Vuelta a España could very well be a matter of seconds. Therefore, the 10 bonus seconds on the line will be of huge importance, especially for riders like Alejandro Valverde who are fast in sprint. However, if a morning breakaway ends up making it all the way, look out for strong riders out of the general classification like Romain Sicard, Julian Arredondo, George Bennett, Louis Meintjes and Przemyslaw Niemiec. The Polish climber ost over two minutes in the cross wind on Saturday. He might be out for revenge today.

Amongst the GC riders, I think those with the best chance of taking a surprise stage win are Fabio Aru, Esteban Chaves and Sergio Pardilla.

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'Chris Froome to win.

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