Andrew Hood—The 68th Vuelta a España is coming down to the wire.
After a wild ride into Burgos, Spain, in Wednesday’s 17th stage, the general classification is knotted up going into three final, decisive climbing stages. Race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana), known as the “Shark of Messina,” is showing chinks in his armor, and his rivals can smell blood in the water. Anything can happen.
“They are all very close: [Chris] Horner, [Alejandro] Valverde, [Joaquim] Rodríguez. It’s not going to be easy,” Nibali said Wednesday. “We are ready for the fight. The rest day came at a good moment. I hope the legs respond when they have to.”
Three climbing stages stacked up across the rugged mountains of northern Spain will decide everything. Three summits—Peña Cabarga, Naranco and the fearsome Anglirú—will prove judge and executioner in the season’s third grand tour.
No one rider is dominating the race, and that means that anyone within striking distance can still print his name on the list of winners at the season’s final grand tour.
Horner (RadioShack-Leopard) is on the form of his life, showing the best climbing legs of his long career, threatening Nibali at just 28 seconds back. Valverde (Movistar) and Rodríguez (Katusha) are each within striking distance, at 1:14 and 2:29, respectively.
“These final climbs are all very explosive. The fatigue of the race, and of the season, are costing everyone,” Rodríguez said. “This Vuelta is far from over. Just like we saw last year, things can change very fast.”
Nibali is hoping to weather the storm. The Italian faltered Monday up Formigal, showing some cracks that his rivals hope to push wide open.
“Seeing Nibali weaker, even though we know he is strong, gives us all a little more hope,” Valverde said. “We all have our limits, we will see what happens. We know it’s going to be difficult, but the options to win this Vuelta are still there. We’re going to try.”
Horner is the most dangerous and the best poised to challenge Nibali.
The 41-year-old was attentive in crosswinds Wednesday, counting on teammate Fabian Cancellara, who will leave the Vuelta tomorrow, to help keep him out of trouble.
Horner has been consistently strong and aggressive throughout the Vuelta, attacking to win two stages, and keeping Nibali on a short leash.
With three very different stage profiles to wrap up this Vuelta, it will be interesting to see how the tactics play out. Each of the three summit finales requires a different style of racing, but at the end of the day, whoever has the legs will come out on top.
Horner believes if he can be as consistent as he’s been since the race’s depart in Galicia, this Vuelta could be his.
“The legs are good. If someone has a bad moment, anything can happen. I just hope it’s not me who has the bad moment,” Horner said. “If Nibali struggles, I will try to win the Vuelta.”
Horner’s consistency over nearly three weeks of racing has surprised just about everyone. Wednesday’s stage winner Bauke Mollema (Belkin) said when Horner declared at the start of the Vuelta he was racing for the podium, the Dutch team took him at his word.
“Everyone is surprised that a 41-year-old can fight for victory in a grand tour,” Mollema said. “Chris is a special guy. He’s racing fewer days than most of us, but when he races, he’s always good. When he said he was racing for the podium, those of us on the team thought for sure he was good. And he’s been showing it every day.”
Horner has been a touch better than Nibali in all the decisive climbing stages. In Sierra Nevada, when he won his second stage, he dropped everyone. Horner attacked again in Andorra, and Nibali had to give everything he had just to stay on his wheel.
On Tuesday, Astana director Giuseppe Martinelli admitted that Nibali was producing less power—about 20 watts less than his max during the Giro d’Italia in May—meaning that the door is open for someone hitting a good day.
It will also be tricky for Nibali to keep on top of the tactics. Despite counting on a strong team, he knows that he cannot just mark Horner and let Valverde ride away. Or Rodríguez, or even Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), who climbed into fifth overall, at 3:43, after bouncing ahead of Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) in the crosswinds Wednesday.
Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang said he believes Nibali will have the legs to win.
“Vincenzo is getting stronger as the Vuelta unfolds. The rest day came at a good moment. After the heat, then cold, then heat again, I think it affected everyone,” Fuglsang told VeloNews. “The last three stages are hard. Everyone is on the limit. Vincenzo knows how to manage his efforts. Someone will have to be strong to beat him.”
Nibali looked to take control of the Vuelta in the time trial stage last Wednesday, carrying a commanding 50-second lead into three weekend stages in the Pyrénées. The Sicilian cracked on the final run up to Formigal in what was considered the easiest of the three climbing stages, allowing Horner, Valverde, and Rodríguez to claw closer and revive their GC hopes.
“The differences are very small, and it’s going to be a real battle. The four of us are going to be fighting for it all,” Valverde said. “Horner lost some time in the time trial, but he’s been climbing better than Nibali. Maybe (Horner) is the most dangerous rival for Nibali.”
For Rodríguez, he knows he has the smallest chance of winning out of the leading four, and his first priority will be to try to scrap his way onto the final podium.
“I have to attack, and the others have to struggle. We’ve all had a bad day, except Horner,” Rodríguez said. “The others can mark each other, but at some point, they will have to attack Nibali if they want to win. We will all be watching each other.”
Of the three remaining climbs, two—Peña Cabarga Thursday and the Anglirú on Saturday—are new-generation climbs that are steep almost beyond measure, with the Anglirú hitting 26-percent gradient. Friday’s climb up Naranco is not the steepest climb going, with an average grade of 4.2 percent over 6km, but it’s the kind of stage that can catch riders out if they cannot keep the high pace of what will likely be a reduced group of GC favorites railing it to the line.
Thursday’s summit finale up Peña Cabarga, at 9.2 percent for 5.9km with maximum ramps of 20 percent, is perhaps the climb that least favors Horner. Riders such as Valverde and Rodríguez have more explosiveness, and will be on the hunt for stage wins and time bonuses.
Peña Cabarga is where Chris Froome (Sky) and eventual winner Juanjo Cobo (Movistar) went toe-to-toe in the final struggle for the GC in 2011. Cobo won that year’s Vuelta, but has since faded into oblivion, and was not even picked to start this Vuelta after a dismal Giro.
The hilly terrain in Cantabria, including some steep climbs early in the stage, will create maximum tension coming into the finale. One mistake can prove fatal to anyone’s GC aspirations.
Friday’s stage detours around some of the steeper climbs as the Vuelta probes into Asturias, perhaps opening the door for a breakaway to stay clear to the line.
Saturday’s short, but potentially race-breaking, stage could well decide everything. The 142.2km stage hits three climbs, including the Cat. 1 Alto de Cordal with 20km to go, before tackling the fearsome Anglirú.
With an average grade of 10.2 percent, and ramps as steep as 23.5 percent, the 12.2km monster is so steep that most riders start on gearing more attune with mountain biking.
“The Anglirú is treacherous,” Rodríguez said. “One mistake, and you can lose a lot of time. It’s a long climb. It’s the third week. The ramps are demanding. Uffff! What lies ahead!”
What lies ahead, indeed.
UPDATE (12:01pm EDT): Horner finished 6th on today's Stage 18 from Burgos to Peña Cabarga, 25 seconds ahead of Nibali's 10th. That puts him only 3 seconds back from the Italian—and the race lead—going into Friday's crucial stage. Nibali said of Horner's late-stage attack, “The rhythm he was setting up the climb was too hard for me, so I tried to limit the damage. With tomorrow and Saturday for Anglirú, Horner is set up to win this Vuelta.”