BENIDORM, Spain (VN) — Race organizers did the climbing specialists a favor this year by placing a long, decisive individual time trial right in the middle of the three-week Vuelta a España that should see the mountains crown the overall winner on September 11 in Madrid.
Last year, the lone ITT was loaded in the back end of the race, in stage 17, with just one mountain stage left to go, and it proved disastrous to the climbers’ hopes of winning the Vuelta. Joaquim Rodriguez lost a whopping six minutes and fell out of podium contention. Peter Velits won the stage and ended up third on the podium while Vincenzo Nibali destroyed the GC field to take the wind out of the climbers’ sails and rode victorious into Madrid.
This year, the lone ITT comes in stage 10 on a rolling, 47km course favoring the specialists in Salamanca — but that doesn’t mean it won’t prove just as decisive.
“The time trial will be key, without a doubt,” said two-time Vuelta champion Denis Menchov, who has the most to gain by a long ITT. “I have to do it as well as possible and conserve the difference until the end. My objective is to mark differences in the time trial, the bigger the better, and then take stock of the situation. From then on, it will be a question of having good legs in the mountain stages still to come.”
Riders like Menchov, Bradley Wiggins and Nibali will want to make the most of Salamanca, because the remainder of the Vuelta offers plenty of terrain for climbers to make up lost time.
Four of the six summit finishes are slated after Salamanca, meaning it could be a race of attrition between the Menchovs of the peloton and the climbers, such as Igor Antón and Rodríguez.
“This year’s Vuelta is for the climbers,” said 2008 Tour de France champion Carlos Sastre, Menchov’s teammate on Geox-TMC. “There are not only the big mountains, but also smaller climbs that can be very explosive. It favors climbers greatly against the time trial specialists.”
For 2011, organizers have served up six mountaintop finishes, two of them in the first week before the Salamanca TT, for a total of 46 rated climbs in what they will hope will be epic racing up Sierra Nevada, the Anglirú and new climbs such as the Manzaneda in stage 11 and Farrapona in stage 14.
That number of six summit finishes is somewhat misleading, however. There are two more very steep hilltop finales — at Valdepeñas de Jaén in stage 5 and San Lorenzo de Escorial in stage 8 — that don’t officially rate as “summit finishes,” but pack a very steep punch. Each boasts ramps up to 20 percent and could provide attacking climbers with the chance to make small but important gains, especially with finish-line bonuses in the offing.
Bingen Fernandez, sport director at Garmin-Cervélo, said the long, 24km climb up Sierra Nevada in stage 4 should tell the peloton a lot about who has the potential to win the 2011 Vuelta.
“Sierra Nevada is a long, hard climb and it comes very early in the race. I believe it will greatly mark this Vuelta,” Fernández said. “Riders could lose a lot of time right off the bat that will be very hard to regain. It will show everyone very early who is capable of winning the race.”
The hilltop stages at Valdepeñas de Jaén in stage 5 and San Lorenzo de Escorial in stage 8 will be explosive finales where riders like Rodríguez and Antón can use their speed to chase time bonuses and stage victories before the second summit finish at La Covatilla in stage 9.
Last used in 2006, when Danilo Di Luca won, the Covatilla climb typically goes to stage-hunters while the GC riders cool their jets for the more grueling climbs waiting in the second half of the Vuelta.
The Vuelta’s new summit finishes — Manzaneda in stage 11 and Farrapona in stage 14 — are both on steep, narrow rough roads that can doom anyone with bad legs.
“Farrapona can really open up some differences,” said Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo, who often trains in the Asturias region of northern Spain. “It’s a deceptive climb, and is almost more dangerous than the Anglirú because it’s not so steep that riders can actually make attacks.”
It’s the return of the Anglirú — back in the Vuelta for the first time since Alberto Contador won in 2008 and its fifth arrival in race history — that has everyone talking. The brutally steep mountain road, with ramps as steep as 23 percent, can see horrible rainy weather.
Nibali has never raced up the fearsome climb, but said he expects the stage to prove decisive.
“I don’t know it, but my teammate (Valerio) Agnoli told me that it’s harder than the Mortirolo and the Zoncolan,” Nibali said. “That means it will be the hardest climb I’ve ever done, but I am not worried. We all have to go up there and it will be hard for everyone.”
Peña Cabarga, a short, but steep finale above Santander in stage 17, is the Vuelta’s final summit finish. From there, the race returns to Spain’s hilly Basque Country for the first time since 1978. Yet more climbs await the peloton for two days over the short, but steep hills of the Basque Country.
The Vuelta doesn’t get flat until the final stage, a sprint finish into Madrid.
Despite the presence of 46 rated climbs, everyone keeps pointing to Salamanca as the possible race spoiler. And there’s one man who’s on everyone’s list: Menchov.
“It will be a question of who can limit the damage in Salamanca. That day, we’ll see two spectacles, the battle of the TT specialists like Cancellara, Martin and Wiggins, and the climber’s fight for not losing too much time from each other,” said Vuelta technical director Abraham Olano. “The rider who can disturb the climbers the most is Denis Menchov.”