Vuelta a Espana 2017: Stage 9 Preview

Despite being billed as the ‘GC riders return’, it was in fact the breakaway that once again stole stage honours. Julian Alaphilippe defied his breakaway compatriots in the finale, a well timed sprint ensuring the win. Tomorrow sees the riders head back into the mountains, this time with a steep summit finish on the menu…

Alaphilippe rounds the final corner in poll position, taking the stage win and furthering Quickstep’s impressive tally. CREDIT: Quickstep

Stage Eight Review

The day started under dark skies for the Sunweb team, reports that Warren Barguil had been axed from the race running rife through the peloton. The young Frenchman had been asked to leave by Sunweb’s management after not following instructions to protect Wilco Kelderman on the previous stage, polarising both riders and fans.

The breakaway took a while to form, but after the 35km mark, 21 riders finally managed to snap the elastic. Among the selection were a few elite riders, Julian Alaphilippe, Rafal Majka and Jan Polanc, all eager to snatch a stage win.

With the profile rolling all the way until the final climb, the peloton were expected to pull back the escapees; but a lack of cooperation between Sky, Trek and Orica soon saw the move out front gain traction.

As the escape group neared the Alto Xorret de Cati, Majka put two of his teammates also in the breakaway to the front of the group. They set a ferocious pace on the steep lower slopes, dropping all but Julian Alaphilippe. The Frenchman, alongside Majka, rode ahead as the peloton renewed their chase behind.

Contador sets the race alight with a surging attack on the Alto Xorret de Cati. CREDIT: BettiniPhoto

Jan Polanc yo-yoed off the back of the pair, every time he caught back on, Majka would put in another surging acceleration to drop him. In the peloton behind, it was Contador who lit the GC battle a flame, Chris Froome proving to be the only rider who could follow.

The two went off in tandem up the ascent, Froome periodically dropping Contador near the summit. On the descent, the stage racing giants soon came back together and worked well to extend their gap on the riders behind.

Out front, Polanc managed to catch Majka and Alaphilippe as they went under the flamme rouge, the two caught napping as they decided who would lead out the sprint. With the Slovenian carrying through the most momentum, he assumed the role and lead out the sprint.

In the end it was no contest, Alaphilippe took the shortest line through the corner and came out the other side with tens of bike lengths on the two behind. The Quickstep rider took their 13th GT stage victory of the year, furthering their impressive stat of winning 26% of grand tour stages this year…

Froome and Contador gain time on the rest of the GC opposition behind. CREDIT: Trek Segafredo

Chaves, Van Garderen, De la Cruz, Nibali, Aru and Bardet all lost time on Froome and Contador; an extremely successful day for the former enemies turned mutual friends.

Stage Nine Preview

It was billed as the return of the ‘GC riders’ taking the stage win, but didn’t quite deliver, will tomorrow be any different? The climb is arguably harder, and with a fierce headwind blowing through the Alicante area, can a breakaway really snatch another stage win?

The Route: Torrevieja –> Cumbre del Sol (176.3km)

Stage 9 Profile. CREDIT: CyclingStage.com

A very tame start to an otherwise GC defining stage, tomorrow will undoubtedly see a nervy peloton traverse the Costa Blanca coastline.

Until the 130th kilometre, the road ceases to rise up and a breakaway will struggle to really escape from the grasps of the peloton behind. Added to that a 10pmh headwind for much of the day, only the real rouleurs of the bunch will be able to eek out a sizeable enough gap.

Added to the headwind conditions the riders will face, they’ll also suffer some strong onshore winds from the coast that they’ll follow for the majority of the route. They shouldn’t disrupt the race too much, but the risk of a few gusts on more exposed sections could potentially cause a few splits.

Stage 9 hugs the Costa Blanca coastline all the way to Cumbre del Sol. CREDIT: CyclingStage.com

The first climb of the day is ascended with only 45km of the stage remaining, a 3.5km ascent of the Alto de Puig Llorença that will also be climbed once again just before the finish. The average gradients reach 9.1% but ramps of 21% will surely have many riders spinning on the little ring.

If the first ascent of the Alto doesn’t shatter the race, the second surely will. Riders will take a circular route around the Cumbre del Sol before ascending for a second time, a 1km longer test that will take the race to an even further height.

A tough, grueling climb to cap off an otherwise tame day in the saddle. CREDIT: CyclingStage.com

The extra kilometre isn’t as steep as the lower slopes, but the distance covered combined with the fatigue from the previous climb will inevitably put riders through hell.

This is the infamous ascent from the 2015 Vuelta a Espana where Tom Dumoulin came back from a searing Chris Froome attack to take the stage win and red jersey. Whilst we may not be treated to a similar leader’s usurption tomorrow, we could certainly see a rider, previously thought of as down and out for the count, re-surge and take the stage…

Time for a wholly GC showdown?

Aside from stage 3’s scuffle for the stage win, we haven’t had a chance to see the GC contenders battle it out for an illusive stage win and healthy 10 second time bonus. Tomorrow could finally be the day we see a GC rider raise his arms aloft…

Team Sky evidently aren’t motivated to chase any breakaway group, they’re sitting quite content in the knowledge that Froome is on a stellar period of form, the 10 second time bonus of a stage win a mere consolation prize at this moment in time.

Orica, on the other hand, have surprised in the fact that they haven’t commited to chasing many breakaways, rather leaving it to the escape to claim stage honours. They have the firepower, but have yet to really set the race alight. Tomorrow could possibly see them ride to expectations; with Chaves losing vital seconds on today’s stage, they need to cater to his strengths and try and put him into a stage winning position.

It’s all on Orica tomorrow. CREDIT: Tim de Waele

Trek may be a potential ally of Orica tomorrow; with Contador clearly going well, the American team will be eager to grab a stage victory whilst they can.

With Sky, Trek and Orica all pulling on the front a breakaway would stand little chance, especially with the fierce headwind and steep double ascent of the Alto de Puig Llorença. To get into tomorrow’s escape will require a big engine, but the finish something entirely different. The two simply aren’t compatible and therefore leads to a breakaway victory tomorrow being highly unlikely.

However, the first ascent of the Alto de Puig Llorença could just be the potential launchpad that some of the escape opportunists need to jump away. Double figure gradients will require some resilient climbing legs; if the pace is too strong by this point, not even the purest climber will be able to force a gap.

Expect a showdown between the giants of the sport, pure climbers up against thoroughbred TTers turned GC riders, who will come out on top?

The Contenders

With a GC battle on the slopes of the Alto de Puig Llorença looking likely, the real question is, which of the three big climbing talents of this race will snatch the stage win? Chris Froome is evidently the strongest rider in this race, riding away from nearly all of his competitors on every available chance in this race.

Froome goes into tomorrow’s stage as the main favourite, no surprise after today’s climbing performance. CREDIT: Naszosie

The rumour of Froome staggering his from until this race is clearly true, this is the strongest that we’ve seen him all year. After failing to take a stage on the way to his fourth Tour de France victory, he certainly won’t want to finish his Vuelta jersey in Madrid without a handful; he’s here for some sort of stage winning redemption, and he looks certain to claim one…

With the likes of Poels, Nieve and Moscon to call on, the Brit won’t be short of team support tomorrow. He’ll ask for a fierce pace on the lower slopes of the climb, high enough to shed the GC contenders out of position. From there, it’s all up to Froome, he holds the power in this race and will ultimately decide the stage victor tomorrow.

The only rider to keep pace with Froome on today’s final climb was Alberto Contador, the Trek rider finding some kind of resurgent form after a disastorous first couple of stages. We’re into ‘El Pistolero’s’ favoured terrain, 21% gradients his bread and butter.

His team have been effective at placing him into the perfect positions recently, right at the front of the bunch before the steepest sections. He’ll need similar support tomorrow if he’s to launch one of his trademark moves, getting stuck behind a split would be curtains for his chances.

Contador will not bow out without a fight, this Vuelta is his final battle and he will fight to the death. CREDIT: CyclingWeekly

Will Froome chase the Spaniard? He’s not exactly a threat to the overall standings, at this moment in time, and Froome may just choose to lean on his competitors to take up the chase. That being said, Froome has made it clear that the pair have reached a mutual alliance in this race; working together to advance their positions in the overall.

Esteban Chaves is the rider that both of them will be looking to punish tomorrow, he’s Froome’s closest challenger to the red jersey and the rider Contador needs off the provisional podium. This is a perfect finish for the Colombian, but after showing some clear fatigue on today’s steep final climb, does he still possess the form to pull off a stage win?

He has the team to conquer such a task, the Yates twins and Jack Haig proving to be vital lieutenants over the past couple of stages. All of them could realistically win tomorrow, but with a vital 10 second time bonus on offer, Orica will ride 100% for Chaves.

Aside from the three main favourites, a number of other GC contenders could possibly challenge tomorrow. Michael Woods is having the GC race of his life, climbing with some of the strongest climbers in the world to defend his top ten position day in, day out.

The Canadian is slowly shadowing his way to his best ever GC result. CREDIT: CorVos

The Canadian usually prefers a short punchy climb to sprint up, but with his current form, is there any limit to his capabilities? The summit of tomorrow’s finish flattens slightly and gives one last chance for distanced riders to sprint for the stage win, could this be Woods’ chance?

Romain Bardet, Ilnur Zakarin and Fabio Aru are all clinging onto this race by the skin of their teeth and look visibly fatigued. Their big fight tomorrow will be simply trying to stick to the wheels ahead of them…

Whilst the day looks likely to be taken by one of the big GC contenders, it is possible that a breakaway or late attack gains traction and comes to the finish with just enough time to reap the grand rewards. John Darwin Atapuma and Rafal Majka are two potential break candidates that could just survive a fierce GC chase behind.

Will Majka be strong enough to manage two mountain breakaways in just as many days? CREDIT: BettiniPhoto

Atapuma is on the hunt for mountain points, and Majka to simply salvage something from this race after tumbling far down the GC early on. A tandem attack up the final climb may just see the pair beat the GC competition and make it another win for the breakaway…

Race Prediction

The early break will be flooded with some strong engines and big rouleurs, eager to reach the final climb with just enough time to catch the GC riders out once again.

Unfortunately, they’ll face an onslaught from Orica, Trek and Sky, all three teams eager to pull them back for the mountainous final 40km.

The first ascent of the Alto de Puig Llorença will see a fierce pace set from the big teams, eager to shed the domestiques and second tier GC riders. As the race hits the steepest percentages, the race will slow and give the opportunists a chance to breakaway.

Atapuma to ride away from the competition on the first ascent and hold on until the finish. CREDIT: Rouleur.cc

One of these riders looking to make moves on the first passage will be John Darwin Atapuma. The little Colombian has his eyes set on the KOM competition and needs to start taking points if he is to challenge David Villella.

Despite his crashes early in the race, Atapuma is flying in terms of form and is due a big win.

I could have played it safe and gone for the strongest man in the race, but where’s the fun in that…

Who do you think will take tomorrow’s stage? Agree with our prediction? If you enjoyed this stage preview, make sure you’re following InsideThePeloton on Twitter for all further updates on this year’s Vuelta! Any feedback, as always, is greatly appreciated…