Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Vuelta al Pais Vasco: Alto de la Lejana

There are no 'mountain stages' in this years Tour of the Basque country, but don't be fooled - the terrain in this area is undulating, up and down with rarely a flat road to break up the constant slog needed to sustain race pace here. Tomorrows stage does have a summit finish though (as does stage 4) and if the racebook tells a story of tame slopes, then the Alto de la Lejana says something completely different...

The 156km stage features four other categorised climbs (and plenty of uncategorised ones) before  reaching the foot of the Alto de la Lejana. The official race profile marks this as a 5.74% climb but that doesn't really tell the full story and if riders havnt had a chance to do their recon work here, then they could be caught out.

The climb itself is actually quite short in length - at 7.4km it isn't exactly alpine - but it is long enough for the better climbers to put in a sustained attack and maybe snatch a few seconds from their rivals ahead of tomorrows slightly larger summit finish which is likely to decide the race.
Of the first half of the climb 2.5 kilometres of it average a respectable 7.3% already well ahead of the advertised 5.7% and its gradients like this which often present a springboard for the Contadors of this world - those who prefer a relatively constant-just-hard-enough gradient to attack and produce some splits within the leading group and maybe shed a few of the weaker climbers who might have been productive in a short sharp sprint to the finish. The problem with this method is that Richie Portes Sky team are likely to start the climb with at least a couple of strong domestiques at the front and shedding the likes of Kiryienka and Sergio Henao within the 7km climb is close to impossible, let alone within the first 3km of the climb.
But that still isn't the full story of the climb, because whilst the mid-section may level out slightly there is a whole different horror still to come. The final 475 metres of the climb really ramp up, averaging a lung busting 21% gradient. This is where the next wave of attacks is likely as those who prefer the real steep stuff try to kick all the way to the finish. A finish designed for Joaquim Rodriguez? Yes - but he isn't here. Instead look for other explosive climbers - if I could pick out one rider who is likely to make their move here is would be the inform Nairo Quintana of Movistar - the young Colombian is a phenomenal climber, even on the long steady gradients but he possesses a kick that few others have when the road really starts to point skywards. Indeed the absence of Rodriguez may make this finish slightly more interesting.
A stage for Quintana?
So a likely winner then? well one thing I can guarantee is that Alberto Contador will attack - it's his nature and he's familiar with these roads having won the race twice before. He will need to go early as he is often out sprinted on the steeper sections but this presents it's own problems in the form of the inevitable Sky chase-down. It will be difficult to ride away and stay away and its already becoming a recurring theme so far this season. Look out for Sammy Sanchez and Igor Anton as they try to perform in their home region, and note that Sanchez has lost a little time on the favourites so will be looking to claw that back somewhere. Philippe Gilbert is riding and this sort of finish suits his strengths if he manages to stay in the leading group but in his current form it's a big ask. I can't really see past Quintana for this stage and if I was pushed to place a bet it would be on him - just another note though: Richie Porte jumped away from the bunch on the latter part of a climb in Corsica last week with supreme power and menace - leaving them all for dead, almost catching race winner and team-mate Chris Froome by the finish. He's in phenomenal shape and I wouldn't count him out here either...

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