Despite no change to the general classification on Stage 14, Jumbo-Visma’s Roglic clings on to the red leader’s jersey by just 39 seconds while Ineos’ Carapaz and EF Pro Cycling’s Carthy lurk behind.
If the leader's battle continues past the hilly profiles of Stages 15 and 16, the race will go down to the wire for the third and final Grand Tour of the year on the brutal mountains of Stage 17 which features a "special category" summit finish to a ski resort.
Stage 15, Etapa Mos - Puebla de Sanabria
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The longest day of the Vuelta at 230.8km and a painful 4000m of climbing awaits. The stage has five category three climbs, and a lot more uncategorised lumps in between, leaving no room for any flat road which will make it tough battle for the peloton to control breakaway groups.
Not only is it hilly, but the road winds around mountain passes and tunnels which teeter around the edge of Portugal -- where the race was supposed to venture to pre-COVID-19 -- and an intermediate sprint at 177km.
Puebla de Sanabria last featured in Stage 7 of the 2016 Vuelta, but route makers would surely hope placing it among tired legs will throw the cat among the pigeons.
Like Stage 14, the gradient in the final kilometre increases for an uphill finish so if the leaders haven’t shaken off any stragglers by then, it could go down to a sprint finish once again.
Stage 16, Etapa Salamanca - Ciudad Rodrigo
Edging closer towards Madrid, it’s a shorter 160km stage, but shorter doesn’t mean easier. Starting at around 800m up from sea level, the day is undulating for the first 50km before a twisty descent roughly spanning 10km.
With more hairpins and windy roads to come, the first climb goes up the Puerto El Portillo, a category 2 with a number of belting hairpins. After that it’s straight down and back up the category 1 El Robledo just 30km from the finish. The final climb spans 11km with a maximum gradient of 12%.
For those who have made it to the front after 130km by then, it could prove to be a cruel test if the weather doesn’t play ball, but mostly it will be a day for the GC contenders to concentrate, limit any potential damage and make it through another day maintaining their close gaps before the mountains.
Stage 17, Etapa Sequeros - Alto de La Covatilla
Mountains. But not only that, the route has more twists and turns than the year 2020 has thrown up so far.
Anyone who sat back on Stage 16 won’t have anywhere to hide today. It’s a 178.2km day with a mixture of categorised climbs including a “special category” summit finish which looks so hard it it’s numerical rating must be a -2.
The Alto de la Covatilla summit finish in the ski resort is a 10km slog with an average gradient of 7%, and almost 2,000m above sea level. Dan Martin won here on Stage 9 of the 2011 Vuelta.
If the race hasn’t been decided before this point, then GC contenders will have to empty whatever their legs have left and more at these mountain passes.
The category 1 Puerto del Portillo de las Batuecas starts just 39km into the stage and goes on up some more belting hairpins for 10km with a 7% maximum gradient. The smooth decent flows over the three category 3s until the remaining category 2 starts at 140km, and then the real struggle to the ski resort begins.
Stage 18, Etapa Hipódromo de La Zarzuela – Madrid
By now La Roja should have been decided. All that’s left is a flat 124.2km final jaunt around Madrid which is likely to be mostly processional, with a slow pace estimated by organisers, but it will serve up a cracking sprint finish for one last hurrah.
Since Primoz Roglic, Richard Carapaz and Hugh Carthy are all climbers -- with Carapaz probably favouring the longer gradual, Roglic the tricky and sharp, and Carthy more than experienced on the finest bergs of Lancashire (which are short and sharp, always feature T-junctions at the bottom of descents and sweeping corners naturally come with hidden by standing folks of escapee sheep).
If mechanical fortune favours the trio, Stages 15-17’s hills and mountains could rely once again on team tactics and lead-out men to make all the difference.
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