|Vuelta Espana Preview, Stages 5-8
Stage 5 is where the big boys come out to play. The stage is 198 km over rolling terrain that includes the climbs of the Cat 2 Alto de Berchules at 62.5 km and the Cat 3 Alto de Lanjaron at 117.5 km. The real kicker comes at the end of the stage, however, as the riders must ascend the legendary Special Category monster known as the Sierra Nevada. The climb starts gradually at 161 km, but kicks up sharply so that the riders will climb 1810 m in 37 km. The steepest parts of the climb are "only" 8%, not nearly as steep as the Angliru on Stage 15 which hits a steepness of 23.6% near the top. Still, the climb is relentless and steady over its 37 km; its length should combine with the heat to devastate the field. Like the climb up Mont Ventoux in the Tour de France, the Sierra Nevada will crush the hopes of more than a few riders. Huge amounts of time can be lost on a 37 km climb, so any weakness will prove extremely costly.
Look for the hardcore climbers to come to the fore on the Sierra Nevada. While some favorites will fall off the pace and be eliminated from contention, it is doubtful that one rider will be able to make a definitive attack so early in the race. Men like Heras and Rubiera (US Postal), Simoni (Saeco), Casagrande (Fassa Bortolo), Casero (Coast), Mercado and Mancebo (iBanesto), Sevilla and Botero (Kelme), Beloki (Once), Moller (Milaneza), and Garate (Lampre) will attack and counter-attack on the climb, feeling each other out while trying to cull the weak from the herd. None of the main contenders will want to attack too soon on the climb and risk bonking, and will likely wait until the last 10 km to begin to go after each other in earnest. This could provide some of the climbers who are not a threat in the GC a chance to get away and sneak a stage win. Men like Aitor Kintana (BigMat) and one of the Euskaltel-Euskadi boys might be able to hold off the leaders for final glory. More than likely, however, the leaders will swallow up any breakaways on such a long and relentless climb. Look for a small sprint of 2-5 leaders to challenge for the stage win, and look for the shape of the GC to radically change at the end of the day.
Stage 6 is another tough day in the mountains with an uphill finish. This 153.1 km stage starts in Grenada and hits the first climb of the Cat 3 Alto de las Encebras at 43 km. There is then a largely downhill rolling section until the beginning of the Cat 2 Puerto de los Villares, an 11 km climb that hits at the 129 km mark. After a moderate downslope of a few kilometers, the riders' respite ends as they must then tackle the Special Category Sierra de la Pander. This is the first time the Vuelta will go over this climb. The Sierra de la Pander is 8.3 km in length, and its lower slopes are the steepest. Within the first 500 meters of the climb it hits a steepness of 14%. It then gradually lessens in severity to a mere 5.5% at 2.4 km into the climb. It then kicks up sharply to 15% at two different points over the next 3 km. The last kilometer is the easiest, as it has a downhill section before a final 8% slope to the finish.
Those leaders who still have the legs after the previous stage will come to the front again to duke it out for both the stage win and the Gold Jersey. The steepness of the climb favors men like Heras, Simoni, and Sevilla, all pure climbers whose light frames give them an advantage on such short, sharp ascents. A breakaway winner is again a possibility, but it is more likely that the GC contenders will swallow up any breakaways in their battle for the Gold Jersey. Any men left in the top five on GC at the end of the day will be considered the favorites for the podium in Madrid.
Stage 7 will be a welcome relief for those riders whose bones aren't made of carbon fiber, as the stage covers a flat 196.8 km course from Jaen to Malaga. After suffering in the caboose during the previous two stages, the sprinters will again have a chance to take to the front for glory. Much will depend on what sprinters make it through the mountains: if Cipollini retires from the race in the mountains, for example, his Acqua e Sapone team will likely give up its efforts to control the flat stages. This would give long breakaways a much better chance to succeed. If all the big sprinters make it through the mountains, their teams will rule the day and keep the bunch together for a party at the finish line.
Even Cipollini, who is notorious for abandoning Grand Tours before the big mountain stages, will likely stick around to contest this flat stage. Look for Cipo, Zabel, and Freire to make it through the mountains of Stages 5 and 6 and battle it out for glory with the other sprinters. Then look for Cipo to pull out soon after to prepare for the World Championships in Zolder.
Stage 8 is an up and down 173.6 km from Malaga to Ubrique. This course may not suit the sprinters as it takes in three categorized climbs. The first climb, the Cat 2 Puerto de las Abejas, hits the riders at 58 km; the second climb is the Cat 3 Puerto del Viento at 79 km. There is then a large downhill and flat section of 40 km that will likely see a regrouping before the 11km climb of the Cat 1 Puerto de las Palomas. This climb contains grades as steep as 10% that should decimate the peloton; it is followed by a 33.6 km descent which may be enough for the sprinters' teams to reorganize the peloton and force a bunch sprint. A strong breakaway move might be able to make it to the line if they get enough time over the climb. If there is a bunch sprint, it is likely that only the sprinters with climbing legs like Zabel and Edo will still be around to take the stage.