Thankfully, the riders get a rest day after their climb up to Angliru. The race resumes with Stage 16, a 154.7 km day on uneven terrain between Aviles and Leon. The start in Aviles is on the northern border of Spain, and the riders head due south where they will encounter the Cat 3 Alto de San Tirso at 42 km. They then begin the slow ascent up the Cat 1 Puerto de Pajares, a leg-breaking climb that begins at 75 km. The climb is 13.6 km long, and begins with the moderate grade of 6.5-7.5% for the first 4 km. Then the riders hit a couple of patches that go as high as 13% before levelling off to a mere 2.5-3.5% at 7 km. At 8 km the road begins to pitch skyward again, with the grade getting steadily steeper until the 17% grade near the top.
While the Puerto de Pajares will break the peloton to pieces, there are still 65.7 km for the race to regroup before the finish. While the GC contenders will have to remain vigilent, the day will likely come down to another contest between the low-placed opportunists and the sprinters. Look for Telekom and the rest of the sprinters' teams to come to the front and launch their fast men at the line in Leon.
Stage 17 will be dangerous for the GC contenders, as the first half of the race is flat (with a slight downhill grade) and heads south from Benavente near the ocean. High winds could well wreak havoc in the field, breaking it into echelons and leading to time gaps that could ruin the aspirations of an inattentive or unlucky rider. In the second half of the course the roads become more rolling and difficult as the riders make their way to Salamanca. This stage will likely end in a bunch sprint, but the real question is, who will be left in the bunch to contest the sprint? Will the leaders find the road to Salamanca an easy day of rest and recuperation, or a hellish day of fighting for position under treacherous conditions?
Stage 18 is another crucial mountain test for the GC leaders. As the race for the Gold Jersey comes into the final days, the four categorized climbs between Salamanca and Estación de Esquí La Covatilla could well decide the fate of many podium aspirations. The first 101 km of the 193.7 km course are flat and slightly downhill, with high winds again a possible danger facing the peloton. At 106.9 km the riders face the first big test of the day, the Cat 1 Puerto de Honduras. The climb is 9.1 km long with the steepest grade of 10% coming in the first kilometer. The top half of the climb is a steady grind between 5-7%, and this climb should see the attack of some low-placed climbers out for a stage win. After the climb there is a long descent heading up to the Cat 2 Solana de Avila at 143 km. This is immediately followed by the Cat 2 Puerto de Tremedal, which crests at 168 km.
The leaders will likely mark each other until the final climb, the Special Category Estación de Esquí La Covatilla, a 9.5 km climb that starts at the 183.5 km mark. The gradient changes often as the riders twist their way up the mountain, with several sections just over 10%. This day could be crucial for the GC contenders, as this is the last big uphill finish and the last real chance to attack before the final time trial. However, look for the stage win to go to a low-placed climber who breaks away on one of the earlier climbs and holds off the leaders to the finish.