The last of three mountain stages in a row and the biggest of the trinity with the Cuitu Nigru finish which has never been used before. It has been surfaced just in time for the race but this will hardly help as riders winch their way up slopes reaching 22% to finish the Queen Stage of the 2012 Vuelta.
After this comes the rest day and there is only one more big mountain stage. Can Alberto Contador find a way to beat Joaquim Rodriguez?
The Route: the three mountains stand out like beats on an electrocardiogram. The Alto de la Cabruñana is only 4.4km at 5.7% but later we have three first category climbs. The Puerto de San Lorenzo, a full 10km at 8.5% meaning it is suited to the pure climbers. Next the Alto de la Cobertoria at 8km at 8.6%, again for the climbers. Neither is Alpine in length but they are steep, the Tour de France climbs tend to average more 7%.
The Finish: the riders ascend the Puerto de Pajares which they descended on Sunday. If there is almost 20km of climbing to the finish at 6.9%, the Puerto de Pajares is tough and will wear the riders down.
But once the riders cross the pass, no descent awaits. Instead there are five more kilometres to go to the Cuitu Negru finish, also known as Cuitu Nigru. They turn turn onto what was once a track for the climb to the finish and, for the last three kilometres face a savage finish with a road that reaches 22% in places.
The profile for the final 5km doesn’t do it justice, specially the last 3km. Pundits have tried to ride the climb but ended up walking… although it has since been surfaced. There are frequent sections of 15% along the way and if the road looks like it eases in the last kilometre, it’s all relative. The final 600m has slopes that vary between 17% and 3%, riders must explore the frontier between power and momentum as well as the borderline between aerobic pace and anaerobic accelerations. Kick out of the saddle at one point and you could blow when the slope ramps up. It seems designed for Joaquim Rodriguez.
The Scenario: once more it’s hard to see beyond Rodriguez. He’s climbing well and can survey the attacks of others, calculating his efforts on the others. If a break went yesterday, today I think Saxo Bank-Tinkoff will set the pace and help chase it down. Today could be for Alberto Contador and his team. They can set a tough pace over the climbs from early on because if Rodriguez can cope with short accelerations and anaerobia, he’s probably less at ease when it comes to holding a high tempo for long time and long range efforts. Yes, he can sit in but can he attack if his legs are blunt from an hour of riding at threshold?
Elsewhere our quartet is now a trio as Chris Froome has dropped back although at 30 seconds off Alejandro Valverde, it’s not over yet even if Froome must know his legs aren’t quite right. The big question is whether Contador can overhaul Rodriguez. Prior to the race the talk was of how big Contador’s margin would be, now we wonder if he can close a 22 second deficit?
Weather: break out the arm warmers as temperatures reach a cool 17°C (62°F) with only a light breeze. Unlike the Alps or Pyrenees no great altitude is reached so if the top of the passes are cooler, they are not glacial.
TV: again it’s possible video begins at 3.00pm Euro time but it’s certain from 4.00pm onwards. Tune in early to watch the attrition as teams try to wear down the opposition on the early climbs.
Queen Stage: the term is used to describe the biggest mountain stage during a stage race. Why not “king stage”? Well it is because of the French were the word for a stage is étape. All nouns have gender in French, either masculine or feminine, and étape is feminine so it is paired with the adjective reine or queen to make étape reine or queen stage. The same holds true in Spanish and today’s stage is the etapa reina.
In English perhaps the formal translation would be “king stage” as king is often used to suggest the biggest, as in king-size.