A game-changing time trial
Up until now, most of the GC race has been limited to the similar kind of short, steep summit finishes, with the same riders usually coming to the fore.
So we can expect a drastic shake-up in the overall classification when the contenders are tested for their ability against the clock in Tuesday’s time trial stage.
Looking at past performances, the current red jersey Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and the rider widely considered to be his main rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) look evenly-matched. Yates might have posted a time 1-29 slower than Quintana when the pair met at the 2016 Vuelta, but has since improved his technique, reflected by his getting the better of the Colombian by eight seconds at the Tour de France time trial last year, and again by just one second in this Vuelta’s Malaga-set opening stage.
Their rival Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) looks set for an expensive day, having lost a 1-10 to Yates at the third week Giro d’Italia time trial earlier this season, and six seconds to him over the course of just 8km in the Vuelta’s opener.
Perhaps the rider we should really be looking out for is Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde. The Spaniard is second overall, and was the quickest of all the current top eight in Malaga – if he gains time at roughly the same second-per-kilometre rate as that day, he’ll get very close to prizing the jersey from Yates.
More steep summit finishes
If there’s one thing the Vuelta has a surplus of, it’s uphill finishes, and the final week includes another two prior to the queen stage on Saturday.
First up is the Balcon de Bizkaia on stage 17, a climb that starts off reasonable enough but ultimately feels like a typical Vuelta summit with double-digit gradient towards the top, including one stretch that exceeds 20 per cent.
Then on Friday’s stage 19 the riders must face the Col de la Rabassa. This climb is uncharacteristic for the Vuelta in the sense that it isn’t especially steep but is very long, meaning riders who aren’t so adept at making lengthy, sustained efforts could see themselves dropped at some point during its 17km.
Neither stage is anything like as difficult as what awaits the riders on stage 20, but will provide the chance for the favourites to attack each other, and for anyone who might have lost time in the time trial to recoup it.
The queen stage
Stage 20 is the monstrous day that this entire Vuelta has been building up towards.
Whereas most GC stages have basically boiled down to just a few kilometres at the top of a summit finish, this Andorran stage packs in a whole six climbs, including three category one-ranked efforts and a finish atop the fearsome Coll de la Gallina
At just 106km, it will be explosive too, with the potential for long-range attacks and total carnage right from the off.
The signs are that the top of the GC will remain very tight, which means we could be in for potentially classic stage which will determine the outcome of the race in spectacular, unpredictable fashion.
Two more chances for the sprinters
After the make-up of the last three stages, it’s easier to forget about the presence of sprinters in the race.
They will have spent much of the last three days in the gruppetto, out of sight from any television cameras, and preserving as much energy as possible while ensuring they arrive before the time limit.
For their efforts, two stages remain in which they can compete for victory in – stage 18, which the organisers have very generously opted not to include a single categorised climb, and the stage 21 finale in Madrid, which is virtually guaranteed to end in a bunch finish.
The most successful sprinter of the race so far, Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) has survived the mountains and will be confident of adding to his tally, especially as the only other winner of sprint to far, Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) has gone home.
But the Italian will face competition from the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott).
Movistar and their two-pronged attack
The team currently in the greatest position of strength is Movistar, who have Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana placed second and third on the GC, just 26 and 33 seconds behind Simon Yates respectively.
The significant tactical advantage means that, from this point, anything less than one of the pair winning the red jersey will be considered a bitter disappointment.
Their exact strategy will depend on outcome of Tuesday’s time trial – specifically, which rider comes out of it better-placed, and whether either of them gain the red jersey from Yates after it.
If one of the pair gains the red jersey, it could be up to the other to protect him and defend him from any attacks. If Yates retains the jersey, both will be obliged to attack him in tandem, potentially sacrificing their own ambitions in order to wear Yates down enough so that the other can win the race.
Neither Quintana nor Valverde will not want a repeat of the 2015 Tour de France, when they finished second and third respectively after proving incapable of using their numerical advantage to land a killer blow against the winner Chris Froome.
Can Simon Yates hold on this time?
The dominant narrative of the final week is likely to be whether or not Simon Yates can avoid a similar late capitulation that brought an end to his pink jersey dreams at the Giro d’Italia earlier in the season.
It’s a topic Yates will no doubt not want to spend too much time thinking about, but will be one that the press will inevitably raise over and over again as he inches closer to victory.
His tactics throughout the Vuelta have still been aggressive, but not quite as gung-ho as at the Giro – whereas he attacked relentlessly while in the pink jersey, he was by contrast happy to give away the red jersey for a couple of days earlier this week.
Yates will be hoping that he can benefit from that more restrained approach, and stay strong enough through the final week to seal overall victory.