The colossal Alto de Velefique concludes the first week of racing at the 2021 Vuelta a España. With a rest day to follow, the GC riders must give their all to end the first week on a high note. The stage features an eye-watering 4,700 metres of climbing over 188km.
Stage 9 profile
The peloton departs from Puerto Lumbreras, which first hosted a Vuelta stage start in 1979. The breakaway will form in the first 50km, where the road is downhill and flat. This changes swiftly with the Alto de Cuatro Vientos. The second category ascent is 10.5km and averages a mere 3.8%. This doesn’t tell the full story, though — a descent 3km into the climb heavily reduces the average gradient.
After an intermediate sprint in Tijola, which occurs with 87km left, the ‘real’ climbing begins with the Alto Collado Venta Lui. The first category climb offers 10 KOM points to the first rider across, and averages 4.4% over an astonishing 29km. However, numerous plateau sections make these figures somewhat deceiving. The hardest section comes between kilometres 16 and 23 — here the gradient averages 9.2%, with some sections exceeding 12%.
Alto Collado Venta Luisa profile
The third category Alto de Castro de Filabres is next, which is 7.1km long and 3.9% on average. In typical fashion, a descent 2km in heavily impacts the average gradient — when the road does go uphill, it averages closer to 5.5%. Bonus seconds are available to the first three rides across, which could encourage attacks from general classification riders if the breakaway is caught.
A descent then carries the riders to the final effort. The Alto de Velefique averages 6.4% over 13.2km and is the first special category climb of the 2021 route. The opening 5km are the most challenging. Here, some kilometres average close to a leg-sapping 12%. That said, stage contenders must keep something in reserve for the final 8km which averages 6.3%.
Alto de Velefique profile
The Velefique concluded stage 12 of the 2009 Vuelta a España — Canadian Ryder Hesjedal was the first to the top and over three minutes seperated the first 30 riders. We can expect a similar degree of carnage here.
Adam Yates, Richard Carapaz and Alex Aranburu (Image credit: Luis Angel Gomez / ASO)
Primož Roglič started in Burgos as the heavy pre-race favourite, and to this point, he has lived up to the billing. He won the stage one time trial and has been among the best on the uphill finishes. If anyone is to challenge Roglič in his quest for a third straight red jersey, attacking Jumbo-Visma early in the stage may be their best option. Some of Roglič's teammates haven’t performed to their expected level so far, so isolating him early is a possibility.
Movistar currently hold third and fourth place overall, and therefore look to be in the best position to unseat Roglič. This makes their tactical decisions intriguing. Movistar Head of Performance Patxi Vila commented on Movistar’s leadership prior to stage 6, “Normally, you don’t have to decide, the race decides, you know? I can say, Alejandro (Valverde) normally, he won’t fight for GC”.
Those comments were made prior to Alejandro Valverde's crash and premature departure from his 15th Vuelta a España. Now, Movistar must rely on Enric Mas and Miguel Ángel López. Stage 9 provides a great platform for Movistar to be aggressive, but will Valverde's departure have altered their plans?
Although they don’t hold the red jersey, the Ineos Grenadiers have had a fair start to the Vuelta a España. Giro d’Italia champion Egan Bernal is their leading rider currently and starts sixth overall, whereas Adam Yates is still in contention, but lost minor time on stages 2 and 6. Richard Carapaz is further back and doesn't look to be in the form that helped him win a gold medal at Tokyo 2020. Ineos may send any of the aforementioned trio up the road early, but are more likely to hold their cards close to their chest until the Alto de Velefique.
Trek-Segafredo have enjoyed a successful first week at La Vuelta, which is largely down to Kenny Elissonde's brief spell in red. However, he’s back to domestique duty now, where he will be working for Giulio Ciccone who starts the stage in 11th place. The Italian was highly impressive at the Giro d’Italia earlier this season before a crash forced him to withdraw. Juan Pedro López has enjoyed a fine race too — he’ll be supporting Ciccone late in the stage.
Mikel Landa is no longer Bahrain-Victorious' best placed rider in the GC after Jack Haig jumped to 7th via the stage 7 breakaway. To this point, Landa's form has been inconsistent, so Bahrain may consider utilising Haig as a joint-leader. Gino Mäder, Wout Poels and Mark Padun are further back, so they have more freedom to attack.
Some expressed surprise to hear of Fabio Aru's impending retirement. The 31-year-old won the Vuelta a España in 2015, but has faced a range of challenges in recent years. However, his form has improved in 2021 — he was second overall at the Vuelta a Burgos earlier this month. He starts the stage 13th overall but within two minutes of Roglič — could he claim a top ten in his final Grand Tour?
Keep an eye on Alex Vlasov, David de la Cruz and Felix Großschartner who are all contending for the GC too. Großschartner capitalized on the stage 7 breakaway to move up to second place in the GC, just eight seconds behind Roglič.
If a large breakaway goes clear early, they have a good chance of holding on for the stage. Keep an eye on Michael Storer, Rafal Majka, Carlos Verona, Rémy Rochas, Romain Bardet and Mark Padun from a breakaway group.
We think a breakaway have the best chance of winning on the Alto de Velefique. After Team DSM won stage 7 with Michael Storer, we are backing them to make it a double with Romain Bardet. The Frenchman begins the stage with 11 KOM points, closely trailing current leader Pavel Sivakov. He'll be keen to join the breakaway where he can accumulate more KOM points and win the stage.
Cover image: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images