Start location: Cartagena
Finish location: Collado de la Cruz de Caravaca
Start time: 12:39 CEST
Finish time (approx): 17:15 CEST
One factor that’s usually more intensified at the Vuelta a España compared with the other Grand Tours is the heat. Whereas the Giro d'Italia takes place in the relative coolness of May, and the Tour de France further to the north in France, Spain during this time of year can experience searingly hot temperatures, as you can tell from looking at the dry, dusty, brown landscapes that form the backdrop for so much of the race.
All this is especially true in the south, and stage nine begins at the southernmost point of the 2023 edition, Cartagena. Named after the ancient city of Carthage, and an important naval stronghold of the Roman Empire, Cartagena is now the second biggest city in Murcia, which is Spain’s southernmost region aside from Andalusia. The average temperature here at this time of year is between 23 and 26°C, with highs exceeding 30°C, compared with around 22 and 18°C in Valladolid further North in Castile and León, where the riders will begin the second week after the first rest day. If the sun does shine, the riders will be longing to get this final stage down south out of the way.
Stage nine profile sourced via the Vuelta website
Even if the sun does take mercy on the riders, stage nine is still far from an easy end to the opening week. It’s another lumpy day of testing terrain that undulates even when the riders aren’t going up an official climb. The biggest and only categorised test prior to the finish is Puerto Casas de Marina la Perdiz, a climb which, despite only averaging 4.9% for its 11.5km, has enough steep ramps to have been designated a category one.
There are some uncategorised lumps and bumps during the following 100km, but nothing hard enough to prevent the finishing climb of Caravaca de la Cruz from being the crucial moment of the stage. Caravaca has the distinction of being considered one of the five most holy cities in the Christian world by the Catholic Church along with Jerusalem, Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Santo Toribio de Liébana, and, as befitting anything this holy, is high up in the heavens, over 1000m above sea level. To get there, the riders must climb an awkwardly uneven mountain that constantly fluctuates in gradient, most dramatically towards the top when a 20% ramp is followed by a downhill section, and then back up to 9.5% for the final kilometre. The shallower sections mean it only averages 5.5% and is only worth a category two, and therefore the least difficult of the opening week’s three summit finishes, but it’s not to be underestimated by the GC favourites, who are still at risk of losing time on it heading into the rest day.
The opening week of the Vuelta has not been particularly favourable for anyone interested in victories from breakaways. Only one rider, the new race leader Sepp Kuss, has managed to succeed from an early break, and stage nine seems just as tricky for anyone chancing their arm from the escape.
Kuss' team Jumbo-Visma took control of stage eight, putting him in red and handing Primož Roglič the win, and if they take the same initiative, there's little doubt we'll see Roglič in contention for victory again along with his team-mate Jonas Vingegaard, Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-Quick-Step), Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), and Enric Mas.
If the breakaway is allowed to form early on and get a substantial gap, then there's plenty of riders who have now lost enough time to avoid being considered a threat to the GC contenders.
Romain Bardet (DSM-Firmenich) may like the look of this summit finish, while Bora-Hansgrohe have a few riders that could succeed on this terrain, including Sergio Higuita, Emanuel Buchmann, or Lennard Kämna.
Ineos Grenadiers looks to have had their GC dreams shattered in week one, so may free up riders to chase stage wins now. While it might be a while before we see Geraint Thomas in a position to go for a stage win, the likes of Egan Bernal and Jonathan Castroviejo could make elite breakaway options for the British team.
Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) tried from the break on stage eight to no avail, but may fancy his chances again if he can get up the road, as could Oier Lazkano (Movistar) or Rui Costa (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty).
We think Remco Evenepoel will win his second stage of the Vuelta.