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The Vuelta a España tilts uphill Saturday.
Stage 14 to Sierra de La Pandera opens a weekend crammed full of climbing in a crucial double-header for Remco Evenepoel and the pack chasing red.
A long rolling intro will light the fuse for an explosive final of a short, spicy 160km stage deep in Andalucia’s Sierra Sur de Jaén on Saturday.
“The stage has two very distinct parts: one gentle and the other featuring constant climbs,” Vuelta route designer and retired pro Fernando Escartín said.
“If a breakaway is to be successful here, it must be in full motion before arriving at La Pandera. The climb, a La Vuelta classic, is tougher than it looks, along a narrow road and on rough pavement. It will really test the climbers.”
A breakaway could go deep into the stage Saturday as riders like Jay Vine hunt invaluable mountain points. But the main intrigue may lie further behind.
Remco Evenepoel surfed the Quick-Step train in Friday’s sprint stage. The Belgian takes a huge 2:41 gap and some fresh wounds after a crash Thursday into this crucial weekend of climbing.
“The sensations could be a little bit better but it’s all fine, no big problem,” Evenepoel said of his scraped-up hand Friday afternoon. “I wore gloves today but I think tomorrow I will ride without again, it was annoying me quite a bit in the stage.”
Primož Roglič and Enric Mas will also need to metaphorically take their gloves off this weekend before the race romps out of their hands.
Fifteen percent ramps bring pain to La Pandera
The cat. 3 Puerto de Siete Pilillas two-thirds of the way through Saturday’s stage will give just a taste of the climbing that closes stage 14.
Back-to-back climbs wedged into the day’s denouement will see the peloton pedaling uphill for almost all of the final 24 kilometers of what looks likely to be another red-hot day in the Spanish south.
The cat. 2 Puerto de los Villares leads almost directly into the 15 percent ramps and pure climbing torment of La Pandera for a finish climb likened to France’s Mont Ventoux thanks to its forbidding barren summit.
Evenepoel has looked unstoppable in every bit of uphill in this race.
However, the longest sustained effort of the Vuelta so far will squeeze the short-handed Quick-Step and its young captain to the extreme on the Villares-Pandera punisher.
“Tomorrow looks like another really beautiful stage,” Evenepoel said after stage 13. “I just hope not to lose any time, it’s the most important.”
Multiple ramps of 15 percent across a wildly bucking profile makes La Pandera a pure climb not suited to power-meter watchers and watt-per-kilo monsters.
Rafal Majka beat back thoroughbred mountain beasts like Miguel Ángel López, Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru when the Vuelta last took to La Pandera’s rocky slopes in 2017.
Alejandro Valverde burst onto the scene with his first grand tour victory when he won atop the Andalucian ascent in 2003.
Valverde would sure like to wind the clock back 19 years when he returns to Pandera for his final three-weeker on Saturday. Yet there’s a sense Evenepoel — a rider 20 years his younger — will be center of the action this weekend.