A shorter stage than the previous one at 175.8 kilometres, but it will probably produce more gaps amongst the GC riders than yesterday did. It starts out on rolling terrain, which should make it relatively easy to control who goes in the breakaway. This gives way to the flat after 20 kilometres, and it is essentially a billiard table until the 72 kilometre mark, where there is an uncategorised climb, after which the peleton descends to a false flat section. That leads into the first categorised ascent of the day, the Alto del Torno (10.1 km, 3.2%) which is a good deal harder than the gradient indicates, and if you take into account the two descents most of the actual climbing is at 6%. The summit comes with 60 kilometres remaining, and the descent is initially quite fast and technical, but gives way to easier riding fairly quickly. The riders will again find themselves on the flat, and the sprint point of the day is up next. There's another uncategorised climb, it looks to be about 7 kilometres at 4%, but I wouldn't rely on the Vuelta's racebook after some of the information that has been put out so far. The summit comes with 28 kilometres remaining, and there's a gradual descent to the foot of the final climb of the day, the Alto de Sotres (12.7 km, 7.9%). The initial slopes are tough, averaging between 8-11% for 4 kilometres, after which there is an easier middle section which only averages 6% for 5 kilometres, with some flat sections and the hardest kilometre at 8%. This will allow the riders to rest up before the final push to the summit, which features gradients in the last four successive kilometres of 13.3%, 11.4%, 10.5% and 13.1%.
The weather will be very pleasant for the riders, with top temperatures of 22 Degrees Celsius and light-moderate winds from the north east. That will be a cross-tailwind initially, but the course wraps around on itself, and it will hit the riders from all directions at points in the race. Significantly it will be a headwind for the final steep section of the final climb, which may slow down attackers.
Hard to judge today, but I'll lean towards it being a day for the GC riders to win the stage. Stage 14 wasn't the hardest finish, and it was only ever going to result in big gaps between the main contenders, so Astana and the main GC teams weren't particularly interested in driving the pace to bring the escapees back. The GC is really close together at the moment, and the time trial is looming large on the thoughts of the riders. Tom Dumoulin is a massive threat to the climbers, and they all know that they will need to distance the powerful Dutchman by minutes in the coming mountain days to feel safe over the flat TT course. This goes for everyone, but riders like Majka and Quintana also need to be paid close attention to, as they are proficient against the clock. So the climber's teams are going to have try and push the pace and win stages, and I think they will want to do that here. The only thing holding them back is likely to be the presence of Stage 16 tomorrow, which is harder than today's and could lead to some teams taking a cautious approach. Ultimately, I think that the GC teams will utilise their lesser climbers to control the break, as there's a lot of flat terrain on this stage, which will make it relatively easy to keep a leash on the escapees.
The final climb will be the scene of the fireworks in the GC battle, and it will be interesting to see how early hostilities begin. Riders like Quintana, Rodriguez and Aru all need to make up time if they want to win the race, or at least drop Dumoulin. The Dutch youngster has shown himself to be nowhere near cracking however, and when he can't follow, he simply follows at his own pace. The big climbers will have to go on the attack, and they will need to decide whether they make a move from the foot of the climb, and try to maintain the gap through the easier part, or to wait for the final kilometres which are very difficult. I think that the riders will side on the cautious side of things for the most part, as going too deep early will really hurt their chances on the steep finale. Some riders like Nieve and maybe Meintjes, won't be too worried about blowing up, as they don't stand a good chance of maintaining their GC spots with the TT coming up, and will be looking to go for a stage win. The other key factor of the climb will be the headwind on the last section to the finish, which will make drafting more important than it normally is on a climb as steep as this. This could matter if a rider more focused on GC escapes with a rider further down on the classification, as the likes of Aru and Rodriguez would have to simply put up with a rider surfing their wheel to the line, which stops their chances of winning the stage but they will try and maintain their GC push.
What has been remarkable about the Vuelta so far is how close all the GC candidates have been on the climbs. Aru did the best on the most decisive stage to date, but the others have all showed themselves to be very strong, and there's been no dominant rider to put his stamp upon the race. I think that means that it will come to tactics and small advantages in the final, rather than overwhelming strength. That should advantage the riders that are slightly further down on the GC, as they don't have the responsibility of trying to put time into their near rivals in the battle for red.
With that in mind, Mikel Nieve looks to be one to watch here. He has been climbing very well in this Vuelta, only getting dropped on the explosive sections of climbs or in the sprints to the line, which isn't his forte as a rider. He is a poor time triallist, and isn't regarded as a threat to the podium, and won't be a part of the cat and mouse GC battle, which will allow him to sit on wheels and take advantage of others pacemaking. He will have to anticipate the attacks, as he has trouble following the best when they go on the offensive, but he will be in a better tactical position than most, at least for the stage win.
Louis Meintjes is in a similar position, he hasn't been climbing as well, and finds himself almost 5 minutes down. That will allow him a certain amount of freedom here, and if he can get free he has shown a number of times this season that he is not out of place amongst the elite climbers of the peleton. He may be getting a bit tired in this third week as a youngster, but he is very motivated to take a stage win, and this should be a good opportunity for him.
Nairo Quintana may be strong enough to distance the others by himself, as he appears to have recovered from the illness that effected him on the queen stage in Andorra. He jumped away after following Aru's initial move on the previous stage, and he'll be trying to force his way back into GC contention here. He will need to take some minutes before the TT, as whilst he is a good time triallist, three minutes is too much for him to overcome as things currently stand, and he will need to put time into Dumoulin as well of course. If he is in top form again, he will be very hard to beat, as he is generally regarded as one of, if not the best climber in the world. The steep slopes will allow him to make big gaps if he is good enough, and it will be exciting racing if he can get a gap.
Fabio Aru looked like he was going to increase his advantage on GC yesterday, as when he attacked the main group, only Quintana and Jesper Hansen(!) could follow. He was gradually clawed back, and eventually ended up losing a bit of time to a few contenders. He will have to manage the balance between aggression and riding smart again here, as he needs more time on Dumoulin, but can't over commit early with the really steep finale yet to come. He didn't look like he was a lot stronger than everyone else on the climbs, and that is what he'll need to be to take a win in the red jersey, as everyone marks his moves and looks to him to make the pace. He will have the benefit of a strong looking Mikel Landa in the finale, but it is questionable how much of a team role the Spaniard is playing, after he refused to drop back to help Aru gain more time in Andorra, despite the fact that it would have resulted in a 1-2 finish as well for Astana.
Joaquim Rodriguez is Aru's closest rival on time, but he looked very vulnerable on Stage 14, and said afterwards that he was lucky the race came back together, as he was feeling very bad when Aru made the initial move, but he recovered and launched his trademark final kilometre move to take a few seconds advantage on the GC. The final steep slopes are definitely to the tiny Spaniard's advantage, as the steeper it is, the better it is for 'Purito'. He may be a bit hamstrung by his need to gain lots of time before the TT, others know that, and will force him to make the pace if they are in a move with him, and he will have to sacrifice his stage chances to keep putting time into his rivals. He also isn't as strong as he looked earlier in the race, and will probably need to turn around his form to take a win here.
Esteban Chaves could be in for another stage win here, as he isn't regarded as a serious GC threat, as he is probably the worst time triallist on paper of the guys up in the GC. In addition his team has said that he'll be riding conservatively to try and maintain his position, so he'll be happy to simply follow moves when he can, and not contribute overly to pace setting, as it may waste energy. He looked strong on Stage 14, bridging over to Aru's group, and then maintaining the push to finish 3rd of the contenders, overtaking Majka on GC in the process. The one worry is that he may have trouble backing up, day after day, on tough stages like this, and he stated in interviews that his legs are really tired, so it wouldn't be too surprising if he hits a wall at some point this race.
Rafal Majka wasn't particularly suited to yesterday's climb, he couldn't follow the explosive moves, although surprisingly his teammate Jesper Hansen did, before being called back to help Majka. That was key help, as it allowed that group to stay in touch with the leaders, and eventually bridge across. Majka was part of that, but was distanced in the sprint to the line, which isn't really where he excels as a climber. He is in a pretty good position tactically for this stage, he is a good time triallist, and he may even be able to take the red jersey from Aru at his current time gap, so he doesn't need to force the pace. He can follow wheels here, whilst others have the imperative to drive the pace and he'll benefit from that before making his move. He was climbing very well earlier in the race, and I think it is an overreaction to dwell too much on him losing a few seconds yesterday. He should be right up there in the finale today.
Tom Dumoulin continues to defy expectations that he would slip down the GC, riding solidly day after day in defence of his position. He lost only a handful of seconds to his closest rivals on Stage 14, and will be very confident that he can take back a lot of time in the TT against every rider on GC. He will most likely have to ride this stage defensively, but he showed on Stage 9, that when things flatten out, he can attack decisively, which gives him a gap that he can use to his advantage on the steeper sections. There's a nice point for him to do a similar move at the midpoint of the last climb here, and if the riders are disorganised behind, then that could lead to him putting himself in a nice position up the road.
From a breakaway, I'll take Riccardo Zoidl to win. He is riding very well, and was actively trying to get away on yesterday's stage, but the peleton wasn't quite happy with the composition of the move on the times where he was present. He combines good climbing ability with time-trialling strength, which puts him in good stead when trying to get into the escape move. There's other good candidates, Ruben Plaza, Frank Schleck, Kenny Elissonde and Rodolfo Torres just to name a few, and of course the breakaway is very much a lottery.
I'll go with Mikel Nieve to win here, his climbing has been top notch, and this climb should be more about who has the best legs rather than punchy ability. He will be in a strong tactical position and that could let him take the win.