The Queen stage of the Saudi Tour did not disappoint. It was clear that Stage 4 as well as the GC would be decided on the steep Harrat Uwayrid climb, which included a 1-kilometre section with an average gradient of 16.5%. Ruben Guerreiro, Davide Formolo and Santiago Buitrago were the fastest up the steep ramps and were able to fend off the chase after the subsequent 8.5-kilometre false flat section. In his debut race for Movistar, Guerreiro was clearly in good shape and won the bunch sprint with a strong, calculated performance.
The stage was fairly easy before the final climb which had a three-kilometre section with 11.43% gradient. That is enough to create huge gaps in the peloton and influence the GC fight massively. After the climb followed an 8.5-kilometre false flat section, which gave a chance for slower riders to make some time back if the leading group did not work well together.
If in 2022 the peloton was shattered due to crosswinds before the climb however in 2023 everything was relatively calm and all the biggest favourites arrived at the base together. Ruben Guerreiro, Santiago Buitrago, Davide Formolo and Felix Großschartner were the assumed to be the strongest climbers in Saudi Tour and before the stage they all were very close in GC.
Movistar’s climbers were setting a fierce tempo at the first part of the steep section. They had a good mountain support squad for a 2.1 race – Will Barta, Gregor Mühlberger and Oscar Rodriguez. Guerreiro in 2022 had many good climbing performances and, in theory, he was the strongest climber in this race if he had arrived in close to top shape.
UAE-Team Emirates riders Großschartner and Formolo decided to push hard on the steepest section of the climb, where even some of the riders in the first group were zig-zagging up the 20%+ section. Only four climbers made the split – Guerreiro, Buitrago, Formolo and Großschartner.
Formolo was riding in the front of the group for quite a while and was obviously feeling strong. In the final kilometre of the climb, the Italian even attacked putting his teammate Großschartner under pressure and dropping him. This did not pay off as Guerreiro and Buitrago claimed 3 and 2 bonus seconds respectively after the crest of the climb because they had saved more energy.
The first group had a massive gap over the race leader Jonathan Milan, with the huge sprinter losing around 1:40 min on the climb. The leading trio did not have much motivation to work well together and Großschartner eventually caught the group. The virtual GC situation at this point was tight, including the bonus seconds earned at the crest:
Guerreiro – virtual leader
With such a close situation it meant that the bonus seconds at the finish would decide everything. The attacks in the group started in the final 1.2 kilometres. First, it was Großschartner who tried his luck but Guerreiro quickly reacted. A few seconds later Buitrago attacked but again it was Guerreiro who was at his wheel and neutralised the young Colombian. Meanwhile, Großschartner lost contact with the trio as he was completely spent.
Buitrago, despite emptying his reserves with a late attack, launched the sprint to the finish very early, around 14 seconds before the line. Guerreiro was the favourite to win the sprint and he did it relatively comfortably and even had time to celebrate his first win for Movistar.
It is an important victory for Movistar as one of their sponsors is the Saudi Cycling Federation which joined the team late in 2022. Jonathan Milan, despite doing his best and reducing the gap after Harrat Uwayrid by more than a minute, lost his leader’s jersey and dropped to fifth place in GC. Stage 5 will be the final one and if there will not be crosswinds it will be almost impossible to make gaps to move up in the GC.
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The stage before the climb was relatively easy as the peloton rode for 3 hours and 22 minutes with around 2500 kilojoules, which is 11.39 kj/kg/h for a 65 kg rider. Nothing too serious. In the shallow section of the Harrat Uwayrid, the riders in the peloton had to do around 5-5.1 w/kg for 10 minutes. That added some fatigue in the legs as after the 5 w/kg effort followed the steep section at 3 km of 11.43%.
Guerreiro, Formolo and Buitrago did the climb at 10 minutes and 41 seconds at 6.62 w/kg. That is almost two minutes faster than 2022 climbing times by Rui Costa, Maxim Van Gils and Buitrago which is huge on a relatively short climb. However the 2022 stage was way harder due to the early crosswinds, which emptied glycogen stores and fatigued legs.
This was not anywhere close to Guerreiro’s peak level as it was below the green trend-line, he rode the climb cautiously, and it is the early season. Very rarely do climbers reach their peak wattage in February, with some exceptions (Nairo Quintana in 2020 February). Guerreiro signed a three-year deal with Movistar and is their second-best GC rider behind Enric Mas. He has shown great performances in 2022, by winning the Mont Ventoux Challenge and setting the third fastest time in a road race on the legendary climb, only slower then Marco Pantani and Miguel Angel Lopez.