An explosive finale saw race leader Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) claim his first stage victory and extend his overall lead. He and Sky’s Chris Froome decimated the group of top contenders in the last kilometre to make significant gains on several of their closest rivals.
On another scorching afternoon, with temperatures touching 38ºC, a breakaway of five riders – three Dutchmen and two Belgians, including Vacansoleil-DCM’s Thomas De Gendt – were kept on a tight leash by the Katusha-led peloton. They never gained more than 4:20 over a flat opening 150km, and started to disintegrate on the first of the day’s two third category climbs, the Puerto del Oroel.
Over the summit, with the advantage down under a minute, De Gendt kicked hard on the twisting, uneven, steeply cambered descent, leaving his last companion Pieter Weening (Orica-GreenEDGE) trailing in his wake. Behind him, Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank led the chase over the summit and down the descent, before Movistar and Sky took over on the approach to the Alto Fuerto de Rapitan.
Alejandro Valverde took up station on the front on the early part of the 3.8km climb as De Gendt was rapidly dispensed with. With 2km – and 13 momentum-sapping switch-backs – remaining, Sky’s Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran came forward to support Froome, tapping out a sufficiently high pace to ward off attacks and leave a select group of 11.
After a monster turn, Henao gave way to Uran with about 600 metres left and Froome quickly picked up the baton. He led out Rodriguez, who sped inside him on the final corner and accelerated away to win comfortably and claim the maximum 12-second bonus. The Briton was five seconds back in second (but also picked up a bonus of eight), while Valverde was another five seconds back. Alberto Contador, who said he was possibly dehydrated, was a distant fourth, having never really threatened.
How hot was the pace at the end? The group of 11 which started the final kilometre together ended up scattered more than 30 seconds down the road by the finish. A tough, tough finale.
VeloVoices rider of the day
We all fell in love with Thomas De Gendt during this year’s Giro, when he won the massive stage up the Stelvio with a punishing solo attack. Ultimately he failed in his attempt to reproduce that ride today, but he gave it the old college try, driving the breakaway up the Puerto del Oroel at a pace which shed his breakaway companions one by one, and then giving everything on the descent and run-up to the final climb to keep the pack at bay, even though he must have known it was a futile effort.
It’s been quite a year so far for De Gendt. He had already taken a stage at Paris-Nice before the Giro. And the combination of his Stelvio victory and a fine performance in the final stage time trial elevated him to the third step of the final podium in Milan. He skipped the Tour de France because it clashed with his wedding, but his presence at the Vuelta will no doubt enliven at least one more big mountains breakaway later in the race. We haven’t seen the last of him yet.
We have mentioned the sweltering conditions constantly throughout these opening days, but today provided the most obvious example of the toll it is taking on the riders. The Puerto del Oroel was not a particularly imposing climb – 12 km at an average gradient of 2.8% – but from the first ramp riders started rapidly tailing off the back.
Six days of near 40-degree heat have had a debilitating effect, even on athletes of this quality. It may not be outwardly obvious, but many riders are clearly hurting and riding at their absolute limits. Even Alberto Contador claimed that his surprisingly passive ride up the final climb was due to cramps brought on by the onset of dehydration.
It doesn’t always take a lot of big back-to-back climbs to explode a Grand Tour. At the start of the day the top seven riders on general classification were separated by just 14 seconds – the gap is now 1:04 – and 16 riders were within one minute of leader Joaquim Rodriguez – that number is now down to five. All it took was one Cat 3 summit finish, a relentless pace on the first 3km of the climb and then a pair of riders – Froome and Rodriguez – who were willing to attack in the last few hundred metres to put some distance into their rivals. The 30-second crack which opened up between the members of the lead group over the final kilometre was as much due to the top two’s attack as it was the others falling away. It was a superbly designed stage, as the organisers resisted the temptation to throw in more climbs earlier in the day, allowing legs to be fresher for the finale.
Given the strain the heat and aggressive racing have placed on the entire peloton, the dilemma facing Katusha now is how hard they want to ride to defend the red jersey, while Sky, Movistar and Saxo Bank take a back seat and rest up (relatively speaking!) for the monstrous alta montaña still to come. Directeur sportif Dimitri Konychev has certainly hinted the team may be happy to pass the responsibility on to someone else, telling Cyclingnews:
It would be better to have the lead in the third week. If we can let some other team take over and handle the pressure of leading for a bit, then that’d be good.
Interestingly, tomorrow’s rolling flat stage is one on which there is a distinct possibility of a breakaway staying away, as the leaders conserve energy for another tough day in the mountains on Saturday. I’m just saying …
VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of as many stages as possible on Twitter, reviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.