Stage 9: Andorra to Barcelona, 196.3km
BMC’s Philippe Gilbert won his first race of 2012, but Joaquim Rodriguez will have been delighted with second, having caught his rivals with their (lycra) pants down to extend his overall advantage ahead of Wednesday’s personal bête noire, the individual time trial.
A four-man escape of serial breakaway artists formed inside the opening kilometre: Martijn Maaskant (Garmin-Sharp), Mickael Buffaz (Cofidis), Javier Chacon (Andalucia) and Bertjan Lindeman (Vacansoleil-DCM). They led by 5:20 before the peloton completed a surprisingly early catch with 25km still to go, resulting in an instant solo counter-attack by Chacon’s teammate Jesus Rosendo. That lasted barely 5km before Katusha brought him quickly to heel.
With several teams happy to keep the pace up – as high as 65-70kph – a lined-out peloton raced to the foot of the punchy Montjuic climb (1.1km, 8.1%) with 5km to go. Immediately the attacks started: first Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), then riders from Sky and Astana, and finally near the summit BMC’s Alessandro Ballan put in a big dig to set up Gilbert. Rodriguez was the only rider to immediately react, while Gilbert momentarily paused and then kicked to bridge across the gap to the race leader, leaving the top GC contenders behind.
The pair worked together over the summit, the downhill that followed and the final kilometre-long rise to the line. The Spaniard led out, and Gilbert put eight months of frustration behind him with the victory that saves a frustrating season.
Astana’s Paolo Tiralongo popped off the front of an uncoordinated chase to claim third place and the final time bonus, seven seconds behind. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was in a small group a further two ticks back, stealing three seconds from Contador and Chris Froome (Sky), who finished in the pack 12 seconds behind the winner.
The net result? Rodriguez extended his advantage over Froome from 33 to 53 seconds, and though he will expect to lose the red jersey to the British rider in the time trial on Tuesday, he will consider himself well placed to regain it when the race hits the alta montaña at the end of the week.
VeloVoices rider of the day
I imagine many fans were punching the air when Philippe Gilbert bridged across to Rodriguez on the Montjuic climb, and many nails were bitten wondering if the pair would be able to maintain their slender advantage and hold off the charging peloton. But succeed they did, and BMC’s plan of using Ballan as the jab to Gilbert’s hay-maker worked to perfection. In our stage preview, we noted that this stage was “perfect for the 2011 model Philippe Gilbert – less so this year’s version”, but this was a race won as much with the head and the heart as it was with the legs.
It has been a miserable season for Gilbert, who was royally unseated from his throne as the unofficial King of Belgium by Tom Boonen‘s exploits in the spring Classics. His 2011 Ardennes triple fell away with barely a whimper as he could manage no better than a third place at Flèche Wallonne. And at the Tour de France he could muster only a pair of fourth places, despite there being at least a couple of stages that the PhilGil of 2011 would have snapped up voraciously. So it was great to see one of the most attacking and exciting riders in the peloton back near his best to liven up another well-designed stage to bring the opening section of the Vuelta to a close. Welcome back. Phil!
It’s easy to see how delighted and relieved Gilbert was afterwards from his post-stage comments:
It’s already been almost a whole year since I won [GP Wallonie on September 14th 2011 – Ed], so I’m really pleased to win for BMC. This is very special.
It’s been a hard season for me, I was fighting to get a good shape, I never stopped believing in myself and had a lot of support from my family and friends. Last year has maybe been the hardest moment of my career and it’s in those moments when you need that support.
I’ve had a lot of criticism from the Belgian press, I never answered it except by fighting on my bike and this stage of the Vuelta was an opportunity with a perfect finish.
We’ve said it a few times before this week, but what an attacking race this has been so far. Some of it has been down to a number of well thought-out parcours – today’s being one – and some of it has been down to the willingness of even leading riders such as Rodriguez, Valverde and Contador to attack at every opportunity, even if the potential gains have been just a handful of seconds. But it has been a thrilling opening nine days, with several stages which would rate four or five stars on the excitement scale, and it has left the GC delicately poised going into the rest day.
Mind you, it’s a tough route to get to the rest day. The riders face an air transfer of close to 1,000km this evening, while team staff and buses must complete the long trip from Spain’s east to west coast by road. Even ‘rest’ days are hardly easy …
A lot of tactical plans came into play in the closing kilometres today: some good, others less so. BMC’s one-two punch of Ballan and Gilbert was exactly the right combination at exactly the right time, allowing Gilbert to bridge across to Rodriguez just before the summit, which in turn enabled the pair to work hard together on the descent to negate the numerical advantage of the peloton and consolidate their advantage. Incredibly, Contador, Froome and Valverde all missed it.
It looked like Astana and Sky also had similar ideas, sending men off the front earlier on the climb – presumably to set up potential moves by Froome and Tiralongo respectively – but these were too soon to maximise their chances. Similarly, Contador‘s early attack was just that: too early.
Once the breakaway pairing of Rodriguez and Gilbert had formed, it was apparent this was a perfect combination: two tough, punchy riders with mutually beneficial objectives. Gilbert wanted the stage and would work hard to maintain the gap, while Rodriguez’s primary concern was to gain time over his rivals, so he was willing to put in the effort and if necessary sacrifice the stage victory in order to secure that. Tiralongo’s late break to take the four-second bonus for third was just the icing on the cake for Rodriguez.
The race leader can expect to lose the red jersey – most likely to Froome – in Wednesday’s ITT, but the advantage he has padded over the past couple of days should enable him to stay within striking distance. Plus that would mean the burden of defending the jersey would pass from Katusha to Sky, allowing Rodriguez’s teammates to recharge over the course of next week ahead of the big mountain stages 14-16, where the race will most likely be won and lost.
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