Vuelta Stage 16: Schleck escapes to glory as Purito pinches red

There was a big surprise on the final summit finish of this year’s Vuelta, with the ailing veteran Frank Schleck rolling back the years to take a gutsy breakway victory on the brutal Ermita de Alba. Further down the road, Joaquim Rodriguez stole two seconds from Fabio Aru to take the red jersey by the narrowest of margins, while Tom Dumoulin again kept himself in the running by admirably limiting his losses.

Stage 16 profile: Vuelta a Espana 2015

Stage 16 profile: Vuelta a Espana 2015

For the most part, the day’s stage was remarkably boring; so glacial was the peloton’s pace that rumours of a protest quickly began to appear, with the breakaway allowed a remarkable gap of over 20 minutes. It was a good group of escapees, though as the riders started ascending the penultimate climb, Frank Schleck (Trek) and Rodolfo ‘the Red Nosed Climber’ Torres (Colombia) dropped everyone else. On the leg-burning final climb, it soon became clear Schleck was considerably stronger than his companion, and took about as comfortable a victory as is humanly possible on a 30% ramp. 

Meanwhile, Astana drove the pace up to sadistic levels in the red jersey group in the hope of shedding Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). They eventually did so, but not with the desired result: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) was sufficiently strong to steal two seconds and the red jersey from Fabio Aru (Astana), while Dumoulin successfully limited his losses to a very manageable 27 seconds.

Rider of the day

Hands up, whoever thought they’d see a Schleck win another grand tour stage? Stop lying at the back …

Today’s win was Fragile Frank’s first since the Luxembourg road race championships last year, and first grand tour stage win since the 2009 Tour de France. It looked for all the world like he was finished at the top level. But, breakaway glory or not, he’s clearly shown he still more than merits his place in the peloton.

Many cycling fans have been ambivalent about Schleck, who has been dogged by doping allegations due to his association with Eufemiano Fuentes in 2008, and his backdated ban in 2013 after testing positive for masking agent xipamide. However, it’s impossible to deny that this victory is a remarkable achievement for a rider only as old as Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), but one for whom the last few seasons have been so difficult you’d be forgiven for thinking he was ready for a zimmer frame and retirement home. It’s a triumph over both mental and physical strain, and it’s difficult to begrudge him what could well be a final, fleeting moment of glory. 

Three things we noticed

1. Dumoulin limited his losses superbly. Another day in the mountains, another day of praise for Tom Dumoulin. Astana’s Mikel Landa drilled things on the front of the bunch almost all the way up the brutal ascent up to the finish with the specific purpose of shedding the flying Dutchman. But he barely budged. Measuring his effort perfectly, he ensured he stayed within two minutes on the general classification. He’s going to have to deliver an exception time trial to win the race from here, but that he’s still in the running is one hugely impressive feat.

2. A go-slow protest? The pace of today’s peloton was so slow for most of the stage that whispers of a protest began to float around cyberspace. Swedish Eurosport commentator Roberto Vacchi suggested it was due to to the long transfers between stages, which have certainly seemed excessive at this race. Etixx-Quick Step’s Iljo Keisse certainly seems to think so, yesterday tweeting:

If this really was the cause of the go-slow, then one can but laugh at the amusing irony in the riders punishing the race organisers for interminably boring treks across northern Spain by turning much of the day’s racing into exactly that. And who can blame them? Long transfers only add to the accumulation of a rider’s fatigue, and I was certainly yawning until things ignited on the final climb.

3. What a finish! Today was a boring stage with a thrilling climax. Perhaps the race planners could learn something from the final climb as a metaphor for the whole race: short and sharp produces better racing than long and arduous. Usually the Vuelta organisers understand this better than anyone else, but this year’s edition, with its obscene climbing and imprudent transitions, could have done with being toned down a little. 

Stage 16 result

1.  Frank Schleck (Trek) 5:49:56

2.  Rodolfo Torres (Colombia) +1:10

3.  Moreno Moser (Cannondale-Garmin) +1:48

4.  George Bennett (Lotto-Jumbo) +2:42

5.  Pierre Rolland (Europcar) +2:49

General classification

1.  Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) 67:52:44

2.  Fabio Aru (Astana) +0:01

3.  Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) +1:35

4.  Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) +1:51

5. Mikel Nieve (Sky) +2:32

6.  Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) +2:38

7.  Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +2:49

8. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +3:11

9.  Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +3:58

10. Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) +5:22

Points leader: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).

King of the Mountains leader: Omar Fraile (Caja Rural).

Combined classification leader: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).

Team classification leader: Sky.

Link: Official race website

Header: © Javier Belver/lavuelta.com

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