On a day the Vuelta a España rode up to the pristine medieval walls of Ávila, it was the team of race leader Tom Dumoulin bracing themselves for a barrage. However, the attacks from his nearest rival Fabio Aru never materialised and the Dutchman even managed to snatch a few seconds on his rival as Ag2r La Mondiale youngster Alexis Gougeard escaped to take the biggest win of his career.
It was always likely to be a breakaway day, with the two categorised climbs sufficiently difficult to discourage the sprinters, but not quite steep or long enough to warrant the general classification riders controlling it from the off. Sure enough, a big escape went off the front and quickly established an unassailable advantage. It was a break strong on talent but weak on cooperation, and after Gougeard joined the restless Tiago Machado (Katusha) and Leonardo Duque (Colombia) out front with around 30km remaining, they couldn’t bring him back. Gougeard soon shed both of his companions, and held on to take a comfortable solo win.
Back in the favourites group, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) led the skirmishing and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) responded, though both race leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) and his nearest rival Fabio Aru (Astana) kept their powder dry until the final ramp up to the finish. On it, Giant suddenly accelerated, firing their leader off the front to snatch three seconds on Aru. It may seem a small gap, but it could well prove crucial on tomorrow’s decisive stage. Back down the road, Valverde and Purito came across the line together.
Rider of the day
Today’s award could only go to the 22-year-old stage winner Alexis Gougeard, who was certainly a rank outsider for the win in a breakaway that contained riders as strong as Andrey Amador (Movistar) and Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida). However, the young puncheur drew on raw power to establish and maintain an advantage over his fellow escapees, taking a victory in his maiden grand tour. A star may well have been born.
Three things we noticed
1. Dumoulin signals his intent. One may assume that it’s Dumoulin who’ll be struggling for sleep tonight; he is, after all, the man with his head stuck out over the parapet, waiting for Astana to pick him off. But really, it’s Dumoulin who looks in comfortably the best position heading into tomorrow’s decisive stage. His performances all Vuelta have suggested he’s in good form; his performances over the last couple of days have suggested he’s unbeatable. It’s clear that he’s not been bothered by the effects of cumulative fatigue, and his snatching a few seconds today could well be as important a psychological blow as a sporting one. Astana will throw everything at him tomorrow, but it’d be a surprise if he buckled at the last.
2. … but it wasn’t all plain sailing. It’s easy to forget in cycling how quickly things can go wrong. All it takes is a misplaced wheel or a mistimed brake for a rider’s race to be ruined, regardless of whether you’re in the red jersey or carrying the lanterne rouge. Crashes are indiscriminate. We had a stark reminder early on today’s stage, when both Dumoulin and Aru hit the deck – the latter visiting the medical car twice in the space of five minutes in its aftermath. Fortunately they both recovered.
Alas, Stephane Rossetto (Cofidis) wasn’t quite so lucky. He was sitting an impressive 18th in his debut grand tour, but a late tangle with FDJ’s Arnaud Courteille forced him out of the race, with just 10km of the stage remaining.
3. Nationalism plays its part. So complicated are the rivalries and associations in the pro peloton that an entire sociological essay could be dedicated to the subject. Over the last few days, one of its more obvious dividing lines, nationalism, has been evident. It started with Giant-Alpecin rejecting an offer of assistance from Lotto-Jumbo – who were willing to sacrifice some of their stronger climbers in a bid to help Dumoulin become the first Dutchman to win a grand tour since 1980 – albeit only on the grounds that such a collaboration is ‘forbidden by the rules of the UCI’.
However, today it was quietly in evidence in the other direction, with Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r La Mondiale) dragging his compatriot Fabio Aru up to the finish line in a bid to limit his losses. It was almost certainly an inconsequential gesture from Pozzovivo, that may have saved Aru a second at the most, but it was nevertheless interesting to see.
Stage 19 result
1. Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale) 4:19:20
2. Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida) +0:40
3. Maxime Monfort (Lotto-Soudal) +0:44
4. Andrey Amador (Movistar) same time
5. Tiago Machado (Katusha) s/t
1. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) 78:20:51
2. Fabio Aru (Astana) +0:06
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) +1:24
4. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) +2:31
5. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) +3:02
6. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) +3:24
7. Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEDGE) +3:39
8. Daniel Moreno (Katusha) +3:46
9. Mikel Nieve (Sky) +4:19
10. Louis Meintjes (MTN-Qhubeka) +7:00
Points leader: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
King of the Mountains leader: Omar Fraile (Caja Rural).
Combined classification leader: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
Team classification leader: Movistar.
Link: Official race website
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