Yesterday’s time trial result gave us all the hope that it would be a battle royale for the top spot on the podium today. The Froome/Quintana battle was more like a tiny, late skirmish so in that sense it didn’t live up to expectations. But it was a most amazing stage nonetheless. And the excitement came in pairs. Lots of pairs.
Rider of the race
I had a whole list of riders for this accolade but I decided that I could give them all a shout-out in pairs. And although this guy was in a pair, I thought his performance today was so special – and so decisive – that he deserves to be singled out. And that rider is Damien Howson from Orica-BikeExchange. As we’ve seen time and again this Vuelta, OBE’s team tactics were impeccable. Howson made the break of the day (one that took a long time to get established) while the team’s protected rider, Esteban Chaves, kept calm in the red jersey group. As Chaves was only 1.21 down from third-placed Alberto Contador at the start of the stage, this particular battle was to be a set piece of the day. But when Chaves attacked to go clear 45km from the finish on the penultimate climb, Contador didn’t (or couldn’t) follow.
Chaves got a gap quickly but it all seemed like a quixotic attempt. Until Howson dropped his speed on the descent to allow Chaves to bridge to him. The little kangaroo kept on Howson’s wheel the whole time, with Howson riding full gas to give the Colombian the time he needed before he hit the final climb to overtake Contador’s position by a comfortable gap (which he needed, getting on the podium just 13secs ahead of Contador).
The sight of Howson gritting his teeth, riding like his life depended on it for his teammate, then to come practically to a standstill when Chaves released him, was the sight of a guy who rode those last few kilometres almost solely with his heart. A performance of class and sacrifice. Chapeau, Damien Howson! Chapeau!
Pair 1: Luis Leon Sanchez v Rudy Molard
This pair formed almost halfway through the race, breaking off from a large break to take on the stage by themselves – and worked together to give themselves nearly 2min on a crash-disrupted chasing group – and a hefty 10min-plus from the red jersey group. The Astana/Cofidis riders seemed to be working well together until they felt the breath of various chasers on their neck, causing Sanchez to go on his own. He made a good try but by the time Darwin Atapuma got to him at the 5km to go mark, he was pedalling squares and went backwards faster than he was going foward.
Pair 2: Pierre Latour v Darwin Atapuma
One of the UCI’s new rules must be: “no break can go free unless Darwin Atapuma is in it”. With Atapuma leading the chase to Sanchez – and then sweeping past the spent Astana rider – it looked like Darwin would take the stage. But we hadn’t counted on the belief and ambition of Ag2r’s Pierre Latour, who worked his way back up to Atapuma, to set up one of the most exciting final kilometres this year. With Latour on the front, working hard, it looked like it was Atapuma’s. Atapuma attacked, got a gap, VeloVoices Towers was ready to open the champagne, when just as they got to the finish strait, Latour gave it another massive kick and went past the BMC rider to take a magnificent stage win.
Pair 3: Kenny Elissonde v Oscar Fraile
I say this is a pair because it was a battle for the KOM jersey. Elissonde started the day in the polka-dots and was desperate to keep them. So desperate, in fact, that every time he attacked to ensure he picked up his points, he was far too early and inevitably blew up. One minute, LePetit was riding hard on the front, the next he was practically back in the cars. Fraile, on the other hand, just needed to stay steady and wait for the French yo-yo to go backwards to pick up the 5 points on the first climb to go ahead of the FDJ rider. But Kenny wasn’t *quite* finished. While Molard and Sanchez mopped up the first and second set of points for every climb until the finish, Kenny went stealth and picked up a point on the penultimate climb to finish second by … 1pt.
Pair 4: Movistar v Team Sky
Froome might have gotten the better of Quintana in the time trial and Sky gotten the better of Movistar in the TTT, on road stages, Movistar ruled the entire Vuelta – and no less today. Starting today’s stage with the full team of 9 riders (until JJ Rojas had a horrible crash mid-way through the stage), Movistar had one tactic: chase down anything that had a whiff of danger for Quintana and especially keep Sky under control. Of course, this is what Sky does in the Tour – but instead of putting all their riders on the front, Movistar always had a few wild cards in the breaks just to make it interesting. Perfect team tactics and discipline from the Spanish team all Vuelta long.
Pair 5: Alberto Contador v The Dying of the Light
It has been said many times that Alberto Contador does not ride for a podium position – it’s the top step or nothing for the Spaniard and today he kept that record intact. No doubt he knew that OBE would try something but when Chaves went off the front, Contador didn’t follow. He stayed with the red jersey group for most of the stage, even was on the front when he realised that Chaves was surpassing him in the GC, but he just couldn’t sustain the effort. Is this just a bad year for Baby Blackbird or is this really his twilight years in cycling? Whether it is or not, there can be no doubt that he was the rider who consistently attacked on almost every climbing stage and busted the race wide open in last Sunday’s stage. It can be argued that his effort there was the winning move for Quintana. He might not have won even a stage this Vuelta, but he actually would get my vote for Rider of the Vuelta. He made the sparks fly, day in, day out.
1 Pierre Latour (Ag2r La Mondiale) 5:19:41
2 Darwin Atapuma (BMC) +0:02
3 Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) +0:17
4 Mathias Frank (IAM) +0:40
5 Robert Gesink (Lotto NL-Jumbo) +1:03
1 Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 80:42:36
2 Chris Froome (SKY) +1:23
3 Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) +4:08
4 Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) +4:21
5 Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) +7:43
All the jerseys
Points leader: Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo)
King of the Mountains leader: Oscar Fraile (Team Dimension Data)
Combined classification leader: Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Team classification leader: BMC
Stage’s Most Combative: Chris Froome (SKY)
For full stage review: Cycling News
Header image : Pierre Latour ©GETTY/Corbis/Tim de Waele