It was always going to come down to the final climb – the Alto Xorret de Catí – in stage 8 of Vuelta 2017. The climb itself might have only been 5km long, but it had double-digit gradients, topping out at 18%. As the inclines started to bite, it was Rafal Majka and Julian Alaphilippe who escaped from a large break and played cat-and-mouse to the summit. Under the flamme rouge, Jan Polanc made it a three-man sprint which Angryphilippe won handily – his first grand tour victory. Meanwhile, back in the peloton, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome had a cat-and-mouse game of their own …
Rider of the Race
I could have easily named three riders of the race – it was that kind of stage! But I’ve decided to go for the Quickstepper of the Race, Julian Alaphilippe. Alaphilippe has been knocking on the GT victory door for a few seasons now and today he did it. Keeping his head down and riding in the break all day, it wasn’t clear if he wasn’t feeling well or he was lulling the others into a false sense of security. But once they hit the Alto Xorret de Cati, he was the only rider who could match Bora’s Rafal Majka‘s accelerations and soon it was just the two of them. Neither wanted to risk an attack so they practically rode the climb staring each other down, giving UAE’s Jan Polanc chances to bridge to them, only to fall right back when Majka put the pedal to the metal.
Try as he might, the Winker could not drop Angryphilippe and they hit the descent together. It was fast and furious into the finish, with peloton action hotting up behind them, and a never-say-die Polanc racing up to join the duo under the flamme rouge, but with Alaphilippe as the best sprinter of the trio, the stage was the Frenchman’s to lose. He crossed the finish line triumphant, with Polanc snatching second from a spent Majka.
Post-stage, Alaphilippe said:
It’s incredible. I didn’t expect to win the stage today … The team has been doing great since the start of La Vuelta. We’re always on the front. I was thinking tomorrow might be a good final for me but today a big group went away after 40km. Matteo Trentin helped me to get at the front. I’m speechless. It’s unbelievable. We already have three stage wins. And it’s not finished.
Mano a Mano
So what exactly are we going to do without Alberto Contador next year? So far, he has been the only rider to continuously challenge the dominance of Chris Froome in this Vuelta. The Trek team set up their leader as they took over the front of the peloton coming into the final climb, giving him every chance to fly free as they hit the steep slopes. And he did not disappoint. With the help of Cannondale’s Michael Woods, Baby Blackbird busted the peloton apart – again.
But Froome wasn’t going to let this go unanswered and soon caught Contador’s wheel. After each rider attacked, the riders behind them broke one by one – including Vincenzo Nibali and Esteban Chaves. Froome then put in a blistering attack that distanced Contador and it looked like there was no catching him. Then, with the grit and persistence we’ve come to know, Contador got back on his wheel and they went under the flamme rouge together, picking up Trek teammate Jesus Hernandez along the way. He didn’t break him but he could outsprint him and Baby Blackbird put in his final surge to cross the line in front of the Sky rider.
Winning and not-so-winning
For being thought of as a Classics team, Quick-Step has been the team to animate so much of the grand tours this season. They’ve already won three stages in this Vuelta – and as Alaphilippe said, ‘We’re not finished yet.’
The shakeout on the Alto Xorret de Catí today threw up some surprises. One of the biggest was that Esteban Chaves, who so far this Vuelta looked fairly chipper as he followed every one of Froome’s moves, could not follow the Contador/Froome attacks and lost 17secs – as did Vincenzo Nibali. Nico Roche and Tejay van Garderen both lost 28secs.
The top 5 might not have changed in order but no rider would want to be losing time like that to a rider as strong and as driven as Chris Froome. Alberto Contador didn’t make up any time on Froome and is still 3.10 off the top step, but he did move up 7 places … to 17th. Can he make up the deficit in the mountain stages to come? I’d love to think so but one thing I know for sure – Alberto Contador is not going to stop fighting in his last grand tour.
As for the controversy of the day – Warren Barguil being told by his Sunweb team to leave the Vuelta … well, that’s one for the upcoming Tweets of the Week.
Top 5 stage
1 Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) 4:37:55
2 Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) +0:02
3 Rafal Majka (Bora-hansgrohe) same time
4 Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) +0:26
5 Nelson Oliveira (Movistar) +0:28
Top 5 GC
1 Chris Froome (Sky) 32:26:13
2 Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) +0:28
3 Nicolas Roche (BMC) +0:41
4 Tejay van Garderen (BMC) +0:53
6 Vicenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) +0:58
All the jerseys
Leader: Chris Froome (Sky)
Points: Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors)
KOM: Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac)
Combined: Chris Froome (Sky)
Team Classification: Movistar
Most Aggressive Rider: Przemyslaw Niemiec (UAE Team Emirates)
Header image: Julian Alaphilippe ©GETTY/AFP/Jaime Reina