Quintana v Froome, Gesink's big day, Valverde troubles and more from stage 14 of the Vuelta a España
Quintana can’t crack Froome
He made his first move as early as 8km from the summit of the Aubisque, although that was more of a warm-up for the onslaught he dished out in the final few kilometres, where he accelerated again and again to no avail.
It’s unusual to see a rider in the leader’s jersey race so aggressively, and demonstrates that Quintana know as well as anyone else that the 54 seconds he currently has over Froome will not be enough come the crucial final week time trial.
But unlike earlier in the race, where the Colombian was successfully dropping Froome and just about everybody else, the Sky rider’s form seems to have improved, to the extent that he is now happy to follow the attacks wheel-to-wheel, and not set his own pace.
With only one major mountain stage left on the race’s penultimate stage, the signs look ominous for Quintana.
Robert Gesink finally wins a Grand Tour stage
Given his obvious talent and the fact he’s been around for several years now, it’s surprising that it’s taken so long for Robert Gesink to win a Grand Tour stage.
The Dutchman has had considerable success in three-week races, finishing in the top ten of the Vuelta three times and twice at the Tour de France, but that stage win has always eluded him, often as he has chased high GC placings instead.
But having lost so much time on GC earlier on at this Vuelta, he has been free to go out on the attack. He just missed out on stage 10, when Quintana caught him heartbreakingly close to the line to deny him victory, but today he managed to both hold off an onrushing Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) and defeat fellow escapees Kenny Elissonde (FDJ) and Egor Silin (Katusha) in a sprint.
Given the health problems he has suffered in recent years – he required heart surgery in 2014 – it’s heart-warming to see this once highly tipped talent back performing on the biggest stage.
Orica-BikeExchange played a blinder
Fortune favours the bold, and Orica-BikeExchange reaped the rewards of being the only team to go for a long-range GC attack, with Simon Yates – seventh overall at the time – attacking on the penultimate climb of the day, the Marie Blanque.
Brave it may have been, but there was also a lot of smart calculation that went into the move. The team had sent up Jens Keukeleire, Magnus Cort Nielsen and Simon Gerrans in the day’s break, all of whom slowed down as Yates made his move, and were waiting for him at the top of the Marie Blanque to help him out on the subsequent descent and flat run-in to the Aubisque – stretches of road where he would have been at a great disadvantage had he been alone.
It was a superb individual ride by Yates, too, as he matched the pace of Quintana and Froome on the Aubisque to retain his lead of over a minute.
With Chaves now third 2-01 down on Quintana and Yates fourth at 2-17, the Aussie squad still have two cards to play on GC, and could cause a real headache for Froome and Quintana if they play them wisely.
Valverde endures jours sans
For all his consistency and ability to ride from February to October, when it comes to three-week Grand Tours Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) has always been hindered by the tendency to lose loads of time on one really bad day.
At this year’s Vuelta, that day was today, and the severity of the terrain means the blow was fatal. The Spaniard was dropped somewhere on the Abisque, and ultimately went on to finish over 10 minutes behind stage winner Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo).
He now lies way down in nineteenth overall, 10-14 down on Quintana. Not only does his chances of a podium finish appears over, but Movistar have also been deprived of a key tactical card – without having to worry about the potential GC threat of any attacks from Valverde, Froome’s life has been made much easier.
Overall, it was a thrilling stage
Up until now, the Vuelta had provided plenty of GC action, with the numerous uphill finishes drawing out the big names to do battle.
But today’s four-summit monster was a timely reminder of how the best GC stages are those where the racing kicks off early.
Days like stage 11’s finish at Pena Cabarga force significant time splits due to the severity of their finishes, but the absence of any notable climbs before the finish means the racing is condensed into just a short period of time at the end of the stage.
The presence of the Marie Blanque today meant that Simon Yates could open up hostilities very early on, and from that point onwards there was intrigue and action with virtually every pedal-stroke.
It was as thrilling stage, and probably the best of the 2016 Vuelta so far.