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As the GC riders played a game of cat and mouse up the final climb of the 2021 Vuelta a España, Ag2r Citroën's Clément Champoussin came past like a French TGV, charging up the final couple of kilometres of stage 20, eyes and mouth wide open first in shock, then in delight, as he took not just his debut Grand Tour stage win, but his maiden professional victory.
Primož Roglič came through in second place shortly afterwards, outsprinting Adam Yates, who had continued to attack up the gradient but was unable to escape the Slovenian, as Enric Mas trailed in next, a slight gap back to Jack Haig in fifth.
The first big shock of the day had come on an earlier climb, when Egan Bernal softened the field with a move before Yates came over the top, Miguel Ángel López unwilling to chase and letting a gap open up that would never close, eventually abandoning the race, Bernal also trapped on the wrong side of the split.
Haig moves up into the podium placings, with only the final time trial tomorrow standing in the way of Roglič winning his third consecutive red jersey.
How it happened
The final road stage of this year’s Vuelta saw a number of riders trying to get in the last breakaway of the race.
Numerous attacks went off the front before a large breakaway group assembled, featuring Matteo Trentin, Ryan Gibbons, Clément Champoussin, Mark Padun, Romain Bardet and Michael Storer.
Soon, their advantage was up to eight minutes, the GC contenders braced for a final test to their placings in the overall standings.
Storer led over the first climb of the day, unchallenged by team-mate Romain Bardet who was out of sorts back at the medical car, as the young rider extended his lead in the polka dot jersey competition. Meanwhile, Jack Haig suffered a puncture behind, forced to chase back up.
Ineos came to the front on the second climb of the day, forcing the pace, the gap to the front coming down to five and a half minutes with 70km remaining, only 30 riders left in the peloton now.
Trentin attacked the break on the descent, soon joined by Bardet, team-mate Gibbons, and Lilian Calmejane, before Trentin dropped and was replaced by Mark Padun at the front of affairs.
Onto the Alto de Mougás and soon it was really only the GC men left in what had been the peloton. Bernal then opened up proceedings, as he's become accustomed to, jumping away off the front before Yates came over the top, taking a group away with him, as up front Storer and Champoussin made it back into the front group, the former taking more KOM points.
Miguel Ángel López had missed the move caused by Yates, Roglič, Haig, Mäder and Mas joining the Brit up the road, and the Colombian was forced to chase.
Ryan Gibbons attacked the leaders with 50km to go, as behind López was losing time and the battle as his chase faltered, Haig about to leapfrog him into third place.
Gibbons soon had 40 seconds, up to a minute and a half when he hit the Alto de Prado, the López/Bernal group now four minutes in arrears of the other GC riders.
20km to go and Gibbons was just over a minute ahead of the remnants of the breakaway, Roglič’s group lurking a further minute behind them.
Reports then started to come through that López had stopped riding, Movistar’s Head of Performance Patxi Vila trying and failing to persuade him to continue as the Colombian abandoned.
Mark Padun had by now dropped back to help the efforts of Haig’s podium pursuit, and at the bottom of the final climb, the Alto Castro de Herville, Gibbons had 1-20 over the Roglič group.
Not long after the road started going uphill, on a steeper part of the climb, Yates attacked, Gibbons now only half a minute ahead and Yates unable to shake off Roglič and co. The Ineos man tried again and again, but to no avail, before Roglič pushed on himself, catching Gibbons just before the 5km banner.
But as the GC riders looked at each other, Gibbons went again, as did Bizkarra from behind, clawing back 30 seconds of advantage. The South African was soon back in the fold, Mas countering this time before Gibbons went again, unwilling to lie down, as was Bizkarra who also had one last throw of the dice.
Yates tried one final time with 2km to go, Bizkarra and Gibbons caught once more, before another rush from behind, this time Clément Champoussin, and no-one picked up the chase.
And this close to the line the Frenchman had stolen a march on the rest, taking out a 25-second gap and the others nowhere to be seen behind as he toiled up the final harsh gradient to cross the line and take his first-ever professional victory - Roglič sprinting into second place not long after, ahead of Yates, Mas and Haig.
Vuelta a España 2021, stage 20: Sanxenxo to Mos. Castro de Herville (202.2km)
1. Clément Champoussin (Fra) Ag2r Citroën, in 5-21-50
2. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma, at six seconds
3. Adam Yates (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 8s
4. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar, at same time
5. Jack Haig (Aus) Bahrain-Victorious, at 12s
6. Chris Hamilton (Aus) DSM, at 16s
7. Mikel Bizkarra (Esp) Euskaltel-Euskadi, at 23s
8. Ryan Gibbons (RSA), at 26s
9. Gino Mäder (Sui), at same time
10. Floris De Tier (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix, at 50s
General classification after stage 20
1. Primož Roglič (Slo) Team Jumbo-Visma, in 83-11-27
2. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar Team, at 2-38
3. Jack Haig (Aus) Team Bahrain Victorious, at 4-48
4. Adam Yates (GBr) Ineos Grenadiers, at 5-48
5. Gino Mäder (Sui) Team Bahrain-Victorious, at 8-14
6. Egan Bernal (Col) Ineos Grenadiers, at 11-38
7. Sepp Kuss (USA) Team Jumbo-Visma, at 13-42
8. Guillaume Martin (Fra) Cofidis, at 16-11
9. David De La Cruz (Esp) UAE Team Emirates, at 16-19
10. Felix Großschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 20-30
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