Julian Alaphilippe claims maiden Grand Tour win
Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) may still only be 25 years old, but his first Grand Tour stage win has already felt long overdue.
Since exploding onto the scene two years ago with runner-up finishes in both Flèche-Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, he has very quickly established himself as one of the best puncheurs in the world, possessing a lethal acceleration, a strong engine, and a quick sprint finish – ideal attributes for a stage-winning specialist.
The Frenchman went on to impress at his debut Tour last year, but still came home empty handed, and didn’t get a chance to open his account at this year’s race when a knee surgery prevented him from racing
At Saturday’s stage eight of the Vuelta, he finally got the chance to again display his obvious ability at Grand Tour level, flying up the steep final climb – one he was very-well suited to – with Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), then unleashing his lethal kick to win the three-man sprint at a canter.
That performance was already a vast improvement on his seventh place three days ago, when he failed to contest for the stage win despite getting into the successful break. Having already suggested that he’s eyeing up tomorrow’s stage, we can expect to see a lot more of Alaphilippe this Vuelta
Chris Froome and Alberto Contador work together
On stage six, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) was left visibly frustrated at Chris Froome after the Sky rider chose not to work with him, despite the pair having opened up a gap over the rest of the favourites.
Today the same pair again emerged out of the group of favourites, only this time Froome’s approach was the opposite – he adopted the familiarly fearsome fast cadence he reserves for his most committed moves, and in fact it was he who did most of the pushing while Contador clung on to his wheel.
The ride suggests a change of attitude by Froome who previously said he may be happy for a non-GC rider to ‘look after’ the jersey for a while. His continued aggressive approach despite already being in the leader’s jersey indicates that he is eager to gain as much of an early buffer as possible on the GC, rather than hold back and wait for the time-trial.
At this stage of the race, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) is a potentially great ally for Froome. He’s clearly on great form and the two can work together to put time into the other contenders, but he’s also over three minutes down on GC, and not an immediate threat.
That could of course change should Contador manage to regain some time, but for now Froome seems to have recognised the benefits of working with the Spaniard rather than against him.
Bora-Hansgrohe narrowly miss out again
Bora-Hansgrohe’s Pawel Poljanski had been the nearly man at this race, finishing runner-up for two consecutive stages on Thursday and Friday.
Determined to go one better this time, Bora-Hansgrohe sent three riders in the break today, with the intent of setting up their star man Rafal Majka for the stage win.
The plan appeared to be working on the final climb as Emanuel Buchmann dropped most of the escapees with Majka on his wheel, but the one man who remained was the rider they feared the most – Alaphilippe.
As was to be expected, Majka lost out in the sprint to the Frenchman, and even finished down in third as Jan Polanc (UAE Emirates) caught up to the pair and also out-sprinted the Pole.
Bora-Hansgrohe can nevertheless take heart that Majka has apparently recovered from the stomach problems that saw him fall out of overall contention earlier in the race. In previous Grand Tours when he has lost lots of time early on, Majka has bounced back with attacking performances that have always borne fruit, be it through stage wins or the mountains classification – we can expect similar returns from him this time round.
Warren Barguil is sent home
The big, surprise story at the start of the day was the news that Team Sunweb had kicked their star rider Warren Barguil off the race.
Although the Frenchman is the team’s headline name following his heroics at the Tour last month, the team had made it clear internally that he was to stick to a domestique role at the Vuelta, in support of the fresher Wilco Kelderman.
In a statement released in the morning, Sunweb made clear they felt Barguil was going against team orders by riding for himself, and not offering sufficient assistance to Kelderman.
The incident will not on the face of it make for good PR for a team riding on the high of a sensational Tour de France, but does send a message that none of their riders are positioned above the greater good of the team.
The fact that Barguil is on his way out at the end of the season will no doubt have made the decision easier for Sunweb, too.
Big names lose time
Today’s final climb wasn’t quite long enough to cause serious gaps, especially given as it was followed by a descent to the finish, but Froome and Contador still managed to leave everyone in their wake.
Second overall Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) lost the pair’s wheels but did manage to limit his losses to 17 seconds, along with the Italian duo of Fabio Aru (Astana) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida).
BMC will be less happy as their GC duo of Nicolas Roche and Tejay van Garderen finished in a group another 11 seconds adrift, along with David De La Cruz (Quick-Step Floors), Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), whose brother Simon lost substantial time another 40 seconds back.
The time losses mean that now just four riders remain within one minute of Froome, and only another three within 1-30. If the pattern of this race continues, those gaps could spread out yet more on tomorrow’s summit finish.