A misjudged sprint from Sagan - or perhaps the result of a chase back to the bunch?

Sagan pipped in the sprint

Sagan’s Vuelta performance – up until Friday’s second place – suggested he was experiencing a bit of a drop in form after his record-equalling sixth green jersey at the 2018 Tour de France.

The Slovakian crashed on stage 17 in France, and abandoned the European Championships road race citing pain following the impact, as well as feeling unwell.

In the opening stages of this year’s Vuelta,  Sagan was struggling on towards the rear of the race – but on Friday he managed to head up the sprint behind Tony Gallopin’s (AG2R La Mondiale) breakaway win on stage seven to take second.

There he managed to outpace today’s victor, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).

Perhaps the success had given him a false sense of confidence – because today he showed his face to the wind with a full 100 metres to go, and ultimately lost out to Valverde by a full bike length as the 38-year-old accelerated past him.

This said, the Slovakian was left chasing on after a puncture with 53km to go, so it’s possible the minute-long gap he had to close simply sapped the zing from his legs.

Another chaotic finish

The final kilometre presented a technical challenge. Image: Sunada

The wide, straight roads over the later kilometres provided a little respite for the rider’s after the narrow, technical twists and turns of Friday’s closing k’s. However, the Vuelta organisers weren’t going to let the peloton get away with an easy finish.

Firstly – the 195.1km stage accumulated 200 metres of climbing, so even though there was just one classified climb, it was hardly a sprinter’s paradise – the only pure fast-man to feature on the podium was third placed Danny van Poppel (Lotto-Jumbo).

The route planners – in the Vuelta style which saw them pack nine summit finishes into the three week race – also chose to add a 180º turn, facilitated by a roundabout, with 800 metres to go.

The result was that sprinter’s and their protectors were fighting for position in advance of the merry-go-round. Anyone caught further back than intended had little chance of the win.

12-minutes not enough for the breakaway

The breakaway trio was fighting a losing battle. Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images

When Tiago Machado (Katusha-Alpecin), Jorge Cubero (Burgos-BH) and Héctor Sáez (Euskadi-Murias) escaped from the drop of the flag, they certainly weren’t hanging around.

Sáez of course is well practised, this being the Spaniard’s third day in the break on his home roads.

The trio worked in harmony to average just shy of 44km/h in their first 60 minutes of racing – obtaining a healthy margin of 12-minutes on the bunch with 120 kilometres to go.

The Alto de Españares was the day’s only categorised climb – and it wasn’t an overly testing one, at 3.4 per cent over 10.3km. However, the incline marked the beginning of the end and the break’s advantage began to sink following the summit.

Is Valverde the rider to beat?

Valverde takes to the podium to celebrate his win. Photo by Sunada

Right now the ruby red of the leader’s jersey sits on the shoulders of Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ). However, today’s winner Valverde is setting himself up to be the rider to beat.

After eight days of racing, the Spaniard has now taken two wins, and is sitting in second place overall, 37s adrift of Frenchman Molard.

Winner of the 2009 Vuelta, the Movistar rider has past form on Spanish roads and there’s little doubt that he’s got the legs to cope with Sunday’s monster of a ride  – which includes an ascent of the 15km Puerto del Pico as well as a punishing summit finish up La Covatilla.

Yates is maintaining a conservative approach (just)

Simon Yates on stage four of the 2018 Vuelta a España (Sunada)

Simon Yates’s Mitchelton-Scott team said in advance of the Spanish race that they’d “learned lessons” after his Giro d’Italia performance, which saw him lose a solid lead in the final week by cracking spectacularly on stage 19.

The idea was to approach the Vuelta as a learning experience, and to take a “different approach.”

However, on stage four’s finishing climb near Granada, Yates seemed to forget that, attacking to gain 27s on the leader at the time – Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky).

“It wasn’t the plan, I got carried away” Yates said afterwards.

On stage eight, he could be seen staying comfortable and safe towards the front of the bunch. It remains to be seen if he’ll hold on to the conservative approach over the mountains of stage nine.