Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Alexis Gougeard took his first Grand Tour stage victory on stage 19 of the 2015 Vuelta a España, after attacking out of a large breakaway group, as race leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) extended his overall lead over Fabio Aru (Astana).
The 25-man break got away from the peloton with only 6km gone on the stage and it quickly became obvious that the winner would come from that group as they put over 15 minutes between them and the main bunch.
With a category two climb coming only around 20km from the finish and a small rise to the line in Avila, it was an ideal day for the break win it.
But the action only really got going with just over 40km to go on the 185km course from Medina del Campo, with Katusha’s Thiago Machado launching an attack shortly before the Alto La Paramera.
The Portuguese put 40 seconds into his former companions, before Gougeard bridged across with Maxime Monfort (Lotto Soudal), Andrey Amador (Movistar) and Amael Moinard (BMC) in tow.
The fivesome road disjointedly over the final climb of the day and down the descent before Frenchman Gougeard went solo and had 15 seconds over his rivals with 10km to go.
While the four behind chased, it never looked convincing as they failed to work together well enough to put a dent in the 22-year-old’s lead, as he entered the final uphill to the line with around 30 seconds over them.
It was a convincing victory for the time trial specialist as he sailed across the line with time to celebrate, in his biggest victory to date in his young career.
Behind the breakaway action, the battle for the GC placings began to hot-up on the final climb, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) the most active in attacks, putting space between him and the likes of Dumoulin, Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) on the fast descent.
The Spanish champion couldn’t make it last though, and was brought back to the main bunch as they approached the run-in to the finish.
On this less mountainous day of the Vuelta, Dumoulin was able to utilise his sprint orientated teammates for once in the final, with the shallow gradient and cobbled road into Avila more suiting to powerful riders than climbers.
Both the red jersey and his closest rival Aru, whose Astana team tried to set him up to take back the three seconds he’d lost in Wednesday’s time trial, were both taken down in a crash earlier in the day, with Aru having come off worse.
But both were towards the front as the race reached its conclusion and Dumoulin’s Giant teammates set a ferocious pace as they dropped the Dutchman off to power to the line.
He quickly gapped his rivals, with Dani Moreno (Katusha) the only one able to follow, and ended up putting in a further three seconds on Aru heading into the penultimate stage on Saturday.
That stage features no less than four category one mountains for the peloton to navigate, and will be Astana’s last chance to help their Italian leader into the red jersey heading into Madrid on Sunday.
With no summit finish on the 175.8KM route from San Lorenzo de El Escorial to Cercedilla, it’ll be another fast finish with a breakaway likely to succeed. But the biggest battle will be going on behind as the GC contenders have their last throw of the dice in this Vuelta a España.
Vuelta a España stage 19, Medina del Campo – Ávila (185.8km)
1. Alexis Gougeard (Fra) AG2R – La Mondiale, in 4-19-20
2. Nelson Oliveira (Por) Lampre – Merida, at 40 secs
3. Maxime Monfort (Bel) Lotto Soudal, at 44 secs
4. Andrey Amador (CRc) Movistar, st
5. Tiago Machado (Por) Katusha, st
6. Amael Moinard (Fra) BMC, st
7. Fabio Duarte (Col) Colombia, at 53 secs
8. David Arroyo (Esp) Caja-Rural, at 1-03
9. Christian Knees (Ger) Team Sky, at 1-17
10. Fran Ventoso (Esp) Movistar, st
25. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Giant-Alpecin, at 16-18
26. Daniel Moreno (Esp) Katusha, st
28. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, at 16-21
29. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, st
33. Rafal Majka (Pol) Tinkoff-Saxo, at 16-27
34. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, st
36. Joaquim Rodriguez (Esp) Katusha, st
37. Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-GreenEdge, st
Overall standings after 18 stages
1. Tom Dumoulin (Ned) Giant-Alpecin, 78-20-51
2. Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana, at 6s
3. Joaquim Rodriguez (Esp) Katusha, at 1-24
4. Rafal Majka (Pol) Tinkoff-Saxo, at 2-31
5. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar, at 3-02
6. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 3-24
7. Esteban Chaves (Col) Orica-GreenEdge, at 3-39
8. Dani Moreno (Esp) Katusha, at 3-46
9. Mikel Nieve (Esp) Astana, at 4-19
10. Louis Meintjes (RSA) MTN-Qhubeka, at 7-00