Gianni Meersman finally bags Grand Tour win
For years Gianni Meersman has played the role of Etixx-QuickStep’s understudy for sprinter stages, filling in only when bigger name teammates like Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen were not in contention.
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He’s generally done a good job when given the chance, too, although most of his biggest results came several years ago, such a couple of stage wins at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie in 2013.
But today’s victory at the Vuelta is easily the biggest of his career, and the fact he won it so comfortably suggests there could be more to come.
There aren’t many out-and-out sprinter stages over the next three weeks, but Meersman has marked himself out as the man to beat.
Kwiatkowski is the new overall leader
Peter Kennaugh’s stint as overall leader may only have lasted one day, but the red jersey remains in house for Team Sky as Kwiatkowski takes over.
By finishing fourth in the bunch sprint, the Polish rider ensured he finished ahead of every other Sky and Movistar rider – all of whom were on the same time following yesterday’s stage – to take the overall lead.
The very fact Kwiatkowski was contesting the bunch sprint suggests he’s in good shape, meaning a lengthy spell in the red jersey could be in the offing. At his best, the 26-year-old is one of the best in the world at short, steep uphill finishes, and will therefore cherish the other stages in store during this opening week.
He’ll be in for a real fight, though, with the top of the GC so tightly packed together and a particularly selective climb finishing off tomorrow’s stage – Alejandro Valverde in particular will be a threat.
Riders look to capitalise on lack of sprinters
Usually a stage like this, held at the start of a Grand Tour and featuring just the one categorised climb, plays out in very formulaic fashion – a small break of minnows gets away, the bunch keeps them in check, catches them towards the end and it all ends in a bunch sprint.
But today saw several opportunistic attacks towards the end of the stage, with riders slipping off the front of the peloton even before the day’s original break had been caught.
There were big names involved, too. No less than Philippe Gilbert (BMC) was the first to try his hand, going on a lone venture on an uncategorised climb with just under 40km to go. Later, Thiago Machado (Katusha) accelerated out of the bunch, and was followed by half a dozen other riders restlessly contemplating a committed attack.
Evidently these riders were all encouraged by the lack of big name sprinters present at this year’s Vuelta, and perhaps sensed a chance to get away without the usual huge sprinting trains reeling them in.
Each move was ultimately unsuccessful, but could be a sign of things to come in future stages.
There’s going to be some unusual names in the mix for bunch sprints
The lack of big name sprinters doesn’t just aid escape artists, but also smaller name sprinters presented with a rare chance of winning Grand Tour stages over these next three weeks.
Meersman is one name to have already benefited, and there were several riders finishing just behind him who will also fancy their chances in upcoming bunch finishes.
25-year old Michael Schwarzmann (Bora-Argon 18) was second on his first ever Grand Tour road stage, while 23-year old Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-BikeExchange) – who is yet to land a win at WorldTour level – was third.
Among the marginally more familiar names to finish further down the top ten were stage winner from last year Kristian Sbaragli (Dimension Data) and heralded young talent Niccolo Bonifazio (Trek-Segafredo). For whoever comes out on top in the few upcoming sprint stages, it will be a huge result for them.
It was a very slow day
Whether it was due to the Spanish heat, anticipation of three weeks of tough racing or any other reason, the riders took it very easy today.
The peloton finally made it to the finish at 18:05 local time, way down on the expected time of arrival.
Gilbert’s attack with 39km to go eventually sparked them into life, but prior to that it was something of a slog.