Majka defies the odds
Heading into the stage’s huge final climb up Sierra de la Pandara, the gap of less than two minutes held by the breakaway over the peloton looked unlikely to be enough for any of the escapees to contend for the stage win.
Yet, even as the group disintegrated as one-by-one each rider hit the wall and were swallowed up by the peloton, Rafal Majka (Bora Hansgrohe) soldiered on, even surviving a flurry of accelerations by the chasing GC riders to claim a very impressive victory.
Given his past record, perhaps we shouldn’t have doubted his chances. In past Tours de France Majka has found himself alone at the front of the race on similarly difficult mountain top finishes, at Risoul and Pla d’Adet, and on both those occasions he also managed to pull off stage wins.
He’s one of the very best climbers at this Vuelta and the only reason he isn’t up there racing for GC is a bout of illness that saw him lose time at the start of the race. That misfortune has at least freed him up to get into breaks, and we doubt this will be the last time we see him out on the attack – his tally of one stage win, and Poland’s tally of three, may yet get bigger.
Poels plays a crucial role for Froome
Whereas Gianni Moscon played the most eye-catching supporting role for Chris Froome in recent days, the familiar face of Wout Poels again emerged as Sky’s most valuable super-domestique on the race’s first especial mountain top finish.
Froome was not as bullish as he had been earlier in the race, and at one point seemed under pressure as the dangerous trio of Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) formed a group a handful of seconds up the road on the final climb.
When Mikel Nieve finished his turn at the front of the chasing group, Poels was the only Sky domestique left to support Froome, so it was essential that he had the legs to look after his leader.
As we’ve seen so often in the past, the Dutchman was resilient as ever, keeping the attackers in check with a steady pace, and ensuring that they were in sight when he finally had to swing a few kilometres later, allowing Froome to bridge up to them himself.
Poels even managed to catch back up to the group of favourites once the pace slowed down and put in one final turn near the summit, just to discourage the others from trying to attack again.
With other, similarly sized mountain finishes to come, Poels will continue to play an indispensable role in Sky’s race.
Froome’s rivals are still full of fight
Given how Froome has dominated this Vuelta up to now, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see the other GC riders already start to turn their attentions towards securing a podium spot rather than continue to chase overall victory.
But today suggested that was not the case, as the leader was put under pressure by several attacks, even if nobody managed to make any serious inroads on his lead.
By digging deep and attacking him early on the climb, Nibali, Chaves and Contador all risked blowing up and instead losing substantial time.
Indeed, that’s exactly what happened to Chaves, who despite instigating the move ended up falling back and ceding nearly half a minute.
Froome may have again come out on top today, but if his rivals remain bold and continue to work together to put him under pressure, his position at the top of the GC remains precarious.
Cream rises to the top on the Sierra de la Pandera
As the first especial category summit finish, the Sierra de la Pandera confirmed which riders we can expect to see fight it out for the top places on GC, and which riders will fall away now the serious climbing has started.
Froome and Nibali were once more in the thick of it, and look like the race’s two most likely overall winners, while Contador and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) again produced attacking performances that suggested they will continue to climb up the top ten and push for sports on the podium.
Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) will both also be eyeing up a podium finish, after stealthy yet impressive performances that saw them finish in the same group as the red jersey, and thus move up a place on GC ahead of Chaves to third and fourth respectively.
The likes of Fabio Aru (Astana), Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) and David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors), however, all struggled on the climb and were dropped early, meaning that a top-10 finish may be a more realistic goal.
A mixed day for Astana
Astana was one of several teams – including Bahrain-Merida and Katusha-Alpecin – to put domestiques to work at the front of the peloton with the intention of bringing things back together
The team will be left lamenting their failure to do so, given that the explosive attack put in by Lopez towards the top of the summit to take second would otherwise have been a stage-winning move.
The team will also have been disappointed by the form of Aru, who lost time on the climb and was dropped, ironically, when his team-mate Pello Bilbao was setting the pace.
The fact Bilbao continued to press on suggests that Lopez is now the team’s designated leader, and, on the plus side for Astana, the Colombian’s ride was very encouraging – both in terms of being further confirmation of his sensational talent, and a sign that he can push for a podium finish, now that he lies just 1-31 down on third overall.