Jakob Fuglsang makes up for Tour de France disappointment
Plenty of riders were up for the fight on stage 16 of the 2019 Vuelta a España, with the second rest day in sight.
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Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang was amongst those most motivated, making it into a breakaway full of hitters and looking imperious on the early slopes of the final climb.
Fuglsang proved his return from injury is complete as he rode to his first Grand Tour stage win, comfortably pulling clear of his breakaway rivals and taking victory by more than 20 seconds.
The Dane will have been full of hope for this Vuelta, having ridden the season of his life but being forced out of the Tour de France due to injury on stage 16.
While his general classification ambitions have taken a back-seat to Colombian star Miguel Ángel López, Fuglsang gripped the opportunity to win the stage.
Having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in spring, then the Critérium du Dauphiné, and following up with a maiden stage victory in the Vuelta, Fuglsang is undeniably one of the most formidable riders this season.
Primož Roglič will not be denied
Despite starting the day more than two minutes ahead of his closest rival Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), race leader Primož Roglič was on the offensive late in the day on stage 16.
Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) attacked Valverde on the slopes of the final climb and pulled out a comfortable gap, as he bridged up to López and Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates), who are locked in a battle for third place (and the young rider’s classification).
While Roglič’s favoured battleground is the individual time trial, his relentless attacking performances this Vuelta have also shown he is not afraid to go deep on a mountain stage, as he consistently extends his advantage.
The Slovenian pulled another 20 seconds out of Valverde on stage 16, extending his advantage to 2-48 over the Spaniard.
With two GC days remaining, it looks as if an unexpected disaster may have to strike for Roglič to miss out on winning his first Grand Tour.
Alejandro Valverde struggles in the fight for red
Valverde himself has admitted he’s not sure if he can fight for victory in his home tour, but the world champion has been a valiant contender in the first two weeks of racing.
But the cracks began to show for Valverde on stage 16, as Roglič rode away and he was unable to follow, suggesting his rival may be taking the upper hand even in the mountains.
Valverde, 39, finds himself in a similar position to the 2018 Vuelta where he was left trailing Simon Yates in the final few mountain stages, eventually slipping off the podium as the fatigue took its toll.
With just two more opportunities to topple Roglič, Valverde and Movistar need to be the aggressors, and their favoured son has little left to prove, so I anticipate some fireworks from the riders in blue.
Tao Geoghegan Hart and James Knox closing in on victory
British riders were a prominent force in the stage 16 breakaway, with Team Ineos’s Tao Geoghegan Hart and James Knox from Deceuninck – Quick-Step all making the final selection.
Geoghegan Hart was the best of the rest atop Alto de la Cubilla. Lena, setting off in pursuit of Fuglsang too late and taking second.
The 24-year-old finished second on the stage, improving on his third-place finish the day before and continuing to close in on a first Grand Tour stage victory.
Knox was also there on the final climb, not quite able to hold the head of the race but still finishing fourth – his best result in a three-week race.
The 23-year-old also jumps up six places on general classification to 11th, now sitting around 1-20 off a top-10 finish in his second Grand Tour.
King of the Mountain fight still wide open
While it may not be the most anticipated of battles, the mountain classification has been quietly hotting up.
Having led the competition from stage one, Ángel Madrazo (Burgos-BH) has finally conceded the polka dot jersey to Geoffrey Bouchard (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Bouchard now leads over Madrazo by 10 points, but with two key mountain stages remaining, with some brutal first category climbs along the way, we could see a lively battle at the summits in this final week.