Crosswind chaos sees Quintana leap back into overall contention
What was widely expected to be a long, dull transition stage culminating in a conventional bunch sprint turned out to be a classic, as crosswinds blew the race to pieces.
Blink and you would have missed it. The average speed for the day was an astonishing 50.63kmh, as what was predominantly a tail and cross/tail wind blew the riders at an extraordinary pace, with the leaders arriving at the finish well over an hour ahead of the quickest expected time of arrival.
Windy conditions at the start of the day suggested that something interesting might be in store, and that indeed turned out to be the case as a group of over 40 riders broke clear from the rest of the peloton amid the windy conditions - including Nairo Quintana (Movistar).
At 7-43 down on GC and with his form deteriorating, any hopes of even a podium place for Quintana had seemed over before today. However, as the only major GC man to get into the lead group, he bounced right back into contention, even briefly threatening to take the red jersey when the gap exceeded six minutes halfway into the stage, before ultimately taking 5-19 on Roglič and the others.
The result is that Quintana is now second overall, 2-24 behind Roglič.
Quintana has a history of surprise long-range attacks. His overall victory at the 2016 Vuelta a España, for instance, was in no small part due to a stage in which he formed part of a large group that broke clear at the start of the day while his main GC rival Chris Froome and his Sky domestiques were all caught out.
Whether Quintana has the form to put Roglič’s lead under pressure, or even defend his podium position, remains questionable, but he’s a very dangerous man to give a second chance to.
Philippe Gilbert finishes off Deceuninck-Quick-Step masterclass
Taking advantage of the windy conditions they specialise in, Deceuninck-Quick-Step played a blinder to win the stage courtesy of Philippe Gilbert.
The Belgian squad are in their element in such conditions, and they managed to play their entire team besides Max Richeze into the lead group, putting them in a prime position to win the stage.
Their chances took a hit, however, when the pace proved too much for their leading sprinter, Fabio Jakobsen, who was dropped on a small uphill incline 50km from the finish. Rémi Cavagna initially dropped back to help him, but soon left him to rejoin the lead group once it became clear that Jakobsen’s legs had blown.
The team still had plenty of cards to play to pull off a stage win, and - as we have seen so many times in the spring Classics - they did so to perfection. They key move was made 2.3km from the finish when Zdeněk Štybar attacked the group. He remained out in front with a small gap inside the final kilometre, prompting Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) to start his sprint much earlier than he would have liked.
Philippe Gilbert capitalised, latching into Bennett’s wheel, then, once the Irishman was fatigued from the effort of catching and passing Štybar, pounced himself to win the stage - his second of the 2019 Vuelta.
Movistar’s tactics intrigue once more
Movistar’s tactics and potential acrimony between their two leaders Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana has been a talking point throughout the race, and once again came to the fore today.
With Quintana up the road gaining time over all the other GC riders, Movistar’s best tactical option appeared to be simple - continue to push the pace in the lead group, while Valverde and the domestiques left in the peloton and let their GC rivals do all the work chasing.
But with 45km they suddenly moved to the front of the peloton and upped the pace, in what initially seemed an inexplicable move, given that they were also leading the breakaway group up front.
However, rather than the onset of all-out civil war inside the team, there was method in the madness. Movistar had sensed Jumbo-Visma were weakening, and wanted to isolate Roglič; that they did, and subsequently attempted to distance the red jersey with an attack
Roglič was quick to respond, however, and stuck steadfastly to Valverde’s wheel, prompting Movistar to soon knock off the pace. Astana then took up the responsibility of chasing, and things settled down again.
Gaining time into Roglič would have been a huge bonus, but Movistar can still be very happy with their day’s work. With Quintana in second at 2-24 and Valverde third at 2-48, they’re well placed to put Roglič under pressure in the final stages. Overall victory for one of their riders is still a possibility.
Sam Bennett misses out on third stage win
Despite all the chaos, today could easily have resulted in the most predictable outcome - Sam Bennett winning the stage in a sprint.
The Bora-Hansgrohe rider managed to make it into the lead group after the split, and was happy to take a back seat while other teams interested in the GC race set the tempo.
However, he faced one big problem - Deceuninck-Quick-Step. The Belgian squad were the best represented in the group, and had the formidable cards of classics specialists Zdeněk Štybar and Philippe Gilbert to play.
As mentioned above, those two combined perfectly to get the better of him.
Starting his sprint so early and blowing up well before the finish line might have looked like a bad tactical mistake, but in truth there was little the Irishman could do in such circumstances - with no team-mates to chase down the Deceuninck-Quick-Step attacks, the onus was on him to do all the work.
He’ll be disappointed, but there are still two more chances to add to the couple of stage wins he’s already bagged at this race.
Knox and Kelderman the day’s other big winners
Nairo Quintana wasn’t the only rider to move up the GC today.
Joining him in the leading group was Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) and James Knox (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), who move up respectively from eighth and 11th to sixth and eighth on the overall.
That seals an excellent couple of stages for Knox, who had already moved up from 17th on Monday having made the break on that day, too. At this point, an overall top 10 finish on his first ever Grand Tour is looking like a real possibility.
The presence of both these riders in the break was crucial to the move’s success. If Movistar had been the only team in the group with GC ambitions, they would have likely been left to do the vast majority of work themselves, with the other teams happy with the gap being just big enough to ensure the stage win was on the cards.
But with Sunweb and Deceuninck-Quick-Step also invested in opening as big a gap as possible, there was plenty of firepower to maintain a high pace all day.
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