The thrill of seeing an unlikely break succeed
There are few things in bike racing more satisfying than seeing an unlikely breakaway of underdogs triumph over the peloton.
The spectacle is especially thrilling when the battle boils down to the very final seconds of the race, like on today’s stage seventeen where Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal) just about held of a charging bunch lead by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe). They were so close that the same time was awarded to them both – 100 metres longer, and the catch would have been made.
There wasn’t much competition to get into the day’s break, given the improbability of it succeeding on such a pan flat stage, and a three-man group was established quickly consisting of Wallays, Sven Erik Bystrøm (UAE Team Emirates) and Jetse Bol (Burgos-BH). The trio was actually kept in check for most of the day – it was only towards the finish, when the gap remained at just over one minute with around 10km to go, that they seemed to have a sniff .
Bol can consider himself unfortunate not to have a shot at stage victory after being distanced by the other two 7km from the line, but Wallays and Bystrøm rode admirably to hold off the bunch despite their reduced firepower.
Jelle Wallays is master of underdog breakaways
Jelle Wallays has a history of winning from long breakaways like today.
In fact, both his previous two biggest career wins came in similar circumstances. Victory at the 2014 Paris-Tours came through a successful two-man breakaway with Thomas Voeckler that formed at the very start of the race, while the Belgian also won the 2015 Dwars door Vlaanderen having also been part of the day’s break.
These past results seemed to give him the self-belief needed to press on and fight for the breakaway’s success – rather than express surprise at the post-race interview, Wallays insisted that he knew he could ‘surprise many riders’.
He also remained remarkably calm and tactically astute on the finishing straight, forcing Bystrøm to make the lead-out, and starting his sprint at just the right time to ensure the bunch did not swallow him up.
The result was a much-needed first win at this Vuelta for Lotto-Soudal, and Wallays received a big hug for team-mate Thomas de Gendt while being interviewed – a man who will appreciate a long-range breakaway more than most.
Sprinter teams waste rare chance
The Vuelta is notorious for reserving very few chances for the sprinters, and this year’s edition is no exception, having produced just two bunch sprints so far (one of which involving a significantly splintered peloton).
Today, however, was a rare chance for the sprinters to contest for stage victory, with an uncharacteristically flat parcours that featured not a single categorised climbs.
The sprinters will therefore be kicking themselves at letting the opportunity slip. Having hauled themselves through over a week of hilly terrain and steep summit finishes, this was supposed to be the pay-off that made it all worth it, but instead they will have to wait for the final stage in Madrid for one last chance.
Sagan looking quick despite defeat
He might have been left frustrated that he did not manage to win the stage, but Sagan should be encouraged by the explosive acceleration he produced on the finishing straight.
Sensing that the leading duo were set to succeed unless drastic action was taken, Sagan started his sprint early, bursting out of the bunch with over 300 metres still to go.
The world champion showed remarkable strength in maintaining his speed and, though he could not quite overtake Wallays and Bystrøm, he can take heart in getting the better of Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors), who finished behind him in fourth.
Although his upcoming target of the World Championships will require good climbing legs more than good sprinting legs, today’s ride is still a promising sign that he is coming into some good form.
One day closer to victory for Yates
Away from all the drama of the breakaway defeating the peloton, it was a very straightforward day for the GC riders.
There were no climbs to worry about, no serious crashes, and no crosswinds – the peloton was even helped along by a friendly tailwind for much of the day, accounting for what was an early finish.
These were ideal circumstances for Simon Yates, who moves one day closer to overall victory without being succumbed to any unwanted stress.
This will be seen as a welcome relief ahead of two final, decisive stages in the Pyrenees coming up.