Simon Yates takes the initiative
As we’ve become accustomed to seeing him do so often this season, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) road on the front foot with the race leader’s jersey on his shoulders.
Rather than simply sit on his brother Adam’s wheel, Simon chose to attack over 10km away from the summit. Initially it seemed like a questionable move - was he panicking, worried about Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) who had escaped up the road?
On the contrary, the attack turned out to be a masterstroke when it became clear that Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was on a bad day. Yates pushed ahead with Kruijswijk and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), opening out a gap that exceeded one minute, and ultimately gaining 1-07 over his main rival. It seems unlikely Yates would have made such gains had he been more cautious in his approach.
Now boasting a 1-38 cushion ahead of Valverde, Yates is in a much stronger position on GC than he was 24 hours ago.
Anything can still happen on a stage as extreme as tomorrow’s - and there’s still the chance that he could feel the after-effects of going so deep today - but Yates should now go on to win the red jersey.
Thibaut Pinot doubles up
Any disappointment Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) might have felt at failing to mount a challenge for the podium must surely now have dissipated, following his second stage victory of the race.
Like his first win last week at Lagos de Covadonga, this one came at the top of another of the Vuelta’s longest summit finishes - unsurprisingly given the Frenchman’s preference for long and steady over short and steep climbs.
As the only rider in the leading trio without realistic podium aspirations, Pinot found himself in an ideal scenario to win the stage, with a licence to take fewer turns and conserve himself for the finish.
It was a surprise, therefore, to see him attack the others on multiple occasions, and even take a few turns setting the pace. It was only near the summit, with Kruijswijk dropped, that Pinot smartly sat on Yates’ wheel, ultimately producing an acceleration that saw him win the two-man sprint with ease.
Movistar endure a nightmare
Everything went wrong for Movistar today.
They started the stage full of optimism, and utilised their army of domestiques at the front of the peloton, setting a pace that gave the breakaway no chance of survival in an apparent attempt to target a stage victory (and the bonus seconds that come with it).
But despite initially putting the red jersey under pressure by having Quintana go out on the attack near the start of the long final climb, things quickly unravelled when Valverde started rocking from side-to-side on the bike - his tell that he is on a bad day.
Quintana dropped back to help assist him, but the team’s problems escalated when he punctured 6.5km from the line. Valverde opted to slacken the pace and wait for him to catch back up, but Quintana offered little help upon catching back up, as he was promptly dropped after an attack from Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana).
Both riders ultimately trudged to the line behind most of their rivals, Valverde in eighth at 1-12 and Quintana tenth at 1-49. The team face a big task if they’re to recover on tomorrow’s stage.
Was this the most exciting GC battle of the race so far?
Despite only featuring one climb categorised climb, this was perhaps the most eventful and exciting chapter in the GC race so far - there were attacks, riders dropped, and the 1-13 swing from Valverde to Yates was the most significant at the top yet.
For all the spectacle of the super-steep summit finishes that have been such a common feature of this race, the sheer length of the relatively modest Coll de la Rabassa (which averages 6.3%) made it a great setting for a more prolonged contest between the GC battle.
Instead of waiting until near the summit, hostilities were initiated around 13km away from the summit with Quintana’s attack, and the situation continued to ebb and flow from then all the way to the finish.
It might also be remembered as the day that Simon Yates made the move that won the Vuelta - depending on what happens tomorrow.
Will Yates’ rivals go for broke?
Now that the gap between Yates and his nearest rival Valverde (1-38) is considerably bigger than that between Valverde and fifth place Lopez (51 seconds) how many will go all in in an attempt to win the red jersey, and how many will be content to target a podium finish instead?
Depending on his condition, you’d expect Valverde to keep battling for red. With its short length and multiple climbs, tomorrow is exactly the kind of stage where teams with strength in numbers can isolate rivals early in the day and potentially gain lots of time, which will surely be Movistar’s strategy.
Steven Kruijswijk might have only just moved back into a podium place, but he’s the kind of aggressive rider who loves an ambitious attack (just remember his long-range move on the Alpe d’Huez stage at the Tour this season), and has a team that, like Movistar, is strong enough to put serious pressure on Yates.
Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors) and Miguel Angel Lopez are further down the GC at 2-15 and 2-29 respectively, but still both within touching distance of a podium finish. Given this, as well as the limited expectations that comes with their younger ages, both are unlikely to take the risks necessary to target first in favour of attempting to seal as high a runner-up finish as possible.
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