Miguel Ángel López regain the race lead
He might have lost significant time last Sunday, but today, on the first summit finish of the race, Miguel Ángel López (Astana) was the strongest of the GC candidates.
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Having been one of a select few riders to follow a move from Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), López made one of his trademark explosive attacks a few kilometres from the summit finish, and went on to solo all the way to the finish.
The result means that the Colombian regains the red jersey he first attained after the opening team time trial, with a 14 second lead over Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) in second place.
López now enters new territory as a GC rider. In previous Grand Tours he has tended to lose time early on, giving him a license to ride aggressively and with more freedom. Now, however, he has an overall lead to defend, putting him under more pressure and leaving him with the responsibility of managing attacks.
Having already lost the overall lead after just one day to attacks from his GC rivals on stage two, it’s easy to see how he might be vulnerable in such a position. The 25-year old looks very strong, but will need to mature as a rider if he intends to keep it for longer this time.
Ángel Madrazo claims unlikely stage win for Burgos-BH
When Ángel Madrazo joined José Herrada (Cofidis) and Burgos-BH team-mate Jetse Bol in the day’s break, his primary thought will have been to pick up as many mountains points as possible to extend his lead in that classification, rather than harbouring ambitions of a stage win.
Indeed, after being first over the Puerto de Alcublas and Alto Fuente de Rubielos, he was dropped on the third and final climb with over 7km still left to ride, at which point it seemed the best he could hope for was third place at the summit to secure more King of the Mountains points, if he could hold off the peloton.
However, Madrazo dug deep and managed to claw his way back to the two leaders, a sequence of events that became a frequent pattern over the course of the rest of the climb.
Even on the run-in to the finish, having regained contact with the other two for the umpteenth time, his first thought seemed to be to set-up a lead out for Bol.
However, to everyone’s surprise – perhaps even to his own – Madrazo actually managed to drop both riders with his acceleration, and claim the stage victory for himself.
It was a result that hugely exceeded expectations, and easily becomes the highlight of the 31-year-old’s career .
Roche battles hard but loses red
It was always going to be a tall order for Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) to defend his slender overall lead on such a tough finishing climb, and indeed the Irisihman lost the red jersey to Miguel Ángel López by 57 seconds, and slips to fifth overall.
However, it was an impressively resilient performance from the 35-year-old, and further evidence that he is enjoying his best form for several years.
He was only put into trouble when Alejandro Valverde made his attack, and went on to finish the stage in 14th place – ahead of his Sunweb team’s ostensible leader, Wilco Kelderman.
Although he doesn’t look quite at the level of the top GC favourites, there’s a good chance that we’ll see more of Roche at the front of the race these coming two and a half weeks. Could even a first Grand Tour top 10 since 2013 be on the cards?
Movistar leaders fail to ride as a unit yet again
Having started the race so well with a stage win on Sunday courtesy of Nairo Quintana, Movistar were today yet again suspect of the kind of baffling tactics that characterised their farcical Tour de France.
It had seemed that Quintana had confirmed his status as outright, undisputed team leader for the GC, however Alejandro Valverde appeared to be riding against his team-mate on today’s summit finish. After Quintana was dropped following Valverde’s acceleration, the Spaniard opted to continue pushing on with GC rivals like Roglič rather than wait and support his supposed team leader.
With the three breakaway riders still way up the road, there was no chance of Valverde claiming a stage victory, so we can only presume that he does, contrary to his pre-race comments, fancy his chances of a high GC finish for himself.
With a move to Arkéa-Samsic next season all but confirmed, it seems Quintana can command no loyalty from Valverde and perhaps even the rest of the team.
Both riders look strong, and are still well-positioned on GC at third and fourth overall respectively, but a lack of cohesive riding could end up costing them a potential overall victory.
Contrasting fortunes for other GC hopefuls
As the first summit finish of the race, today was a very revealing stage as regards to which riders are capable of challenging for the overall, and which riders are lacking the form.
Along with López and Valverde, Primož Roglič was the best performer, finishing sixth on the line with Valverde just 12 seconds behind Lopez after receiving exceptional support from his young American team-mate Sepp Kuss. With a superior time trial and a superb team to back him up, the Slovenian might just be the man to beat at this Vuelta.
Also impressive was young revelation Tadej Pogačar, who showed similar form to that which won him the Tour of California and Volta ao Algarve earlier this year to finish the stage in seventh, just 42 seconds behind López and 30 behind Roglič and Valverde. Whether a rider as young as he (he only turns 21 next month) is capable of maintaining such a high level for a whole three week on his first ever Grand Tour is yet to be seen, but will be fascinating to find out.
Not quite as impressive were Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) and Rafał Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe), who each arrived individually at the finish a few seconds adrift from the aforementioned favourites, but end the day decently placed on GC in sixth, seventh and eighth respectively.
The likes of Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), Sergio Higuita (EF Education First), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) and David de la Cruz (Ineos), however, will probably have to wave goodbye to any hopes of a high GC finish, having all been dropped early on the mountain to lose several minutes each.