Ben King’s win gives Dimension Data something to smile about
It’s been a rotten season for Dimension Data. Their marquee rider Mark Cavendish has been beset by injuries, they lie bottom of the WorldTour rankings, and have won just two races on European roads all season.
Today finally saw a long-awaited change in fortunes, however, as Ben King sealed a stage victory from the break on the race’s first summit finish.
It’s a huge win for both the team – a first at either WorldTour or Grand Tour level since the 2017 Tour de France – and King himself, whose previous biggest career wins had come at the Tour of California and Critérium International.
The day could have been even more of a triumph, as King for a while harboured very realistic hopes of also becoming the race’s new overall leader. The gap between King’s break and the peloton remained over nine minutes with 20km still to ride, making the American the virtual red jersey by nearly five minutes.
An increase in pace after the GC teams began to do battle denied King the chance to wear red, but he’ll no doubt be delighted with the stage victory nonetheless.
Simon Yates reassumes Giro form and approach
There was a sense of déjà-vu on today’s summit finish. Just as he did time and time again at the Giro d’Italia earlier in the season, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) attacked the group of the favourites several kilometres from the finish; and, as tended to be the outcome in Italy, the attack was a success, with the Briton gaining 27 seconds over race leader Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) and most of the other favourites.
After he capitulated so spectacularly at the end of the Giro through fatigue, we might have expected a more cautious approach from Yates early in this race, but that was certainly not the case today as he committed to an attack while his rivals road more conservatively.
This approach might be better suited to the Vuelta than the Giro, as the parcours is characterised more by modest stages that finish on the kind of steep, punchy climbs he won three stages on, and less by the long mountain stages with multiple hard climbs that proved his undoing last May.
Today’s ride suggests Yates has the form to challenge for the red jersey – it will be fascinating to see if he continues to commit to such aggressive racing.
The GC candidates emerge
While stage two saw two big name pre-race favourites Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Richie Porte (BMC) fall out of overall contention, today saw even more of a selection.
Just 13 riders managed to finish in the same group as Michal Kwiatkowski, meaning that every other rider – apart from Yates, Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), who all jumped clear of the group of favourites to gain a bit of time – already looks to be out of contention.
That includes last year’s podium finisher Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), who loses another 8-11 having ceded a more manageable 1-01 on stage two, as well as Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data), Michael Woods (EF Education First-Drapac) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).
Those who did survive in the group of favourites included: previous winners Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde (both Movistar) and Fabio Aru (UAE Emirates), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Jon Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida), last year’s fourth overall Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), young prospect Enric Mas (Quick-Step Floors), surprise package Tony Gallopin (Ag2r La Mondiale) and two Tour crash victims Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First-Drapac) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Without the usual Sky train taking control (although David De La Cruz did provide support for Kwiatkowski), and with LottoNL-Jumbo taking over duties with young American prodigy Sepp Kuss setting a blistering pace for George Bennett and Steven Kruijswijk, this could be an open and unpredictable Vuelta.
The red jersey is being seen as expendable
Much like his predecessor Rohan Dennis (BMC) a couple of days ago, Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) looked happy to hand over the leader’s red jersey today.
His Sky team allowed the breakaway build a big lead, despite the presence of Ben King as the virtual new overall leader.
It was only when other teams emerged at the front in the run-in to and on the final climb that the lead started to plummet, ensuring that the Pole keeps red for another day.
It’s hard to imagine the yellow jersey at the Tour or the pink jersey at the Giro being so half-heartedly defended. The red jersey does not carry with it the same prestige or history as those, having only been introduced in 2010, and fighting hard to defend it seems to be more of a distraction to the likes of Dennis and Kwiatkowski, who are prioritising preserving energy and chasing other targets in this race.
Kwiatkowski even nearly lost the jersey to Buchmann’s late attack, which he opted not to follow. With the German now just seven seconds down on GC, with Yates a further three seconds, we could see another change in leadership imminently.
Pierre Rolland misses his chance
It has been a bit of a surprise to see Pierre Rolland (EF Education First-Drapac) get into so many breaks at the early into a Grand Tour. For a rider with such pedigree, having won on Alpe d’Huez and made the GC top 10 multiple times, duking it out with non-WorldTour riders in hopeless breaks seemed a little debasing.
However, his approach could well have paid off today. Once again the Frenchman got into the break, only this time it wasn’t just the prize of more King of the Mountain points that were on offer, but that of a stage win.
On paper Rolland was the strongest climber in the breakaway group, and should probably have won the stage. However, he failed to react when King, Nikita Stalnov (Astana) and Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal) broke clear prior to the final climb, and left himself with too much time to close down once he attacked 10km from the finish.
Hope briefly returned when a slowing of the pace as the finish line approached almost allowed him to catch back up, but King timed his sprint well enough to ensure there would be no dramatic comeback, and Rolland will be left frustrated at again only coming home with a handful of KOM points.