Magnus Cort added to a fantastic Vuelta a España for EF Pro Cycling, winning stage 16 from a reduced bunch sprint.
The day’s five-rider breakaway survived late into the day as Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck – Quick-Step) was away solo with less than 10km to race, but the Frenchman was finally caught to set up a dash for the line from a reduced bunch.
It was tense in the front group as no team was able to control the pace in the final kilometres, with Cort taking the victory after out-sprinting the likes of race leader Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates), who originally finished third on the stage, was relegated by the race jury after the stage for an irregular sprint, moving to 32nd place while Dion Smith (Mitchelton-Scott) claimed third.
Roglič extends his overall lead by six seconds thanks to bonus seconds, as he finished second on a tense stage.
How it happened
Stage 16 of the Vuelta a España was the penultimate opportunity for movement on the GC, before the race concludes with a sprint stage in Madrid.
The 162km course ran from the picturesque city of Salamanca towards the finish in Ciudad Rodrigo in western Spain.
In the early stages there was a risk of crosswinds causing echelons in the exposed and rolling roads in the opening 40km, but there were no major splits as riders hit the climbs.
The ascents on stage 16 started with the daunting Puerto El Portillo (14.3km at 4.4 per cent average gradient), which crested around 70km from the finish, before the mind-blowing descent on the other side.
Climbing started again almost immediately with the Puerto El Robledo (11.8km at 3.9 per cent), the last of the categorised ascents on the route, which topped out 32km from the line.
But it wasn’t straight forward in the final kilometres, with two sharp ramps falling 20km from the finish, before a fast downhill section, with the stage then closing out with a short uphill rise.
As racing got underway, multiple attacks flew out from the peloton with six riders getting a gap in the first 30km to set-up the day’s breakaway.
The break consisted of Rémi Cavagna (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), Ángel Madrazo, Jesús Ezquerra (Burgos-BH), Robert Stannard (Mitchelton-Scott), Kobe Goosens (Lotto-Soudal) and Juan Felipe Osorio, who was dropped with 80km left to race and dropped back to the peloton after riding solo for 30km.
Early in the stage the breakaway extended their advantage out above five minutes, before the peloton began to reel them in, with the gap tumbling to 3-45 at the top of the first climb of the day, the Portillo.
With 66km left to race, riders hit an unbelievable descent from the Portillo with countless switchbacks making things nervous in the bunch.
Ineos led from the front with Richard Carapaz safely in second wheel as the bunch strung out behind, with Roglič glued to Carapaz, as the breakaway’s advantage fell to 2-15 at the foot of the descent.
As the road turned skyward once again the breakaway shifted once more as Ezquerra was dropped, leaving four out front on the Robledo, with just 1-20 back to the bunch as Ineos continued to control the pace.
With 5km left to the summit of the climb, Cavagna kicked on from the breakaway and comfortably accelerated away from his rivals, but Stannard was able to bridge across to make it two out front.
With 17km of the stage remaining the peloton were just metres behind the two remaining breakaway riders, but Cavagna kicked once again and broke free solo, pulling out a 15-second advantage with 10km to the finish.
But despite the spirited ride, Cavagna was finally caught just inside 2km setting up a nervous sprint from the reduced bunch.
No team could control the pace as the riders hit the final straight, with hopefuls spread across the road and with no pure sprinters in sight.
Valverde was the first to launch his sprint, but the former world champion went too soon as Cort followed and hit the front.
Roglič surged from behind and came within touching distance of the victory, but it was Cort who took his third career Vuelta stage.
In the GC, Roglič leads by 45 seconds over Richard Carapaz, with one final mountain stage to come.
Stage 17 is the last chance for the overall contenders, with a 178km stage finishing at the top of the Alto de la Covatilla.
Vuelta a España 2020, stage 16: Salamanca to Ciudad Rodrigo (162km)
1. Magnus Cort (Den) EF Pro Cycling, in 4-04-35
2. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma
3. Dion Smith (NZl) Mitchelton-Scott
4. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar
5. Richard Carapaz (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers
6. Felix Großschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe
7. Dorian Godon (Fra) Ag2r La Mondiale
8. Michael Valgren (Den) NTT Pro Cycling
9. Jasha Sütterlin (Ger) Sunweb
10. Aleksandr Vlasov (Rus) Astana, all at same time
General classification after stage 16
1. Primož Roglič (Slo) Jumbo-Visma, in 64-20-31
2. Richard Carapaz (Ecu) Ineos Grenadiers, at 45 seconds
3. Hugh Carthy (GBr) EF Pro Cycling, at 53s
4. Dan Martin (Irl) Israel Start-Up Nation, at 1-48
5. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar, at 3-29
6. Wout Poels (Ned) Bahrain-McLaren, at 6-21
7. Felix Grossschartner (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 7-20
8. Alejandro Valverde (Esp) Movistar, at 8-45
9. Aleksandr Vlasov (Rus) Astana, at 8-54
10. David De La Cruz (Esp) UAE Team Emirates, at 9-29