At just 120km long, stage 15 of the Vuelta a España is the shortest competitive road stage of this year’s race and it may have also proved the most decisive, in more ways than one.
Overall leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) latched onto a move after just six kilometres and with the help of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) and others, rode away from his chief rival Chris Froome (Team Sky).
Further back, group three on the road at that time soon sat up when they realised the chase was futile. Quintana went on to come second on the stage and hugely increase his lead in the red jersey, but there was much more to come from stage 15 long after the Colombian had returned to his team bus.
Crossing the line more than 22 minutes outside of the time cut were 90 riders, including most of Froome’s teammates (Britain’s Peter Kennaugh finished dead last) and the whole Direct Energie squad to name just a few.
This enlarged grupetto had a race speed almost 10km/h slower than the stage winner with most coming in 53-54 on stage winner Gianluca Brambilla.
On a Grand Tour, the sprinters, tired domestiques and riders with ambitions on other stages can usually be safe in the knowledge that if there are enough of them then the time cut can be flexible, even disregarded.
It would be unprecedented, but not impossible, for the race jury to stick to the letter of the law. Such a move would see just 71 riders take the start on stage 16 and throw a huge spanner in the works of riders like Froome.
The race jury confirmed shortly after the rider’s arrival that all 164 would begin stage 16 on Monday.
The Team Sky leader Froome will need his domestiques more than ever after his woeful ride on stage 15, and they’ll probably be under strict instructions to make up for their tactical mishap on the Vuelta’s key mountain stage.