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by Shane Stokes
August 29, 2014
Alejandro Valverde, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador showed that they have each got the form to battle for overall victory in the Vuelta a España, with the trio finishing first, second and third on Thursday’s first real summit finish of the race.
Valverde impressed greatly on the final climb of Cumbres Verdes, driving the pace from over two kilometres out in an apparent effort to set up Movistar team-mate Nairo Quintana for a push at the stage win.
However, it was he rather than Quintana who was able to go with a move by Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) with 700 metres to go. Both riders were then caught by the trio of Froome (Sky), Quintana and Contador (Tinkoff Saxo).
Valverde then jetted forward inside the final 200 metres, opening a gap, but the Briton and the Spaniard were able to draw close to him by the line, avoiding any loss.
Rodriguez and Quintana conceded eight and twelve seconds respectively, with the Katusha rider’s sharp effort ultimately costing him time.
Valverde took over the race lead from the dropped Orica GreenEdge rider Michael Matthews. He is now 15 seconds clear of Quintana, who had been just ahead of him at the start of the stage, while Contador is 18 seconds back. Froome is a further four seconds behind in fourth place, with Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge) and Rodriguez rounding out the top six.
Bigger summit finishes lie ahead but the stage gives the first real pointer to who is going well in the race. The fact that Froome and Contador are already so close to a stage win and the top of the general classification will give both great encouragement after they each suffered fractures in the Tour de France.
Neither competed prior to the Vuelta; their teams will hope that they will continue building form as the race progresses. As for Valverde, he will be motivated after being able to win despite doing much of the work on the final climb.
“This victory means a lot to me. Though it’s harder to feel great with these temperatures, my legs were really good today,” he said. “I felt well throughout the course and I was able to win. It was a climb that really suited me and we couldn’t miss such an opportunity had we got it – still, I think everyone saw clearly I was working for Nairo.
“There was a tailwind into the climb and it was hard for anyone into the main group to go away, they had to stay on our wheel. I was setting a strong pace to take some rivals out of contention, but saving an extra bit of energy in case anyone attacked, as it happened with both Purito and Froome. I never looked back: Nairo as well as the team car were telling me to keep the pace: ‘Only ten or twelve riders behind you.’
“When Purito jumped away, I didn’t think about it for a second – I went after him. He’s someone we can’t let take a single meter. I still had strength to counter and go for the win, so, at the end of the day, we couldn’t do better: we took some rivals out of contention, though gaps weren’t really huge. We also took some bonus seconds and the result is fantastic for the whole team.”
The race from Benalmádena to Cumbres Verdes (La Zubia) featured the first proper summit finish of the race and because of the first category concluding ascent, was anticipated as being the first real chance to gauge the general classification riders’ form.
In addition to that final climb, the 167.7 stage included two other categorised mountains. The first, at kilometre 77.3, was the second category Alto de Zafarraya, while the second was the third category Alto de los Ber¬mejales (km. 116.8).
The latter was then followed by two intermediate sprints which were close together. The first at Alhendín (km. 145.2) was followed by another at Granada’s Av. Fernando de los Ríos (km. 153).
Right after the end of the neutralised section yesterday’s aggressor Pim Ligthart (Lotto Belisol) and Luis Mas Bonet (Caja Rural – Seguros RGA) attacked and got a gap. Bonet had started the day as leader of the King of the Mountains classification and wanted to add to his total, while Ligthart was motivated by the chance of the stage win.
Various groups tried to get across to the leading duo but these were hauled back. Ligthart and Bonet had enough of an advantage to remain ahead and were almost two minutes clear after 18 kilometres. This continued to balloon and the leaders were over twelve minutes clear after 40 kilometres had elapsed.
The gap kept rising but once it got close to 15 minutes, the Garmin-Sharp team decided enough was enough and that it was time to chase. Working hard for their stage contender Dan Martin, the American team brought the gap down to under 12 minutes by the start of the first climb.
Another minute was lopped off by the summit, where Bonet took full points and padded his KOM lead. Ligthart was second, while Jerome Cousin (Europcar), who had started the day just one point behind Bonet, took third.
Bonet again led Ligthart over the summit of the next climb, the third category Alto de los Bermejales (km. 116.8), where the peloton were eight minutes back. Movistar moved up to help Garmin-Sharp and then Katusha took over, chopping the gap to seven minutes with 35 kilometres left.
This plummeted to four and a half minutes by the first intermediate sprint, that of Alhendín (km. 145.2), where Ligthart led Bonet through. Further back, double stage winner John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) picked up third and extended his lead in the green jersey competition.
The same pattern was seen at the next intermediate sprint in Granada (km. 153). That prime line was less than 15 kilometres from the end of the stage and the peloton was riding at a very high pace at this point, with teams doing what they could to haul back the break and also ensure that their main riders were kept in a good position.
The gap was down to three minutes at this point, but by the five kilometres to go marker the break had a mere 30 seconds.
Peter Kennaugh hit the front for Sky, ramping up the pace further in an attempt to set up his team leader Chris Froome. Rounding onto the climb with 4.3 kilometres left, Ligthart jumped to try to distance Bonet, but the move was covered.
He kicked again under the four kilometre to go banner and this time he got a gap. However the move looked more about gaining further TV time and perhaps also snagging the most aggressive rider award, as staying clear looked next to impossible.
Christophe Le Mevel (Cofidis) jumped clear and was just metres from Ligthart’s back wheel when both were caught with three kilometres to go. The Katusha team drove the pace for Rodriguez, but Garmin-Sharp was also very close for Dan Martin.
Meanwhile, at the back of the group, Cadel Evans (BMC Racing Team) was dropped. Romain Sicard (Europcar) was also in trouble.
With 2.6 kilometres to go George Bennett (Cannondale) attacked but was soon hauled back. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) moved to the front to set things up for his team-mate Nairo Quintana, and continued pushing the pace under the two kilometre to go banner.
The increase put Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) and Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing Team) all into difficulty and they were shelled.
Valverde was feeling strong and remained at the front heading into the final 800 metres. Chris Froome (Sky) pushed forward and moved alongside him, but with 700 metres to go Rodriguez attacked.
Valverde still had more left and quickly marked the Katusha rider. Behind, Froome led the chase with Quintana and Contador on his wheel. The Briton was able to bridge the gap, but the other two were gapped.
Froome then pushed forward but was gradually passed by Valverde, while Contador got back up and Quintana cracked. Valverde jumped with 150 metres to go and grabbed the win, with Froome second and Contador third.