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by Shane Stokes
September 12, 2014
Notching up his third Grand Tour stage win this year, Fabio Aru added to his stage victory in the Giro d’Italia and on stage 11 of the Vuelta a España when he raced to success on Thursday’s 18th stage.
The young Italian attacked with just under four kilometres to go on the climb to Monte Castrove en Meis, overhauling the Frenchman Jerome Coppel. He was then joined by Chris Froome (Sky), while behind race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo) marked Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), trying to get the duo to chase Froome.
Rodriguez put in a surge with just over a kilometre to go, bringing the group close to Aru (Astana) and Froome, but more marking saw the gap widen and at the line the leading two finished well clear. Froome concentrated on going for time for the general classification, giving Aru a relatively straightforward task in winning the sprint.
Froome took the time bonus for second place, while 13 seconds later Valverde outsprinted Rodriguez and Contador to nab the smaller bonus for third.
It was too little too late, though, with Froome’s time gain moving him to second overall, one minute 19 seconds behind Contador. Valverde is now one minute 32 off the red jersey, with Rodriguez two minutes 29 seconds back and looking increasingly doubtful for the podium.
In fact, Aru has moved to within 46 seconds of his fourth place and will aim to overhaul the Spaniard in the three stages to come.
The day saw the customary long-range break, but this was reeled in prior to the final climb. It ensured that the general classification contenders would fight for the stage win; Aru proved best of those, while the battle for the order of the final podium remains open.
“I tried my luck in the steepest part of the climb, as my DS Martino told me,” the Italian said. “I also had identified the steepest part one lap before. Froome came across. He rode hard. That helped me stay away and win.
“I’m full of emotions. It’s incredible to win two stages with such an exceptional lineup but I have to remain focused till the very end. Later this season I’ll also ride the Tour of Lombardy. I try to make an impact on every race I take part in.”
Following Wednesday’s sprint finish, the 18th stage of the Vuelta a España would put the ball back in the court of the climbers, with the second category summit finish certain to open gaps and to reward either the GC contenders or, possibly, the strongest from a break.
The 157 kilometre stage ran from A Estrada to Monte Castrove en Meis and, was flat to lumpy for much of the first two thirds. After the intermediate sprint at Sanxenxo (km. 98.6), the riders would scale the second category Alto Monte Castrove (km. 133.1) for the first time then, after another intermediate sprint at San Xoan de Poio (km. 147.8), they would tackle the same climb again for the finish.
The start of the race saw four riders opt not to start; the withdrawal of Robert Gesink had been announced on Wednesday evening, and the Belkin rider’s non-participation was followed by those of Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Cameron Meyer (Orica GreenEdge).
Nine riders clipped away almost immediately after the drop of the flag. These were Valerio Conti (Lampre-Merida), Martijn Keizer, Manuel Quinziato, Nathan Haas (Garmin-Sharp), Sebastien Hinault (IAM Cycling), Jay Thomson (MTN Qhubeka), Pieter Serry (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge) and Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing).
They had a 25 second lead over the Lotto-Belisol-led peloton after ten kilometres of racing. The Belgian team’s Adam Hansen tried to jump across along with Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) and Jose Serpa (Lampre-Merida), but they were closed down by the bunch. The peloton then neutralised the break after 21 kilometres of racing.
Soon afterwards Giant-Shimano’s Koen de Kort retired from the race, his continued participation made impossible by an infected saddle sore.
After approximately 35 kilometres Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr) attacked and built a lead of eight seconds. He was soon reeled in by Movistar, but went again with Amets Txurruka (Caja Rural) and Jacques Van Rensburg (MTN Qhubeka). They were then joined by a cluster of others, namely former world champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing Team), Romain Hardy (Cofidis), Guillaume Levarlet (Cofidis), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky), Dan Craven (Europcar), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) and Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEdge).
The group had a ten second lead at 43 kilometers, increased this to 20 seconds by kilometre 50, but was recaptured five kilometres later.
Le Bon was determined and attacked once again at kilometre 62. He was joined by Hubert Dupont (Ag2r La Monadiale) and KOM leader Luis Leon Sanchez (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and, together, they had built a four minute lead at kilometre 70.
Alejandro Valverde’s Movistar team wanted to bring things back so the Spaniard could chase the bonus seconds at the finish. It chased and reduced the break’s lead to one minute 50 seconds by kilometre 85.
Le Bon took the intermediate sprint at Sanxenxo (km. 98.6), where Sanchez was second and Dupont third. The break was still one minute 40 seconds clear here but its advantage dropped to one minute ten seconds with 35 kilometres to go.
Heading towards the start of the first ascent of the Monte Castrove, Hansen attacked out of the bunch and tried to get across to the break. He got to within half a minute but was hauled back on the climb. The peloton kept up its pace and got to within 20 seconds of the break, prompting Leon Sanchez to drive the pace upwards in order to try to stay away.
Behind, Guillaume Levarlet (Cofidis) attacked and was followed by Alberto Losada (Astana). The two closed to within 15 seconds of the leaders; Andrey Zeits (Astana) was in turn just behind them. Sanchez then accelerated clear to take the prime, while Dupont held on for second and Losada got up for third.
Sanchez then went backwards to the bunch, while Dupont and Losada teamed up to try to stay ahead but were hauled back just inside 20 kilometres to go.
The peloton continued to chase hard, driven by Sky, and from this bunch Froome jumped out to chase the bonus seconds at the sprint at San Xoan de Poio (km. 147.8). However he misjudged where the line was and was passed by Valverde’s team-mate Gorka Izagirre, who was trying to stop Froome getting maximum points. Another Movistar rider, Jonathan Castroviejo, was third.
The riders continued on to the final climb and there, with 7.5 kilometres to go, birthday celebrant Christophe Le Mevel (Cofidis) attacked. Several hundred metres later he was almost joined by Sergio Paulinho (Tinkoff Saxo) and Dmitry Kozontchuk (Katusha), but these slipped back when he pushed forward again.
Things came back together with six kilometres to go. Warren Barguil (Giant Shimano) attacked and got a gap, while behind the other riders looked at each other.
The Frenchman was chased by Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha), then Contador, Valverde (Movistar), Rodriguez (Katusha) and Chris Froome (Sky) bridged across, followed by a solid group.
Barguil was persistent and went again; he was joined by Jerome Coppel (Cofidis), but the gaps didn’t really open up. Sergio Pardilla (MTN Qhubeka) got across with a couple of others, then Coppel pushed ahead alone with 4.7 kilometres remaining.
A lull in pace enabled him to open a solid lead; he did what he could to build a buffer, knowing that the pace was certain to flare up again in the battle for the red jersey.
However he was quickly overhauled when Fabio Aru (Astana) attacked with approximately 3.8 kilometres to go. The Katusha team chased behind, seeking to control things for Rodriguez. He attacked with 2.8 kilometres remaining and was followed by Vlaverde, Contador and Froome.
Froome then made his own move very soon afterwards, while Contador sat on Valverde’s wheel and tried to make him chase.
Froome got up to Aru with 2.2 kilometres left; he went through and dragged open the gap to 11 seconds, while behind Contador looked to be content to stay with the other two Spaniards.
The race leader then decided to take things up and surged, with Valverde coming through and keeping the pace going pace. Rodriguez sat on, then jumped hard. He didn’t open up a gap, but the injection of speed brought the trio to within a couple of seconds of Froome and Aru.
The gap opened up again, however, and the leaders went under the kilometre to go kite. Froome led Aru into the final 200 metres, then the Italian jumped and came through for victory. Valverde came through for third, beating Rodriguez and Contador in the sprint, but they were 13 seconds behind the first two.
Once those gaps plus the time bonuses were calculated, Froome was up into second, one minute 19 seconds behind Contador. Valverde dropped to third, and is now 13 seconds behind the Briton with three stages to go.