Aru wins stage 11 of Vuelta a España; Froome salvages day after struggling on final climb

by Shane Stokes


Promising Italian talent Fabio Aru followed up his stage win and third overall in the Giro d’Italia with a perfectly-timed effort on stage 11 of the Vuelta a España, racing home alone to win at the summit finish of the Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar.

The Astana rider jumped just before the final kilometre, his instincts spot on amid a lot of stop-start racing. Mindful perhaps of the time bonuses up for grabs, the general classification riders were watching each other and Aru was able to eke out a decent gap.

Race leader Alberto Contador finally took up the chase but the Tinkoff Saxo rider was tracked by closest challenger Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Both are faster sprinters than the red jersey wearer and were able to nip past for second and third, six seconds behind Aru.

Sky leader Chris Froome had several moments of weakness on the final climb, being dropped at least twice, but fought back well and was able to salvage his day with fifth, latching on just behind the Valverde-Rodriguez-Contador trio. The race judges initially allocated a one second time deficit but later revised that.

Yesterday’s time trial runner-up Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma Quick Step) was sixth, thirteen seconds back, with Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing Team) a further two seconds behind.

Former race leader Nairo Quintana (Movistar) crashed inside the first 20 kilometres and retired with a fractured scapula.

After lone leader Vasil Kiryienka (Sky) was reeled in at the base of the final climb, Robert Gesink (Belkin Pro Cycling) and Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) were the big aggressors, with the latter chasing the former after the Dutchman attacked with approximately six kilometres to go.

Both were however reeled in inside the final two kilometres, with Martin hanging on for eighth and Gesink taking tenth.

Aru beamed with delight at what was the second Grand Tour stage win of his career. “It’s incredible, I am really happy,” he said. “I didn’t think it was possible but everything went well today. It couldn’t have been more perfect. I want to dedicate this to my team, my directeur sportif and also my family.”

He started the day eighth overall and moved one place to seventh, but said that he wasn’t thinking about the general classification when he attacked. “Really, my main target was to go for a stage. I will just take it day by day from now on.”

Valverde has more focus on the overall and will be pleased with his day. He reduced his overall deficit to Contador from 27 seconds to 20, and will continue to go for time bonuses when possible.

How it played out:

After Tuesday’s time trial, the peloton returned to the big mountains on stage 11 with the second big summit finish of the race. The 153.4 kilometre dash from Pamplona to Santuario de San Miguel de Aralar was flat to lumpy early on, with intermediate sprints at Tafalla (km. 59) and Estella (km. 96.2). The roads became decisively hiller after the second of those sprints, with first the third category Puerto de Lizarraga (km.121.6) rearing up, then the final first category ascent up to the line. The latter was just under ten kilometres in length and was certain to shake things up.

There was a nervous start to the stage when a sizeable group of riders came down in a crash after approximately 20 kilometres of racing. A media motorbike was reportedly involved, although it was not clear if it had caused the accident. Two riders were quickly reported as having been forced to withdraw; Steve Morabito of the BMC Racing Team, and the rider who had been leading the race until he fell in yesterday’s time trial, Nairo Quintana.

The Movistar rider found himself on the deck for the second time in less than 24 hours and this time round, the damage was more severe. He was taken to hospital where it was determined that he had suffered a displaced fracture to his right scapula. He will undergo surgery on Thursday morning.

Others later confirmed as abandoning were FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, third in the Tour de France but below form in the Vuelta, and fellow Frenchman Maxime Bouet (Ag2r La Mondiale).

The race continued onwards with a number of big groups getting clear but being brought back. One of these included the race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo), but it was closed down before 50 kilometres of racing had elapsed.

At the first intermediate sprint at Tafalla (km. 59), Contador went for the bonuses but was closed down and passed by closest-rival Valverde, who had become the sole Movistar leader when Quintana was forced out. He took the three second time bonus, with Contador getting two and his Tinkoff Saxo team-mate Ivan Rovny taking one.

Soon afterwards four riders clipped away, namely Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka, Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr), Elia Favilli (Lampre-Merida) and Pim Ligthart (Lotto-Belisol). They increased their lead to four minutes, but the Katusha team of Joaquim Rodriguez was chasing hard behind.

Ligthart took the second sprint at Estella (km. 96.2), beating Kiryienka and Le Bon.

The peloton had been riding quickly and drew close to the break with 50 kilometres remaining. This prompted Kiryienka to attack solo and to accelerate clear. He opened a solid gap and had over three minutes in hand with 30 kilometres to go. He went over the top of the Puerto de Lizarraga well clear of Favilli and Bilbao and kept riding well down the descent.

The bunch was intent on getting him back, though, and with fifteen kilometres left it was less than a minute and a half back. The Cannondale-led peloton cut this down to 41 seconds with ten kilometres to go, then the gap melted away once the final climb began.

Succession of attacks puts Froome under pressure:

Kirienka was finally reeled in 8.9 kilometres from the end. His Sky team had realised he didn’t have a chance of staying clear and instead pushed the pace to set things up for Chris Froome.

Philip Deignan drove at the front to soften things up for his leader, but his pacesetting was tested when Julian Arredondo (Trek) attacked with 7.5 kilometres left. The Irishman was undeterred and quickly drew the Colombian back in.

Dario Cataldo then took over and continued to push but, unbeknownst to him, Froome had been dropped. He fought to try to get back on but had delays in doing so, looking uncomfortable. Cataldo continued to plug away at the front, with his race radio presumably not communicating the situation to him.

Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) was feeling good and attacked with six kilometres remaining. He was soon followed by Robert Gesink (Belkin), who caught and then dropped the Frenchman. He pushed on with five and a half kilometres left, while Barguil was caught by the group behind.

With just over four kilometres to go, Gesink had a 17 second lead. Contador sat second wheel with Valverde third, waiting for the attacks. Froome continued to struggle, as did Gesink’s team-mate Wilco Kelderman.

Cofidis’ Dani Navarro was relatively comfortable with the pace and he opened a small gap. Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) then attacked but his move was covered by Contador, who dragged both him and Navarro back.

Martin went again and was tracked by Navarro; behind, Gianpaolo Caruso (Katusha) chased, with the increase in pace at the head of the group causing Froome to drift off the back.

Stop-go racing plays out:

With three kilometres left Martin held a four second lead and was gradually inching closer to Gesink. The elastic wasn’t quite breaking behind, though, making the outcome uncertain. Froome got a second wind and clawed his way back to the group.

The Briton moved to the front, trying to dissuade attacks. Contador wasn’t buying it and, after loosening his brakes, he attacked hard but was hemmed in by the motorbikes. This allowed the group to hold him, but Samuel Sanchez (BMC Racing Team) nevertheless went out the back.

Gesink was into the final kilometre and a half and tried to maintain his momentum on steeper roads. Behind, Fabio Aru (Astana) surged but was covered. His jump brought Martin back, who was tailed off.

Gesink was also hauled back, leaving the stage win up for grabs. Navarro still had more to give and jumped again; this move was followed by Contador, who saw that Froome was coming back to the group, yet once again there was a lull.

Aru still believed in his chances and tried once more. This time he got a decent gap and he led under the final kilometre banner. The roads were flattening out and the Italian danced out of the pedals, trying to push out the gap before the line. He quickly got a seven second lead; behind, Froome was setting the pace, forgetting perhaps that there were time bonuses at the finish.

Aru had timed things perfectly and continued to build his advantage. He hit the line for a fine win, six seconds clear, while behind Valverde and Rodriguez came around Contador to pick up second and third and nab bonus seconds.

When the calcuations were done Valverde had narrowed his gap from 27 seconds to 20; he’s still got more work to do to take over the red jersey but, like Aru, will be pleased with how the day unfolded for him.

He’ll be less happy about Quintana’s departure, both on a personal level and also because the team has lost the capacity to play two cards.

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