Niemiec wins stage 15 of Vuelta a España, Contador maintains lead; Froome limits losses
The only rider able to survive out front from an early break, Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida) raced to victory on Sunday’s mountainous fifteenth stage of the Vuelta a España
The Polish rider was part of a move which went clear early on in the stage, then pushed ahead on the final climb with Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge). He then dropped the Australian with just over five kilometres to go, realising that it was crucial to give it everything if he was to fend off the general classification contenders behind.
“After four years in this team, I obtained my first victory in such an important race as this Vuelta and at the stunning finish of La Covadonga,” he said. “I am so excited. I’m happy I could give this success to the management of the team that always supported me.
“Races are strange: yesterday I made a bunch of attempts to escape from the bunch and, when I finally succeeded in joining the breakaway, my energies were almost spent. Today I tried one attack and I was in the winning move: I realised it could be a good day when the breakaway got more than ten minutes on the bunch and it started to rain.
“I knew the final climb and, also thanks to the urging of my sport directors Matxin and Vicino, I attacked once again in the central part of the climb: it was the winning decision.”
Niemiec was helped by a lot of stop-go racing between those main favourites; Chris Froome (Sky) was in trouble several times and was distanced but, despite surges forward by race leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo) to try to capitalise on this, the Spaniard was not helped by the two compatriots who marked him each time, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha).
They refused to do any consistent work, with Rodriguez in particular refusing to go through.
While they were able to gain a slight amount of time over Contador – who burned his matches with several frustrated surges – they fell short of the stage win by five seconds, and only gained the same amount of time on Contador.
With the bonus seconds taken into account, Valverde and Rodriguez reduced their overall deficits by eleven and nine seconds respectively, but are still 31 seconds and one minute 20 seconds off the red jersey.
Froome battled in to finish sixth, seventeen seconds back and in the same time as fifth-placed Fabio Aru (Astana). He will be pleased to salvage the situation, particularly as his general classification chances could have suffered a big blow had Rodriguez and Valverde opted to work with Contador.
He remains third overall, one minute 20 seconds back. He is on the same time as Rodriguez but ahead on stage placings.
Aru is fifth overall with Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) sixth and Dan Martin seventh. The Garmin-Sharp rider was delayed due to a crash but battled back up to the classification contenders before the nervous, stop-go finale to the stage began.
How it played out:
The Oviedo to Lagos de Covadonga stage was the second of three consecutive days in the high mountains and with big summit finishes. Running 152.2 kilometres, it was bumpy for the first 110 kilometres but bereft of categorised climbs during that section, featuring instead intermediate sprints at Villaviciosa (km 55) and Ribadesella (km 97.4).
After that the riders would scale the second category Puerto del Torno (km. 117.2) and then, after a long descent, take on the summit finish of Lagos de Covadonga.
Early on Alexey Lutsenko (Astana) and Yury Trofimov (Katusha) attacked but were hauled back before the 25 kilometre point. Around the same time a crash brought down several riders, forcing Anthony Roux (FDJ.fr) out of the race.
Several attacks followed, including one by Andrey Zeits (Astana), Johan Le Bon (FDJ.fr) and Kanstantsin Siutsou (Sky) and another by Le Bon and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) but both were soon reeled in before the 38 kilometre point.
Seven kilometres before that first intermediate sprint at Villaviciosa (km 55), points jersey leader John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre-Merida), Cameron Meyer (Orica GreenEdge), Francisco Aramendia (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Kristof Vandewalle (Trek) attacked. Degenkolb went on to take that intermediate sprint ahead of Niemiec and Aramendia, after which the gap went from two minutes to seven.
Niemiec was best of the breakaway riders but in being 26th overall, 16 minutes 16 seconds back, he was of no threat to Contador. As a result the gap was allowed go out to 11 minutes by the feeding zone, and still was slightly over ten minutes by the time Degenkolb beat Niemiec and Meyer to the second intermediate sprint at Ribadesella (km 97.4).
After that they raced onto the second category climb of the Puerto del Torno, where the gap fell to eight minutes due to the efforts of the Movistar-led peloton.
Dan Martin crashed at kilometre 109, his front wheel taken out from under him by another rider. He was delayed when he slid down a ravine and then began a chase back aide by his Garmin-Sharp team. Meanwhile Niemiec went over the summit of the climb (km. 117.2) first, trailed by Vandewalle and Meyer. Degenkolb was dropped and slipped back toward the bunch, which was six minutes 20 seconds back. At that point Martin was a minute and a half down.
The four remaining leaders carried on and with 20 kilometres remaining, they were four minutes 10 seconds ahead. Martin was being helped by Saturday’s stage winner Ryder Hesjedal and was half a minute behind the bunch. The duo managed to bridge up soon afterwards, after which the break hit the bottom of the final climb.
Niemiec, Meyer and Vandewalle pushed ahead and dropped Aramendia on the early slopes. Meyer then attacked with just over ten kilometres to go, being joined by Niemiec soon afterwards. The gap then was three and a half minutes, making it possible for them to stay clear but only if the peloton wasn’t focussed in its chase.
Stop-go racing on the final climb:
With 9.5 kilometres to go Chris Froome (Sky) was at the back of the group and looked to be under pressure, although those who saw him return from a similar position on Saturday’s stage knew not to take anything for granted.
Warren Barguil (Giant-Shimano) was feeling good and attacked, pushing ahead. Giampaolo Caruso (Katusha) jumped up to him. Barguil had started the day six minutes and two seconds back in 13th overall, and so was no immediate danger to Alberto Contador (Sky).
They were joined by Winner Anacona (Lampre-Merida), who had started the day 9th overall, four minutes 36 seconds behind. However the bunch decided this was too close and hauled them back.
Out front, Meyer and Lampre were still three minutes and nine seconds clear with 8.3 kilometres remaining. This gap however dropped to two minutes 27 seconds with seven kilometres left, showing they would have to dig in all the way.
Katusha duo Caruso and Dani Moreno attacked and were joined by Barguil. This surge put Ancona and Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) into trouble and out the back.
Rodriguez then ramped up the pace and bridged up to Barguil and his two teammates. Contador and the other general classification riders followed, although Chris Froome (Sky) was in difficulty and slipped off the back.
Barguil went again, stretching out the group. Contador and Valverde marked him closely, as did Rodriguez. Martin was detached, having used up a lot of energy in his chase, but got back on when they stalled.
Barguil was in a stubborn mood and surged once more. He rode clear of the others who, peculiarly, were watching each other rather than using the chance to put time into Froome. Caruso joined Barguil and then Rodriguez came past with Contador and Valverde on his wheel. Contador then went to the front and pushed it, trying to ensure that Froome wouldn’t come back. However, once again the riders stalled, watching each other.
This stall allowed both Froome and Martin to get back on, although Contador saw this and surged again, followed by Valverde and Rodriguez.
Out front, Niemic pushed ahead of Meyer, trying to bid for the win. He had just over a minute with five kilometres left, thus making it crucial that he give everything to try to maintain a gap.
Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez had a fifteen second gap on Froome at this point and continued to push onwards. However Valverde was doing little, and Rodriguez plus Aru – who had bridged – were not contributing at all. This allowed Froome to rejoin with Barguil, Martin and Caruso.
This produced a nine man chase group one minute and 12 seconds behind Niemic with 3.8 kilometres to go.
Barguil still wanted the stage and surged again. Contador brought the others up to him, sending Froome out the back. The race leader continued to push things and dragged Valverde and Rodriguez clear. Once again, though, the others refused to work with him.
Rodriguez finally put his nose in the wind and surged at the end of a brief descent with 2.7 kilometres to go. Contador appeared to be labouring in getting across, but managed to do so with Valverde on his wheel. Once again, Rodriguez stalled and refused to work.
Froome got close once again, making it clear that Valverde and Rodriguez were throwing away chances. Contador took up the pacesetting once more and finally Valverde came to the front.
Ahead, Niemic had reached the descent prior to the final rise to the line and pushed on through the kilometre to go banner. He had done enough to hold on, winning the stage.
Behind, Valverde and Rodriguez sprinted in second and third, opening a five second gap on Contador. They took the bonuses for second and third, but might yet regret not working to distance Froome.
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