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After finishing second overall in the Giro d’Italia, Fabio Aru made clear that he is one of the top favourites for victory in the Vuelta a España when he took over the race lead on stage 11 in Andorra. Stage honours went to his Astana team-mate Mikel Landa, who was part of the day’s break and held on to take victory atop the Cortals d’Encamp climb, but Aru finished ahead of all of the race contenders including overall leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin).
The Italian came in one minute 22 seconds behind Landa, with Ian Boswell (Sky) holding on for third out of the break. He was one minute 40 back, with Katusha pairing Dani Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez fourth and fifth at one minute 57 and one minute 59 seconds behind.
Perhaps the biggest story of the day was the collapse of the challenge of Tour de France champion Chris Froome. He crashed early on and while he was able to get back to the main bunch, he went out the back towards the end and eventually crossed the line 32nd, almost nine minutes down.
He was in visible pain dismounting from his bike and his grimace, a very obvious limp and blood on his leg pointed to a bad injury to his knee. It is uncertain if he will continue in the race but, if he does, his general classification challenge is over.
Riders in a better position are Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Froome’s team-mate Mikel Nieve, Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) and the rider who had been wearing the red jersey of race leader, Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin). They finished between sixth and ninth, losing less than three minutes, and will battle on.
Majka is the only one with a question mark over him. This is not due to his form, but rather a motorbike that took down his Tinkoff-Saxo team-mate Sergio Paulinho.
The incident happened on the same day that his team demanded an apology from the Vuelta organisers for a similar collision between team-mate Peter Sagan and a race motorbike on stage eight. The second incident adds insult to injury and team owner Oleg Tinkov said that the squad might withdraw from the race as a result.
It remains to be seen if he will follow through with his threat, but it is clear that there are serious questions about race safety and how motorbikes and other vehicles are driving in the peloton.
Aru ends the day 27 seconds clear of Rodriguez, who helped design the route of the stage but who couldn’t translate that into a win. Dumoulin stays close at 30 seconds, while Majka, Chaves, Moreno Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Nieve between one minute 28 seconds and one minute 58 seconds back.
Valverde’s team-mate Nairo Quintana lost time and is now over three minutes behind; Froome is seven and a half minutes down. As for his team-mate Nicolas Roche, who had started the day fourth overall, he was required to wait for Froome and also was suffering the effects of his own crashes in the race.
He is now 13 minutes back in 22nd place, with his own challenge also gone.
Aru is in the driving seat and was full of praise for Astana. “I have got a great team. This morning we decided that Mikel would be part of the breakaway. That was our plan. We did a great job, executed it perfectly. The tactics were incredible.”
He thanked the domestiques for their ride and said that it was an indication of how close knit the team was. As for his chances of winning the race overall, he was guarded for now. “There are still some stages to go and it will be hard to keep it, but we will see.”
How it played out:
Although just 138 kilometres in length, the constantly up and down profile, the six categorised climbs, the summit finish and the total elevation gain of stage 11 had many suggesting it would be one of the toughest Grand Tour stages ever.
It began in Andorra La Vella would scale the first category triple of the Collada de Beixalis (km. 9.8), the Coll d’Ordino (km 32.3) and the Puerto de la Rabassa (km 72), the hors categorie Coll de la Gallina (km. 98.7), the category 2 Alto de la Comella (km 119.6) and the final climb, the category 1 Cortals de Encamp.
Very early on Chris Froome (Sky) crashed. Although delayed, he was eventually able to chase back on to the group of the other general classification contenders. The full significance of that fall wouldn’t be clear until later on.
Also on the deck was Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin); he too would be able to rejoin.
Meanwhile 19 riders went clear early on. They were the break’s instigators Darwin Atapuma (BMC Racing Team) and Romain Sicard (Europcar), plus others able to bridge, namely Nelson Oliveira and Rubén Plaza (Lampre-Merida), Matteo Montaguti and Mikael Cherel (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Javier Moreno and Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Omar Fraile and José Gonçalves (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alberto Losada (Katusha), Mikel Landa (Astana), Damien Howson (Orica-GreenEdge), Jerome Coppel (IAM Cycling), Romain Hardy (Cofidis), Carlos Verona (Etixx-Quick Step), Ian Boswell (Team Sky) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Together, the group opened a lead of over four minutes.
Erviti went clear prior to the day’s third climb and led over the summit of the Rabassa, but sat up on the descent. Boswell, Sicard, Poljanski and Coppel then pushed onwards on the Gallina, and were joined afterwards by Landa, Olivera and Atapuma.
Behind, Sky had been riding for Froome but backed off when it became clear that he was in difficulty. He went back to the medical car and then began losing more ground.
Valverde and Rodriguez attacked on the descent of the climb. Dumoulin was delayed but got back up, as did many of the other contenders.
The leaders were two minutes clear heading over the top of the penultimate climb. Landa, Sicard, Oliviera, Poljanski and Boswell were together heading onto the final mountain and from this move Landa attacked with nine to go.
Behind, Aru did the same, rocketing clear and putting most of his rivals into difficultly. Moreno and Rodriguez managed to get up to him, but with Landa about to reach the five kilometre to go banner, Aru surged again.
Rodriguez remained glued on Moreno’s wheel, apparently suffering.
Aru caught Boswell and continued pushing on under the three kilometre to go banner. He was one minute 36 seconds back at that point, closing in gradually but not quickly enough. Landa continued on to take the stage win, one minute 21 seconds ahead of his team-mate.
Boswell came in for third, one minute 40 back, then Moreno picked up fourth at one minute 57 seconds, two seconds ahead of Rodriguez.
As for the others, they were scattered down the mountain, suffering varying degrees of damage to their aspirations of winning the race.
The Vuelta a España continues Thursday with a 173 kilometre race from Escaldes-Engordany to Lleida. It begins with gradually descending roads then, approximately 40 kilometres after the drop of the flag, the riders begin climbing the day’s first categorised ascent. The second category Coll de Boixols summits after 54.3 kiloemetres of racing, then there follows a mainly downhill run to the line. There is one peak 55 kilometres from the end but this is uncategorised and unlikely to pose any real problems.
Vuelta a España (2.UWT) Andorra la Vella → Cortals d'Encamp