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Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez took a solo victory at the end of Sunday’s 15th stage of the Vuelta a España, surging clear with 900 metres left on the final climb to Sotres Cabrales and beating closest rival Rafal Majka by 12 seconds.
The margin of success plus the win bonus boosted his general classification challenge, closing him to just one second off the time of the race leader Fabio Aru (Astana).
The latter tried to go with Rodriguez and while he limited the gap for perhaps half a minute, he slipped backwards before the line and faded to fifth.
Majka took second with Rodriguez’s team-mate Moreno third, 14 seconds back. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Aru were a further second behind, with Mikel Landa (Astana) completing the top six.
Former race leader Tom Dumoulin cracked on the final mountain and crossed the line 51 seconds back.
“I think it’s my ninth win,” said a smiling Rodriguez, speaking about the number of Vuelta stage success he has racked up over the years. “I am very, very happy to have this one. It is great news to be up there after all this time.”
While he ended the day one second off the race lead, missing out on red by the smallest margin, the balance seemed all positive. “I feel very, very good. For me it’s one of the best Vueltas that I have ever done. I am very calm.
“I don’t know if it is become of the number of times I have come here, but I feel very calm, quiet…serene even.”
Aru had started the day 26 seconds ahead of Rodriguez and lost almost all of his lead by the end. He didn’t appear too despondent at the rest, putting a brave face on things.
“Today Movistar set the pace of the stage. Purito did great things for Katusha in the last kilometre,” he stated. “I congratulate him for that. I still have the red jersey and we will see tomorrow with the hard stage, but the time trial is going to be a real problem for many riders.
“Tomorrow is another test. It is a very, very tough. All stages are difficult in this part of the Vuelta. We will obviously be extremely tired but we will try our best.”
As for Majka, his second place marks him out as a real contender for the final red jersey. He moves from fifth to third overall, one minute 24 seconds off the lead.
“Respect for Rodriguez, he was stronger than me,” he said. “I was suffering a bit on the first climb but afterwards I felt okay. Thanks to my team-mates I didn’t lose so much energy. Rodriguez did a strong attack and I was second.”
Although Dumoulin lost time, he warned that it was too soon to write him off. “He is really dangerous in the time trial,” he pointed out, correctly recognising the Dutchman’s strength against the clock.
As regards his chances of finishing in the top three in Madrid and thus taking his best-ever Grand Tour finish, he said that it was too soon to think of that. “It’s still a long Vuelta,” he pointed out. “I came here with the objective of the first five. Now somebody says first three. We will see. The Vuelta is long, I am not afraid of anybody but we will see how tomorrow goes.”
How it played out
The parcours of stage 15 of the Vuelta a España began in Comillas and covered 175.8 kilometres en route to the summit finish of the Sotres Cabrales. It was flat to rolling early on but then things got tougher in the second half with the category two climb of the Alto del Torno (km. 115.1) and the concluding category one Sotres.
Inside the first five kilometres of the stage seven riders succeeded in getting a gap. They were Amael Moinard (BMC Racing Team), Natnael Berhane (MTN – Qhubeka), Jelle Vanendert (Lotto Soudal), Kristijan Durasek (Lampre – Merida), Maxime Monfort (Lotto Soudal), Blel Kadri (AG2R – La Mondiale) and IAM Cycling’s Syvlain Chavanel.
They were joined soon afterwards by another four riders, namely Tosh Van der Sande (Lotto Soudal), Rodolfo Torres (Colombia), Carlos Verona (Etixx-Quick Step)and Antoine Duchesne (Europcar).
The 11 riders were unable to build their advantage, though, with the Movistar team hauling them back.
The next significant move went inside the opening hour and nine riders quickly built a lead of over two minutes.
The breakaway riders were Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing), Dominique Rollin (Cofidis), Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Ricardo Vilela (Caja Rural – Seguros RGA), Natnael Berhane (MTN – Qhubeka), Brayan Ramirez (Colombia), Blel Kadri (AG2R – La Mondiale), Maarten Tjallingii (Lotto NL – Jumbo) and Nikolas Maes (Etixx – Quick-Step).
Zubeldia was best-placed of those but, starting the day 33 minutes 30 seconds back, he was no threat at all to the general classification riders and so the break was given leeway to increase its gap. The nine were three minutes ten seconds ahead with approximately 53 kilometres covered, after which Movistar worked to start bringing it back.
After nibbling the advantage down to under two minutes the Spanish team had a rethink of sorts, backing off the pace to allow the break a little more room. While it clearly wanted to stop it getting too far ahead, the squad was also aware that other riders would go clear if the move was recaptured too soon.
As a result of that the gap climbed to four minutes just before the start of the Alto del Torno. Rollin went over the summit ahead of Rolland and on the descent, the advantage continued to grow. It climbed to almost five minutes inside the final 40 kilometres, but the bunch then turned the screw and brought it back down to a minute and a half with 15 kilometres remaining.
Kadri decided to go it alone, but his move was hauled back.
Battle on the final climb
With 11 kilometres left the break was one minute and seven seconds ahead. Ramírez pushed forward and opened a slight gap, but Zubeldia countered, got up to him and went right past.
Back in the bunch, Quintana attacked in a bid to reduce his three minute deficit. Luis Leon Sanchez saw the danger and marked him for the Astana squad, while his team-mates chased hard behind.
The other Astana riders soon closed him down but the move looked more a test than one with serious intent. It did have the effect of putting pressure on Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin), who was at the back of the group and looking uncomfortable.
Astana continued riding tempo at the front and with eight kilometres left, Zubeldia was one minute and three seconds up.
With seven kilometres left Visconti (Movistar) hit the front and ramped up the pace. It was unclear if he was trying to shed Dumoulin, bring back Zubeldia or set things up for another surge by Quintana. Whatever the prime motivation, his driving cut the leader’s advantage to 33 seconds with four kilometres to go.
Zubeldia was fully committed, though, and over the next kilometre his lead was only eroded by another seven seconds.
Visconti rode hard to do as much as he could and after he cracked, Astana once again came to the front. Dumoulin’s legs couldn’t take any more and he cracked, slipping out the rear of the group.
Nieve was feeling more at home on the climb and surged with just over two kilometres to go. His move was covered by the others but had the effect of finally bringing back Zubeldia and leaving things wide open for the stage win.
Quintana was still thinking of that and moved alongside Nieve at the front. However Tinkoff-Saxo then pushed forward, driving at the front. Quintana started slipping back and when Rodriguez put in a big surge with 900 metres left, the Colombian suddenly cracked.
Aru was trying his utmost to contain Rodriguez. He was grimacing and rocking all over the bike but couldn’t quite get back up to the Spaniard. Majka was little help, remaining glued to his wheel and showing no sign of coming through.
Rodriguez continued on and grabbed the victory plus the win bonus. Majka finally made his move and accelerated past Aru for second, while Moreno and Quintana also got by for third and fourth, thus ensuring the race leader missed out on any time bonuses.
That almost proved very costly; he hung onto red by just one second, and will start Monday’s stage wary about what could happen.
The stage in Andorra was billed by some as the most difficult day’s racing in a long, long time, but the Vuelta race organisation regard Monday’s 16th leg as the Queen stage of this year’s race. It is 185 kilometres in length and features seven categorised climbs between Luarca and Ermita de Alba Quiros.
Those ascents are the category three Alto Aristébano (km 14.6), the Alto de Piedratecha (category two, km 43.1), the Alto de la Cabruñana (category three, km. 85.6), the category two pairing of the Alto de Tenebredo (km. 119.9) and the Alto del Cordal (km. 150), the category one Alto de la Cobertoria (km. 166.5) and the final hors category climb to the Ermita de Alba Quiros.
It’s a ferocious day’s racing and the fact that the hardest climb comes at the end will make gaps between the GC contenders all the more likely.
Vuelta a España (2.UWT) Comillas → Sotres. Cabrales