Vuelta a España (st. 14)
Six accelerations by Quintana at Col d’Aubisque unable to help him open a gap against Froome (SKY); Briton remains 54” behind Movistar Team leader at Vuelta GC. Alejandro Valverde pays after big efforts through 2016, finished 9’ behind top favourites
The Queen stage of the 2016 Vuelta a España was a carousel of different emotions for the Movistar Team. The 196km trek between Urdax and the HC-rated Col d’Aubisque, with three other Cat-1 ascents -Inharpu, Soudet and Marie-Blanque- across the way, offered an intriguing breakaway, a furious final pursuit, sadness as Alejandro Valverde cracked following a long season and some big emotions with Nairo Quintana’s moves, which this time couldn’t distance Chris Froome (SKY).
No less than 41 riders were part of the early, winning break, with Robert Gesink (TLJ) surging at the end from a decisive selection where three men from the telephone squad initially tried to be: Rubén Fernández, José Joaquín Rojas and Dani Moreno. The former two dropped back into the Marie-Blanque, waiting for orders from behind as an attack by Simon Yates (OBE) turned the approach to Laruns into a gallop. The Briton ammassed two minutes and thirty seconds of advantage of the GC contenders, a gap which nonetheless was reduced at the finish to 1’08”. Herrada, Castroviejo, Rojas and Rubén did the pursuit all the way to the steepest parts of the ascent, where Nairo Quintana took his moves from 8km from the summit.
Nairo’s six accelerations caused havoc into the GC group, and helped the Colombian reach to where Dani Moreno was, so the Madrilian could lead him out at parts of the ascent. The Cómbita-raised cyclist couldn’t, though, improve his 54-second margin overall against Froome. Chaves (OBE) now sits in third spot GC, 2’01” down, after attacking in the finale -gaining 35 seconds over Nairo- while Alejandro Valverde, fulfilling his 56th Grand Tour stage this season, couldn’t follow the pace of the big guns and ended up nine minutes behind Quintana.
The Vuelta will take on a completely different route scheme on Sunday. Only 118.5km are scheduled for stage fifteen, from Sabiñánigo to Formigal (Cat-1), a long climb yet without those steep parts from its French counterparts. The final action will be heated up by the previous ascents to Petralba (Cat-3) and Cotefablo (2ª), in what will certainly be another cracking day.
Nairo Quintana: “We tried everything to drop Froome back, but in all of my final accelerations, he sooner or later bridged back to my back wheel – it just wasn’t possible this time. It was an intense day, a tough race where I think the team fared well. The squad always kept elements at the front, making sure we could react if something happened, and Dani Moreno's job in the finale was great. Even though I couldn't let Froome behind, we're satisfied about the level of fitness we showed today – we really try to improve our situation.
"My calendar and Froome's has been pretty similar, in terms of wear and tear, this season, and also my legs feel tired at this point of the year… but I hope to keep it going into this final week, hopefully better than Chris, to conserve this leader’s jersey. Formigal will be surely a very, very intense day. We will have to wait until the break forms in the beginning – it’s gonna be a more explosive effort than today’s – and then build our strategy for the finale, especially that last climb.
"Alejandro? What happened to him today was normal: he's got almost three entire Grand Tours under his belt right now, and we always knew that this could make him pay at some point in the Vuelta. I know he'll recover and be helping us, as he always did, wherever he can."
Alejandro Valverde: “What happened today wasn’t a surprise for me, especially if you keep in mind the difficulty of the challenge I had to face in this Vuelta. It was a very tough day, one where you could win some or lose it all. This was on my cards. At the final climb, I wasn’t feeling well, I couldn’t keep the pace and I decided to ride on my own until the finish. It wasn’t to be today. The important thing now is supporting Nairo so he can remain in the lead until Madrid, working hard as we did already since the beginning of the race.”