Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) continued his team’s strong run in the Vuelta a España on Saturday’s eighth stage as he took the stage win ahead of fellow breakaway companions Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) and Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).
In the general classification battle, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) continued his resurgence as he led home race leader Chris Froome (Sky) 1:27 down on the stage winner, with the two riders crossing the line well clear of the rest of the GC contenders. Froome now leads the overall standings by 28 seconds, with Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) in second, and Nicolas Roche (BMC) in third, 41 seconds off the race lead.
The drama started before the riders even took to the road though, with Team Sunweb announcing that they had removed Tour de France polkadot jersey winner Warren Barguil from the race. Barguil, who had the final year of his contract with Sunweb annulled so he could sign for another team for the 2018 season, had apparently refused to follow team orders ride as a domestique for team leader Wilco Kelderman.
When a rider moves to another team, they take any UCI points they claimed during the preceding season with them, which means that should the team have allowed him to race for himself, he would effectively have been taking UCI points away from his team leader, which meant that not having him there became less of a liability than having him involved.
With a brutally hot day ahead, and the equally brutal Alto Xorret de Cati on the way to the finish, it promised to be a very challenging day. After numerous attacks, a group of 21 riders managed to go clear about 35 kilometres into the race, featuring Clément Chevrier (AG2R-La Mondiale), Michel Kreder (Aqua Blue Sport), Sergei Chernetski and Laurens De Vreese (Astana), Domen Novak (Bahrain-Merida), Loic Vliegen (BMC), Emanuel Buchmann, Rafal Majka, and Christoph Pfingsten (Bora-Hansgrohe), Brendan Canty (Cannondale-Drapac), Guillaume Bonnafond (Cofidis), Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data), Alberto Losada (Katusha-Alpecin), Bart De Clercq and Maxime Monfort (Lotto-Soudal), Daan Olivier (LottoNL-Jumbo), Nelson Oliveira (Movistar), Julian Alaphilippe (Quick Step), Jesus Hernandez (Trek-Segafredo), and Przemyslaw Niemiec and Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates).
The group built up a solid lead, but Sky was managing the situation back in the peloton, with some potential danger men up the road, and the gap was never allowed to stretch beyond the five minute mark.
With three men from Bora-Hansgrohe in the move, and Majka a very competent climber, it seemed quite likely that they would attempt to set him up for the stage win on the final climb. The break started to crack under the pressure as riders dropped off the pace, with Majka being joined at the front by Alaphilippe as the rest slipped back.
The climb also prompted attacks in the peloton, and it was a resurgent Contador who made his presence felt early on, with Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), Simon Yates (Orica-Scott), and David de la Cruz (Quick-Step) for company. Sky worked hard behind to bring back the potentially dangerous move, with the pressure ridding them of some of the other contenders. As Contador attacked again and again, Froome had to take up the chase himself, before managing to drop the rest of his rivals. Contador persisted and joined Froome at the front of the race, with the two starting the tricky descent together.
At the front of the race, Alaphilippe and Majka found themselves joined by Polanc in the run in to the finish, with Alaphilippe launching his effort early and coming to the line well clear of Polanc in second, and Majka in third. The rest of the break kept coming across the line in ones and twos, before Contador and Froome, who had been joined by Contador’s team mate Hernandez, came charging to the line.
Contador crossed the line just ahead of Froome, 1:27 behind the stage winner. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) led home the next group of GC contenders 17 seconds later, with Fabio Aru (Astana), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin), Wout Poels (Sky), and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott). The next group of overall contenders were a further eleven seconds back, including Adam Yates (Orica-Scott), Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), Nicolas Roche (BMC), David de la Cruz (Quick-Step), Tejay van Garderen (BMC), and Louis Meintjes (UAE).
Froome now leads the overall standings by 28 seconds over Chaves in second, with Roche in third, 41 off the race lead. Nibali is fourth, 53 seconds off the lead, with Van Garderen rounding out the top five, 58 seconds off the race lead.