Stefan Denifl has won Aqua Blue Sport’s first ever Grand Tour stage.  The Austrian took the win ahead of Alberto Contador and Miguel Angel Lopez after being in the breakaway all day long.  The GC battle came alive today as Chris Froome suffered on the slopes of the final climb, losing significant time to his GC rivals.

The 25-26% sections of road on the final climb of stage 17 were always going to be trying and testing elements for the GC contenders; although heading into the stage we would have said that Chris Froome wouldn’t have been the major one to be tested.  Even if you take out the sections of the climb that went up beyond 20% the climb was still a brute with frequent stretches of road at over 10-15%.  This was set to be the big showdown of the stage, but there was still 173.2km of racing necessary to get there.

 

Denifl makes strong breakaway

 

Stefan Denifl began crafting Aqua Blue Sport’s first grand tour stage win when he made it into the break of the day alongside Alessandro De Marchi of BMC Racing, Dani Moreno of Movistar, Julian Alaphilippe, Magnus Cort Nielsen of Orica-SCOTT and Davide Villella of Cannondale-Drapac.  The break’s lead peaked at an impressive 9.15mins, but Astana and then Bahrain-Merida were full of intent and the latter in particular worked hard to put pressure on Team Sky early before the final climb.

What was impressive was the ability of Orica-SCOTT’s Sam Bewley to maintain his position and dictate the pace later on in the stage.  With the gap coming down to the leaders, Bahrain-Merida were very strong on the front of the peloton on the descent o the category 2 climb before the 2 big finishing climbs.  Their pace was enough to rattle the likes of Matteo Trentin and David de la Cruz who dropped back on the descent but rejoined the peloton with 40km left to race.  But Sam Bewley was pushing a strong pace on the front, taking over from Bahrain-Merida; possibly in the hope of lining up Esteban Chaves for a shot at stage honours.

Sam Bewley put in a monster performance in stage 17, photo Sirotti

At this point in the stage the race up ahead had broken up a little bit.  Davide Villella, while he’d taken maximum points on the category 2 climb, lost contact with the break on the descent and despite a big chase effort was unable to regain contact with the group; and regrettably was forced to drop back to the bunch.  The break were working well together, with the exception of Magnus Cort Nielsen who was not going to contribute to the chase with his Orica-SCOTT teammates working on the front.  With 33km left to race the gap to the leaders was out at 2.48mins; with the jury still very much out as to whether the break could hold on.

 

Strength from Bewley at head of bunch

 

Sam Bewley was still on the front for Orica-SCOTT, but that was expected to stop once the race reached 28km to go and the road went up the category 1 climb of Puerto de Alisas.  The break hit the foot of the climb with 2.23mins in hand over the peloton. Sam Bewley was still toward the front of the race on the climb’s lower slopes as Astana took over the lead.  At the back of the peloton came Rafal Majka, one of the other riders who had been dropped early on the descent, finally caught back up with the peloton which were beginning to eat into the lead of the breakaway.

With the pace being set so strongly by Astana it wasn’t long before Sam Bewley finally bade adieu to the front of the race and made his way further back down the still very large peloton.  Interestingly the breakaway for now were content to stay together.  But off the front of the race a joint attack went clear from Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves.  Team Sky took over the reins at the front of the race, but they seemed unconcerned by the presence of the two Orica-SCOTT riders disappearing up the road.  Although in reality they weren’t disappearing nearly as quickly as they needed to, with Sky keeping them within the 30 second time bracket.  Even with a handful of others joining them the group wasn’t able to get any real gap to the pack.

2km from the summit the breakaway were 1.34mins ahead and it looked like the peloton would catch them.  They crested the summit of the climb together and then got stuck in with the short descent before the final climb to the finish.

 

Moreno launches first attack, Froome falls back

 

The break reached the foot of the final climb with just 1.28mins in hand over the peloton, while in limbo between them was Jack Haig of Orica-SCOTT.  The climb was extremely tough and slowed the field radically, until with 6km to go Dani Moreno launched the first attack from the breakaway.  Denifl was on his wheel, while behind them Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana went on the attack quickly followed by Alberto Contador of Trek-Segafredo.  Their attacks came as the GC group completely disintegrated.  Chris Froome was caught out in a group behind Vincenzo Nibali and his Bahrain-Merida teammates, it looked initially that Froome was comfortable, but bit by bit it became clear that Froome was not simply conserving energy; Froome was suffering.

Chris Froome found plenty of daylight ahead of him and his GC rivals in stage 17, as he suffered on the final climb, photo Sirotti

With 5km remaining Stefan Denifl was now beginning to drop Moreno, while Contador was disposing of Miguel Angel Lopez and Chris Froome was losing a little more ground to Nibali and co.  4km from the finish the gap from Denifl to Contador was at 1 minute and closing.  It looked like it would potentially be a straight battle between Contador and Denifl for the stage, while up ahead Rafal Majka, Vincenzo Nibali, Wilco Kelderman, Ilnur Zakarin, Michael Woods and Steven Kruijswijk patiently paced themselves away from Froome.

On the run in towards 3km to go Contador caught Alaphilippe and Jack Haig, and continued to pile on the pressure.  It was going to be a nail biting finish as Denifl desperately held on.  Back down the road Chris Froome was hitting the red zone as the race leader was left with just Mikel Nieve for company, with even the domestique appearing to be stronger.  While Contador dropped the rest and found just 30 seconds between himself and Denifl with 1.5km to go, Miguel Angel Lopez was caught by Vincenzo Nibali, Ilnur Zakarin and Rafal Majka.

 

Contador vs Denifl for stage honours

 

At 1km to go Denifl was holding on to his stage win by just 25 seconds from the retiring Spaniard.  Behind them Ilnur Zakarin now took over the pace setting with Nibali and Majka in tow.  The potential to really put time into Chris Froome was not lost on them and they were going into the red zone, but a completely different kind of red zone compared to that of Froome.

Up ahead though despite the best intentions of Contador the day belonged to the Austrian as Denifl crossed the line 28 seconds ahead of the Spaniard.  Zakarin, Nibali, Majka and Angel Lopez crossed the line just over a minute behind Denifl and from there the clock started to Froome.  Michael Woods, Dani Moreno and Wilco Kelderman all trickled in ahead of Froome who just lost a few seconds to Kruijswijk, De La Cruz and Jack Haig.  Froome had lost 42 seconds to Nibali.

As a result Froome held on to his overall lead but now his deficit was 1.16mins to Nibble, 2.13mins to Kelderman and 2.25mins to Zakarin with Contador still in 5th place at 3.34mins.

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