George Bennett has moved into tenth place overall in the Vuelta a Espana!  The LottoNL-Jumbo Kiwi rode brilliantly to distance Michele Scarponi who got knocked out of the top ten.  Pierre Latour won the stage ahead of Darwin Atapuma in a day full of drama where Nairo Quintana secured the GC ahead of Chris Froome and Esteban Chaves.

After the excitement of the individual time trial that saw George Bennett climb into 11th place overall there was just one question remaining.  Could Bennett close the 50 second deficit separating him from Davide Formolo and climb into the top ten?  He would have the 193.2km stage from Benidorm to Alto de Aitana. Escuadrón Ejército de Aire in which to do it.  The stage featured four category 2 climbs with the final climb being an HC ramp to the finish.

 

Bulky breakaway takes off

 

After a number of early skirmishes a large breakaway group eventually did settle down at the front of the race.  The break featured stage 14 winner Robert Gesink of LottoNL-Jumbo, Luis Leon Sanchez of Astana, Jan Bakelants of AG2R La Mondiale, Lauren Didier of Trek-Segafredo, stage 17 winner Mathias Frank of IAM Cycling, stage 4 winner Lilian Calmejane of Direct Energie, Pavel Kochetkov of Katusha and Rudy Molard of Cofidis.

There was much to-ing and fro-ing in the break with Alejandro Valverde in amongst the action at one stage before heading back to the peloton.  Eventually though the break solidified, or rather two leaders solidified a lead over the rest.  Rudy Molard and Luis Leon Sanchez didn’t mess about, attacking early in the stage from within the break and building a lead of 1.24mins over the chase group, with the peloton further behind with 112km to go.

 

Crash for Rojas as the gap grows

 

That gap grew to 2.30mins with less than 100km remaining, but then disaster struck for Movistar’s Jose Joaquin Rojas who had been in the chase group.  Rojas crashed nastily on a descent and immediately exited the race.  Despite not moving he was conscious however, a relief to himself and the team.  Movistar were leading the peloton but in no hurry to chase a group that posed no threat to Quintana.  They were quite happy to let the break’s lead grow to 8.33mins with 92km, 9.25mins with 89km to go and even break the 10 minute and 11 minute markers.

With 64km left to race Luis Leon Sanchez and Rudy Molard still led with a 2 minute advantage over the chase group but a lead of 11.43mins back to the bunch.  It appeared that the stage honours would most certainly be fought amongst the break while the GC battle would unfold in a race within a race.

 

Bewley charges for Orica-BikeExchange

 

It would be interesting to see what tactic the likes of Team Sky and Orica-BikeExchange would play today.  Midway through the stage Sam Bewley led the Orica-BikeExchange team to the front of the peloton and piled on the pressure to see if they could initiate something; but to no avail.  With no support from any of the other teams the boys in blue decided to sit up and let Movistar retake responsibilities at the front of the pack.

60km from the finish the leading duo still enjoyed a 2 minute advantage, with the peloton drifting still further back to more than 12 minutes in arrears. The leading duo were working well together, sharing the workload effectively and fending off the much more numerous chase group which, try as they might, was not able to get any traction or dent the lead of Sanchez and Molard.  Meanwhile after the bunch initially let the lead stretch to a full 14 minutes, Orica-BikeExchange hit the front of the peloton again to cut the lead to 13.40mins with around 50km to go and with the break of the climb of Puerto de Tudons.

 

Bennett makes the GC group as crunch time looms

 

Sam Bewley was once again forcing the issue on the front of the pace, with Movistar on the tail end of their train.  Orica BikeExchange quickly brought the break back to 13 minutes but it was clear that their pace setting was less about chasing the break down than it was about putting the pressure on the other GC teams.  In the chase group, Kenny Elissonde of FDJ hit the front of the race on the climb with BMC Racing’s Darwin Atapuma on his wheel.  Behind them the gap was continuing to come down courtesy of Orica-BikeExchange with 12.20mins the gap to Molard and Sanchez with 48km to go.

The climb peaked with 45km to go and once over the top the last remaining obstacle would be the final climb to the finish.  Elissonde’s pace setting on the front of the chase group was proving to be somewhat effective, with the leader’s advantage cut to just over 1.30mins.  Meanwhile Orica-BikeExchange were beginning to put the hurt on the peloton, splintering the peloton and drawing out a group of some 22 riders.  Crucially George Bennett was in the group, sitting at about 19th wheel behind three Cannondale-Drapac jerseys.  But the intensity of Orica-BikeExchange’s pace-setting had put quite a dent into the break’s lead.  With 45km to go the bunch was 9.26mins in arrears.

 

Chaves makes his move

 

Back in the chase group IAM Cycling’s Clement Chevrier was brought down by a spectator as they neared the summit of the climb.  There didn’t appear to be in any major damage done, but would he be able to get back on board and support Frank?  Elissonde eventually mopped up the points for third place in the KOM classification; while in the bunch an attack went clear from Esteban Chaves.

Much like the attack of Simon Yates earlier in the race, Chaves hit the front alone and was unchallenged.  They were still heading up the penultimate climb of the day but Chaves quickly built a 23 second lead over the remnants of the peloton.  That would not be the only attack on the penultimate climb though, behind him Alberto Contador made a move that was chased furiously by Quintana and co who were very wary of giving the Spaniard even an inch.

 

Contador in danger and forced on defence

 

Robert Gesink led the chase group behind the break down the mountain before the final climb of the day.  The gap to Molard and Sanchez was down to 1.40mins and Gesink had to be considered a danger man for a stage win if he could keep up his form of the last few days.  Alberto Contador, though, was caught but not stopped.  The Spaniard decided that while the breakaway might not be working for him; maybe he could force the issue and stretch the rest.  He tried but everyone around him was wise to the move, including Team Sky who accelerated at the top of the climb.

All the while George Bennett was able to keep up in the group.  He needed to shake Davide Formolo off of his wheel and distance him by 50 seconds or more on the final climb, and so far the two were tit-for-tat with no quarter given by either rider.  Up ahead Chaves’ lead was hanging at around the 22 second mark, while the chase group of Robert Gesink and Kenny Elissonde were still 1.44mins back on Sanchez and Molard.  The GC group were now 8.16mins back and with 36km left to race.

 

Howson comes to Chaves’ aide

 

Esteban Chaves’ move was helped by the presence of Damien Howson.  The Australian had been in the Elissonde group but now he dropped back to help Chaves build his lead to nearly 30 seconds with 33km left.  To get on the podium Chaves needed to take back 1.11mins that grew between himself and Contador in the stage 19 individual time trial.

With 28km to go for the leaders the progress of Damien Howson and Esteban Chaves was stretching the gap to the Quintana-Contador group to 1.19mins; provisionally sitting in third place overall for now.  That gap only continued to grow to close to 1.30mins as the riders went inside the final 24km.

Up ahead the riders were about to get stuck into the final major climb of the 2016 Vuelta a Espana.  It was a brute of a climb too, 21km in length and although with just a 13.3% maximum gradient on the lower slopes; it would be a very revealing climb for all concerned.  With the gap growing to the GC bunch Alberto Contador was forced to go to the front of the group to chase alone with no teammates around him.  This would surely impact his ability to climb with Quintana, Froome and co in the final stages of the race.

 

Howson-Chaves vs Contador-Trofimov

 

Strategically it was a masterstroke by Orica-BikeExchange, with Howson still leading Chaves, who was enjoying a free ride for now.  The gap was growing all the time to Contador and co, with 2.05mins now the gap.  Meanwhile the attacks were just beginning in the chase group with Clement Chevrier going up the road with Pavel Kochetkov in pursuit of Molard and Sanchez; who still led by 1.43mins with 18km to go.

Chaves and Howson had a 5.16mins deficit while the Tinkoff-led chase group was now 7.31mins in arrears.  Yury Trofimov had dropped back from the break to set the pace for the Contador group but was it too late?  George Bennett just kept biding his time all the while, remaining in the group, with himself having teammate Robert Gesink up the road.

Kochetkov and Chevrier had a reasonably sizeable gap to the rest of the chase group, but down the road Damien Howson dropped back, leaving Esteban Chaves out all alone.  The exertion of Howson was such that he came to a standstill after having worked so hard for his teammate.  At the head of the race the chase was on for stage honours with Luis Leon Sanchez and Rudy Molard still leading but with 52 seconds advantage with 15km remaining.  The chasers were beginning to splinter behind them with Valerio Conti now pushing things on.

Back down the road Esteban Chaves was 4.22mins back on the leaders, but still significantly well ahead of Alberto Contador; with Yury Trofimov still at the front for the GC group, 1.50mins back.  Of course the other question that needed answering was, would Chris Froome attack and if so how far would he need to attack from in order to mop up the 1.21mins to Nairo Quintana?

 

Sanchez attacks but all is not won

 

With 12km to go and with their lead dwindling away with just about 18 seconds advantage, the attacks started between Sanchez and Molard.  It was the Spaniard who made the move, with Sanchez attacking and then attacking again to shake Molard off his wheel.  His turn of pace saw him stretch his lead to 20 seconds and further as he went under the 11km to go banner.

With 10km to go Sanchez had 25 seconds in hand, with Esteban Chaves 3.45mins back and the red jersey group 5.30mins back.  As the bunch headed towards 10km to go itself an attack came from Simon Yates.  This time though no one was going to let him get away and he was quickly back in the bunch.  But that didn’t stop him from having another dig.  Cannondale-Drapac now moved to the front to lead the pack with Moreno Moser leading the way.

Up ahead Chaves was holding that 1.50mins advantage.  Sanchez was holding that 25-27 second lead.  Conti has holding second place on the road but was for now still not able to get back on board with Sanchez.  Suddenly Sanchez began to stretch things out a little bit once again, as behind him Trofimov dropped off the GC group.  Alejandro Valverde was now leading the way for Movistar, but he was not worried by Chaves’ presence up the road and the distance to him was able to grow again to 2 minutes.

 

Will it be Frank?  Atapuma?  Gesink . . . . or Latour?

 

Up the road in the chase group Mathias Frank led Darwin Atapuma and Robert Gesink to catch Conti and set off in pursuit of Sancez who had 30 seconds in hand with 5.8km to go.  No sooner had they caught Conti than Darwin Atapuma launched a move.  Esteban Chaves was now picking up stragglers from the earlier breakaway.  Kenny Elissonde was mopped up as behind him Valverde kept the pace going for the GC bunch that was now 2.07mins behind.

Finally an attack went up the road courtesy of Leopold Konig.  That move drew out Contador, Quintana and Froome.  Up ahead Sanchez was caught and passed by a rampant Atapuma while Nairo Quintana stretched things out.  He was overtaken by Chris Froome who had one more rider in hand courtesy of David Lopez.  Pierre Latour of AG2R La Mondiale and Mathias Frank of IAM Cycling were closing in on Atapuma, and no sooner had Atapuma now been caught that Pierre Latour attacked to distance Frank.  Atapuma was sharp though and attacked again, further distancing Frank.  With 2km to go Latour and Atapuma were the ones to beat with 3 minutes to Chaves and 4.23mins to the GC group.

 

Chris Froome attacks Quintana

 

Chaves was beginning to feel the hurt but he was still managing to keep a 1.40min lead over Contador which would comfortably be enough to take third place overall.  Meanwhile though Pierre Latour was launching attack after attack at Darwin Atapuma.  Each time the Colombian fought back, biding his time.  Down the road Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana went through 3km to go together.  Froome knew that he had to attack and attack he did but Quintana, like Atapuma responded every time.  Froome needed 1.21mins but he wasn’t getting anything at this rate.

At the head of the race it was now no longer a two-man race, Fabio Felline of Trek-Segafredo who had also been in the large chase group was bridging across to Latour and Atapuma with Frank just behind him.  With 1km to go Latour launched another move to try and shake off Atapuma but it came to nought and it would surely come down to a sprint finish.  Latour led out the sprint finish with Felline not quite able to bridge across, but Darwin Atapuma easily disposed for Latour; riding tactically astutely to come past and take the win or had he?  In fact with 300m to go Latour caught Atapuma again and pushed on one more time to try and get the stage.  Finally it was Atapuma who cracked with Latour clear to take the stage win in amazing fashion.

 

Chaves conquers Contador, Quintana conquers Froome

 

The clock was on and Chris Froome had run out of road to make it across that 1.21mins.  He wouldn’t stop trying though as he continued to push.  Behind him Esteban Chaves was staring 3rd place on GC in the face.  While Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana matched each other through the final kilometre, the Orica-BikeExchange rider continued to push on.  Behind him Chris Froome attacked again and again but could not break Quintana who simply marked the Brit.

Finally Chaves crossed the finish line 3.17mins down on Latour, but it was the gap behind him that was most important.  Chris Froome launched one final sprint to try once more but Nairo Quintana was there and he passed Froome in the sprint with Froome sitting up and applauding the Vuelta winner.  Alberto Contador finished solo behind them 4.41mins down and now in fourth place overall; with Chaves having done enough to take the third spot on the podium.

 

Bennett breaks into top 10

 

But what of George Bennett?  With all the drama going on up the road how as the battle for the top ten going?  Andrew Talansky was the first of the Cannondale-Drapac riders to cross the line with Ben King the second in 18th place.  No sign of Davide Formolo in tenth overall or George Bennett just yet.  In fact just as Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana were deadlocked, so too were George Bennett and Davide Formolo.  The pair finished 23rd and 24th respectively with no time gap separating them; both 6.06mins behind Latour.

But that was not the end of the story.  Daniel Moreno began the stage in 8th place 1.07mins ahead of Davide Formolo, 1.57mins ahead of George Bennett.  Michele Scarponi of Astana was 7th 1.13mins ahead of Formolo and 2.03mins ahead of Bennett.  Moreno crossed the line 54 seconds down on Moreno and Bennett to keep hold of his place in the top ten.  But Scarponi finished 3.29mins behind them to lose his place in the top ten.  The result bumped Bennett into the top ten 1.26mins ahead of Michele Scarponi and in tenth place; the best result for a Kiwi in grand tour history with just the final stage in Madrid to go!

Overall Nairo Quintana actually put 2 seconds into Chris Froome to lead by 1.23mins with Esteban Chaves in third; 13 seconds ahead of Alberto Contador with the Colombian 4.08mins down.  Andrew Talansky held on to fifth place at 7.43mins.

 

 

Photo:  Sirotti

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