Gianni Meersman of Etixx-Quick Step has won his first ever grand tour stage, with victory in stage 2 of the Vuelta a Espana. The Belgian took the sprint finish ahead of Michael Schwarzmann and Magnus Cort-Nielsen in the finale.
Stage 2 of the Vuelta a Espana took the field from Ourense to Baiona, 160.8km in all. It was expected to be a sprinter’s stage with just the one category 3 climb of Alto de Fontefria to contend with. However, a couple of rises before the finish line would not allow the sprinters to go completely unchallenged before the finish line.
It took a handful of kilometres and a few skirmishes before a breakaway of initially two riders went clear up the road. Cesare Benedetti and Laurent Pichon of FDJ were joined by Brian Naulleau of Direct Energie; and together the trio formed the break of the day and went – without opposition – up the road.
Team Sky and Tinkoff were the initial teams to take control at the front. The two teams couldn’t have had a much more different opening team time trial. Team Sky’s was near perfect, and saw them claim the stage win and red jersey for Peter Kennaugh. Tinkoff, however, had a team time trial to forget by their standards. With Alberto Contador being their team leader the squad could only finish 9th fastest of the 22 teams; already setting Contador 52 seconds down on his great rival Chris Froome.
While Team Sky and Tinkoff were very constant on the front of the race, they were joined by representatives from Trek-Segafredo and GIANT-Alpecin, with Movistar perched behind Tinkoff. With 100km remaining, and on the lower slopes of the climb of Alto de Fontefria, the breakaway had 2.26mins in hand on the bunch. The day had so far been a quiet one for George Bennett of LottoNL-Jumbo, Sam Bewley of Orica-BikeExchange and Patrick Bevin of Cannondale-Drapac; although the nature of the finish could potentially suit Bevin.
Pichon bides his time to take KOM lead
With 92km of racing remaining the break’s lead had extended to 3 minutes, with the trio working efficiently together. The KOM climb took a little bit of time to officially kick into gear, but once it did the trio worked hard together until 2km to the top. Brian Naulleau struck first and dug deep to try and stay clear, but Benedetti and Pichon were quickly back on board with him; nullifying his effort and radically slowing the pace in the break.
The peloton were visibly faster and closed to 2.10mins with just under 83km left to go. The leading trio seemed concerned only about the KOM climb, treating the climb almost like a track sprint as they marked each other up the final metres of the Alto de Fontefria. Finally the sprint for the climb saw Pichon take the points ahead of Benedetti, with Naulleau – who started the cat and mouse games – third.
After the climb the trio’s lead was eaten into fairly rapidly and with 70km left the bunch had 1.13mins left to make up on them. Gatis Smukulis of Astana was on the front of the peloton with Team Sky still perched just behind him. It didn’t take long for the break’s lead to go below 50 seconds, a most unwelcome circumstance for the peloton, who immediately took the sting out of their chase effort, sitting up and chatting amiably as they rode along. Lotto Soudal, Movistar, Trek-Segafredo; all joined Team Sky as the riders fanned out along the width of the road.
The easing off of the pace was just what the break needed as they grew their lead back out again to 2 minutes with 55km left to race. The three leaders were still working well together and even managed to stretch things out to as much as 2.20mins. But eventually the bunch began to rally a little more earnestly. There was no change at the front of the peloton, and with no teams with pure sprinters like Kittel, Cav, Sagan, Greipel, Bouhanni or others it would be interesting to see which teams would take responsibility for the chase in the end.
Gilbert attacks the bunch
With 43km to go the gap was stable at 1.31mins but that dropped rapidly from there to 40 seconds with 40km to go. It was still arguably too soon for the break to be caught and there was still no team taking a strong interest in leading a chase effort. However, a strong move on a short rise from Belgian national champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, injected a new lease of life into the race.
Gilbert attacked with 38.5km to go, just before the intermediate sprint, and the peloton’s reluctance to chase allowed the former world champion to gain a reasonable gap and leap across the ever dwindling gap to the break. By now the break had just 12 seconds in hand on the peloton; and Gilbert bridged that gap with ease.
After cresting the rise the break’s lead went out to a still-slender 23 seconds; but the previously leading trio made and effort to work with their new addition. It was clear though that Gilbert was the stronger and if he was to seriously challenge for a stage win then he had to up the tempo and see who – if anyone – could come with him. The other three responded though, ensuring that for now at least a quartet would take the race to the peloton.
Who’s got the sprint train?
The gap held at 26 seconds with 28.5km left to race, but still the peloton waited, reluctant to throw their full wait behind the chase just yet. Movistar, however, did begin to make their presence felt in a much stronger way; with the not-quite-pure-sprint-friendly finish potentially suiting someone like Alejandro Valverde. Dimension Data and Tinkoff also began to pay much closer attention to the front of the race. Over the four lanes of road Dimension Data took the right hand side, while Tinkoff shot through the middle; with Team Sky on the right. The gap to the break had dropped a little to 18 seconds with 22km to go.
Gilbert easily collected maximum points at the intermediate sprint with 18.5km to go with a lift of the pace seeing none of the others able to keep up with him. Along with maximum points though came 3 bonus seconds for Gilbert; which would come in very handy if he could also gain a stage win. But it was looking unlikely, with a slender 7 seconds with 16.7km to go. Finally everything came back together with 15.8km to go; and the field buckled down for the long awaited sprint finish.
Attacks weren’t done yet, and sure enough next to go up the road was Tiago Machado of Katusha. Machado selected a reasonably technical uphill section to make his move and he was able to take advantage of it. Behind them Philippe Gilbert remained close to the front of oings on, with Cofidis moving up to join teams Sky and Tinkoff. Next to attack though came from FDJ as Kenny Elissonde, he too was able to freely head up the road and try to bridge across to Machado.
Next IAM Cycling and Etixx-Quick Step got in on the action, with AG2R La Mondiale also trying to get across the gap; even BMC Racing got in on the action as the pace in the race ramped right up. Machado for now was still up ahead and in the lead. But his lead was not to last long. Although Machado led through 10km to go, the chase group was quickly back in the pack and Machado joined them with 8.5km left.
Team Sky were back on the front with 6.5km to go, but Lotto Soudal began to move up at this point to assert themselves on the sprint finish. BMC Racing were there, so too Cofidis. But there was no sign of Cannondale-Drapac at this stage. With 5km to goMovistar were right up on Sky’s wheels, with Astana also getting in on the action. Bora-Argon18 were in contention too and there was everything to play for. With 3.9km to go Lotto Soudal sent three men right to the front of the race to push things along. Adam Hansen, Bart de Clerq and Tosh van der Sande were there, but as Hansen pulled over Dimension Data and Bora-Argon18 came through.
Crashes and carnage but Meersman emerges
With 2.4km Sergei Lagutin of Katusha suddenly found his wheels slip out from underneath him, amazingly though it looked like he was the only rider to go down as the rest went through 2km to go. Everything was still to play for and it really was anyone’s race, with Etixx-Quick Step beginning to show themselves at about 8-9 riders back. It was impossible to pick a winner with 1km to go, but Dimension Data just about had the lead. Tyler Farrar led the way towards the lead out for the finale, Gianni Meersman might have timed his move perfectly though, having waited to launch his move.
After pouncing off of the wheel of his lead out man Meersman eventually cruised home to the win with a strong turn of pace that couldn’t be matched. Behind him though another crash sent Direct Energie’s Canadian rider Ryan Anderson take a tumble just meters from the finish line. He was down on the ground for a while, but eventually he stood up and crossed the line on foot.
Behind Meersman Michael Schwarzmann of Bora-Argon18 crossed the line for second, with Magnus Cort Nielsen of Orica-BikeExchange taking third place. Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky finished fourth with Jonas Van Genechten of IAM Cycling completing the top five.