The general classification of the Vuelta a Espana saw time gaps yawn open as Chris Froome extended his overall lead. Vincenzo Nibali moved up into second place and the BMC Racing duo of Nicolas Roche & Tejay van Garderen dropped out of the top ten, as Miguel Angel Lopez took stage honours.
It was the stage that was always destined to be decisive, with absolutely nowhere to hide for anyone. The 187.5km of racing would take in two category 1 climbs at the end of the day, with the climbing starting from some 60km from the finish. Both were pretty treacherous to look at, and both would present serious challenges to the field.
Bardet makes the break
The break of the day featured 14 riders including Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale, Bob Jungels of Quick-Step Floors, Alessandro De Marchi of BMC Racing, Simon Clarke of Cannondale-Drapac, Conor Dunne of Aqua Blue Sport, Matej Mohoric of UAE Team Emirates, Giovanni Visconti of Bahrain-Merida and more. Together the break built a lead of roughly 5 minutes close to the 94km point, but with Team Sky and Orica-SCOTT collaborating to limit th time gap, the break would allow precious little further freedom. At the foot of the day’s first climb the break’s lead had been reduced to 2.30mins.
Ultimately it was always going to be the two climbs that would really shape the stage, and it was easy to see why as the breakaway fragmented almost entirely until bit by bit only four riders were left out in front. Romain Bardet predictably was the focal point of the four, with Igor Anton of Dimension Data, Sander Armee of Lotto Soudal, Aldemar Reyes of Manzana Postobon in tow. They were joined with 36km remaining by Simon Yates of Orica-SCOTT and Bahrain-Merida’s Giovanni Visconti who had dropped off the break but gradually worked his way back to it.
Overall the most serious threat to Chris Froome was Anton who began the day 5.54mins adrift, while Simon Yates was well down in the overall standings at 23.28mins back. The catch was made by Yates and Visconti with the break enjoying just a 49 second lead over the peloton which was being pulled along by what looked like a very strong Team Sky outfit. Anton and Reyes dropped off the pace of the breakaway group, while Darwin Atapuma launched a move from the peloton to bridge across to the break, putting himself at the head of the race with Armee, Visconti, Yates and Bardet.
Team Sky in control as break stretches lead
Team Sky appeared content with the composition of the move and allowed the break to re-establish a lead of over a minute. 1km from the summit the break’s lead sat at 1.25mins, and by the time the quintet reached the top of the climb their lead was just nudging 1.30mins. Team Sky continued to dominate the pace with plenty of numbers on hand to support Froome. On the descent the break stretched things out a little and lost a couple of riders with Sander Armee in particular struggling to keep pace.
The next climb came with 15.5km left to race. But Team Sky looked more concerned with simply getting to the bottom of the descent safely, rather than eating into the break’s advantage; resulting in Yates, Bardet, Visconti and Atapuma growing their lead out to beyond 2.10mins. But by the time the break reached the bottom of the final climb only three remained, with Simon Yates, Romain Bardet and Darwin Atapuma enjoying a 2.35min lead.
Chaves in trouble as Sky & Bahrain-Merida make move
After the breaks lead grew to some 2.45mins things began to change as Bardet and Atapuma dropped Yates. Team Sky, having gotten to the bottom of the climb with no trouble, now set about bringing things back. With 10km of climbing remaining the break’s lead had gone back down to just over a minute to Froome and co, while behind them for the first time Esteban Chaves looked to be suffering. The Colombian who had been so consistent as Froome’s closest rival until now, had lost 40 seconds to Froome with 9km still to go. In fact almost everyone looked to be having a bad day on the bike, apart from a select few riders.
Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador, Miguel Angel Lopez, Ilnur Zakarin and Wilco Kelderman all were able to keep pace with the Team Sky demolition job that was unfolding. In fact so effective was the job Team Sky were doing that Chris Froome drifted to the back of the group with 8km to go. This triggered Bahrain-Merida into becoming the pace setters as they tried to put a little pressure on the red jersey. At this point the group had closed to within 18 seconds of Atapuma and Bardet, while the Chaves group were now 50 seconds back on Froome.
Chris Froome in trouble?
The break was swept up with 7.6km to go and Bahrain-Merida continued to push the pace. Atapuma and Bardet kept pace with the group, slotting in behind Chris Froome who remained at the back of the group for a little while. Froome had looked tired but crucially he’d matched everything so far despite what it might have looked like.
With 2.2km to go Mikel Nieve went on the attack to try and stretch things a little further. Bardet and Kelderman bridged back and with 2km to go Nibali launched a counter attack. This time though Chris Froome looked to be suffering and so too Contador, as Nieve dropped back. With 1.6km to go the gap was slight for Nibali but definitely present and the Italian was prepared to throw everything at the opportunity as the crosswind close to the summit also began to bite.
Lopez makes winning move
Next to attack was Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana who bridged across with Chris Froome, while Contador couldn’t match Froome this time. With 1.3km to go Lopez launched off the wheel of Nibali, leaving Froome and Nibali to chase alone. It looked briefly that Froome and Nibali would catch the Colombian, but then they let the gap grow, apparently content to simply try and pile on the pace and distance Contador; but Wilco Kelderman was able to come across to them.
Having crested the top of the climb Miguel Angel Lopez was able to power to the win and enjoy the moment, while Chris Froome led home the sprint 14 seconds back, ahead of Nibali and Kelderman. 17 seconds later Bardet, Contador, Zakarin and Nieve crossed the line; and from there the gaps continued to grow. Michael Woods of Cannondale-Drapac lost 1.03mins to Froome, for Fabio Are and Steven Kruijswijk it was 1.18mins, for Chaves it was 1.51mins, for Tejay van Garderen it was 3.12mins, and for Nicolas Roche it was 4.03mins.
The result meant that overall Nibali, De La Cruz, Kelderman and Zakarin were the major benefactors overall moving to 2nd, 4th, 5th and 6h respectively. Chaves dropped just one place to third, while Nicolas Roche dropped from 3rd to 11th, and van Garderen from 5th to 12th.
Aaron Gate, Sam Bewley and Tom Scully arrived home in the same group together, while George Bennett crossed the line in the next group on the road.