Mathias Frank secured his first ever grand tour stage victory when the IAM Cycling Swiss climber took the win in stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana. Frank won ahead of Leopold Konig of Team Sky and LottoNL-Jumbo’s Robert Gesink. George Bennett produced a strong ride to maintain his 12th place overall with four days remaining.
The first day of the last stretch to Madrid presented the riders with a 177.5km trek from Castellón to Llucena. Camins del Penygolosa. The stage would present a couple of challenges before the most difficult section right at the end. The category 1 climb of Alto Mas de la Costa would take the riders to the finish line with the climb reaching 18-21% in places. It would be a great test for the climbers and potentially a chance for Chris Froome to get some time back prior to the individual time trial.
All the GC teams get stuck into the break
Another large breakaway group went up the road, as has often been the case in the Vuelta this year. Movistar had Imanol Erviti and Jose Herrada Lopez in the move, while Team Sky had Michal Golas and Leopold Konig. Orica-BikeExchange had Simon Gerrans and Magnus Cort, while LottoNL-Jumbo had Bram Tankink and stage 14 winner Robert Gesink present in the move Others to have numbers in the move were IAM Cycling who had three riders in Marcel Wyss, Clement Chevrier and Mathias Frank. Caja Rural had Pello Bilbao and Jaime Roson Garcia, while Bora-Argon18 had Christoph Pfingsten and Scott Thwaites in the move.
It took more than 40km for the break to establish, but once it had it really began to motor. With Cannondale-Drapac the only team of the major GC challengers not to have a rider in the break it was going to be interesting to see who would take up the chase. Interestingly, although they all had riders in the move, Tinkoff, Orica-BikeExchange, Movistar and Sky were controlling the pace in the pack. But considering the fact that their teammates were up the road there was no great urgency to case things down just now.
BMC Racing take up the chase
With 102km left to race the gap had grown to just short of 5 minutes and that lead just kept on growing. Eventually the break hit an impressive 8 minute buffer, prompting BMC Racing to come through and take over on the front of the race. They had Samuel Sanchez sitting sixth overall and one of their own – Silvan Dillier – in the breakaway. Their efforts on the front succeeded in bringing the break down to 5.45mins with 51km left to race, but the action in the break was about to start.
Because of the large numbers cooperation between them all was always going to be interesting to observe, and with less than 40km to go Maxime Bouet of Etixx-Quick Step got the attacks from the break underway. That move didn’t work but soon after that a new move did appear to gain some traction. Dario Cataldo of Astana and Mathias Frank launched an attack just outside of 25km from the finish. They quickly got busy working hard together and it began to pay off, with the pair enjoying a 30 second lead over their former breakaway companions with 19km to go. Behind them the bunch were looking content to simply fight out the GC battle between them; allowing the break to stretch their lead to 6 minutes again.
Bewley commands the peloton for Orica-BikeExchange
Cataldo and Frank continued to lead with just over 10km to go. They still had 30 seconds in hand over the remnants of the break, with the bunch at 5.50mins. Despite the fact that the finishing climb was a category 1 climb and a very tough one at that, the climb was only about 4km in length. Eventually the pace had to shoot skywards in the bunch as the GC teams wrestled each other for the front of the bunch.
For now though BMC Racing were still leading the peloton without threat. Behind them AG2R La Mondiale were there, so too were Movistar, with Team Sky always close to the front of the action. Back in the chase group, which was still very substantial, it was LottoNL-Jumbo in control with Bram Tankink and Robert Gesink close to the front. Suddenly, with the peloton still just over 10km from the finish, Sam Bewley hit the front for Orica-BikeExchange, trying to line up teammates Esteban Chaves and Simon Yates for a good position on the climb. They were challenged by Rory Sutherland of Movistar, but Bewley quickly moved to the other side of the road to shut that move down and ensure that his team had prime position.
Gesink sets the tempo as we await the attacks
Up ahead Cataldo and Frank passed through 6km to go with their lead still stable. Behind them through the narrow streets prio to the finishing climb Orica-BikeExchange continued to lead with BMC Racing now their principal challengers. Up ahead Cataldo and Frank hit the rough surface of the final climb with 4km left to race. The pace immediately slowed for them and the race was on. Frank led the way while the chase group behind them began to close the gap slightly.
Robert Gesink hit the front and began to set a solid tempo at the front of the chase group. Meanwhile Orica-BikeExchange were down to just three riders at the front, with Damien Howson leading Chaves and Yates. Things were about to get very interesting back in the bunch as they too hit the slopes. Up ahead though there was good cooperation remaining between Cataldo and Frank as Kristijan Sbaragli launched the first attack from the chase group. Not a noted climber, his move wasn’t expected to last; and indeed Pello Bilbao led the chase to bring him back.
With the climb coming up Movistar finally took over the pace setting with 4km for them left to race. They hit the climb 4.30mins behind Frank and Cataldo, with Movistar appearing to be in complete control with some half a dozen riders still there. Crucially for New Zealand George Bennett was in the group and comfortable, although not in a position to attack being halfway down the group.
Frank makes his move as Bennett stays strong
Finally an attack had to come and Mathias Frank was eventually the man to do it out of the leading duo. He didn’t get a major advantage though, suggesting there could be more to come from Cataldo. Eventually though Mathias Frank began to stretch the lead out with 2km left to race. The gap was some 10 seconds or so as behind them Robert Gesink began to dig deep to try and bridge across. Meanwhile Movistar still had five riders leading the way in the bunch. Chris Froome of Team Sky was sitting too far back in the bunch to launch a move, riding right alongside George Bennett who remained right in the thick of the action.
Dario Cataldo was holding on in no man’s land between Mathias Frank and Robert Gesink. Gesink himself was beginning to pull away from the rest of the group, but had he left it too late to catch Mathias Frank? Frank was simply pushing a constant rhythm up the climb, tapping out the pace on the very tough ascent and holding a 13 second lead with 1.3km left to race. Back in the bunch George Bennett was still right where he needed to be, while Chris Froome began to move up in the group.
With just over a kilometre to go Cataldo was caught by Robert Gesink who had Leopold Konig and Jose Herrada for company. It was beginning to look like a big ask for the chasers to catch the persisten Mathias Frank. As they headed under the kite Robert Gesink attacked to try and bridge across to Frank, but it was not looking like enough, as the Swiss climber continued to push the pace, grimacing his way up the climb.
Alberto Contador attacks as Froome battles to hang on
Back in the GC bunch Alberto Contador got the attacks underway. The Spaniard was quickly up on the shoulders of the stragglers as the Quintana group fractured. The main contenders were there, but Valverde dropped back as did Bennett. Meanwhile Mathias Frank was persisting onwards. Robert Gesink had Frank in his sights, but the catch would not be made. Mathias Frank crossed the line to take the win with Leopold Konig out-sprinting Robert Gesink for second place, with Pello Bilbao in fourth place and Dario Cataldo fifth.
Back down the climb Nairo Quintana had dropped Chris Froome and caught Alberto Contador with Esteban Chaves there with him. Froome was not far away and continued to work hard to try and get back on board. This he succeeded in doing after a big effort. A brief lull allowed Froome to catch his breath just a bit as Quintana led them onwards. Next up Esteban Chaves took over the pace, stretching Chris Froome just a bit more until he appeared to crack again. With 300m to go Chaves, Quintana and Contador were just putting a little distance between them and Froome who was once again not surrendering.
Bennett stays 12th overall
Next Alberto Contador dug deep again to try and push ahead a little, but Quintana and Chaves weren’t giving an inch; and – credit where it’s due – neither was Froome. The Brit buried himself to regain contact with the red jersey and actually finished just ahead of Quintana on the line.
Simon Yates crossed the line just under a minute behind Chris Froome, Contador, Quintana and co. He finished ahead of Daniel Moreno and Alejandro Valverde. Behind them came George Bennett, who dug deep to limit his losses, conceding a few more seconds, finishing 21 seconds behind Yates but 12 seconds ahead of David de la Cruz who currently sits in tenth place overall.