Gianni Meersman has taken his second Vuelta win of 2016. The Belgian took the win comfortably in the sprint finish of stage five ahead of Laurent Didier of Trek-Segafredo and Kevin Reza of FDJ. The finale saw a couple of significant crashes, including a nasty one for Steven Kruijswijk.
After the shake ups of the last two stages that belonged to the climbers, stage 5 of the Vuelta a Espana saw an opportunity for the sprinters to have their day, and an opportunity for the red leader’s jersey to remain in one rider’s camp for more than a day for the first time. Only one climb featured during the day’s racing, the category 3 rise of Puerto de Marco de Alvare. That peaked at the 118.8km mark, 52.5km before the finish, and from there it was largely flat to the line; with just a little rise taking the riders to the 2km mark.
A day of questions and an answer from Machado
The day would therefore present the field with a number of questions. Who would attack on a sprinter’s stage? Would BMC Racing control the peloton like Team Sky and Movistar had done? If not who would rise to take over? What sprint teams would emerge? The question of who would attack was answered by two men initially. Julien Morice of Direct Energie took off with Katusha’s Tiago Machado. Together the two men extended their lead out to 6.40mins with 101km left to race.
However, two riders became 1 when with 75km left to race Machado stretched his legs and took off solo. Behind Machado BMC Racing did take control of matters in the peloton, leading the red jersey of Darwin Atapuma but eventually they were succeeded by Etixx-Quick Step, interested in potentially lining up Gianni Meersman for a second stage win. They received support from Trek-Segafredo and GIANT-Alpecin, with Team Sky the first of the serious GC contender teams; perched behind them.
Atapuma’s effort seemed doomed from the start. A lone rider, on wide, straight, open roads void of difficulty. It was always going to be a very tall order for the Portuguese rider. But Machado made a valiant effort to stay clear. His lead dropped gradually and eventually stabilised at 1.30mins for a time. With 25km to go and with Etixx-Quick Step still leading the pack, Machado’s lead had dropped to 1.22mins.
Machado caught after solo effort
Machado’s lead finally dropped below 1 minute with around 18km left to race. The peloton didn’t need to catch Machado too soon, do that and they might encourage other attacks. But coming towards the final 15km seemed to be a safe catching zone for the peloton. With 16.3km other teams began to assert themselves at the front of the bunch as Machado continued to press on. He led under the intermediate sprint as Orica-BikeExchange moved to the front on the left hand side of the road. Team Sky came forward through the middle of the road, as did more riders from GIANT-Alpecin and Tinkoff on the right.
Finally with 14km of racing left, Machado was caught, the brave effort being comfortably mopped up, as Movistar moved to join Team Sky at the front of the race. The pace in the main field, which had previously been pretty pedestrian, now lifted significantly as a number of riders began to drop off the back of the bunch; their work done for the day. At the front Bora-Argon18 moved forward, so too Lotto Soudal and Dimension Data, in what was progressively looking more and more like a wild ride to the line for the sprinters.
BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert was a definite danger man at this point. With the final rise to the final peaking at 2km to go, it could well prove the perfect launch pad for him to attack Ardennes-Classic-style. With 10km to go Tinkoff and Lotto Soudal were the squads in control, but the boys in red were quickly overtaken by GIANT-Alpecin and Bora-Argon18 once again. The fact that the roads were so wide made it very difficult for any one team to completely control the narrative of how these final kilometres would go.
Gilbert’s late attack
With 8km to go Team Sky were back on board again, FDJ were showing signs of interest. But then Tinkoff again took over on the front, leading a bit more convincingly with 6km left. Team Sky were very well poised, and had Lotto Soudal on their tail. 5km to go and it was Team Sky’s turn to lead, looking after Chris Froome, with Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde etc all in attendance
With the road going up through 3km to go Chris Froome was well placed at the front of the race, right behind two teammates. Philippe Gilbert was also well placed and with 2.6km to go he attacked in the company of Cannondale-Drapac’s Simon Clarke. Gilbert looked to initiate the attack, but once he realised Clarke was on his wheel he almost relented. However, noticing that the Cannondale-Drapac rider was in strong form and pressing on well, Gilbert caught up with him and the pair made the effort to hold off the peloton. They had 1.5km to go and just a handful of seconds in hand but that lead evaporated completely with 1.1km left to race.
Meersman comes through to win amid crashes
The technical turns in the finale saw both of them continue to lead the pack through the 1km to go banner though, not ruling Gilbert out of potentially winning the stage; but he’d have a hard time trying. Finally he sat up as Etixx-Quick Step took over with Gianni Meersman sitting second wheel. Finally Meersman hit for home and surged away to take the win comfortably. Laurent Didier of Trek-Segafredo finished second with Kevin Reza of FDJ third.
Sadly behind Meersman a couple of crashes in the finale brought down a number of riders. Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL-Jumbo looked to have sustained a broken collarbone with his left arm quickly placed in a sling. Tony Hurel was on the ground, so too another rider, Robert Kiserlovski of Tinkoff. But with Kruisjwijk down and potentially out of the race the impact on LottoNL-Jumbo could be a big one.
Overall there was no change in the top echelons of the general classification with Darwin Atapuma still leading overall ahead of Valverde and Froome.