Thibaut Pinot has won his second stage of this year’s Vuelta a Espana. The Frenchman took the win ahead of Simon Yates who extended his overall lead over Alejandro Valverde to take significant steps towards overall victory.
The 154.4km between Lleida and Andorra. Naturlandia featured just one climb right at the very end of the stage. The climb to the line was 17km in length and averaged 6.5% gradient to the line. It would be one of two great final showdowns for the riders before Madrid and as time would tell the day would prove very decisive.
Bennett goes for broke on lower slopes
It tool all of almost 75km before the breakaway group of two riders were finally allowed to go clear. Earlier in the day a trio that included Michal Kwiatkowski of Team Sky, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier of Dimension Data and Simon Clarke of EF Education First-Drapac tried to clear but found that the Movistar-led peloton weren’t willing to let them take any significant time. Finally though Benjamin Thomas of Groupama-FDJ and Jonathan Castroviejo of Team Sky did manage to go clear up the road and gain a maximum lead of 2.30mins.
Throughout the stage the only challenge on the minds of the riders was the final climb of the Coll de la Rabassa, there was no other obstacle to contend with besides the potential for crosswinds; which Movistar did show signs of trying to exploit but to no significant avail. The race would come down to the climb and as the riders began going uphill – almost at the very base of the climb – the catch to the leading duo was made as Movistar worked hard to stretch the legs of the GC contenders.
George Bennett – having played sprint domestique the day before – was once again on worker duties for teammate Steven Kruijswijk, and with 14km to go he hit the front of the peloton and thinned out the group nicely. Despite being out of contention for general classification honours Bennett was riding with the confidence and strength of a rider whose bad days earlier were simply just bad days; his form had returned and he was putting it to good use for his teammate.
With 13km to go Nairo Quintana launched the first attack and George Bennett went with him in the company of Steven Kruijswijk. From there a gap emerged to Simon Yates and the three riders found themselves with a few seconds advantage. It was clear that of the three Bennett and Kruijswijk were the strong riders with the Dutchman hold his Kiwi teammate’s wheel until Bennett finally sat up with 12.4km left to race; his job done for the day.
Yates, Kruijswijk & Pinot team up
Despite there still being 12km left to race and the gap to the GC favourites being relatively small, Kruijswijk and Quintana opted to continue on, with Thibaut Pinot attacking to come across. Unlike Kruijswijk and Quintana, Pinot was much less dangerous in the general classification and together the trio arrived at 10km to go with a lead of 13 seconds; but then Simon Yates attacked.
Reminiscent of the aggression he showed in the Giro d’Italia, Yates danced across the gap to the leaders and immediately took his place on the front of the small group. Behind him the GC group were beginning to capitulate as Valverde could only watch as the time gap opened up. He had only one teammate in the GC group for company, with Astana also showing signs of struggle at the back of the group.
At the front Yates wasn’t appearing to be looking for help, he was simply looking for time and with 8.5km to go he dropped Quintana; who appeared to have sat up to support Valverde back down the road. Eventually though, Yates began to look behind him to try and encourage his companions to work alongside him. There was a lot of motivation to work for the pair of them, with Kruijswijk in contention for a podium finish and Pinot looking for a stage; and together the three riders continued to build their advantage up to 30 seconds with 6.7km remaining.
As their lead grew Quintana’s race came to a halt with a bike change needed as Wilco Kelderman of Team Sunweb went on the attack along with Tony Gallopin of AG2R La Mondiale. Kelderman was at 31 seconds to the leaders, but the Valverde group were continuing to lose ground; with the gap cresting a minute before the 5km to go mark. Meanwhile there was aggression back in the GC group from Pello Bilbao of Astana and teammate Miguel Angel Lopez, although the rest of the group were offering no freedom. Kelderman, up the road was simply playing the patient game, tapping out a constant rhythm at 30 seconds ahead of the group.
Pinot takes the stage, has Yates won the war?
3.6km from the line Thibaut Pinot attacked his companions just lightly, stretching them but not breaking them as Yates and Kruijswijk came back onto their wheels. The trio continued on as behind them Kelderman’s lead over the rest of the GC group dropped a little; despite his admirable persistence. The Dutchman was looking like he was at his limit.
With 2km remaining Kruijswijk was hanging on for dear life as Yates and Pinot traded turns on the front. He was just about managing to keep pace with his two companions, looking almost certain of a rise in the general classification. Meanwhile Lopez attacked Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde and Rigoberto Uran who in turn dropped the rest.
As the leaders moved through 1km to go Kruijswijk finally cracked and at the same time so did Valverde down the road. The chase group of Enric Mas, Lopez and Uran caught Kelderman, but they were still losing ground on the two leaders. Yates was not worried about the stage win, he had the overall crown on his mind. Finally Pinot attacked and was uncontested as he rode away to the stage honours and a climb up the GC. Yates finished second at 5 seconds, with Kruijswijk third at 13 seconds.
Behind them Rigoberto Uran lead home Lopez and Mas for fourth, with Wilco Kelderman still managing to distance Valverde; whose GC campaign is now all but lost with a deficit of 1.38mins to Yates. Steven Kruijswijk now sits in third place just 20 seconds behind Valverde; with Enric Mas a further 17 seconds back in fourth.