George Bennett’s GC battle hangs in the balance after a difficult stage 13 to Valle de Sabero. While teammate Steven Kruijswijk fared strongly on the summit finish, it was Bennett who cracked and lost over a minute on a number of GC rivals. Oscar Rodriguez of Euskadi-Murias won the stage ahead of Rafal Majka and Dylan Teuns.
The next big test for the GC riders in the Vuelta a Espana came in stage 13 fro Candás Carreño to Valle de Sabero. La Camperona. The stage was 174.8km long and took in two big first category climbs including the 4.2km final ramp to the line that averaged 11.6% gradient. A very large breakaway group established itself at the head of the race, with the peloton once again giving their blessing to the move.
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Giant breakaway group enjoy blessing of peloton
Two-time stage winner Ben King of Dimension Data was there along with Ilnur Zakarin and Jhonatan Restrepo of Katusha-Alpecin, Rafal Majka of BORA-Hansgrohe, Gorka Izagirre of Bahrain-Merida, Sergio Henao of Team Sky, Bauke Mollema of Trek-Seafredo and his KOM rival Luis Angel Mate of Cofidis and Oscar Rodriguez and his Euskadi-Murias teammates Garikoitz Bravo and Eduard Prades. All in all 32 riders made up the move that had 5.45mins in hand with 45km left to race after their advantage had stretched to a sizeable 9.30mins.
Cofidis took up the role of leaders of the pack, with the red jersey of Jesus Herrada to look after, as Movistar also got involved; although less to win the stage and more to be ready for what lay ahead. With the gap to the break sitting at around 5.20-5.30mins there was no threat to Herrada’s overall lead if only he could stay the course in amongst the GC contenders.
As the race crept towards 25km there was a notable shift in intensity from the bunch, spearheaded by Astana as the breakaway continued on together. Mitchelton-Scott had some presence on the front of the race, but it was always going to be the final climb that had everyone’s attention. With 12km to go the gap was approaching 4 minutes from break to bunch.
Majka visibly strongest on early climbing sectors
On the lower slopes of the climb, with 7km to go the break were still largely together, with no one really appearing willing to throw caution to the wind just yet. At 5km to go the gap to the bunch was down to 3.33mins and although the attacks weren’t going just yet riders were beginning to suffer off the back.
BORA-Hansgrohe took on the responsibility of leading the break, with Rafal Majka looking strong on the wheel of teammate Marcus Burghardt. Meanwhile Astana were drilling the peloton as Ilnur Zakarin attacked with 3.3km to go. Burghardt, who had turned himself inside out for Majka now came to a virtual standstill as the race began to really take shape on the climb. The attacks seemed to be a little nervous from the break with a very stop-start approach to the climb seeing no one really commit.
Behind them Omar Fraile was pushing the tempo for Astana as a large GC group made their way up the mountain. Steadily Rafal Majka lifted the tempo in the break and stretched the field right out as Merhawi Kudus of Dimension Data bridged across to the Polish rider. Dylan Teuns was also digging deep to bridge the gap as Kudus again found himself at full stretch and beginning to flouder as Majka continued on with 2km to go.
Bennett suffers as Rodriguez shows strength
Interestingly back in the peloton Steven Kruijswijk was very present towards the front of the group, but for the first time George Bennett was not proving very visible. The Kiwi was towards the back of the group, but still there with under 2km to go. Up ahead though with 1.6km to go Teuns had caught Majka and the duo were looking likely to contest the win, but steadily Oscar Rodriguez worked hard on a treacherous 20% gradient sector to come across to the leaders.
Back in the bunch it was not a case of big attacks breaking the group up, but simply the gradient they were tackling as Bennett began to lose contact with his rivals.
Rodriguez caught Majka and Teuns with 1.1km to go and with the gradient still at a solid 16% gradient. Rodriguez then launched an attack of his own and Majka and Teuns had no response. The Euskadi-Murias rider was riding to a historic stage win and there was nothing that Majka or Teuns could do about it as the gradient just put the agony in the legs. Down the road a mechanical issue brought Miguel Angel Lopez to a halt
At the top of the climb the road levelled out a little as Rafal Majka dropped Teuns and went in pursuit of Rodriguez. But it was too late, the Basque rider had recorded the biggest win of his life. Majka crossed the line in second place with Teuns third as back down the road Nairo Quintana and Simon Yates attacked. The GC group was beginning to fragment as Enric Mas also went after the two GC contenders.
Quintana and Yates crossed the line 2.32 & 2.38mins behind Rodriguez respectively. Steadily the GC contenders arrived home in their ones and twos. Bennett crossed the line 4.02mins behind Rodriguez and 1.30mins behind Quintana. Bennett crossed the line having suffered his way to the line. The result meant that he dropped from 10th to 14th, 3.53mins behind Herrada and 2.11mins behind Simon Yates who sits second overall. Teammate Steven Kruijswijk is now 1.09mins ahead of him so it will be interesting to see whether Bennett will take on the domestique role or not from here.