Miguel Angel Lopez and Rafal Majka have walked away with wins in the last two mountain stages that have seen the battle for the general classification fought closely between Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome.  The two have traded blows over the last two stages, with Nibali taking first blood in stage 14, only for Froome to claw back the time in today’s stage.

 

Majka wins for Bora-Hansgrohe

 

Until now the GC battle at the Vuelta a Espana has been very closely fought, with Alberto Contador’s rise in form putting him firmly back in the hunt for at least a top five finish overall.  But it’s been the battle between Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome that has been most enticing, with the pair largely inseparable; and Froome’s most vulnerable moments appearing to be when the Italian has attacked.

In stage 14 Majka took the win after first making it into the break of the day.  Alongside him were teammate Patrick Konrad, Simon Clarke and Davide Villella of Cannondale-Drapac, Alexis Gougeard of AG2R La Mondiale, Bart De Clercq of Lotto Soudal, Rui Costa of UAE Team Emirates, Stefan Denifl of Aqua Blue Sport, Luis Angel Mate of Cofidis and Manzana Postobon’s Ricardo Vilela.  Despite the obvious strength in the move, Team Sky were happy to let them fly and build a quick five minute gap.

50km from the finish the break still had a good 4.30min lead.  But what was interesting about the stage was the involvement in the chase effort of the other teams in a manner we’d not really seen in other stages of the Vuelta so far.  Bahrain-Merida, Trek-Segafredo and Astana were all involved in chasing, while so too were Katusha-Alpecin.  It would be interesting to see what their contributions would do to Team Sky and Chris Froome.

Rafal Majka produced a monster effort on the final climb to win stage 14, photo Sirotti

On the lower slopes of the final climb with 14km to go the break’s lead was at 1.50mins and Konrad was burying himself for teammate Rafal Majka who sat on the back of the breakaway group.  Quick-Step Floors and Astana now took control of the main field, with Team Sky still not really pushed to make the race at this stage.  Just over 10km from the finish Konrad dropped off the group leaving De Clercq and Costa, and Costa also was left unable to keep the pace with Majka.

The Polish rider was out alone with 9.7km remaining and 1.17mins in hand, and an unlikely success story ahead of him; given the fact that the GC riders were yet to fire.  But steadily Majka’s lead grew out to over 1.30mins and then to 1.45mins.  Astana continued to lead the peloton, but it looked now that rather than Fabio Aru it was Miguel Angel Lopez that the team were looking after.  With 6km remaining their deficit to Majka was 1.27mins.

At 4km to go Majka came under threat by an attack from Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale.  With such a big deficit Team Sky could let him go up the road, but Bardet wasn’t able to build a significant lead, especially as Esteban Chaves then went on the attack, bridging across and passing Bardet.  All this served to dent Majka’s lead still further to 1.10mins with 3.6km to go.  Alberto Contador was next to attack, and so too Vincenzo Nibali.  Team Sky weren’t about to accelerate after the group, simply choosing to bide their time and ride tempo for now.

Wout Poels leads Chris Froome and the GC group, with Froome passing the tests over two difficult mountain stages, photo Sirotti

Gradually Chris Froome went across to the Nibali-Contador-Chaves group.  By now Majka was holding on to just a 47 second lead with 1.5km to go; and an attack from Lopez threatened the Pole still further.  With just 1km to go the gap had gone out to 54 seconds between Majka and Froome, but just 32 seconds to Lopez.  Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador were now on their own chasing, putting time into Chaves, De La Cruz and all the rest.  But Majka had done it, the Polish rider rode a strong race to take the win 27 seconds ahead of Lopez, with Nibali getting a small time bonus for 3rd place.

A strong performance by Wilco Kelderman of Sunweb meant that he now joined Chris Froome and Vincenzo Nibali in the top 3 overall as Esteban Chaves dropped from 3rd to 5th.  Nibali’s time bonus now also meant that he close to within 55 seconds of Chris Froome.

 

Lopez becomes a true contender with second stage win

 

Stage 15 was set to be one of those stages where no one really knew what to expect.  At just 129km in length it was the fact that two category 1 climbs existed in the race that were sure to have all comers on tenterhooks.  A breakaway featuring Matteo Trentin of Quick-Step Floors, Edward Theuns of Trek-Segafredo, Sander Armee of Lotto Soudal, Tom Van Asbroeck of Cannondale-Drapac, Lluis Mas of Caja Rural, Nelson Oliveira of Movistar and Cofidis duo Stephane Rossetto and Anthony Perez went up the road, but by the time the final climb came into view that breakaway group had changed radically.

Many riders dropped off the pace, while out from the peloton came a trio of riders to join the group and then head off in pursuit of the rider who had become the lone leader.  Sander Armee had dropped all of his breakaway companions, while his chasers were now Romain Bardet, Simon Yates of Orica-SCOTT and Steven Kruijswijk of LottoNL-Jumbo.  Armee led valiantly, but he was caught by the far more established climbers with 27.5km to go.  At this point the break of four had 1 minute in hand over the Astana-led peloton who looked full of intent.

Out of the peloton, as the road continued to go up, an attack went clear courtesy of Alberto Contador and Miguel Angel Lopez.  That triggered a changing of the guard as Astana fell back and Team Sky took on the pace setting.  There were still more than 6km of climbing left plus another final climb to come, but the duo – who had animated the race well so far – meant business as they opened up an 18 second lead with 6km to the summit.  They were still 41 seconds adrift of the leaders though who had become two as Yates and Bardet dropped Kruijswijk.

Ilnur Zakarin produced a strong performance in stage 15 to move into third overall, photo Sirotti

Eventually Bardet was also dropped, leaving Yates on his own with 25km left to race.  He had 47 seconds in hand on Contador & Lopez, and 1.05mins back to Team Sky.  Yates crested the summit of the climb alone with a lead that had extended to 1.13mins, while Lopez and Contador still had just 30 seconds over the GC group.

The reprieve for the riders would be just very brief though as the next climb would hit almost immediately.  Lopez and Contador had Bardet for company, who for now was able to keep pace with the pair.  Team Sky, back down the road, continued to just maintain the pace-setting losing a minute to the Contador trio and 2mins to Yates for now.

Time gaps proceeded to hit a bit of a stalemate with 10km to go as Yates held 1.11mins of lead to Contador and Lopez, who now had Kruijswijk in their group along with Bardet.  It was with 7.2km to go that the time gap dipped below 1 minute for the first time for Yates.  Chris Froome and co were closing in a little on Lopez and Contador’s group as well.  But from here Yates really began to suffer as he went through 5km with 33 seconds in hand as Lopez went on the attack, dropping the rest of the group and going off in pursuit of the Brit.

The Colombian ate up the road between himself and Yates and made the catch with a little more than 4km to race.  Contador and Bardet were going backwards to the GC group, and so too was Yates who exploded.  Lopez was left alone then with 58 seconds of advantage with 3.4km to race.  He looked strong and confident as the road disappeared between himself and the finish line.  The Froome group were some 500m behind Lopez, which equated to 1 minute as Wout Poels set the pace.  But Poels did nothing about an attack from Ilur Zakarin of Katusha-Alpecin.

The Russian went in hot pursuit of Lopez as the Colombian went inside 1km.  The gap opened up quickly between Zakarin and the red jersey group as Alberto Contador’s efforts too finally paid their toll.  But Zakarin was struggling to make significant in roads on Lopez who kept the tempo strong all the way to the line, knowing that not only would a second stage win be his, but so too would be ascendancy in the general classification.  

Miguel Angel Lopez of Astana was superb, taking second in stage 14 and winning stage 15, photo Sirotti

Lopez crossed the line 36 seconds ahead of Zakarin who moved up from 4th to 3rd overall, while behind him the battle was on.  Kelderman and Chaves were next to cross the line with Chris Froome, while Michael Woods and Vincenzo Nibali lost a small handful of seconds each.  But from here the time gaps opened up.  Aru did well to concede just 15 seconds to Froome, while Contador lost 40 seconds

Overall then the GC battle saw Froome open up a lead of 1.01mins over Nibali, with Zakarin now 2.08mins back in third ahead of Wilco Kelderman at 2.11mins and Esteban Chaves at 2.39mins.  Next up will be a very welcome rest day for the field before the individual time trial.

Aaron Gate of Aqua Blue Sport, Tom Scully of Cannondale-Drapac and Sam Bewley of Orica-SCOTT all arrived home with the same time in the large grupetto on the road.

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