Philippe Gilbert of Deceuninck-QuickStep has won stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana on a day that saw crosswinds wreak havoc with the race and cause a bit of a shake up in the general classification. It was also a day for Kiwis Dion Smith & Sam Bewley to make the break.
On paper it was supposed to be a little bit like a day off for the GC contenders; despite being such a long stage. There were no categorised climbs featuring en route to the finish but there were plenty of rolling sections to the stage and an uphill finish. What no race on paper could show, however, was the potential for brutal crosswinds that could and did result in serious time gaps between all and sundry.
The break of the day, for the first time since Patrick Bevin in stage 9, included a Kiwi contingent. This time it was Dion Smith and Sam Bewley of Mitchelton-SCOTT who made the break on the longest stage of this year’s Vuelta. The composition of the break was dominated by Deceuninck-QuickStep who had six riders in the move in the form of Philippe Gilbert, Eros Capecchi, Zdenek Stybar, Rémi Cavagna, James Knox and Tim Declercq. Movistar were also well represented and stood to gain much if they could make the break work. José Joaquín Rojas, Nelson Oliveira and Imanol Erviti were there for Movistar. Team Ineos had Wout Poels, Owain Doull, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Ian Stannard. Team Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman also had Nikias Arndt, Rob Power, Max Walscheid and Casper Pedersen. Other notable names in the break were Heinrich Haussler and Dylan Teuns of Bahrain Merida, Sam Bennett of BORA-Hansgrohe, Thomas De Gendt and Tosh van Der Sande of Lotto Soudal, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Ben King of Dimension Data, John Degenkolb of Trek-Segafredo.
All in all a total of 49 riders formed the break of the day and they managed to build a handy advantage before the crosswinds began to bite and a number of the break dropped back. Dropping back more willingly, however, were the delegates from UAE Team Emirates and Astana who went back to the GC group to aid Miguel Angel Lopez and Tadej Pogačar who were beginning to lose significant time and potentially their own places in the top 3-4 overall.
At the head of the race Deceuninck-QuickStep were definitely playing a commanding role at the head of the race with numbers to benefit from, but it looked like cooperation at one point stood a chance of failing as one or two fidgety attacks seemed to go clear. The break’s lead that stood at 6 minutes with 80km to go had dropped to 5.20mins with just under 60km to go. At 40km to go the break’s lead had dropped to 4.35mins but from here the breakaway rallied, reconciling themselves with the fact that there was so much to gain.
Deceuninck-QuickStep, masters of crosswind conditions, Team Sunweb and Movistar all had plenty to gain; with Movistar’s Nairo Quintana starting the day 6th overall and Wilco Kelderman starting 8th. James Knox was also one to take note of, with the Deceuninck-QuickStep rider sitting 11th overall at the start of the day. None of these riders directly threatened Primož Roglič and it meant that Jumbo-Visma didn’t have to put their full power behind a chase effort; instead leaving it to the more threatened teams to do the brunt of the chasing. There was a good chunk of input at the front of the race from the ever-present George Bennett; who may have lost his position overall, but was still contributing plenty to the cause for his Slovenian team leader.
Steadily the break’s lead began to climb back out and with 15km to go the break’s lead was at 4.50mins and climbing. By the time the race reached the finish the break would have gained 5.29mins over the peloton; but there was more drama coming in the battle for the stage. An attack from Zdenek Stybar at 2.3km to go spelled the end at the front of the race for a number of riders as the still large breakaway group disintegrated. Sam Bewley fell back at around this point, his job done in looking after Dion Smith; who stood the best chance in a sprint.
Stybar put in a big effort to stay clear but was fading fast inside the final kilometre when Sam Bennett launched his sprint. He’d gone too soon, however, and Philippe Gilbert was breathing down his neck; catching and passing the Irishman with 175m to go and accelerating away to claim his second stage win of the Vuelta. Bennett held on for second and Remi Cavagna took third pace in a triumph of a stage for Deceuninck-QuickStep.
Dion Smith was the first Kiwi home, taking 13th place ahead of Nairo Quintana who moved up to second overall. Teammate Sam Bewley finished 26th on the stage with the GC group led by Miguel Angel Lopez, Alejandro Valverde and Primož Roglič finishing a further 3.07mins behind.
The average speed for the race, the longest of this year’s Vuelta, was an incredible 50.63kph.