Five talking points from stage 15 of the Vuelta a España
Nibali and Contador unsuccessful as Froome strengthens grip on red
Miguel Angel Lopez looks like something special
Four years ago at the Tour de France, a much-hyped 23-year old Colombian burst onto the scene with some astonishing climbing performances, and gradually worked his way up the top ten to finish second overall.
That rider was Nairo Quintana, who as we know has gone on to become one of the best riders in the world, with two Grand Tour overall victories to his name.
At this year’s Vuelta, another 23-year old Colombian has produced a long-anticipated breakthrough ride, and is arguably performing even better. Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) sealed his second summit finish stage win of the race today, with a stunning long-range attack that thoroughly outclassed a field of first-rate climbers.
The result moves Lopez up to sixth overall, which, in another uncanny parallel, was the same position Quintana held going into the second rest day of the 2013 Tour de France. Tuesday’s time-trial will be a new test for the Astana rider, but he can realistically hope of matching his compatriot’s performance four years ago and making the podium.
The Sierra Nevada was a monster of a climb
Today’s double-headed final climb seemed to go on forever, with the road tilting up with around 30km to go, and not relenting until the finish line over an hour later.
Lopez and Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) provided early excitement by attacking at the foot of the climb, but the sheer length of it ensured the action was more of a slow burner, with the drama coming from the fluctuating time gaps rather than actual explosive attacks and mano-y-mano battles.
Despite all the climbing, the time gaps at the line were in fact very small. Lopez finished 47 seconds ahead of the red jersey, and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) gained 11 seconds after a late attack, but every other overall contender finished a matter of seconds behind Froome.
Nibali fails to deliver planned ambush
Prior to today’s stage, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) pointed out that Froome look much more vulnerable when isolated from his teammates, suggesting that he may have been forming a plan to attempt to drop them – especially given that the short but mountainous profile looked like ideal territory to carry out an ambush.
However, no such plan came into fruition, and on the final climb Sky had things totally in control, pacing the peloton with the usual suspects of Gianni Moscon, Mikel Nieve and Wout Poels.
Nibali did put in an attack on the final climb, but only succeeded in proving his own point about the strength of Froome’s teammates. He dangled out ahead of the Nieve-led peloton for a few kilometres within their visibility, before ceding failure and unceremoniously dropping back into it.
Adam Yates strikes back
Having started the race impressively, Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) spent most the second week in freefall, tumbling out of the GC top ten and then out of the top 20.
That suggested the Briton was struggling for form, but he certainly looked back at his best today. He attacked with Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) on the Alto de Hazallanas, then proved himself to the strongest of that trio of high-class climbers by striking out alone on the Alto de Pruche.
It was a bold move, and one that ultimately didn’t pay off. With the GC favourites engaged in their own race he was never allowed too big of a lead, and came to a virtual standstill when attempting to keep up with Lopez after the Colombian had bridged up to him.
Yates suffered up the remainder of the climb and eventually finished 4-37 behind Lopez, but his ride was nevertheless an encouraging statement of intent that he still plans to take something out of this Vuelta.
Contador’s diminishing returns
As entertaining as Contador’s relentless attacking has been throughout this race, it’s becoming increasingly clear that he lacks the legs to follow through on his ambition.
Since gaining on Froome with his attack and the latter’s crash on the stage to Antequera earlier in the week, Contador has again been off the front of the peloton twice, but on both occasions he has instead ended up losing time.
Today’s loss of forty seconds to Froome was considerably more than the six he lost yesterday, and suggests that all this attacking might be wearing him out. There was nothing wrong strategically with the move – the rider he went with, Lopez, did after all end up winning the stage. But without the legs, Contador was unable to convert a strong position into either a stage win or a move up the GC.