It only took a 3.5km climb, or in the case of those at the very sharp end of this race, the final kilometre of that 1km climb, but it was a steep one and with the pace high it took its toll on almost everyone in the bunch and it sorted out the contenders from the pretenders to win this years Vuelta.
Gone from contention are the likes of Cadel Evans, Dan Martin, Ryder Hesjedal, Andrew Talansky and Rigoberto Uran, and left are a collection of about five, headed by Alejandro Valverde who not only set the pace for his team-mate Nairo Quintana but who was able to react to a Joaquim Rodriguez attack and win the stage ahead of other expected contenders, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador who finished with the same time as the Spaniard. Rodriguez took forth, 8 seconds back, while Quintana limped in fifth, 12 seconds behind his team-mate.
Michael Matthews, as expected, lost his race leaders jersey, though perhaps unexpected by some was the man he lost it to: Valverde was expected to go well enough in this Vuelta, but given his efforts at the Tour and the fact many felt he would be riding for his team-mate Quintana, I didn’t expect to see him in red today. Not even with 1.5 kilometres to go when he continued to set a pace that was shelling rider after rider off the back.
Everyone was watching Quintana to make his move, but he couldn’t. The man who won the Giro and who has been targeting this Vuelta ever since, while the rest were off at the Tour, was caught out by the vicious final kilomtres, though does still sit second in the GC thanks to his teams strong showing in the team-time-trial on stage 1. He’s 15 seconds behind Valverde overall and with over two weeks and all the big mountains still to come, you’d imagine he’ll find a way to recover. Anyone who doubts him only need look at the gap he overcame to win this years Giro in the third week.
That said, a marker has been thrown down and if he thought Valverde might ride for him in this Vuelta, he may think again. Both Froome and Contador looked strong given they had to abandon the Tour in July with injuries and it was Contador who came into this Vuelta saying he wasn’t targeting the GC, but rather stage wins. I’m not sure if many believed that…a champion of his stature doesn’t do ‘stage wins’ only, and he confirmed his intent today.
45 seconds separate the first six overall now with Contador 18 seconds back and Froome at 22 seconds. Today merely showed us who wouldn’t win the Vuelta and for those left at the top of the order it was merely about gaining a psychological edge or simply stretching the legs.
1. Valverde (MOV) in 4h35’27”
2. Froome (SKY) + s.t.
3. Contador (TCS) + s.t.
4. Rodriguez (KAT) +8″
5. Quintana (MOV) +12″
6. Aru (AST) +18″
1. Valverde (MOV) in 22h48’08”
2. Quintana (MOV) + 15″
3. Contador (TCS) +18″
4. Froome (SKY) +22″
5. Chaves (OGE) +41″
6. Rodriguez (KAT) +45″