Mikel Iturria foils the breakaway in Basque country

Sept. 4, 2019

Mikel Iturria won Stage 11 of the Vuelta a España on home roads as the race moved from France back across the border into Spain and the first of several stages in the Basque country. The Euskadi-Murias rider, who had never won a major race before, was part of the day’s 11-man breakaway but set off alone with 26 kilometers to go. He was nearly caught in the final kilometer but ultimately widened his gap in the final meters, winning by six seconds over countryman Jonathan Lastra.

Iturria’s win – and the chase that it provoked – provided a textbook case of race dynamics. With 60 kilometers to go, the group of 11 held an advantage of more than 10 minutes over the peloton, so it was clear that the stage victory would come down to someone from within their ranks. But who?

For the next 35 kilometers, the group split apart and came back together, shuffled and reshuffled, as various riders – Lawson Craddock, Ben O’Connor, Alex Aranburu, Gorka Izaguirre, Damien Howson, Amanuel Ghebreigzabhier etc. – tried to either create their own advantage or simply shake out the riders who weren’t doing their part in the breakaway. Either way, it would whittle down the numbers and improve their own chances of winning in the end.

With 26 kilometers to go, the breakaway was coming back together again, as a small group out front slowed to reassess its tactics and pick up fresh bottles, and those who had been left behind – like Iturria – were allowed to catch back up.

That’s when Iturria attacked – not pausing for a breath in the comfort of the pack but pushing straight through the group and lighting out on his own.

There was no immediate reaction, however, as this was just another of what had been a series of moves from a series of riders. Besides, there were still 26 kilometers of road left, and surely the remaining 10 riders, with their combined strength and aerodynamics, would be able to chase down a solitary rider who would steadily be running out of gas.

But that assumption has been the downfall of many failed chases (as well as some failed organizations and initiatives), as a single individual with a single purpose can sometimes have the advantage over a complex group of individuals all pursuing their own priorities and struggling with their own motivations.

In this case, the breakaway riders made the reasonable assumption that they would be able to catch the sole rider, at which point they would be nearing the finish line and back to a crap shoot between 11 men. Those are lousy odds. And they would be made even worse for whoever worked the hardest to catch Iturria to get to that point. Therefore it would be best to work as little as possible to retain as much energy as possible for the final sprint. But of course the more riders take this approach, the less likely the chances that they’ll catch their prey and ever even get the chance of a chance.

Which is what happened. Craddock, Howson and Ghebreigzabhier all expended energy to catch Iturria in the final two kilometers, but it would take the combined efforts of more than just three riders to make contact. With a kilometer to go, aerial footage showed Iturria within sight of the three – no more than 50 meters up the road – but the chasers simply ran out of gas. By the time Iturria reached the cordoned-off final approach, he had six or seven seconds of an advantage. Enough time to zip up his jersey, throw his hands in the air, and shake his head at the heist he had just pulled.

All of this was out of view of the main peloton, who would not arrive at the finish line for more than 18 minutes. Heading into Stage 12, Primoz Roglic retains an advantage of nearly two minutes over second-place Alejandro Valverde.