Quintana ascendant, Roche in red, overall battle underway!

Aug. 26, 2019

The knock on this May’s Giro d’Italia was that it took a week and a half to offer any action among the contenders for overall victory. The Tour de France got off to a relatively quick start, but even there it wasn’t until the fifth stage that things got interesting.

And then there’s the Vuelta a España.

In only the first day of open road racing (after yesterday’s opening team time trial), all the predictions for a routine sprint finish went out the window as the overall contenders battled it out on a second-category climb some 25 kilometers from the line, turning the general classification inside out in the process.

The only thing to look at for most of the nearly 200-kilometer stage up Spain’s Costa Blanca had been the two-man breakaway of Sander Armee and Angel Madrazo. They were later joined by Jonathan Lastra and Willie Smit, but Armee – the last man standing – was swept up with 31 kilometers to go, as the peloton upped its pace to jockey for an intermediate sprint.

That sprint, though, also marked the approach to the Alto de Puig, the 16% gradients at the bottom of which immediately set half the peloton to wobbling, leaving only the strongest climbers. Hugh Carthy was the first to have a go, followed Davide Formolo, Pierre Latour, and George Bennett. Alejandro Valverde took a turn at the front, then seemed to fade as the three-kilometer climb wore on, then recovered to crest the climb first.

But there were tired legs behind, and when Nicolas Roche sensed an opportunity to pedal away on the descent, he was quickly joined by a star-studded coterie of overall contenders, all eager to eat into the advantage won by race leader Miguel Angel Lopez in yesterday’s time trial. The group included former Vuelta winners Nairo Quintana and Fabio Aru, perennial contender Rigoberto Uran, Basque climber Mikel Nieve (a surprising addition given his supposed role as lieutenant to Esteban Chaves), and – most notably – Primoz Roglic, the hot favorite for this race, who had lost 40 seconds in the time trial when his team hit the asphalt.

The break’s gap rose steadily from 14 seconds, to 19, to around 30, as Lopez burned through teammates in an attempt to close the margin. With three kilometers to go, it was clear the break would succeed, but totally unclear who among them would take the stage victory. But that’s when Quintana – probably the least likely to win in an outright sprint – attacked off the front, sowing confusion and surprise behind him.

Quintana would hold on by only five seconds, but would net 10 bonus seconds for arriving first. That catapulted him from 39th place overall to just second, and prompted arched eyebrows in the cycling community. The 29-year-old Colombian may have won the Vuelta in 2016 and the Giro in 2014, but his mediocre performances of late have had many downplaying his chances this year. That might now change.

Second across the line was Roche, who is not generally considered an overall contender but who has always performed well at the Vuelta. Given his Sunweb team’s strong performance in the team time trial, he now takes the overall lead by 2 seconds over Quintana.

Meanwhile, the bunch containing then-leader Lopez arrived 34 seconds in arrears. He now drops to fifth place, leading Roglic by only three seconds just a day after establishing a much more comfortable 40-second margin.

Tomorrow’s third stage should comfortably end in a sprint. We think