Revolution on the road to Guadalajara

Sept. 11, 2019

If you’re leading a race like the Vuelta a España with just a few days left, then you anticipate a stage like today’s with an understandable sense of dread. If you’re not leading, on the other hand – if you struggled in the mountains, if you need to make up time – then you look at it with anxious excitement.

Why? The race profile for Stage 17 called for 220 kilometers – the longest in this year’s Vuelta. And the forecast called for crosswinds.

Those conditions are a recipe for volatility in any bike race, as gusts of wind can bust up the carefully organized, aerodynamically streamlined formations that riders orchestrate on the road – separating teammates, creating gaps between rivals, and turning a single peloton in multiple smaller ones, each with the horsepower to keep away from the other. The long distance would only compound the chaos.

And so no one knew what might happen today, but there was revolution in the air, as everyone in a lower position saw an opportunity and everyone in a comfortable position saw a threat.

There was revolution indeed. The moment the flag dropped and the race began, every disgruntled prole and his teammate was on the move. That included almost the entire Deceuninck-QuickStep team, some sprinters – Sam Bennett, Fabio Jakobsen – and a lot of opportunists and stage hunters – Thomas De Gendt, Philippe Gilbert, Jetse Bol. But it also included a few minor dukes and disgraced nobles. Nairo Quintana made it into the breakaway, a couple of days after dropping to sixth place in the standings. Wilco Kelderman, who started the day in eighth place, was there. So too were James Knox, who has been steadily riding himself toward the top ten, and former contender Esteban Chaves.

All of those riders might have had different motivations and ambitions, but the quality and sheer quantity of the group meant that they were able to establish a definitive gap relatively quickly.

“I realized straightaway with the guys we had in front,” Knox later told reporters, “this is it, we’re going to the line, we’re probably not going to get brought back. We just gotta go full gas.”

And so they did. The breakaway worked like dogs, taking regular turns at the front just to keep out of the wind in the back, averaging over 50 kilometers (31 miles) per hour over the 200-kilometer span, and ultimately finishing over 30 minutes ahead of the fastest predicted time.

The pace did whittle their numbers down over time – Chaves and Jakobsen were dropped, and several riders were asked to go back to the peloton to help the team leaders who were struggling with the tempo being set out front. But the break was still about 20-strong as it entered the outskirts of Guadalajara, with a gap of around five minutes back to the red-jersey group.

The overall contenders in the breakaway had done their damage, then, but who in this ragtag group would contest the stage win?

Zdenek Stybar made the first move, flying off the front of the group with 2.3 kilometers to go in the slightly uphill run to the line. He was only reeled in with about 700 meters to go, as riders from Team Ineos led the chase. That’s when Sam Bennett made a counter-move, likely hoping to repeat his unassisted victory in the crash-marred 14th stage.

But Bennett had just fallen into the Deceuninck-QuickStep trap. By sending Stybar up the road, the team had forced everyone else to spend energy chasing him down, and Bennett, as a bunch sprinter, is accustomed to hitting the afterburners only in the final 100 meters. As soon as he went, Deceuninck’s Philippe Gilbert – winner of Stage 12 – crept onto Bennett’s back wheel and waited for the Irishman to wilt. He did, with only a few hundred meters to go, and Gilbert moved easily around him, winning the stage by several bike lengths.

That set the countdown clock to ticking, as we awaited the arrival of the red jersey group, which at one point in the stage had been shaved down to just the top five riders in the race, plus Marc Soler.

They arrived five-and-a-half minutes later, Miguel Angel Lopez and his Astana teammates sprinting to the line in an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge Tadej Pogacar, who sits just ahead of him in the standings.

But the two were no longer even fighting for a spot on the podium, it turns out, as Quintana’s work in the day’s breakaway had vaulted him from sixth place overall to just second, bumping teammate Alejandro Valverde into third and Pogacar and Lopez into fourth and fifth.

Kelderman, meanwhile, moved himself from eighth to sixth, and Knox leapt into the top ten, at eighth place.

Despite chasing all day in a panic and losing his teammates to the wind, race leader Primoz Roglic remains in a solid position, however, having lost only half a minute of his advantage. He still leads the race, by two minutes and 24 seconds – just over Quintana now, rather than Valverde (who sits 24 seconds further back).

So while today’s insurrection didn’t exactly overthrow the king, it redid shuffle the powers that be. Two difficult mountain stages remain, and the battle for the podium, at least, just got a lot more interesting.