Today’s stage was long, flat, and all about the finish — yes, you could have been forgiven for thinking that Eurosport were running yesterday’s highlights. The crucial differences, though, were that today’s stage was around 40km shorter, and the ramped finish was nowhere near as vicious as yesterday’s stinger. It was a day for the strong and heavy sprinters, and the last pure sprint until stage 12, with most eyes falling on Degenkolb, Sagan, and Bouhanni.
The break is worth a mention for sheer commitment to an impossible dream. Right from the start of the stage, three men went away: Iljo Keisse for Etixx-Quickstep, Antoine Duchesne for Europcar, and Lampre-Merida’s challenge to the commentary, Tsgabu Grmay. With no intermediate sprint until the 19km to go mark, it must have felt like an infernal and eternal grind along wide and desolate Spanish highways with illimitable horizons, and only parched earth and scrubland to nourish the eyes. They worked reasonably well together until the approach to the sprint, at which point Keisse’s gestures bespoke a frustration with Grmay, who had been riding wheels and not taking turns for some kilometres. Keisse kicked, ditched his co-breakers, and took the sprint. Pouring cooled drinks over himself to abate the heat, he held on alone until 9km to go — having ridden at the head of the race for 158km — before surrendering to the peloton. A fine effort, and surely today’s most combative rider.
As Keisse faded, the peloton truly woke up, and the stage was at last alive. Tinkoff-Saxo led the pack into the last few kilometres of racing, with Sagan all but salivating at the prospect of the technical turns and roundabouts which would lead the group into a hard uphill drag to the line. Orica-GreenEdge brought themselves up to the front, leading Caleb Ewan as they went. This was a sign that they were clearly ready to surrender the red leader’s jersey in exchange for a shot at a stage win — exactly the sort of opportunistic impulse were we applauding in yesterday’s post. Bouhanni was also well-placed, and as the race entered the final 2km, it was Giant-Alpecin who stole into the head of the peloton, working well for Degenkolb.
The corners, which would have been worrying directeurs-sportif all day, were in the end taken rapidly but safely, and the race came down to a combination of individual power and cunning positioning. The sprint was lead by Sagan and Degenkolb, with Degenkolb slowly creeping past the Slovak. But Caleb Ewan had dropped back from his team-mate’s wheel in favour of Degenkolb’s, and waited until the dying moments of the stage to make his move past Degenkolb at blistering speed. Hitting the line first, he secured Orica’s second win of this Vuelta in explosive style. At 21 years old, this is a fine grand tour debut for the Aussie rider, and it represents Orica’s ongoing successes with scouting fresh and talented riders and introducing them to the grand tours. Ewan’s win also exposed another potential in-team rivalry with team-mate Esteban Chaves: just who was it of the two that could smile more broadly on a podium? A superb victory.
At the end of a largely uneventful day there were yet consequences. Where, for instance, was Bouhanni in the final? His team had worked hard to find him a space, but he seemed to waste the opportunity — he will have to face questions from his manager tonight. Sagan holds onto the points jersey, but looked a little injured to have missed out to Ewan. Ewan, for his own part, was overjoyed, but it was perhaps a bittersweet victory for Chaves in particular — due to his team’s fine work on behalf of Ewan, he did indeed lost his red jersey. Tom Dumoulin managed to finish strongly today, and thus he will be wearing red tomorrow. And tomorrow’s stage, from Córdoba to Sierra de Cazorla, suits Tom well; with a finish on a category 3 climb after 200km in the saddle, he might not be favourite to win (behind riders like Valverde and Rodriguez), but he has an excellent chance to hold on to the lead.
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