Stage 15 proved to be the concluding act of an extraordinary weekend of Vuelta action. In contrast to stage 14’s feature-length tactical racing, stage 15’s magic moment was exactly that, a fleeting moment, which caused huge ramifications on the stage and, most importantly, in the general classification.
Within the first 8 kilometres of this short stage, Gianluca Brambilla (EQS) and Alberto Contador, along with his teammates, launched an attack to force a breakaway, and Quintana was quick to jump on their wheels. A gap of 10 seconds (and rapidly growing) appeared and, with Fraile, Ellissonde (our new KOM jersey wearer by stage end), Tinkoff and Movistar teammates all involved, it was clear this was a breakaway that would be motivated and could go the distance.
Time for Team Sky to chase then… except they couldn’t. Somehow, the bulk of Sky’s riders had been dropped in the ensuing splits, still not recovered from the monumental chase they put in on stage 14 perhaps, and Froome was left in the peloton alongside Lopez and Puccio — strong riders, but not nearly enough man-power to aid the chase. Movistar, at this point, played their tactical card, and, knowing that Quintana was safe in a breakaway being pulled by Tinkoff, upped the pace dramatically in the peloton to attempt to leave Froome stranded from his teammates.
It proved terrifically successful, and Froome would be left void of teammates with around 65km to go, with an unwavering 2 minute 20 second gap to Quintana and Contador up ahead. Alongside a panicked Froome was the big winners of yesterday’s stage, Chavez and Yates of Orica BikeExchange. They had a couple more teammates (Keukeleire and Howson) to share the workload but, like Sky, the efforts of yesterday were proving too much, and after a spirited pull from the two domestiques with 45km to go, they too dropped off and left the chase to the G.C. men.
Ultimately these splits would stick until the finish, with Froome never able to close that 2 minute gap. Quintana, as Quintana can, was able to ride away from the breakaway on the final ascent, with only Contador and Brambilla sticking with him. However, with 1600m left, Contador himself was dropped. With Quintana driving the pace for his G.C. position, Brambilla could sit on his wheel and so was able to pass him with ease in the final 200 metres to take the stage win.
At this point, it was clear that Froome was struggling after trying to close the gap himself, and he was distanced by the diminished peloton. Fellow top ten riders would eventually gain time on an ailing Froome — Chavez, Talansky, Sánchez and Scarponi all included.
For days Quintana and his team have been saying they need to put more time into Froome before the time trial and on Stage 15 they did just that. His lead now looks all but insurmountable, and his and Contador’s attack today has opened the rest of the podium right up — Froome will now have to concentrate on not losing his second place to Chavez and Contador who are close behind.
We should also mention that, after what some would consider an unsuccessful season thus far, Cannondale-Drapac now have two riders in the top ten, Andrew Talanksy and the young Davide Formolo (who rode excellently today) in 7th and 8th respectively, so it will be interesting to see whether they are able to continue their breakaway artistry for the final week of the race to improve their positions.
After a tough weekend, stage 16 allows some respite for the peloton, which is clearly feeling the pain given that roughly 90 riders came in well over the 30 minute time cut for stage 15. All were forgiven and will start the stage, though that decision has not come without some controversy.
A long, undulating drag of a climb greets the riders for the first 90km before the final 66km of downhill toward a flat finish. Will there be any attacks like we’ve seen over the past two days? If there wasn’t the final 15km of flat we think there might’ve been, as a G.C. rider could force a split on the climb and charge down the descent, but that gap, unless it was very big, would be hard to hold on a flat finish of this length.
Given the unlikelihood of a breakaway success, we can highlight some riders that we think have potential. We think Etixx will get their second stage win in as many days with Gianni Meersman looking like the clear favourite for a stage like this. He took it very easy on stage 15 (he was one of those many riders to miss the time cut), so he should be as fresh as can be. Other potentials would have included Fabio Felline, but his brilliant climb today may have squandered his chance for a good finish here — he’ll be exhausted, and it seems greatly unfair that he’ll be up against riders who, according to the rulebook, should have been disqualified. With Omar Fraile having a real battle on his hands for the KOM jersey, Team Dimension Data will be keen to get a stage win, and Kristian Sbaragli might be their man to do it. His win in last year’s Vuelta shows he’s got the pedigree, it’s just a case of his freshness after such a gruelling weekend. IAM Cycling’s final season continues to throw out good things, and Jonas Van Genechten, with his win here on stage 7, could once again show potential new teams of his worth with another strong win.
We can’t look past Gianni Meersman for this stage, but we don’t think Jonas Van Genechten will be far behind him. Or else there’ll be a breakaway led by Froome and Chavez crossing the line 20 minutes ahead. Who knows how this wonderfully exciting Vuelta will continue to unfold.