Stage 20 brought the action we’d expected, as a breakaway held off the peloton for much of the stage and had enough of an advantage on the final climb to take the win. Gesink couldn’t stay out front all the way, and instead it was the elite group of Mathias Frank, Darwin Atapuma, and Pierre Latour that lead up the final few kilometres. There was plenty of infighting within that group, and the lead constantly changed all the way up. At one point if looked like it was Frank’s to lose, but the IAM man faded too early, and the figure of Fabio Felline appeared on the horizon to usurp Frank’s podium place. And it was the young Latour who led a flagging Atapuma across the line, for a magnificent stage win that looked like it had robbed the Frenchman of nearly every drop of energy.
Meanwhile, explosions were going off in the G.C. group. Chaves had attacked very early, with over 30km to go, with his teammate Damian Howson. Howson did all he could to open up a gap for Chaves on the descent leading to the foot of the final climb, and together they pried open around 2 minutes on the chasing peloton — meaning Chaves was virtually back on the overall podium, and Contador was off it again. As the final 21km climb unfolded beneath their wheels, it became clear that Contador wasn’t going to be able to launch the attack he needed to bring back Chaves. Chaves was going steady up the climb after an exhausted Howson had pulled away, shaking cramps out of his tired legs with an agonised expression on his face. As the pack thinned down, Sky began to play their cards to shed other riders, sending König up the road mid-climb. Yet Quintana equalled all moves and, when Froome himself attacked, it was the red jersey alone who stayed glued to his rear wheel. Froome kicked and then kicked again, but couldn’t ditch Quintana, who was sometimes behind him, sometimes besides him, but ever present. As they entered the final 200m, Quintana himself launched his only attack of the stage, and crossed the line a second or two ahead of Froome. Froome, obviously shattered, followed him over upright in his saddle, applauding the man who had just deservedly won his first Vuelta a España.
Victorious is, of course, Quintana’s, barring accident or bizarre circumstance. Stage 21 should be a straightforward victory ride for the most part, with a gentle roll for the first half of the stage towards Madrid, followed by the traditional circuit finish around the city centre. Much like the final stage of the Tour de France in Paris, we can expect something of a procession and a media spectacle, with the day’s racing warming up as the circuits start.
Attacks will go, and riders will attempt a long-range win in Madrid to soak up the sound of the crowds, but this is almost certainly going to end with a last pan-flat sprint. So far we’ve seen various sprinters get a win, and all should feature here: Gianni Meersman, Nikias Arndt, Jonas Van Genechten, Jean-Pierre Drucker. We also saw Jens Keukeleire sweep in for a superb, if unexpected, sprint win, though it’s more likely to be teammate Magnus Cort Nielsen who performs best here. Kristin Sbaragli should feature, though he’s been luckless so far, and seems to be lacking the power to finish off the sprint at the front. But for us, there’s one man we want to win this. Fabio Felline has tried his hand in most sprints since his teammate Bonifazio pulled out early in the tour. Not only that, but he’s finished on the podium on multiple mountaintop finishes thanks to brilliant breakaway riding, and he’s animated this tour like few other riders. He was third once again on stage 20, meaning he’s been third four times, and second once. We would love him to round off a great Vuelta with a sprint victory, though perhaps his legs won’t be the freshest in the peloton.
We’ll got with Nikias Arndt here, and, what the heck, Fabio Felline for podium.