What a undtten day lay ahead of the riders who started the stage from Luarca to Ermita del Elba. Within 185km they would have to tackle two cat 3 climb, three cat 2s, and a cat 1, before finishing on the gruelling slopes of the especial climb up to Ermita del Elba — which boasted gradients in excess of 20% within the last two kilometres. It was going to be a long, taxing day in the saddle today — a fitting way to round off this current triptych of challenging climbers’ stages.
With peaks aplenty, there was no doubt that a strong break would form within the early kilometres of the stage. Sure enough, ten men went clear within the first twenty kilometres. Pierre Rolland was trying his luck again after a wearied end to stage 15; Omar Fraile was inevitably out to get more KOM points to add to his salubrious total; Rodolfo Torres was off to make Colombia proud on the steep ramps of the stage; and, amongst the other breakaway contenders, it was good to see Frank Schleck stretch his legs, having taken little out of the Vuelta — or this season — so far.
Would Fraile manage to put in his signature attacks on the categorized climbs to maximize his wins? Why, yes he would. Doing the polka dots proud today, not to mention his sponsors at Caja-Rural, the Spaniard took the top bonifications (to channel Sean Kelly) up the first first climbs. It wasn’t the hottest competition, admittedly, in a breakaway that wanted little more than to take time on the peloton, but his achievement should not go unacknowledged. His display today, on behalf of a pro-continental team and not a world tour team, was masterly, and he now has 82 points in the KOM competition — leading it by a massive 52 points. Bravo, Fraile.
In the meantime, the gap had been allowed to grow and grow, and then grow some more. The maximum gap held by the lead group of riders was an enormous twenty minutes; you could all but imagine the breakaway looking over their shoulders on a mountain peak, and catching sight of the peloton as they crested a previous climb across some vast sun-kissed valley. The pace only truly came from the peloton as they hit the penultimate climb; it was at this point that Torres and Schleck put in their attack.
The pair went off hard on the descent down the Alto de Cobertoria, a real challenge to the riders, many of whom were looking baked in the mid-afternoon heat. Schleck took advantage and charged down the climb, attempting to go it alone into the foothills of the final ascent. But he couldn’t drop Colombia’s Torres, who wound his way back to Schleck’s wheel and allowed the large Luxembourger to tow him into the climb. The pack had gained only a few minutes on the Schleck-Torres duo — the gap was down to around 16 minutes at the foot of the climb — but the other breakaway riders were halting and faltering, and would not see the leading pair again this stage.
With around 7km remaining, the road wound unsteadily but steeply all the way up to the finish, along vermicious roads that wiggled their way up to the summit, closely flanked by rustic fencing and verdant woodland all the while. Up these roads went Schleck, desperately trying to despatch Torres from his back wheel. The peloton, by the time it was headed uphill, had depleted its numbers to less than forty riders, and it was familiar company as we saw the strongest climbers and the general classifications once more begin to eye one another, and once more stretch themselves into a thin line up the mountainside. Astana and Movistar took responsibility for the pace, which sent riders hurtling out the back, but didn’t shift Tom Dumoulin.
Torres held Schleck’s pace as best he could, but ultimately he was no match for the wirey yet powerful climber. Hitting leg-achingly steep inclines around tightly wound switchbacks, Frank Schleck finally found his winning move, rising to full height on the pedals and shifting himself away from Torres. Without Schleck acting as carrot, Torres faded fast, all but rolling back down the slopes away from Schleck. Schleck pushed himself to his limits but still had ten minutes in hand — he knew he had won kilometres from the finish, but he wouldn’t let himself celebrate until the brow of the final slopes. Zipping up his jersey and performing a strange little wave to the cameras and crowd, he finally luxuriated in his comfortable lead as he crossed the line for a great win. Torres took second on the stage at over a minute back, with the remnants of the break further minutes after him. But the race for overall was just about to reach fever pitch.
In the final kilometres it was Mikel Landa who was putting the pressure on the G.C. men, including, it seemed, his own captain Fabio Aru. After attacking yesterday and failing to help a fading Aru, Landa is certainly showing no loyalty. But his work was also dislodging Tom Dumoulin from the pack, with the white-jersey wearer losing his rhythm on the harsh 20% gradients. This was ideal territory for Joaquim Rodriguez, though, and a flash of red and white off the front of the pack signalled the Katusha man’s inevitable attack. With Dumoulin behind him and Rodriguez ahead of him, Aru’s only hope was to dig deep and try to distance himself from the chaser and chase down his own escapee. Majka chose that moment to attack from the group, and Aru went with him after Rodriguez, who was bounding relentlessly away up the final inclines. All but sprinting after him, Aru was as red as the jersey he was about to lose as he closed all but two seconds of the gap to Rodriguez. At the line, Rodriguez had just enough of an advantage over the Astana captain to secure the overall lead in the Vuelta. But Dumoulin rolled in only 27 seconds, meaning he is less than two minutes behind Rodriguez and Aru overall — he still has a big chance of taking the top of the podium in the impending time trial. Today’s big losers might be Movistar. Quintana failed to make an attack stick, and finished not long before Dumoulin. Worst still, a tired Valverde lost the group of leaders with 2km to go; he lost around two and a half minute to Purito, and is now four minutes off the top of the G.C. The Vuelta is fast boiling down to a struggle for red between Aru, Rodriguez, and Dumoulin.