Today’s stage offered four categorized climbs, but it was a misleading profile in that the riders would be looping back upon themselves to ride the first two climbs in reverse. Thus there was a pleasing symmetry in the four spikes on the stage profile, though it only spelled out tired legs for an already weakened peloton. With a category 1 summit around 18km before the line, and a steep descent leading into Cercedilla, there were sure to be plenty of late attacks today. And, the first category 1 summit being just 30km into the stage, it was no surprise a break went away from the gun.
Or rather, two breaks went. So keen were the riders to get into today’s move, that after an initial 10-strong break went clear, a second group of almost 30 riders attacked, dangling a minute back on the first climb. The first group featured Goncalves and Plaza Molina, both dedicated escapees in this year’s tour. The second group had a lot more firepower, and not just because it was three times the size; there was Arroyo, Sicard, Elissonde, De Marchi, Roche, and a number of other men who had once targeted the G.C. but were now too far down to affect that competition. Also in their ranks were first and second on yesterday’s stage, Alexis Gougeard and Nelson Oliveira, and Astana had two men in the break in the form of L. L. Sanchez and Zeits. On the second climb the minute’s gap to group two held, whilst the peloton were now 8 minutes in arrears.
Plaza Molina warmed up his legs by shooting off alone for the KOM points on the first run up the Puerto de la Morcuera. As Plaza Molina made his move, the minute between the two groups was quickly erased, and the riders snowballed into an unwieldy 40-man group. Over the summit, Plaza Molina decided to push on, and did so all the way along the valley floor leading towards the third climb; by this point, he held around 2 minutes on the 40-man group, and over 12 on the peloton.
But it was on the third ascent that the race exploded. Astana set a strong pace at the front of the peloton on the climb, but it wasn’t long till Mikel Landa saw fit to attack, leading his captain Aru as he went. He took with him Majka, Quintana, Chaves, Rodriguez — but not Dumoulin. For the first time in this last week of cycling, Dumoulin looked to be suffering greatly, and, with his Giant-Alpecin teammates already off the pace, Dumoulin was isolated and losing ground quickly. Astana were playing a shrewd tactical game, as Landa led Aru up to Sanchez and Zeits, who slipped out of the disintegrating breakaway to help their leader. Amazingly, Plaza Molina was holding his gap well, and dragged himself up the climb with a steady lead. He was down the hill first, ahead of a scattered handful of riders clinging on from the large group; after them came the Astana-led elite bunch, without Dumoulin.
The fourth and final climb was the final nail in the coffin for Dumoulin’s G.C. hopes. With Astana’s strong men driving a hard pace and picking up pieces of the early break as they went, Dumoulin continued to lose ground all the way up, wobbling uncertainly as he went. The gap steadily rose to above 3 minutes, all the while with Plaza Molina maintaining his place at the head of affairs. Approaching the summit, Quintana attacked off the front of the G.C. bunch, taking Majka with him. With Dumoulin out of the picture, a fight was reigniting for podium positions, and Quintana and Majka were keen to take time on Rodriguez, who couldn’t quite bridge across.
Across the plateau and down the descent, it was clear that the stage would go to Plaza Molina after his extraordinary attack some 100km before the finish. Equally, it was clear that Fabio Aru and his Astana teammates had just taken the red jersey, and probably the whole Vuelta. We have been wondering for the last week whether Aru could managed to regain 3 seconds on Dumoulin — today, he took 3 minutes and 52 seconds on the tortured Netherlander. We can’t put this down to any one factor — Astana played a beautifully precise tactical game today, with Sanchez and Zeits well placed to receive Aru after the superbly timed attack from Landa. They also had strength in numbers, given that Giant-Alpecin had not tailored a team around G.C. hopes, and were unable to stay with the Dumoulin, let alone the leaders, on the final slopes. But we must acknowledge the fact that much of that time gap came about because Dumoulin, after three long weeks of striving and suffering, finally and completely lost power. After all, Quintana, Majka, Chaves, Valverde, and all the other favourites capably followed the Astana move, and only Dumoulin faded. That makes this something of a bittersweet success for Aru (not that it stopped him celebrating with 5km still to go) — Astana fought hard for success today, but only received spadefuls of time because of another rider’s tremendous misfortune. Dumoulin’s ride was commendable, and it will be good to see how he goes in next season’s grand tours, perhaps bringing along a handpicked team next time. But his Vuelta was lost.
Plaza Molina, for his part, was delighted to take a difficult stage, having been in many breakaways this tour; he threw his gloves into the crowd and punched the air well before the line, grinning from ear to ear and using his large winning margin to luxuriate in the sea of crowd noise. The remnants of the break followed him in over a minute and a half down, and it was good to see the ever-present Goncalves take second, with De Marchi bringing in third. Quintana and Majka sprinted in to maximise their places in the G.C., though neither toppled Rodriguez, who sits in second above Majka’s third. Next came the main favourites group, swollen with members of the early break they had collected, and looking more like an Astana victory parade than anything else. Expect to see a similar sight tomorrow in Madrid. Finally, a picture of dejection, Dumoulin rolled in behind a long line of dropped riders; exhausted, undone, and knowing his Vuelta hopes were over. And he will also know better than any other rider in the peloton why he lost his red jersey: today, on this penultimate stage, he just didn’t have the legs.