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La Vuelta’s 15th day: The stage of the decade

Editor’s note: The 2017 Vuelta a España route was announced on Thursday, January 12.

Among the many amazing moments of the 2016 season, none encapsulates the beauty and dynamism of professional cycling like stage 15 at the Vuelta a España. It is, quite simply, one of the greatest days of racing in history.

First, a bit of context: The Vuelta saw Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, and Nairo Quintana bash heads against what many agreed was the most difficult grand tour course of the year. After two weeks of relentless racing, the entire peloton was tired, bewildered, and ready for the end. And that’s when something magical happened. On the surface it is simple to describe: Contador attacked, Froome’s impenetrable Team Sky fortress crumbled, and Quintana finished it off on the climb to Formigal to secure the title. But below the surface, there was an intricate web of events that turned what many anticipated would be a routine stage into a cycling masterpiece.

VeloNews spoke with the key protagonists of stage 15 to reconstruct an oral history of the season’s best stage, and one of the greatest of all time.

‘It didn’t look hard on paper’

Following the previous day’s four-climb, 196-kilometer stage to the Aubisque across the French Pyrenees, the peloton experienced a collective hangover in the start town of Sabiñánigo. Stage 15 wouldn’t start until 2 p.m., and with temperatures nudging into the high 90s, many were already thinking ahead to the next rest day.

‘The stage didn’t look hard on paper, but at the end of the Vuelta, everyone’s legs were getting tired. I wasn’t interested in finishing second.”
– Alberto Contador

Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) started the stage in sixth place overall, more than three minutes behind Quintana, and had something else in mind: “I was disappointed from the day before. Going back to the hotel that night, I was studying the road book. The stage didn’t look hard on paper, but at the end of the Vuelta, everyone’s legs were getting tired. I wasn’t interested in finishing second.”

Samuel Sánchez (BMC Racing), battling in the top-10, summed up the feeling that morning: “The pace of this Vuelta is brutal. If we keep going like this, there will be four of us who make it to Madrid.”

Rory Sutherland (Movistar), a hard-working domestique for Quintana: “It was a late start that day, and we decided to ride to the start from our hotel. [Movistar teammate] Imanol Erviti said, ‘I am going to recon the circuit,’ and I joined him. I was glad we did, because we told the guys, ‘It’s going to be a hard start.’”

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

‘The race exploded’

Two weeks into the Vuelta, the GC battle was still close going into the 118.5-kilometer, three-climb stage. Despite Movistar’s best efforts, Froome was hanging around too close for comfort in second place, just 54 seconds behind Quintana. Riders gathered at the start line for the pre-race protocol, and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Then, race organizers delivered a surprise. The opening 20-kilometer circuit included hilly, sinuous country lanes over rough pavement barely wide enough for a car. The first attacks came fast and furious, and as the pack hit an unrated climb just three kilometers into the stage, all hell broke loose.

Ian Boswell (Team Sky) had buried himself the previous day to help Froome: “We warmed up on the trainers, we were hydrated, and we were ready to roll. I was on the start line behind Contador, and Froome was right next to him. And in 10 minutes, the race was completely upside down.”

Sutherland: “We had the entire team right at the front of the stage. [Movistar rider JJ] Rojas said, ‘Follow the ‘coche rojo’ [the race director’s car] on the neutral start, and then nothing can happen. There will be no mistakes. If you start in the right position, you’re where you need to be.”

Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx – Quick-Step), who would eventually win the stage: “I was the first to attack, and Contador went straight with me. I was surprised to see him there, and we immediately rode full-gas. I was only thinking about the stage.”
Contador: “I wasn’t so optimistic at the start, because the climbs didn’t seem that difficult, but I attacked like crazy, and I didn’t even know who was on my wheel.”

Bingen Fernández, sport director at Cannondale – Drapac, noted the team wanted to put riders into a break to hunt for the stage, eventually slotting in Moreno Moser and Davide Formolo: “It was crazy from the first kilometer. The guys out front were riding full gas to keep the gap, and the race exploded in the back. There were a lot of tired legs.”

Nairo Quintana (Movistar): “I saw Contador move, and I immediately followed him. You could feel the pain in your legs from the effort the day before.”

‘People started to panic’

A series of impactful events quickly unfolded. Contador and Quintana were each joined by two teammates in the front group. Breakaway riders piled on after coming over a hill less than 10 kilometers into the stage. They helped open a slender gap to the other GC contenders. Then a twist of fate changed the dynamic entirely: Lotto – Soudal rider Tosh Van der Sande crashed on a descent as he was trying to bridge across. It disrupted the chase at a critical moment.

Neil Stephens, sport director at Orica – BikeExchange: “Esteban [Chaves] and Jens Keukeleire were very close to being part of the Contador attack, but there was a crash right in front of them at the wrong moment. They got held up, and by the time they came around, it was too late.”

Leopold König (Team Sky), who started the stage in fifth overall, dropped to 31st after finishing in the gruppetto: “When the first gaps opened up, it was barely 10 seconds, just 100 meters. We couldn’t close it down. We were disorganized, and people started to panic.”

Chris Froome (Team Sky): “It was a little bit of both: being caught by surprise, because I didn’t expect the GC guys to be going for it early on, and positioning. There was a small crash at the front, right when the move was forming, which also added to not being able to close it straightaway.”

Quintana: “I had Jonathan Castroviejo and Rubén Fernández with me, and I was screaming, ‘Full gas! Full gas! We are leaving behind Froome!’”

Contador: “I had two teammates with me, and Quintana had two as well. We didn’t have to say anything between us. Everyone knew what to do.”

‘We were distraught’

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

Panic and disorder soon enveloped the peloton, which quickly splintered into three groups. Sky’s seemingly impregnable fortress was cracking. Fourteen breakaway riders were committed at the front, and Froome only had teammate David López with him in a second chase group, while the rest of his teammates were stuck in the gruppetto. Orica and Astana tried to help, but the margin grew to one minute, and then two. There was no bringing them back.

Sutherland: “It was mayhem. After 60 kilometers, it was like, ‘What just happened? What is happening?’ Happily for us, the shoe was on the good foot. We all knew this could work out pretty well. And it did. That made the Vuelta.”

José Luis Arrieta, sport director at Movistar: “Everyone’s racing to win, and Froome is the strongest, so that means everyone is racing against him. His team is usually untouchable, so when they’re caught out like this, everyone just piles on to try to eliminate Froome.”

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who was in the Froome chase group: “Both us and Tinkoff worked together to take advantage of the situation. Once the gap opened, I was always on Froome’s wheel, trying to make him nervous. And when he would sit up after taking a turn, I would go hard at the front so he could never recover.”

Froome: “As we’ve seen, missing the right move can have massive consequences.”

Sutherland: “I was in the group with Froome, and I respect him a lot more now on how he raced that day. His manner that day was impressive. I’d ride past him, and I would raise my eyebrows a bit to say, ‘It’s not personal, mate, but it’s racing.’ He was like, without saying, ‘It is what it is, my team fucked up.’ He was completely calm.”

Boswell: “As a team, we were distraught about what was happening up the road. We felt hopeless in that group, and you know you’re not going to come back to the front. Just eight kilometers into the race, everything changed.”

‘My dad could have ridden in the gruppetto’

Far behind the nail-biting action at the front of the race, another story was brewing. Weary and exhausted riders collectively threw up their arms, and rode en masse to the finish line without making any effort to make the time cut. A group of 91 crossed the line more than 20 minutes behind the calculated limit. The race jury made an exception, allowing them all to start the next day, but not everyone was happy.

Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale – Drapac): “There was a lot of debate whether we should have been cut. To be fair, we were riding pretty easy, but we could have also raced it more professionally. I mean, my dad could have ridden in the gruppetto that day. That’s how slow we were going.”

Tyler Farrar (Dimension Data): “It wasn’t like there were 90 guys who said, ‘Oh, let’s stop for coffee and have an easy day.’ Everyone was just broken, and just couldn’t go any faster or harder.”

Contador: “I compared my power meter with teammate Jesús Hernández, who was in that group, and he did exactly half the effort I did.”

‘It was a grand spectacle’

With the gruppetto languishing under the hot Iberian sun, the final climb to the Formigal summit saw Quintana twist the knife into Froome, widening his lead to 3:37. Contador cracked, and Brambilla, the first rider to attack, took poetic victory.

Contador: “It was a big bet, but it delivered a grand spectacle. You cannot always win, but days like these help build the fan base. In the end, my legs cramped up because I pulled too much at the start. But if I hadn’t done that, maybe we would have gotten caught.”

“We took more gains that day than I did in all the big mountains. It was key to winning the Vuelta.”
– Nairo Quintana

Froome crossed the line in 18th place, some 2:40 behind, a loss that would all but thwart his chances of victory: “I did a lot of pulling coming to the final climb, and I lost a bit of time because I went really deep the day before as well.”

Sutherland: “When we were riding in, and everyone [who had already finished] was descending from the front of the race, Froome comes past and gives us a good nod of respect, as if to say, ‘Good job guys, that was real racing.’ You don’t see that that often from the champions.”

Boswell: “It was a pretty quiet bus ride home. We didn’t get chewed out, as if it were an American football team. The most positive person was [Sky manager Dave] Brailsford. I had a real hard time falling asleep that night, and I had the whole stage running through my head.”

Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com
Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

‘That’s the beauty of cycling’

There are some who now refer to the stage as “Froomigal.” No matter the name, that day upended the Vuelta, and gave Quintana the padding he needed to survive the stage 19 time trial and win his second grand tour by a margin of 1:23. The stage also reconfirmed that short, fluid mountain stages can pack plenty of punch, and it proved that Froome was vulnerable.

Quintana: “Pulling off something like that was special, and I will never forget it. We took more gains that day than I did in all the big mountains. It was the key to winning the Vuelta.”

López, who was the only teammate to stay with Froome on the stage: “Froome was the strongest at the Vuelta, but the strongest doesn’t always win. Cycling is like that. The team learned a lot that day, and we hope it doesn’t happen again.”

Froome: “I lost the Vuelta that day to Formigal. I love racing at the Vuelta, and I want to come back to win.”

Sutherland: “That’s the beauty of cycling, mate. There were so many factors that had to line up that day, because whoever lost the wheel, if they hadn’t lost the wheel, it would have been a completely different Vuelta. Coming into Madrid, it was like a fairytale.”