The Vuelta a España is not over, but to lose nearly two minutes on a flat finale in cross-winds certainly will not suit Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb).
The two general classification men were swept away in the echelons that formed in Thursday’s stage 6 as the peloton crossed Murcia’s Costa Cálida to reach San Javier.
“I don’t know how it happened,” race leader and Pinot’s teammate Rudy Molard said.
“I thought I had the guys just behind me and then I heard on the radio Thibaut was behind.”
Molard took the red leader’s jersey from an escape in stage 5. The French WorldTour team allows him to enjoy it, but it reminded him that his work is to help Pinot climb as high as possible in the Vuelta a España’s overall standings.
“He was at the front all day, I guess he got behind at the worst moment,” Molard said. “They told me today was going to be easy, that I was going to enjoy this day, and we saw what happened.”
An easy day turned hard when the group turned north toward the seaside town of San Javier. The worst moment occurred with 25 kilometers to race when Bora-Hansgrohe went to the front to shed rivals for their classification men and for Peter Sagan. The bunch had already split due to a crash.
“It was already a really hectic stage because of the side-tailwind,” Kelderman explained. “We went into a village and there was a crash in front of me and Mike Teunissen. I managed to brake but Mike unfortunately crashed.
“I carried on riding but my back wheel was really rubbing on my brakes. Initially I was still there but the bunch went full gas and after the bike change I had already lost a minute or so.”
Kelderman placed fourth last year in the Vuelta behind winner Chris Froome (Sky). Pinot placed third in the 2014 Tour and fourth in the 2017 Giro d’Italia behind Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb).
Once the news went through the peloton that two stars were behind, rivals made sure they could not return. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Vuelta winner in 2010, went to the front and helped drive the pace.
Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) won the stage in a sprint, while the two chasing classification riders finished 1:44 behind.
Kelderman dropped from sixth to 17th overall and Pinot plummeted from 13th to 18th. It was “disappointing” for them, but good news for the general classification stars at the front end of the race including Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky), Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
“Of course I’m really disappointed,” Kelderman said. “Luckily I didn’t crash and still have good legs. The Vuelta is not over yet, so we will see what happens in the upcoming days.”
“It hurts, 1:40, but let’s not dramatize it,” said FDJ’s sports director Franck Pineau. “The mountains have yet to arrive, and we are not worried after seeing Pinot ride in the fourth stage.”