Mikel Landa (Astana) delivered a knock-out punch on the brutally steep final climb of Vuelta al Pais Vasco stage 5 to win on Friday in Spain.
He kept his wits about him as a 30-man breakaway group was pared down during three trips up the Alto de Aia. In the final, he was up against Tom Danielson (Cannondale-Garmin) and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal).
Danielson and Wellens both made their moves early in the last kilometers of racing, but Landa kept his powder dry and delivered a stunning attack on the steep final gradient to win the 156km stage from Eibar to Aia.
In the run-in to Aia, the gap was down to about two minutes with 30km to go — at one point it had been over four minutes. Philippe Gilbert (BMC) made a futile attempt to bridge, but he succeeded in whipping up the pace in the peloton.
Notables in the breakaway included Rohan Dennis (BMC), Giovanni Visconti (Movistar), Daryl Impey (Orica-GreenEdge), Carlos Betancur (Ag2r La Mondiale), Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick-Step), Danielson, and Julien Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing). Nearly all had teammates in the front group to aid in driving the pace.
At the base of the first of three trips up the Alto de Aia, with about 20 kilometers left, Rein Taaramäe (Astana) attacked, grinding away on gradients that exceeded 25 percent at times.
Over the top of the brutally steep category two climb, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) attacked the field as the break disintegrated on the road ahead.
Taaramäe was caught on the descent with 15 kilometers left, and a group of five riders formed at the front: Landa, Taaramäe, Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), Wellens, and Danielson.
Not far behind on the descent, Kwiatkowski caught a remnant group of breakaway riders, including teammate Martin. They rode hard in an attempt to take back time on GC rivals in the peloton behind.
Coming into the penultimate climb, Kwiatkowski and Martin’s group and had a 36-second lead over the peloton, which included race leader Sergio Henao (Sky) and other threats for the overall.
With five kilometers left, Gallopin was dropped, and the four-man lead group had a 1:20 lead over the Kwiatkowski chase group.
That chase group had been pared down to three riders over the top of Alto de Aia. Kwiatkowski and Martin were accompanied by a rider from Cannondale-Garmin. Their advantage over the yellow jersey was 13 seconds.
At the base of the final climb, Danielson kicked off the fireworks in the lead group.
Soon, the American had drawn out Landa and Wellens, dropping Taaramäe as the climb pitched up again.
Wellens attacked in the final few hundred meters, and was followed by Landa. As the cruel climb kicked in the finishing stretch, Landa counterattacked and rode clear to win.
Wellens finished second, and Danielson was third.
In the GC battle, Kwiatkowski’s bold move was for naught. He was caught on the last climb. Henao crossed the line just ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha). Nairo Quintana (Movistar) finished 12 seconds behind the yellow jersey, alongside the rainbow jersey.
“I know that winning will be complicated for me even if the time gaps are small,” said Quintana. “I’ll be fighting to finish on the podium.”
Going into the final stage of racing, an 18.3km time trial around Aia on Saturday, Henao holds the overall lead, in a dead heat with Rodriguez. With a strong performance today, Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Yates has slotted into third overall, seven seconds back. Two former Giro d’Italia champions round out the top five: Quintana is fourth, 12 seconds behind the lead, and 2011 Giro champ Michele Scarponi (Astana) is fifth, 22 seconds off the pace.
“I don’t rule out anyone for the overall victory,” said Henao at the finish line. “The time trials are tough, and we all have our chances.
“I don’t have a sufficient enough lead on Nairo [Quintana] with his qualities.”
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.