A day that was supposed to belong to the punchy Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) swiftly became one the Spaniard may long rue, as his rival Chris Froome (Sky) tore into his advantage and moved into second place, forcing Valvrede into third.
Astana’s Fabio Aru won the stage as he deftly attacked low on the final climb of the day, caught Froome’s wheel as the GC-minded rider bridged, and held on long enough to win a sprint finish 700 meters after the crest of the climb.
“I knew it would be important to make an early attack. I was hoping if I could open up a gap, I could hold on. We worked together when Froome came up, and to win two stages at the Vuelta is just tremendous,” Aru said. “I trained well here for the Vuelta. It’s my first time here, so to win two stages is better than I could have hoped. I am very happy, even more so with a good position I have in GC.”
At the end of the second trip up Monte Castrove, Froome (Sky) had done enough to leapfrog Valverde (Movistar) and move up on general classification. Froome is now 1:19 back of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) and 13 seconds to the good of Valverde. Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Aru round out the top five, 2:29 and 3:15 behind Contador, respectively. On the stage, Froome put 12 seconds into Valverde and Contador. He was one second behind Aru at the line.
The break was late to establish with Luis León Sánchez (Caja Rural-Seguros), Johan Le Bon (FDJ), and Hubert Dupont (Ag2r-La Mondiale) in the move, but this was always a stage that was going to belong to the heavy hitters — the stakes were too high. With 91km to go, the break had 3:20, then 3:40.
Those hopes were dashed by the contentious GC battle behind, as the advantage was cut in half just 30 kilometers later, thanks in large part to Sky’s efforts on the front for Froome, who didn’t disappoint once the race hit its boiling point.
Froome showed that he meant business, taking a slender two-second bonus in the intermediate sprint. Contador didn’t contest. After that, he was just one second in arrears of Valverde.
With 11.5km to go, he became unbearably patient, with the contenders waiting and watching. The final climb was 6.5km long, with a downhill sprint to the line from the crest, and it was briefly a waiting game, as the imaginary strings between riders stretched and shortened.
Aru finally showed himself and rode off the front with 3.5 to go, rolling fast and strong, the push outward of his elbows the only indicator of the rippling struggles in his thin legs. He was all in briefly, and perhaps knew Froome would close and he could hitch a ride to the line, two interests working together, one for the stage and one for the podium.
If Aru didn’t plan it, it looked like he did.
Froome sprung from 4th wheel among the podium company to Aru in quick fashion, who sealed himself to Froome’s rear wheel and never let it go, save to sprint the Sky rider in the final meters. As Froome and Aru pushed on together, the Spanish Armada of Contador, Valverde and Rodríguez cannibalized itself, lacking cooperation. Eventually, Contador came to the front, towing Valverde to the line and an eventual third place finish. Contador finished fifth on the stage, also behind Rodríguez.
“Clearly it is better not to lose time,” said Contador, “but I hope it’s not too much trouble. I had to control the three and I think that Alejandro [Valverde] had to defend the podium in a stage that was pretty good for him. It is true that we have lose time, now I have to watch a little closer to Froome in Ancares, but I’m happy with the sensations, they have been pretty good and is a day less”.
“It’s incredible,” said Aru. “My energy isn’t the same after 18 stages, but I’d really prepared for the Vuelta. It’s the first time that I’ve raced here, I like the route and hope to come back.”
Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Dutchman Robert Gesink (Belkin) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) all pulled out of the race before the 157km stage. Gesink, who had been seventh in the overall standings before the stage, withdrew for family reasons. Boonen and former Olympic time-trial champion Cancellara left to prepare for the world road championships at the end of the month.