Katusha put two men on the podium and closed to within a second of the overall lead on Sunday as Joaquim Rodriguez won stage 15 of the Vuelta a España.
Haimar Zubeldia (Trek Factory Racing) had been off the front with a shout at winning the 175.8km stage, only to be overhauled in the final kilometers of the Alto de Sotres.
As Zubeldia faded, Rodriguez surged, and he took the stage by 12 seconds ahead of Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) with Dani Moreno rounding out the podium in third two seconds later.
“”I feel very, very good. For me, it’s one of the best Vueltas I’ve ever done,” said Rodriguez. “I am very happy to have won today. We were looking for the stage win during this Vuelta, and now I am right there in the overall, so it’s turning out to be a great Vuelta.”
Astana’s Fabio Aru held onto the overall lead, but only just — Rodriguez now sits a second behind with Majka third.
“Purito did great things for Katusha in the final kilometers, and I congratulate him for that,” said Aru. “Tomorrow is another test. It’s very, very tough tomorrow. We will obviously be extremely tired, but we will do our best.”
Top 10, Stage 15
- 1. Joaquim RODRIGUEZ OLIVER, TEAM KATUSHA, in 4:33:31
- 2. Rafal MAJKA, TINKOFF-SAXO, at :12
- 3. Daniel MORENO FERNANDEZ, TEAM KATUSHA, at :14
- 4. Nairo Alexander QUINTANA ROJAS, MOVISTAR TEAM, at :15
- 5. Fabio ARU, ASTANA PRO TEAM, at :15
- 6. Mikel LANDA MEANA, ASTANA PRO TEAM, at :18
- 7. Johan Esteban CHAVES RUBIO, ORICA, at :20
- 8. Mikel NIEVE ITURALDE, TEAM SKY, at :24
- 9. Alejandro VALVERDE BELMONTE, MOVISTAR TEAM, at :29
- 10. Domenico POZZOVIVO, AG2R LA MONDIALE, at :41
Top 10, GC
- 1. Fabio ARU, ASTANA PRO TEAM, in 61:53:56
- 2. Joaquim RODRIGUEZ OLIVER, TEAM KATUSHA, at :01
- 3. Rafal MAJKA, TINKOFF-SAXO, at 1:24
- 4. Tom DUMOULIN, TEAM GIANT-ALPECIN, at 1:25
- 5. Johan Esteban CHAVES RUBIO, ORICA, at 1:34
- 6. Daniel MORENO FERNANDEZ, TEAM KATUSHA, at 2:08
- 7. Mikel NIEVE ITURALDE, TEAM SKY, at 2:19
- 8. Alejandro VALVERDE BELMONTE, MOVISTAR TEAM, at 2:25
- 9. Nairo Alexander QUINTANA ROJAS, MOVISTAR TEAM, at 3:00
- 10. Louis MEINTJES, MTN-QHUBEKA, at 5:07
The day’s break consisted of Zubeldia; Maarten Tjallingii (LottoNL-Jumbo); Dominique Rollin (Cofidis); Pierre Rolland (Europcar); Blel Kadri (Ag2r La Mondiale); Brayan Ramirez (Colombia); Natnael Berhane (MTN-Qhubeka); Nikolas Maes (Etixx-Quick Step); and Ricardo Vilela (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA).
They were never granted much of a gap as Movistar took charge of the peloton for Nairo Quintana, with Astana and race leader Aru enjoying a free ride just behind. And on the final unrated climb preceding the uphill finish the chase had nicked the escapees’ advantage to three minutes with less than 30km to go.
That last climb was a tough one — the Cat. 1 Alto de Sotres, a 12.7km grind averaging just under 8 percent with steeps slopes of 13.3 percent near the top.
The snap went out of the break on the Sotres, and the gap plummeted to 90 seconds with 15km to go and Movistar still driving the GC group.
As the break fell to attacking itself, Zubeldia emerged the strongest and took a big gap over his erstwhile mates with 10km remaining.
Behind, his teammates spent, Quintana tried to bust a move but was brought back as Astana finally showed itself. Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) was hanging on grimly in the GC group, near the tail end.
Five kilometers out Zubeldia’s edge had been slashed to 45 seconds. Still in the sizable GC group were Aru, Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, Esteban Chaves, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff) and Dumoulin.
But the pace finally proved too much for Dumoulin, and he slid off the back. And in the end, it was Rodriguez who had what it took. He won the stage ahead of Majka and Moreno, while Quintana had to settle for fourth.
Aru finished fifth to hold onto his red jersey, but only just — Rodriguez moved into second, just a single second down, with Majka third at 1:24.
As for Purito, he took the points and combined jerseys as consolation prizes. But he’s after that other one.
“We are in a perfect position, just one second behind Aru,” he said. “The sensations are very good. We’re going for the overall win. Hopefully, tomorrow we have the possibility to take the red jersey.”
Despite coming away empty-handed on the stage, Valverde remained hopeful.
“Nairo is feeling better, but the truth is, Purito was very strong today. There was nothing we could do,” he said. “It’s been a heavy year, with a lot of big successes, with a win in this Vuelta, but sometimes you’re just not as strong as you’d like to be, and you just have to accept that.
“For this Vuelta, there are still some chances. We have tomorrow and the time trial in Burgos, so maybe we can turn things back in our favor.”
Dumoulin, too, was looking toward Wednesday’s 38.7km time trial in Burgos. One of the big favorites for the race against the clock, he recovered well after being dropped by the GC group and finished 51 seconds back in 12th.
“I tried to go at my rhythm and not get involved with the real climbers. I am doing better on the mountains, but not like them,” said Dumoulin.
“I have to prepare for the time trial with the same calm that I have up until now. If it goes well then it will be great for me and the team, but it is clear everyone wants to win this Vuelta and there can be only one winner.”