Nairo Quintana (Movistar) attacked from a stellar group of six with 3km to go to win stage 2 of the Vuelta a España on Sunday. The Colombian, who won the race in 2016, moved into second place overall.
Nicolas Roche (Sunweb) finished second on the stage, and after his team’s strong time trial on Saturday, took the leader’s jersey from Miguel Ángel López (Astana).
Lopez and his Astana teammates were caught napping as the race shattered in the final 30km, with attacks at the bottom of the short, steep final climb fracturing the peloton, before further accelerations toward the summit drew out a strong group of six.
The group that went off the front included several major threats to Lopez, including Quintana, Rigoberto Uran (EF-Education First), Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), and Fabio Aru (UAE-Team Emirates), along with stage-hunters Roche and Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott).
Quintana surprised them all with his move with 3km remaining. His attacking companions hesitated in reacting to the Movistar man’s surge, allowing him to gain a vital gap that he held on to as he raced toward victory in Calpe. Roche followed him and took second on the stage, with Roglic taking third.
“It’s something unique,” reflected Quintana after the stage. “I’ve never won like this. There’s always a first time, and today was very special. It’s a beautiful win, the team needed it, we’ve come working with harmony, we rode well yesterday, and we did a great job today. When you work hard, the results follow.”
Along with Lopez, GC threats such as Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) and Tao Geoghegan-Hart (Ineos) were also caught out in the explosive finale, and all lost chunks of time, with the Brit losing a race-ending 10 minutes. Uran now sits third overall just six seconds behind Quintana, with Roglic and Lopez less than 30 seconds behind the EF-Education First leader.
“This morning it [the red jersey] wasn’t on the table,” said new GC leader, Roche. “It was only in the final 20km that I thought about it. I was thinking more about the stage victory. I will defend it for as long as I can. Last time I had it for one day. I hope to have it more [this time].”
The stage took riders 200km through tough, constantly rolling terrain. A nasty kicker of a climb – the Cumbre del Sol – fell with just 30km remaining, a 3km, 10% average ramp that included several sections over 20%, and it was here that the race sparked into life. The difficulty of the day was increased by the extreme heat, with the mercury rising up to 35 degrees.
Two groups of two broke away early and eventually merged into a quartet after 50km, made up of Sander Armée (Lotto Soudal), Angel Madrazo (Burgos-BH), Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural-Seguros), and Willie Smit (Katusha-Alpecin.
The group took up to seven minutes on the peloton, which was led for the majority of the day by Astana. Armée was the last of the four to hang on at the front, but was caught as the Cumbre del Sol approached with 35km to go.
The peloton came onto the tough climb together, and Hugh Carthy (EF-Education First), Davide Formolo (Bora-Hansgrohe), George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) and Pierre Roger Latour (Ag2r-La Mondiale) sparked off the action, with several sprinters including Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) – after such a strong ride in the recent Tour of Poland – being dropped.
The front of the race was down to around 30 riders by the summit of the category 2 climb, before attacks over the top split them down again, with the six riders that went on to contest the victory going clear as the flat final 20km commenced.
A 20-strong chase group headed up by Movistar and Astana followed, with Lopez and Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) among them.
Astana looked to have been caught by surprise by the attacks on the climb and the strong group that formed afterward, and failed to bring back the gap to the front six, which extended from 10 to 20 seconds as they raced to the finish in Calpe.
The lead group worked together well until 3km to go, when Quintana burst clear on a short rise. The remaining five hesitated just long enough to give Quintana a few seconds of a gap.
Aru chased but made no headway, before Roglic, intent on making up as much of the time he lost on stage 1 as possible, started to close the gap. However, the Slovenian’s efforts failed to bring Quintana to heel, who looked untouchable as he went into the finish straight to take the stage victory, exactly one month after his stage win in Valloire at the Tour de France.
“This is only the second day,” said Quintana. “There’s a lot of Vuelta ahead of us. It’s always a joy to win, and fills you will tranquility as well. It’s a payback for the team because we already working well. I hope if I have legs things will keep going well.”
Quintana will go into a likely sprint finish stage on Monday at the front of the pack of pre-race GC contenders.