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Vuelta a Espana

‘It was ruthless.’ Inside the Vuelta a España’s hardest day

Wednesday's stage of the Vuelta a Espana was supposed to be easy. Then, gusting crosswinds and aggressive tactics transformed it into the hardest day of the 2019 race.

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GUADALAJARA, Spain (VN) — The Vuelta a España peloton was nearly brought to its knees on Wednesday by a combination of gusting winds and aggressive, all-out racing.

The peloton fractured right from the gun in a stage that was supposed to be easy. A big group pulled clear in the opening 5km, including GC threat Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and nearly the entire Deceuninck-Quick-Step team. Riders strapped in and tried to hang on for a very fast ride.

“We just dropped the hammer straight out of the neutral,” said EF-Education First’s Lawson Craddock, who rode into the winning break. “Next thing you know, 40 guys are off the front. The red jersey’s not there, so of course, we rode flat out. It was a bit of disbelief, are we really going to do this for 220km? I pretty quickly realized that yeah, we are that stupid.”

On paper, the 220km 17th stage appeared to be a boring late-race snooze fests, one in which a non-consequential break pulls clear, and GC riders go into siesta mode. It was anything but.

When the peloton woke up to see winds kicking up at 25-35kph and 200km of rolling hills ahead of them, everyone had their radar up.

“It’s not the stage that most people would point to say it’s going to be the hardest stage of the Vuelta, but I think it was,” said American Ben King (Dimension Data). “In the end it was a very hard stage.”

The break went early, driven on by Deceuninck-Quick Step. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“It was full-gas for 220 kilometers”

The stats tell the story — an average speed of 50kph for 220km — but the pain at the finish line told the true extent of the tale. Riders crossed the line desperate for a drink and a respite from the speed.

“This Vuelta is just insane,” Craddock continued. “These days on paper that should be easy, recovery, but they’re anything but that. It was absolutely ruthless.”

Philippe Gilbert’s been around for a long time, but even the Belgian veteran said Wednesday presented a new level of pain. The Deceuninck-Quick-Step star later kicked to Guadalajara a winner for a second time in this Vuelta, a full hour earlier than projected in the 220km stage

 Once the move went, the chasers had no chance to close the gap. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“At one point on the flat we were going 75k and hour. I had a 54/11 and I was spinning at like 110rpm,” Gilbert said. “In 17 years of career I don’t ever think I’ve done that. It was crazy right from the start. It was full-gas for 220km and I think it’s something that will be part of the history.”

If the opening two weeks of the Vuelta have been among the most grueling, week three could be even worse.

A day after Tuesday’s final rest day, Wednesday’s transition stage was supposed to push the peloton out of northern Spain toward the mountains around Madrid in a gentle paseo. In fact, many were already looking ahead to Thursday and Saturday, the final two mountain stages of this Vuelta.

The pack was whipped into echelons by the crosswinds. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

When riders woke up to see the wind, a bolt of alarm charged through the peloton. Riders hit the rollers to warm up. Others avoided chatting to journalists. There was a tension in the air and everyone could feel it.

“Everyone was aware it was a windy day. As the car went [after the neutral start], standard for a race these days, everyone sprinted straight after the car. We went straight into the gutter,” said Ineos’s Owain Doull. “I was thinking, how long can this go on for? Well, it was all day!”

Quick-Step slotted in seven riders, including GC threat James Knox. The presence of Quintana and Sunweb’s Wilco Kelderman, each with teammates, added muscle to the ever-expanding storm. Before anyone knew it, there were 40-plus riders minutes off the front, and the peloton was barreling 50kph down the road propelled by tailwinds.

“I did everything I could until I was dead”

Jumbo-Visma played it cool. With Roglic firmly in red, the Dutch team could afford to let the break go up the road, even with Quintana in there. Jumbo-Visma management walked the tightrope, trying to put pressure on rivals Astana and UAE-Emirates to help pull on the front.

The attack forced Roglic and his Jumbo-Visma teammates to spend much of the day chasing. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“When it’s not an ideal situation, you have to try to stay calm,” said Jumbo-Visma’s Sepp Kuss. “There was no panic. We knew we had to start riding, but you cannot ride full-gas for 200-plus kilometers. You do it in a measured effort, and hope some of the other teams pitch in. For a guy like me, it’s a hard effort to pull on the flat. I did everything I could until I was absolutely dead.”

Two minutes grew to three, and then to six. Jumbo-Visma pulled just enough to shorten the leash to Quintana to keep Roglic safely in red, but as Quintana bounced up in the virtual standings, UAE-Emirates’ Tadej Pogacar and Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez both saw their podium chances under siege.

“When Quintana was in a breakaway so big, it was a dangerous situation. We expected Jumbo to close it quickly, but the gap was growing, and we had to do some work as well,” said Astana’s Dario Cataldo. “We spent more energy than we expected, but it’s OK.”

Even Nairo Quintana took turns pulling on the front to widen the gap. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

It was one of those situations that could quickly unravel very fast. Movistar was in ideal position, with Quintana up the road and Alejandro Valverde following the wheels. Marc Soler accelerated on a rise with about 45km to go out of the GC group, splitting an already fractured front group into pieces. Roglic was isolated, but the Slovenian showed no signs of cracking.

“I never thought the race was in danger,” Roglic said. “I stayed calm. I wasn’t there alone. Other riders had to try to finish the best they could. We went full-gas to the line. We will see in Madrid if I save the Vuelta today.”

“Anything can happen at any moment”

Riders came across the line in dribs and drabs, shattered from the effort, and wondering how they were going to face a mountain stage the very next morning.

The day’s big winners were Movistar and Deceuninck-Quick-Step. Quintana, who’s been suffering from a chest cold the past few days, was back in the fray, moving into podium range just in time for Thursday’s climbing stage.

Movistar attacked the peloton on the final climb in hopes of disrupting the chase. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“We went hard on the climb [about 35km to go] to see who had legs,” Valverde said. “Astana was strong and Roglic, too, even though he wasn’t with teammates, he could follow and he saved the day. Tactically, we are in perfect position going into the mountains. These efforts are going to pay at some moment. We are all fighting for everything. I didn’t pull once all day. I was just following the wheels.”

When Valverde came in with the favorites, media were already mobbing Quintana. Colombian journalists pushed in to hear Quintana explain the day as his raspy voice cracked from coughing and the effort.

“It was a great stage. The team was always there, giving everything, with Alejandro on the wheel of the leader and the other favorites,” Quintana said. “We took advantage when it was least expected. We always say that anything can happen at any moment, and here we are again.

Quintana was the big GC winner, vaulting into 2nd place in the overall. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“I gave everything today,” Quintana said. “It’s not easy to keep up with these riders who weigh 70-80kg. The team protected me and we went into the stage expecting this, and everything turned out great.”

Gilbert was joyous, as if he were a kid in a playground. The Belgian veteran is flourishing in what’s been called one of the hardest Vuelta’s ever.

Gilbert said the stage will go down in history. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

“I think tomorrow a lot of riders will feel it in their legs,” he said with relish. “We went full-gas all day. We didn’t have time to eat or time to drink. Tomorrow we could all pay the price.

“The echelons are part of the DNA of this team,” Gilbert continued. “This team loves this kind of racing. In Qatar or here in Spain, if there’s wind, we are going to move.”

Week three is what makes grand tour racing so tantalizing. The opening day of the closing salvo of this Vuelta just whets the appetite of what lies ahead. As Valverde said, this Vuelta is far from over.

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