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Vuelta a Espana

Resurgent Froome reshuffles Vuelta’s deck of GC riders, again

Stages 8 and 9 at the Vuelta saw a reshuffling of the GC standings, with crashes and a steep finale leaving their mark.

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The Vuelta a España rollercoaster continued over the weekend, with some big names exiting with crashes and the GC battle taking some unexpected turns.

A day after Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) abandoned, a resurgent Chris Froome (Sky) revived his GC hopes Sunday, but no one would have guessed that a 6-foot-1 Dutchman would be back in the leader’s jersey as the Spanish grand tour nears the midway mark.

Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) up-ended the puncheurs on the short but brutally steep Cumbre del Sol high above Spain’s Costa Blanca to double with the stage victory and take a promising 57-second lead on Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) going into Monday’s transition stage and Tuesday’s rest day.

“Unbelievable,” Dumoulin said. “I could have never imagined that I could win a stage like this, but I am on the form of my life.”

Dumoulin emerges as podium threat

Hitting form in the Vuelta is often the deciding factor. Legs are tired, and motivation is waning so deep in the season. So far, no one is dominating this Vuelta. Between crashes, heat, and highly explosive finales, it’s hard to read exactly who is strong enough to win. The route so far hasn’t lent itself to providing the setting for race-breaking attacks.

In that context, Dumoulin, who crashed out of the Tour de France in stage 3, is suddenly a legitimate podium threat. He’s been the most consistent since the Vuelta started, and he keeps surprising at every turn. By his own admission, he’s unsure how he will do on the longer climbs that loom in the second half of the Vuelta, but the 39-kilometer individual time trial waiting in Burgos for stage 17 is in his corner.

But he will have to get there first. Monday’s transition stage is likely one for a breakaway, and Tuesday’s first of two rest days doesn’t come a moment too soon for the weary peloton. Wednesday’s epic six-climb, 138km stage across Andorra will likely be this Vuelta’s make-or-break stage for the GC battle.

Movistar waiting for Andorra

That’s what Movistar is betting on. Alejandro Valverde, who won stage 4 to open the Vuelta, dodged a bullet Sunday after shaking off an early crash, and he managed to limit losses up the final climb despite suffering with intense pain in his shoulder. X-rays confirmed there are no broken bones, and Valverde started Monday’s stage 10.

“It was like someone was sticking a knife in my shoulder,” Valverde said from his crash at 30km into Sunday’s stage. “I almost had to quit the race. I tried to anticipate the final climb a bit with an early attack. I am just thankful that I managed to save the day, and not lose too much time.”

Teammate Nairo Quintana also managed to limit the losses despite not having the legs to follow Froome and Dumoulin when the searing attacks went down. Like many in this Vuelta, Quintana has been discreet, saving his matches for the harder climbs in the second of the race while he tries to rediscover his racing legs after coming off the Tour de France.

Valverde and Quintana are both 1:17 back, at sixth and seventh, respectively, riding just enough to keep their GC options fully intact going into the meat of the race.

“This was one of the hardest finales for me. I tried to defend,” Quintana said Sunday. “We have to wait until Andorra, where it’s likely we’ll see things more defined.”

The dream run of overnight leader Esteban Chaves (Orica-GreenEdge) finally came unglued with about 600 meters to go, but that final ramp was so steep that he bled nearly one minute to drop to third overall at 59 seconds back.

Cumbre del Sol also saw Mikel Landa (Astana) give up all pretensions of the GC, with the Giro d’Italia podium man losing nearly 14 minutes. Fabio Aru is clearly Astana’s man, now fifth overall at 1:13 back, especially with Vincenzo Nibali stewing at home after being ejected following an illegal tow in stage 2.

Froome revives GC hopes

The real story Sunday was Froome’s revival. His Vuelta so far seems like an eerie repeat of last year’s edition, when Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) had him against the ropes on several occasions, but could never deliver the knockout punch.

Froome struggled in the first week of the Vuelta, clearly off the form that delivered the yellow jersey in July. Froome lost a minute between explosive finales in stage 2 and in the Sierra Nevada, but never threw in the towel. Sunday was typical of Froome’s style: he would get gapped in the initial accelerations from his rivals, but would spin his way back to the leaders. This time, he had the legs to counter, and nearly came away with a thrilling stage victory. Only a late-stage surge from Dumoulin in the final 150 meters ruined the script.

“Gutted,” was Froome’s reaction when he fell short of victory. “I am not in the same form as I had at the Tour, but the legs felt better today. I was happy that I was up there, and I didn’t lose too much time today.”

Froome punched back into the top 10, eighth at 1:18 back — well within striking range of the lead. His rivals, however, don’t quite know what to make of Froome.

“A lot of times we have no idea what to think of him, if he’s going good or bad,” Quintana said of Froome. “Sometimes he’s gapped, sometimes he’s up front, and then he attacks like a missile.”

More reshuffling to come

It’s been hard to draw too many conclusions so far in this Vuelta. The real story so far has been the battle to stay in the race, steer clear of crashes, avoid losing time, and keep podium options alive and intact.

Everyone in the top 10 is still within two minutes of Dumoulin, and little more than one minute to second-place Rodríguez. No one’s had exceptional legs yet, so until someone does, this Vuelta’s GC deck certainly will be reshuffled a few more times before Madrid.