There are no easy days at this Vuelta a España.
On paper, Wednesday’s hilly 219.6-kilometer route from Aranda de Duero to Guadalajara appeared to be another straightforward sprint stage to open the Vuelta’s final five days of racing.
And then, brutal crosswinds and cagy tactics by Team Movistar and Deceuninck-Quick Step ripped the Vuelta to pieces and upended the battle for the red jersey. A front group of nearly 50 riders tore clear of the peloton after just 20 or so kilometers of racing, and gained 5:29 on the group containing leader Primoz Roglic.
Philippe Gilbert, who at one point had five Deceuninck-Quick Step teammates alongside him in the front group, took the sprint win ahead of Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe).
At the finish, Gilbert acknowledged the strange nature of the stage.
“I think it’s one kind of a stage that will stay in history because of the way we rode,” Gilbert said at the finish. “It was crazy from the gun.”
Nairo Quintana, who came into the stage languishing 7:43 behind Roglic, was the day’s big GC winner, vaulting into second place in the overall, just 2:24 down. Behind Quintana, other GC riders in the group leapfrogged other riders behind.
Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) went from 8th place to 6th place overall; James Knox (Deceuninck-Quick Step) went from 11th place to 8th overall; and Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) took 8 places forward, advancing from 18th overall to 10th place in GC.
Gilbert said the combination of winds and aggressive racing drove the group onward. Teams Ineos, Sunweb, Movistar, and Mitchelton-Scott all had multiple riders in the group.
“It was really fast, and at one point we were riding on the flats at like 75-kilometers an hour,” Gilbert said. “I had a 54X11 [gear] and I was spinning 110 rpm and it was really crazy fast. In 17 years of racing I don’t think I’ve ever done that.”
In the main field, Roglic’s Jumbo-Visma squad took turns pulling the peloton with Astana. At one point, the gap approached 8 minutes. By the finish, the two teams had narrowed it to just 5:29.
After the stage, Roglic said he was initially caught out by the aggressive racing in the early moments of the stage. Roglic credited his Jumbo-Visma teammates with saving his lead.
“I did a mistake for sure—I shouldn’t be in the place that I was. I should be in front,” Roglic said. “But the team saved me and did a really big effort and in the end we are still in a good position.”
Indeed, Roglic still holds 2:24 over Quintana with just two climbing stages remaining in the race. And during the second week, Roglic showed himself to be a far superior climber than Quintana at this year’s race.
Still, if the wind blows and the tactics become aggressive, anything is possible at this Vuelta. Roglic said Jumbo-Visma is up to the challenge.
“We lost a battle today but not the war,” he said.