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2017 Vuelta a España

STAGE 17: Villadiego to Los Machucos

Castille will bid farewell to the peloton with a simple start to the stage, followed by almost 3,000 meters of climbing. The spectacular descent from La Lunada, that will lead straight onto the Alisas mountain pass, and the final climb up the infernal Los Machucos slopes will really test the peloton’s strength.

Stage 17: Denifl delivers; Froome falters

Stefan Denifl held off a charging Alberto Contador to win stage 17 of the Vuelta a Espana. Photo: Tim De Waele | TDWsport.com

A fresh face won atop the Vuelta a España’s freshest climb as Stefan Denifl soloed to the top of Los Machucos in stage 17 Wednesday. Behind the Aqua Blue Sport rider, Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) launched a bold attack to take second and gain time on GC. Astana’s Miguel Angel Lopez was third on the day.

“I can’t believe it. I had super, super legs today. I was waiting the whole Vuelta for that day,” said Denifl. “Today I went all in. It’s amazing.”

Race leader Chris Froome (Sky) kept the red jersey but ceded time on the steep 9km summit finish, which was an entirely new climb for the Vuelta. The top-five GC standings didn’t change but the time gaps tightened up. Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali remained second overall, now 1:16 behind. Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb) wasn’t amazing on the 180km stage but he kept third, 2:13 behind. Katusha-Alpecin’s Ilnur Zakarin is breathing down the Dutchman’s neck in fourth, 2:25 down. Contador is fifth, 3:34 behind Froome.

Stage 17, top 10

1. Stefan Denifl (AUT/ABS), in 4h48:52.
2. Alberto Contador (ESP/TRE) à 0:28.
3. Miguel Ángel López (COL/AST) 1:04.
4. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA/BAH) 1:04.
5. Ilnur Zakarin (RUS/KAT) 1:04.
6. Rafal Majka (POL/BOR) 1:04.
7. Michael Woods (CAN/CAN) 1:13.
8. Daniel Moreno (ESP/MOV) 1:17.
9. Wilco Kelderman (NED/SUN) 1:19.
10. David De la Cruz (ESP/QST) 1:42.

Top-10 overall

1. Christopher Froome (GBR/Sky) 67h44:03.
2. Vincenzo Nibali (ITA/BAH) à 1:16.
3. Wilco Kelderman (NED/SUN) 2:13.
4. Ilnur Zakarin (RUS/KAT) 2:25.
5. Alberto Contador (ESP/TRE) 3:34.
6. Miguel Ángel López (COL/AST) 4:39.
7. Michael Woods (CAN/CAN) 6:33.
8. Wouter Poels (NED/SKY) 6:40.
9. Fabio Aru (ITA/AST) 6:45.
10. David De la Cruz (ESP/QST) 10:10.

With a steep start, the race split apart early on the Cat. 1 finish climb. “It’s just the nature of the race,” Froome said. “It’s the same for everyone of course. I don’t think anyone enjoys gradients over 25 percent.”

Denifl and Daniel Moreno (Movistar) went clear from the day’s early breakaway. Before long, Denifl had left the Spaniard behind in a bid for victory.

In the GC group, Lopez and Contador escaped at the start of the final climb.

Contador distanced Lopez just before the final five kilometers, bouncing his way up the rough concrete road in his typical out-of-the-saddle style.

Contador caught Alessandro de Marchi (BMC), who was in the break. Next, the Spaniard caught Jack Haig (Orica-Scott) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step). Haig had linked up with teammate Magnus Cort Nielsen to bridge to the breakaway, but he couldn’t maintain the pace on Los Machucos.

The duo couldn’t stay with the three-time Vuelta winner Contador, who reached Moreno after dropping the Australian and Frenchman.

Throughout the steep climb, Froome was shepherded by his Sky teammates — most notably Mikel Nieve and Gianni Moscon — but he never looked comfortable. Riding his own tempo, he couldn’t follow the group of GC favorites led by Nibali.

Eventually, Nibali and Zakarin rode clear of their group and caught Lopez as he faded toward the top of the climb. They came home with a 42-second lead on Froome.

“I think we always knew today was going to be a really tough final. And it was especially with the weather conditions as well,” Froome added.

“The team’s still in a great position. I’m feeling good as well.”

Contador looked on-pace to catch Denifl but couldn’t close the 29-second gap before the short downhill to the finish.

The Austrian rejoiced in his first grand tour stage win and the first for his Pro Continental Aqua Blue team as well.

“It’s just amazing, for my team. It’s our first grand tour, and winning a stage. I’m over the moon right now. You always have to believe to win,” Denifl added. “This climb was perfect for me. Now I’ve won a stage in the Vuelta. It’s the best day of my cycling life.”

Thursday’s stage 18 also features an uphill finish, but the Cat. 3 climb to Santo Toribio de Liébana shouldn’t be as selective as Los Machucos. At 168.5 kilometers, it will also be a shorter day in the saddle.