Vuelta a Espana 2019
With the breakaway covering the first 50km in just 55 minutes, there was no let-up in the leg-burning pace, with the chasing peloton gradually whittled down as Belgian veteran Gilbert led the move home more than an hour-and-a-quarter ahead of schedule – at a staggering average speed of 50.63km/h.
With seven riders in the move, Deceuninck-QuickStep pulled the strings as 37-year-old Gilbert picked up his second win of the race after out-lasting Ireland’s Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) in an uphill drag-race in Guadalajara.
It was a textbook finish for the Belgian team, who never let their heads drop after Dutch sprinter Fabio Jakobsen was dropped from the break on an uphill rise with 50km remaining.
Czeck powerhouse Zdenek Stybar put in an attack 3km from the finish to disrupt the break and pile the pressure on fast-man Bennett.
Gunning for a hat-trick of wins, Bennett managed to reel in Stybar in the final kilometre – and looked on course for a sweet victory after powering clear on the slight ramp to the finish.
But in being forced to launch early, Bennett had bitten off more than he could chew. Unable to maintain his pace on the unforgiving home straight, Bennett’s head dropped as Gilbert surged past for a seventh career win on the Vuelta.
QuickStep’s day was complete as Gilbert’s room-mate, the British youngster James Knox, rose to eighth place in the general classification after finishing 10th on the stage.
Dutchman Wilco Kelderman also rose to sixth in the GC after starring in the break alongside three Sunweb teammates, while Belgium’s Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) entered the top 10 after finishing fourth behind QuickStep’s Remi Cavagna.
But the narrative drive came from that man Quintana, who pulled off a coup to move above Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde into second place on GC, trailing race leader Roglic by 2’24”.
Isolated from his Jumbo-Visma teammates, Roglic came home in the main field alongside fellow Slovenian Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), the Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and the world champion Valverde, 5’29” down on the winner.
With four stages remaining – including two key mountain tests – Valverde finds himself 24 seconds down on Quintana in third place, while Pogacar drops out of the podium spots into fourth at 3’42”.
Lopez, whose Astana team led most of the frantic chase after recalling key men who had made the split, is now fifth at 3’59”. Poland’s Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) drops two places to seventh.
With Knox and Teuns entering the top 10, Frenchman Nicolas Edet (Codifis) and Austria’s Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain Merida) fell the other way to 15th and 17th respectively.
Well, where to start? Perhaps at the third kilometre of the 219.6km stage – the point at which the hammer was thrown down in the crosswinds to blow the race apart and turn the Vuelta on its head.
Ripping through almost 55km in the first hour, forty-seven riders rode clear of the pack after the elastic snapped – with none of the top five riders on GC present in a move that included the entire Deceuninck-QuickStep team bar one, Max Richeze.
It also included, most notably, 2016 champion Quintana who, as the gap stretched above five minutes, saw himself, unexpectedly, very much back in the frame for the red jersey.
When Quintana won Stage 2 of this Vuelta in a flat finish, fans thought they would never seen anything stranger. Well, that has now been outdone.
Trailing Roglic by 7’43” minutes entering what was thought by many to be a flat transitional stage, Quintana saw himself on the virtual podium and, before too long, ahead of his teammate Valverde.
Such was the drama playing out on the barren, rolling roads of Castilla-La Mancha that the host broadcaster brought the live coverage of the stage forward by half an hour. A good thing, too. After all, it’s not often you see a diminutive Colombian climber in the green jersey, bossing the echelons in a stage devoid of any categorised climbs.
As the danger grew, the break shed numbers as riders from Astana, UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo-Visma dropped back to help out their leaders in the diminishing main pack trailing behind.
Eurosport’s veteran commentator Carlton Kirby described it as “a sprint that’s going to last for 220 kilometres” – and he wasn’t wrong.
There was no let up as Quintana’s three Movistar teammates in the move – Jose Joaquin Rojas, Imanol Erviti and Nelson Oliveira – drove the tempo on an uphill rise, putting the hammer into Jakobsen’s chances with 48km remaining.
The Dutch champion dropped back to the main pack with QuickStep teammate Eros Capecchi – to discover a main pack only in name. Corresponding attacks from Movistar – this time for Valverde – had successfully blown things apart again, isolating Roglic and momentarily distancing the Colombian Esteban Chaves and his Mitchelton-Scott contingent.
With fewer numbers in the red jersey group than the break, the gap – which had dropped to around four minutes – started to rise again on the tailwind-assisted approach to Guadalajara.
Having matches to burn, QuickStep could afford to have Tim Declercq bury himself on the front to tire out Bennett and help despatch the other potential fast finishers – the likes of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) and Sunweb duo Max Walscheid and Nikias Arndt.
Boasting four riders of their own in Owen Doull, Wout Poels, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Ian Stannard, Team Ineos tried to have their say. But it was Stybar who zipped clear with 2.5km remaining, stringing out the break in his wake.
Bennett was forced to lead the chase – and surged past the Czeck with such gusto inside the final kilometre that a third win seemed to be in the bag.
But when the uphill sprint took its toll on the isolated Irishman’s weary legs, Gilbert was able to roll back the, er, days by finishing off what was the perfect four hours and twenty minutes for the self-styled Wolfpack.
“It was a very special one,” Gilbert said after the eleventh Grand Tour stage win of his career.
“I think it’s the kind of stage that will stay in history, because of the way we rode. It was crazy from the gun. It was really fast. In 17 years I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that. It was really crazy.”
The sight of Knox wildly celebrating as he crossed the line to move into the top 10 was the cherry on the top of an already sweet cake.
Back with the chasers, Lopez put in an attack on the home straight to lead home Valverde, Roglic, Pogacar and Majka – the morning’s top five – in that order, 5’29” down, after losing out to Quintana, who was awarded with the day’s combativity prize.
Individual riders and disparate groups then came home in dribs and drabs – even those arriving 33 minutes in arrears completing the stage more than half an hour ahead of schedule.
It was a crazy day in Spain – and proof, if ever you need it, that you don’t always need mountains to make a race, even on La Vuelta.
Coming up: Stage 18 – Colmenar Viejo to Bercerril de la Sierra
The mountains return, nevertheless, for this monster 177.5km stage which features four Cat.1 climbs, a fast and technical descent towards the finish, and an uphill ramp to the line. With so many weary legs after Wednesday’s butchery, there could be further carnage in the battle for red.