Vuelta a Espana 2020
Canada’s Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) proved the strongest – and canniest – of a five-man move that went clear of a large breakaway on the second of two ascents of one of the toughest climb in the Basque Country in an absorbing Stage 7 of the Vuelta.
Second to Ion Izagirre on Sunday’s summit finish at Aramon Formigal, Woods went one better after the rest day to out-fox Spanish duo Omar Fraile (Astana) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) after a protracted game of cat-and-mouse.
Woods made his initial move on the second ascent of the Puerto de Orduno before being joined by the two Spaniards over the summit, along with French duo Nans Peters (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Guillaume Martin (Cofidis), the new polka dot jersey.
With Spanish veteran Valverde a general classification threat to Woods’ EF Pro Cycling teammate Hugh Carthy, the Canadian refused to contribute in the leading quintet as a chase group of a dozen riders led the chase behind, one minute ahead of the peloton.
Valverde, Peters and Martin all put in digs in the final 10 kilometres on the tense approach to the finish at Villanueva de Valdegovia before Woods took his chance on a sweeping downhill section ahead of the final kilometre.
Fraile led the chase but ran out of road, the two-time Vuelta king of the mountain winner left to rue his indecision as he crossed the line just four seconds back with compatriot Valverde on his wheel.
The victory was Woods’ second of the season and came two years after his only previous win on the Vuelta. It also saw the 34-year-old turn the page after a nasty crash in the opening stage effectively ended any hope of improving on his career-high seventh place in the Vuelta in 2017.
“I was with four other guys and they were riding super strong,” Woods said. “I felt bad I couldn’t pull through but with Valverde in the group – I couldn’t give him any time because we had Hugh Carthy in the peloton behind. So I was able to sit in a bit, then, with a bit of luck, I had the legs and I was able to get the win.”
Britain’s Carthy finished safely in the pack almost one minute in arrears to retain his second place on GC, 18 second behind Ecuador’s Richard Carapaz (Team Ineos), with Ireland’s Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) third a further two seconds back.
Valverde moved up one place to ninth and is now 2’03” down on the red jersey of Carapaz, with New Zealand’s George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) moving up three places and entering the top 10 after also starring in the day’s break.
A double ascent of the long lost Puerto de Orduna – a climb known as the ‘gear-wrecker’ once considered to be the hardest in the Basque Country – provided the backdrop of a 159.7km stage played out in unrelenting drizzle and blustery winds.
Sepp Kuss – one of three Jumbo Visma riders in a strong 37-man move that never gained more than two and a half minutes over the pack – went over the first crossing of the summit in pole position ahead of Martin, Peters and Robert Power (Team Sunweb), to take over virtual ownership of Tim Wellens’ polka dot jersey.
Wellens, the Belgian rider from Lotto Soudal, was also in the break, which soon reformed going over the top before Valverde, Dorian Godon (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Stan DeWulf (Lotto Soudal) went clear with 55km remaining.
The trio only ever held a slight advantage over the breakaway and it was Frenchman Godon who resisted for the longest having zipped clear on the descent before the second ascent of the Orduno.
With the Ineos-led peloton coming to within one and a half minutes of the break, Godon was swept up early on as the climb snaked through a succession of 15 hairpins in dense, autumnal woodland.
After an early acceleration from Frenchman Victor Lafay (Cofidis), Woods rode clear of the break with three kilometres remaining of a climb first used in the Vuelta in 1956 but which has only appeared once since 1978, when Luis Angel Mate was first over the summit in 2012.
Peters and Valverde led the chase as the road ramped up to its maximum 15 per cent ramp near the summit, with Martin bridging over to take second place behind Woods over the top – and with it, the polka dot jersey that the American Kuss had been eyeing up.
Fraile joined the chasers as they caught Woods on the descent before opening up a 25 second gap on a select chase group that featured the likes of Jumbo-Visma duo Kuss and Bennett, UAE-Team Emirates pair Rui Costa and Davide Formolo, and the Spaniard Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott).
With Woods refusing to do any work, the other four riders on the nose of the race put in a succession of thwarted attacks. Valverde’s promising move with 6km remaining then coaxed a response from his compatriot Fraile, the former world champion from Movistar targeting his first win since the corresponding stage of last year’s Vuelta, more than 14 months ago.
But it was not to be as Woods led the chase back on before putting in his decisive move ahead of the flamme rouge to take the second Vuelta stage win of his career and bounce back after narrowly missing out in Sunday’s sixth stage.
The Vuelta continues with tomorrow’s 164km Stage 8 with a GC summit showdown on the Alto de Moncalvillo where Carapaz’s red jersey credentials will be tested his rivals.