Vuelta a Espana 2019
When a thunderstorm pulled the plug on live images with 12km remaining, Colombia’s Lopez had linked up with fellow Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang after dropping his rivals for red.
Lopez looked to be sailing away to glory, but by the time the images came back – after a decisive 4km gravel section between the two final climbs – Lopez was a sinking ship. Cuts on his arms and legs indicated that he’d hit the deck at some point, instantly changing the complexion of the stage.
Slovenia’s Pogacar went on to secure the biggest win of his career on the Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp, riding clear of Quintana, the green jersey, and soaring past lone leader Marc Soler, who had been ordered to slow up and wait for Movistar teammate Quintana.
Spaniard Soler reluctantly stuck to team orders and helped pace his teammate towards the finish – but Movistar clearly traded the opportunity of winning the stage through Soler in favour of putting Quintana, the 2016 winner, in red.
Quintana crossed the line 23 seconds down on an ectatic Pogacar, with a rallying Primoz Roglic(Jumbo-Visma) outkicking the Spanish world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) for third place at 48 seconds.
The clearly unimpressed Soler completed the top five before Lopez came home in ninth place, 1’01” down, coming home among the remnants of the day’s break.
Quintana now leads Slovenia’s Roglic by six seconds on GC with Lopez – who missed out on the chance of taking the red jersey for a fourth time in the opening week – in third at 17 seconds. The Big Four is completed by the veteran Valverde at 20 seconds as Pogacar rises to fifth at 1’42”.
Overnight race leader, the Frenchman Nicolas Edet (Cofidis), did his best to defend the red jersey, but was dropped on the Coll de la Gallina – the second of five climbs. Edet dropped to seventh place at 2’21” ahead of Monday’s rest day.
Quintana retained the green jersey, Lopez the white jersey and Spaniard Angel Madrazo the polka dot jersey – although the Burgos-BH Stage 5 winner’s lead was cut to just eight points after Frenchman Geoffrey Bouchard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) crested two summits in pole position ahead of the break en route to finishing seventeenth.
The shortest but by no stretch the easiest stage of the race kicked up from the outset with the Coll d’Ordino, the first of five climbs, shuffling the pack and forcing everyone to show their hands early.
A large move of around 30 riders extricated itself from the peloton after an initial skirmish from British youngster Tao Geoghegan Hart, clearly in the mood to salvage something from this Vuelta for himself and his ailing Ineos team.
With five Ineos riders – Wout Poels, David de la Cruz, Sebastian Henao, Vasil Kiryienka and Geoghegan Hart – in the break, the British team were clearly motivated.
But the same could be said of some of the teams of the big GC favourites, with Astana placing Omar Fraile, Gorka Izagirre and Jakob Fuglsang in the mix, Jumbo-Visma represented through Robert Gesink, Sepp Kuss and Neilson Powless, and Movistar with two cards in Antonio Pedrero and Marc Soler.
Two riders – Patrick Bevin (CCC Team) and Mikel Bizkarra (Euskadi-Murias) – edged clear from the break on the climb, the summit of which they crested with a small gap over the chasers, who were paced over by Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal). The pack, which was being led by the Cofidis team of red jersey Edet, came over 2’10” down.
After a long 27km descent, the lead group came back together on the irregular Coll de la Gallina before exploding into pieces on the first ‘Especial’ climb of the race.
Geoghegan Hart tried his luck and was soon joined by the Frenchman Bouchard of Ag2R-La Mondiale, who rode past the rangy Briton en route to cresting the summit in pole position ahead of Hermann Pernsteiner (Bahrain Merida) and the rest of the remaining chasers.
Behind, the main pack had been significantly whittled down by the pacing of Astana, with Esteban Chaves (Mitchelton-Scott) picking up a puncture at the worst possible moment and forced to chase back with the dropped duo of Edet and Madrazo.
Bouchard was still out ahead going through the intermediate sprint at the foot of the first of three successive climbs gradually rising to the finish.
Lopez made his move on the Alto de la Comella, softening his rivals with one attack before using a Valverde acceleration as a launchpad for his own explosion inside the final 20km.
Astana had already paved the way through some hefty pacing from Fraile, who had dropped back from the break – and now the next phase of their plan kicked into action as Lopez was picked up by Gorka Izagirre, who paced him to the summit.
Bouchard had gone over ahead of the remnants of the break – but the action behind had all but reeled in the escapees. On the Alto de Engolasters, Lopez could rely on Astana’s third rider from the break, Fuglsang, for pacing.
If it looked like a masterplan coming off to perfection, then Astana did not bank on the meteorological curveball which threatened to have as large a bearing as the flash floods in Stage 19 of the Tour.
Bouchard has been caught by Soler, a revived Geoghegan Hart and Ben O’Connor (Dimension Data) near the summit just as heavy rain and hail cut the transmission and shrouded the stage in confusion.
When the live transmission resumed the riders were on the Cat.1 Alto Els Cortals d’Encamp, with the entire 4km gravel section between the final two climbs having been missed (apart from a short snipped featuring O’Connor).