Vuelta a Espana 2017
Astana’s Lutsenko proved the strongest of a 17-man group, attacking at the foot of the fifth and final climb to solo to the biggest win of his career at the Ermita Santa Lucia at Alcossebre.
On the first of seven summit finishes on the 72nd edition of La Vuelta, Eritrea’s Merhawi Kudus (Dimension Data) took second place 42 seconds in arrears with Spanish rookie Marc Soler (Movistar) in third at 56 seconds.
The remnants of the breakaway crossed the line in dribs and drabs before Team Sky’s Froome finished 4’31” down in a select four-man group of favourites alongside Spaniard Alberto Contador (Trek Segafredo), Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and the Canadian Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac).
By dropping most of his rivals on the steep double-digit ramps of the final climb, Froome extended his lead in the general classification to 10 seconds over the American Tejay Van Garderen (BMC), who was distanced in the closing moments of a thrilling finale.
The impressive Chaves – completely unrecognisable from the rider who toiled during his debut Tour de France last month – stayed 11 seconds behind Froome but rose to third place on GC.
Ireland’s Nicolas Roche (BMC) and Spain’s David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) complete the reshuffled top five at 13 seconds and 23 seconds respectively.
Fabio Aru (Astana) and Adam Yates (Orica-Scott) conceded 11 seconds to Froome, De la Cruz and Simon Yates(Orica-Scott) conceded 21 seconds, and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) a further five seconds.
If all the above stay in the top 10 overall, the same cannot be said for Romain Bardet of Ag2R-La Mondiale after the Frenchman finished 49 seconds behind Froome to drop to twelfth on GC.
The undulating 175.7km stage from Benicassim was animated by an early break of nine riders, which was bolstered by the arrival of a further eight riders after the first of five categorised climbs.
Italy’s Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) stole a march on his rivals for the polka dot jersey by taking maximum points over the first four climbs – on each occasion ahead of fellow escapee Lluis Mas of Caja Rural-Seguros RGA. Villella increased his haul of KOM points to 30 with the Spaniard Mas now his nearest opponent with 11 points.
As the gap extended to more than seven minutes over the Sky-led peloton, Dutch youngster Jetse Bol of the Colombian wildcard team Manzana Postobon rode into the virtual red jersey.
But the status quo was disrupted when Marco Haller (Katusha-Alpecin) attacked on the descent of the fourth climb to provoke a shake-up in the pursuing break with around 50km remaining.
The Austrian was joined by Lutsenko and Slovenia’s Matej Mohoric (UAE Team Emirates) before the latter started to struggle on the demanding terrain ahead of the decisive final climb.
Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe led a chasing group of four riders in a bid to secure a third win in five days for the Quick-Step Floors team. But once Mohoric was reeled in, it was another Frenchman – Alexis Gougeard of Ag2R-La Mondiale – who rode clear with Kudus with 12km remaining.
With the leading duo holding a 40-second gap going onto the final climb, Lutsenko dropped Haller like a stone ahead of a series of 18% ramps that stood between the Kazakh and his maiden Grand Tour stage win.
Kudus dropped Gougeard, passed Haller and rode in pursuit – but the wiry Eritrean never managed to eat into Lutsenko’s lead. The 24-year-old Kazakh – a stage winner on Paris-Nice in 2016 – held on to take the biggest victory of his career atop the picturesque climb overlooking the glistening Balearic Sea.
Kudus and the Spaniard Soler finished within one minute while Mohoric and Gougeard completed the top five ahead of Haller. Alaphilippe was next to arrive before Bol – his chances of the red jersey extinguished – came home just over two minutes down.
Villella was the last of the 12 remaining escapees to cross the line before Contador danced home with Froome, Woods and Chaves in his wheel – and the rest of the pack in devastation behind. Among the big name casualties were the Polish climber Rafal Majka of Bora-Hansgrophe who, still recovering from illness, shipped another six minutes.
Froome recovered from losing his advanced position in the pack ahead of the climb to consolidate his lead at the top of the nascent general classification.
“If I had known at the beginning of the stage that this would have been the situation at the finish, I definitely would have signed to agree for that,” Froome said.
“I learned a lot about my rivals today: Esteban Chaves seems to be one of the strongest climbers. Obviously Alberto Contador did a good ride today. Tejay Van Garderen is still in the mix. Nicolas Roche is also up there so BMC have a couple options to play.
“I was surprised to see Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru lose a bit of time, and Romain Bardet. But it’s a long race and I imagine it will be a different race once we get in the high mountains.”
La Vuelta continues on Thursday with the 204.4km Stage 6 from Vila-Real to Sagunt – another undulating affair that features five categorised climbs ahead of a flat finish.