Vuelta a Espana 2017
Italy’s Nibali, the 2010 Vuelta champion of the Bahrain Merida team, proved the strongest of a select nine-man group to secure the second Vuelta stage win of his career ahead of Spaniard David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) and Team Sky’s Froome.
Froome’s four bonus seconds for his third place – plus, crucially, the two canny bonus seconds he picked up in the intermediate sprint ahead of the last of three climbs – were enough to see the British rider to take over the race lead.
The four-time Tour de France champion – three times a runner-up but never a winner of the Spanish stage race – now leads De la Cruz by two seconds in the battle for the red jersey, with BMC duo Nicolas Roche and Tejay Van Garderen also two seconds adrift.
The 158.5-kilometre stage from Prades in France to Andorra la Vella looked to be brewing into a four-way battle between Froome, Colombian Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott), Frenchman Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Italian national champion Fabio Aru (Astana).
But the leading quartet was caught by five chasers – Nibali, De la Cruz, Ireland’s Roche, American Van Garderen and Italian Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale) – inside the final kilometre.
In a nail-biting finale to the first major GC showdown, it was Nibali who had most left in the tank – the Sicilian raising his hand to his head to emulate a shark’s fin as he crossed the line.
The big loser of the day was the triple Vuelta champion Alberto Contador of Trek-Segafredo, who conceded 2’33” to his rivals. The Spanish veteran was unable to respond to Froome’s decisive attack on the Alto de la Comella inside the final 10km and faced a big battle to limit his losses.
British twins Adam and Simon Yates (both Orica-Scott) conceded 25 seconds and 29 seconds respectively, with the likes of Louis Meintjes (UAE Team Emirates), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) all among the losers – but none as comprehensively so as Contador.
Just three days into the 72nd edition of the race and the riders faced the first major test with two Cat.1 climbs either side of a foray into Spain as the race left French soil en route to a thrilling finish in Andorra.
A break of eight riders formed on the Col de la Perche, which the combative Belgian Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) crested in pole position ahead of the Italian Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac).
The gap stretched out to five minutes as the Quick-Step Floors team-mates of overnight leader Yves Lampaert seemed content to let the break take over the reins of the race.
A long stretch along the valley of the river Segre saw the gap come down in the heat of the day – prompting Axel Domont, one of two Ag2R-La Mondiale riders in the break, to attack with 55km remaining ahead of the second climb.
Domont’s time ahead was limited – the Frenchman handing over the baton to compatriot and team-mate Alexandre Geniez, who edged clear with Villella and the Uruguayan Fabricio Ferrari on the Coll de la Rabassa once the race had crossed into Andorra.
Heavy pace-setting from Team Sky saw the peloton whittled down and the remnants of the break – De Gendt, Domont, Przemyslaw Niemiec (UAE Team Emirates), Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) and Fernando Orjuela (Manzana Postobon) – quickly swallowed up.
Despite Sky’s tempo, Spain’s Antonio Pedrero (Movistar) and UAE Team Emirates duo Darwin Atapuma and Rui Costa were able to ride clear in pursuit of the leaders.
But by the time the riders crested the summit Atapuma and Costa were pegged back – with Geniez and Villella out ahead with just 10 seconds to spare and 28km still remaining. The two leaders sat up, with Villella’s two second-places over both summits enough to give the Italian the lead in the blue polka dot jersey competition.
Colombian Atapuma gingerly set the pace on the descent – almost coming a cropper on one tight bend – before Sky took over the reins at the intermediate sprint, which saw Diego Rosa lead out Froome in a one-two: the two bonus seconds trousered by Froome proving the difference at the end of the day.
The race blew apart on the Alto de la Comella with 10km remaining as Sky set a fast tempo through Gianni Moscon and Mikel Nieve ahead of a big acceleration by Froome. With Contador among the raft of riders to be dropped, Chaves was the only man who could stick with Froome’s frenetic tempo.
The two riders crossed the summit with a small gap over Bardet and Aru, who had extricated themselves from a chasing group on the second-category climb.
But the 4km descent to the finish saw both duos come back together – and despite a big kick by Froome going under the flamme rouge, the Nibali chasing group managed to bridge over with five-hundred metres to spare.
Nibali, third in May’s Giro d’Italia, proved the strongest – but Froome’s sprint for third place saw the Briton pick up another four bonus seconds and move into the race lead.
Although he has three times finished runner-up on the Vuelta, this is the first time Froome has worn the red jersey since a solitary day in red during the 2011 Vuelta – where he eventually missed out on the win by just 13 seconds to Spaniard Juan Jose Cobo.
“It’s been a long time since I had the red jersey. It feels amazing to put it back on,” Froome said.
“To be in this position is something I’ve thought about for a long time and I worked really hard after the Tour. It’s going to be really hard to keep it until the end, especially with the time bonuses out there. It’s only two seconds to the next group of riders. It’s still really close. I don’t expect to keep it till the end but I’m certainly going to fight for it.”
The Vuelta continues on Tuesday with the 198.2km Stage 4 from Escaldes-Engordany to Tarragona, which includes one Cat.3 climb but should reopen the door for the sprinters.