Vuelta a Espana 2017
In the sodden stage from Lorca to the barren moonscape of the Sierre de Los Filabres mountains in south-east Spain, Astana youngster Lopez rode clear of a bunch of race favourites near the summit of the final climb to the astronomical observatory at Calar Alto to take a maiden Grand Tour stage win in some style.
After appearing to struggle on the steeper ramps of the climb, Team Sky’s Froome rallied to pip Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) for second place and six vital bonus seconds.
Nibali – who put in a stinging attack inside the final two kilometres before being pegged back by Lopez – moved above the stuttering Colombian Estaban Chaves (Orica-Scott) and into second place in the general classification, 1’16” down on Froome.
Dutchman Wilco Kelderman of Team Sunweb rode with the finest and put in a dogged display to move into the top five on GC after finishing with a hint of a smile behind Froome and Nibali, 14 seconds down on stage winner Lopez.
But it was a day of apples and oranges for Astana, who saw 23-year-old Lopez enter the top ten with his winning performance, but saw Italian national champion Fabio Aru struggle on the second of two monster climbs to concede well over a minute in the battle for red.
Aru stays in seventh place on GC but is now the best part of three minutes behind the four-time Tour de France champion Froome, who is looking very much odds-on to become the first man in the modern era to win a Tour-Vuelta double.
Froome said: “I’m very happy with the outcomes from today. It was a very selective day for the GC. To finish second, I couldn’t ask for much more than that, other than stage victory, but when (Miguel Angel) Lopez went he was extremely strong. I figured for me the most important thing was to follow Vincenzo Nibali and stay with the favourites.
“Lopez was the most impressive today with his attack to win the stage, but otherwise I was more concentrated on staying with Nibali seeing that (Esteban) Chaves was already dropped and Alberto (Contador) was on the limit.”
Lashing rain and a significant drop in temperature greeted the riders onto the 187.5km stage with a metaphorical slap in the face – none more so than Italian veteran Dominico Pozzovivo of Ag2R-La Mondiale, who became the 20th rider to withdraw from the 72nd edition of the race.
A frantic opening hour saw numerous riders try their luck – but it was not until the 50th kilometre that a 14-man break formed under the instigation of Pozzovivo’s team-mate, the Frenchman Romain Bardet.
Third in last month’s Tour de France, Bardet was joined by Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Antonio Pedrero (Movistar), Lennard Hofstede (Sunweb), Simon Clarke (Cannondale-Drapac), Antwan Tolhoek (LottoNL-Jumbo), Matej Mohoric (UAE Team Emirates), Sander Armée (Lotto Soudal), Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain-Merida), Igor Anton (Dimension Data), David Arroyo (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Conor Dunne (Aqua Blue Sport) and Aldemar Reyes (Manzana Postobon).
The leaders made light work of the rain and quickly established a maximum advantage of five minutes before the Orica-Scott team of Chaves came to the front of the peloton to set a hefty pace ahead of the two climbs at the business end of the stage.
Irishman Dunne – the tallest rider in the peloton at a towering 6’8” – was the first of the escapees to be distanced as the break moved onto the Cat.1 Alto de Velefique with the gap down to just 1’15” over the peloton.
Team Sky came to the front to work for their man in red – but not before Froome’s fellow Briton Simon Yates kept to Orica’s script by zipping clear in pursuit of the splintering break.
Yates managed to bridge over to Visconti and then catch leaders Bardet and Armée – soon to be joined by Colombian Darwin Atapuma (UAE Team Emirates) who had also extricated himself from the pack.
Bardet picked up maximum points over the summit ahead of Atapuma before Armée and Visconti were dropped on the long succession of soggy switchbacks ahead of the final climb.
With the lead stretching out to almost three minutes on the pack, Yates was the first of the leaders to be distanced as Bardet rode clear with Atapuma on the 15.5km final climb of Calar Alto.
But both riders were swept up by a chasing group inside the final 10km after a series of accelerations by Nibali and Spanish veteran Alberto Contador (Trek Segafredo) split the pack into three distinct groups – with Aru and Chaves spearheading the respective second and third groups.
Froome was able to benefit by some expert pacing from Sky team-mates Mikel Nieve and Gianni Moscon before Nibali’s team-mate Franco Pellizotti came to the front and took over the reins.
Joining them in a 10-man leading group were Contador, Kelderman, Atapuma, Bardet, the Russian Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) and that man Lopez, who continued to ride with the favourites despite his Astana team leader Aru struggling further down the mountain.
After Pellizotti put in a strong acceleration with 3km remaining, Nieve and Bardet edged clear with Atapuma before Nibali put in the first significant attack – the Sicilian Stage 3 winner opening up a small but significant gap going into the mist.
Froome, Kelderman and Lopez managed to bridge over before the pint-sized Colombian danced clear ahead of the flamme rouge. The 23-year-old soon had an insurmountable lead and was able to savour the third but biggest win of his season when the road flattened out ahead of the finish.
Victory saw Lopez move from 15th to 10th on GC – 4’11” down on Froome – and piles the pressure on Aru, Astana’s designated leader, who now trails the red summit by 2’57”.
After Froome, Nibali and Kelderman crossed the line at 14 seconds, Bardet led home a chasing group containing Contador, Zakarin and Nieve some 31 seconds in arrears – with veteran Contador rising to ninth place.
Spaniard David De La Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) recovered from a bike change to finish behind Atapuma and move up to fourth on GC, 2’36” down and one second to the better of Kelderman.
Zakarin is sixth while the Canadian Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) drops to eighth after finishing just behind De La Cruz on the dramatic finale.
While Aru and Chaves finished 1’32” and 2’05” down respectively, the big losers of the day were BMC duo Tejay Van Garderen and Nicolas Roche, who both conceded their place in the top five – and indeed even dropped out of the top ten – after shipping 3’26” and 4’17” respectively.
La Vuelta continues on Thursday with the 160.1km Stage 12 from Motril which features two tough climbs ahead of a flat finish at Antequera.