Vuelta a Espana 2017
Froome struggled to find his rhythm on a climb he had predicted to be “brutal” – the Team Sky captain conceding 42 seconds to his main rival Vincenzo Nibali as the Italian Bahrain-Merida rider slashed the Briton’s lead to just one minute and 16 seconds in the battle for red.
Despite strong support from his Sky team-mates, Froome was unable to respond to a series of stinging attacks from the Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) and the Spaniard Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo).
As Froome pedalled squares on a road that amounted to little more than a narrow farming track, Contador danced up the final climb of the 180.5km stage in Cantabria in northern Spain to sweep up the remnants of the day’s breakaway with a trademark dig for victory.
But one man resisted the assault of the triple Vuelta winner. On what he later described as “the best day of my cycling life,” the Austrian Denifl – from the wildcard Aqua Blue Sport team – held on impressively for a maiden Grand Tour stage scalp by 28 seconds over Contador.
The wait for a first stage win for the host nation – and a last win for 34-year-old Contador before he retires – continues.
The likes of Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) and David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) all came home in dribs and drabs before Spaniard Mikel Nieve dragged his team leader Froome over the line, 1’46” in arrears.
One day after a dominant performance in the individual time trial saw Froome stretch his lead at the top of the general classification, the 32-year-old’s advantage has come down to a precarious 1’16” over Nibali with two unpredictable hilly stages and the final mountaintop finish on the infamous Alto de l’Angliru remaining.
Despite losing time to his rivals for red, Froome insisted that he “still felt good” and that Sky would “get the job done”.
“It’s still a good position to be in. I think we always knew today was going to be a though final and it certainly was. Especially, the weather conditions. But the team is doing a great job, I am feeling good and we look forward to the next three days. It was a typical Vuelta summit finish, it’s just the nature of the race. It’s the same for everyone. I don’t think anyone really enjoys gradients over 25%, but that’s how it is.”
Dutchman Kelderman retained his third place on GC at 2’13” – but lost ground on Zakarin, who moved within 12 seconds of the final place on the podium.
In his final race as a professional, Contador retained his fifth place but cut his deficit to Froome to 3’34” to keep alive his own hopes alive a podium finish in Madrid on Sunday.
Denifl was part of an early three-man move alongside the Italian Alessandro De Marchi (BMC) and Spain’s Daniel Moreno (Movistar) that emerged from the pack after a tense opening 10 kilometres into strong headwinds.
The Dane Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott) joined the leaders before Italy’s Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) and France’s Stage 8 winner Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) successfully bridged over after a 20km-long chase.
Once a sextet, the break quickly established a maximum lead of over nine minutes before the Astana team of Lopez were joined on the front by Majka’s Bora-Hansgrohe team-mates to reduce the deficit by five minutes ahead of the first of three categorised climbs.
Villella took maximum points over the Cat.2 Portillo de Lunada to extend his lead in the polka dot jersey competition by five points as the riders entered the dense cloud that engulfed them for much of the treacherous descent.
With the visibility low and the roads wet, Villella took his foot off the gas and was first of the escapees to be caught by the pack with 35km remaining. Majka was one of many riders to be distanced on the descent but the Polish Stage 14 winner was paced back before the Cat.1 Puerto de Alisas.
Orica-Scott tried their luck with a failed double attack from Estaban Chaves and Adam Yates before Jack Haig went near the summit to join forces with Cort, who had been tailed off by the break.
Denifl took the points over the top in a leading quartet that carried an advantage of just over a minute ahead of the race’s first ever venture up the Los Machucos climb.
It was Denifl who edged clear on the early slopes of the 7.2km climb with Moreno, the Spanish veteran, in pursuit. Behind, an early attack from Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) was called to heel by his compatriot Lopez, who zipped clear of the favourites in pursuit of a third stage win.
But Contador then made his move with 6km remaining – dancing clear on the 28% maximum gradient of the taxing climb, just as Froome faltered behind.
With Wout Poels, Nieve and Italians Diego Rosa and Gianni Moscon in support, Froome rallied as his rivals rode clear – the quadruple Tour de France champion clearly suffering from his exploits from the previous day’s time trial.
Contador picked off the remnants of the break one by one to move within 30 seconds of Denifl with 2km remaining. But the 29-year-old Austrian kept his cool and was able to solo to victory on the trickiest of the race’s many summit finishes so far.
Denifl, who dedicated his unlikely win to his girlfriend and their young baby, said he was “over the moon” with his triumph.
“I had super, super legs today. I waited all La Vuelta for that day. I paced myself until today and I went all in. It’s just amazing for the team, for Aqua Blue. It’s our first Grand Tour and we win a stage… I’m over the Moon! You always have to believe you’ll win. I just kept on pushing. The climb was perfect for me. There were bits of flat to recover. Now I’ve won a stage at La Vuelta… It’s amazing. It’s the best day of my cycling life.”
La Vuelta continues on Thursday with the interminably up-and-down Stage 18 from Suances to Santo Toribio de Liebana – a rolling ride that features four lower-category climbs in the final third, including the short final rise to the line.