Vuelta a Espana 2017
After tasting Giro d’Italia success on the Passo dello Stelvio and a Tour de France triumph on Mont Ventoux, Lotto Soudal’s De Gendt added a maiden Vuelta victory after proving the strongest in thrilling finale to an undulating Stage 19 on Friday.
De Gendt fought back with a chasing group of five riders after being distanced on the fourth and final categorised climb before surging past Colombian Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) and local boy Ivan Garcia (Bahrain Merida) to win the 149.7km stage by two bike lengths.
Victory meant De Gendt became the 90th man in history to win a stage in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours. The 30-year-old becomes the 15th current rider to achieve the feat – and the third to do so during the 72nd edition of La Vuelta following Italians Vincenzo Nibali and Matteo Trentin.
Coming one day after compatriot and team-mate Sander Armee won Stage 18, De Gendt gave his Belgian Lotto Soudal team their fourth scalp of the race following an earlier brace by Poland’s Tomasz Marcyzinski.
In the battle for red, Team Sky fronted a reduced peloton as it crossed the line more than 12 minutes in arrears, with race leader Froome retaining his 1’37” lead over Nibali (Bahrain Merida) in the general classification.
Dutchman Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) retained his third place at 2’17” with Russia’s Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) a further 12 seconds back in fourth.
A trademark attack by Spanish veteran Contador on the final climb saw the Trek-Segafredo animator open up a minute’s gap going over the summit with 15km remaining. But despite linking up with team-mate Edward Theuns – part of the initial 27-man break – Contador was unable to hold the advantage and the duo were swept up inside the final two kilometres.
Afterwards, Froome congratulated his big rival for his attempt to blow the race apart.
“Contador certainly can’t be blamed for the lack of trying. In every stage, he’s been attacking and today was exactly the same. For me, it was about trying to save as much energy as possible for tomorrow and get through the day without much issues, so I’m happy to let the day behind us and focus on tomorrow. Angliru is going to be an explosive and short stage, so we can expect fireworks from the start. There’s some though climbs before the Angliru. Everybody is tired at this point of the race, but I feel good.”
Irishman Nico Roche (BMC) moved up to 15th place in the general classification after starring in the break and pushing for the win. Roche and Portugal’s Rui Costa (UAE Team Emirates) joined Frenchman Romain Bardet (AG2R-La Mondiale) and Spaniard Garcia inside the final 10km.
The leading quartet were then joined by De Gendt and four others with 3.5km remaining ahead of a fiercely-contested sprint. Roche went too early before Vuelta debutant Garcia powered through in search of a win in front of his hometown of Gijon.
Yet De Gendt used his experience and superior kick to time his surge to the line with perfection – zipping past Garcia and holding off Pantano to take his first win since the opening day of June’s Criterium du Dauphine.
After a feisty opening half an hour, a break of 19 riders went clear of the pack with a chasing group forming around Bardet behind. Italy’s Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) took the maximum 10 points over the Cat.1 Alto de la Colladona to extend his lead in the polka dot jersey standings as the break saw its advantage balloon to 12 minutes.
Bardet and seven chasers joined the party on the descent just as the Belgian Theuns zipped clear for a little foray up the road. Villella led the chase to ensure another three points over the summit of the Alto de Sto. Emiliano – increasing his lead over the Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) to 20 points with 35 points left to fight for on Saturday.
As the advantage pushed 18 minutes, Astana send men to the front of the peloton to protect the top 10 interests of Lopez and Fabio Aru – threatened by the presence of Roche in the break.
A shake-up happened on the third climb as Bardet and De Gendt upped the tempo to split the leaders into numerous groups. But 21 riders were back together by the time Trentin cleaned up at the intermediate sprint with 35km remaining – to keep up his drive for the green points jersey.
Exploiting the subsequent lull, youngster Garcia attacked on the rolling roads in a bid to end Spain’s stage drought and become a winner in his maiden Grand Tour.
The 21-year-old Bahrain Merida domestique opened up a gap of one minute ahead of the fourth climb, the Alto de Saint Martin de Huerces, as Bardet led the chase behind.
Garcia’s gap was just five seconds going over the summit and he joined forces with Bardet on the fast descent before Roche and the former world champion Costa bridged over with 9km remaining.
Aware of the De Gendt chasing group closing in, Roche went for broke with 7km remaining before Bardet also tried his luck with 4km to go. Both moves came to nothing as De Gendt and Pantano returned to the frame alongside Bob Jungels (Quick-Step Floors), Floris de Tier (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Dani Navarro (Cofidis).
Roche threw the dice once again approaching the final kilometre to open up a gap with Navarro and De Gendt – and after it came back under the flamme rouge, it was the indefatigable Irishman who mustered the strength to lead out the sprint.
But De Gendt proved the strongest – and while Gijon may not have as much mythical kudos as the Stelvio or Ventoux, it proved a welcome setting for the Belgian to put the final piece in his Grand Tour jigsaw.
De Gendt said he was “surprised” to complete his full-house of wins during a race in which he had felt below par after a difficult Tour de France, but admitted that it was “the cherry on top of my career”.
“I was at the front when we started [the stage]. Before the race, we thought that a big group would probably go with the KOM jersey and the green jersey. Those two guys, Trentin and Villella, started attacking. I know I’m not slow in the sprints… So I was in a perfect position. I had to do the sprint of my life, just go full until the finish. I’m really happy that I can finish it off. I wasn’t feeling well in the first week. The second week was okay. I was doing better in the third week. The final climb was too steep for me but we had a good group with Bob Jungels and we pulled very hard to get back. It was perfect for me. I didn’t expect it very much but I like surprises.”
Behind, the peloton finally sprang into life when Contador attacked on the final climb to open up a significant gap. Zakarin tried his best to bridge over but was caught before the summit. The Spaniard was helped by his team-mate Theuns, who had sat up from the break, but the duo was unable to take the time needed by Contador to move closer to a podium finish on his final race as a professional.
Contador and Froome appeared to shake hands after the Trek rider’s latest swashbuckling attack was nullified by the Sky machine inside the closing kilometres.
Despite his best efforts, Contador stayed fifth on GC at 3’34” with only Saturday’s Stage 20 – and the all-important ascent of Alto de l’Angliru – left for the Spaniard to write his perfect farewell script. As for Froome, the 32-year-old Briton will have to keep it together on the double-digit slopes in his bid to become the first man in the modern era to win a Tour-Vuelta double.