Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) won stage 6 of the Vuelta a España on a steep final climb to La Zubia.
After 167.1 kilometers of racing in southern Spain, all of the major GC contenders were ready to test each other on the Vuelta’s first summit finish.
An elite group of nine emerged in the final kilometer, with Valverde riding a brutal tempo. Teammate Nairo Quintana was tucked in behind, along with Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Chris Froome (Sky), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), and Fabio Aru (Astana).
Though Valverde seemed to be playing the domestique, between his efforts to set the pace early in the finale, and his work to chase an attack by Rodriguez, he turned out to be strongest in the end.
Froome showed his form with a surge in the final few hundred meters, but Valverde clearly had the freshest legs and the fastest kick. He fending off the Briton and his countrymen, Rodriguez and Contador, who finished second, third, and fourth, respectively. Quintana rounded out the top-five
“I was at the front, setting a hard rhythm, we cut it down to 10-11 guys,” said Valverde. “When Purito [Rodriguez] went, I followed, and I had the legs to finish it off. I am content, because the legs are feeling good. Nairo [Quintana] is still there, and there are many mountains to come, but who’s to say that when I am feeling good I cannot win a stage?”
Valverde reclaimed the overall lead, and now sits 15 seconds ahead of his teammate, Quintana. Contador is third, 18 seconds back.
“I’m extremely happy for Alejandro [Valverde],” said Quintana. “He’s a great rider. He did great work for me in the finale and still was able to win the stage — that’s something not many riders can do. I’m still lacking some pace. You could see in the final kilometer I’m not still in my top condition, but I hope to keep progressing in the next stages. The important thing for us is to keep the win within the team, no matter if it’s him or me, and for the time being, that goal is being fulfilled.”
Two for (the long breakaway) road
Lotto-Belisol’s Pim Ligthart again found his way into the breakway and was accompanied by Luis Mas Bonet (Caja Rural).
Several groups tried to bridge to the leaders, but were unsuccessful. For the second day in a row, the Vuelta had two riders off the front, and their gap soon increased north of four minutes.
The peloton treated the break lackadaisically. With 125 kilometers to go, the duo was 12:24 up the road. Then, it was nearly 15 minutes.
Garmin-Sharp took to the front to set pace, and by the 100km to go marker, the gap was 11:15.
After the day’s first two categorized climbs, Katusha moved to the front of the field to help pare down the gap. With 35 kilometers remaining, the break had a seven-minute advantage.
When the break reached the final intermediate sprint in Granada, their gap had fallen to 4:30.
With 10 kilometers left, the break was only 1:45 up the road.
As the gap went under one minute, Katusha was pulling hard on the front, setting up the finale for Rodriguez. Sky’s Peter Kennaugh also moved to the front to work on behalf of team leader Froome.
Lightard took a final dig, heading into the steep, 12 percent gradient at the base of the final climb to La Zubia.
The peloton seemed to ease off the accelerator as the climb began, waiting for someone to make a move.
Finally, with three kilometers left, the escape ended. Meanwhile, Cadel Evans (BMC) was dropped from the front group, as the favorites wound up the pace.
Valverde indicates his GC intentions
With two kilometers left, Valverde rode a fierce pace at the front of the group. Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin dangled off the back of the group, unable to keep pace.
Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman also found himself in difficulty with less than two kilometers left.
“It climbed for four kilometers and was straight uphill with an average gradient of 10 percent,” said Kelderman’s teammate, Laurens Ten Dam. “Valverde set the pace and really hurt me. I cursed him. I suffered a lot in the final three kilometers…”
Only nine riders remained in the front group with one kilometer to go.
Rodriguez initiated the hostilities with 600 meters to go, quickly gapping his companions.
Valverde jumped and was soon on Rodriguez’s wheel. Froome was chasing, a few bike lengths back, with Quintana and Contador on his wheel.
Froome accelerated, and pushed past Valverde and Rodriguez in the final meters, but the move came too soon.
Valverde kicked again and gapped the other contenders, riding to his first individual stage win at this year’s Vuelta, ahead of Froome. Contador was third, and Rodriguez could only manage fourth.
“I am content, because I was just hoping to be able to be in the top-10, and there I was at the front, fighting for the stage,” said Contador. “I am still not 100 percent, but today was encouraging. I’ve been suffering these first few days, but the legs are coming around. Today was important, and it’s a big boost for morale. I want to keep taking it day to day, because the hardest part of this Vuelta is still to come.”
The peloton will ride a 169km stage Friday, from Alhendín to Alcaudete. They’ll tackle a category 3 and a category 2 climb, and although the stage finishes on a climb, the final approach to the line is not categorized.