It’s been a rough year for the Astana outfit. Locked all winter in a bitter battle to secure its WorldTour license, the team fell flat in its Tour de France defense in July. To add insult to injury, team captain Vincenzo Nibali was ejected from the Vuelta a España after being caught red-handed taking an illegal tow in stage 2.
On Wednesday, the team took its revenge, with Mikel Landa and Fabio Aru — the same pair that nearly derailed Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) at the Giro d’Italia — saving the day. Landa took an emotional breakaway victory in the Vuelta’s hardest stage while Aru confirmed his arrival to the elite by attacking out of the GC group to snag the red leader’s jersey.
Aru claimed a promising 27-second lead over Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), and 30 seconds ahead of overnight leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) in one of the most dramatic days of racing all season long.
“We’ve got a great team here at the Vuelta,” Aru gushed after receiving kisses from the podium girls. “We executed our plan perfectly, and our tactics were flawless.”
Flawless indeed. Astana slotted Landa into the day’s winning breakaway that took shape over the first of six spirit-breaking climbs across Andorra. If you listen to Landa, it was his call to ride for the victory, but Aru said it was part of the team’s plan to place the Basque climber, third overall in the Giro, in an early move.
With Landa up the road, luck turned Astana’s way when Tour winner Chris Froome (Sky) crashed heavily into a wooden traffic barrier in the opening 5km. The clearly hobbled Froome eventually chased back to the front, but Astana had power in numbers, with Luis León Sánchez, Alessandro Vanotti, and Diego Rosa drilling the front up the day’s hardest climb at the Gallina climb topping out at 99km. That popped Froome for good. Dario Cataldo then took huge pulls to splinter the main GC group, spitting out the Movistar duo of Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana.
Landa had a two-minute head-start at the base of the final climb, and soloed across the line to claim what could be his final victory in an Astana jersey. He is rumored to be headed to Team Sky next season.
“The last three kilometers were the hardest of my career,” said Landa, who won two stages at the Giro in May. “With 5km to go, I could see that it was not easy for them to reduce the differences, and I realized I could have a chance to win.”
Behind Landa, Astana had shredded the GC group, with Valverde and Quintana both losing minutes, and Froome all but eliminated, confirming that the Tour de France GC riders were suffering in this Vuelta. Only Rodríguez, who lives in Andorra and even helped design the stage, and Dumoulin, the ever-surprising Dutch rider, remained close.
Aru jumped with 8km to go, immediately putting Valverde into the red. Quintana gave chase with 7km to go, but he eventually faded. Rodríguez, with the help of Katusha teammate Dani Moreno, was the only GC contender to keep Aru within sight.
“All the domestiques were incredible today,” Aru said. “We are a very united team, and we’re very happy with the red jersey.”
The extraordinary performance puts Astana in the driver’s seat going into the Vuelta’s mountainous second half. The team’s collective strength all but reduced the Vuelta to a three-man race.
Fourth place through eighth are still within two minutes of Aru, but the challenges will come from the wily and experienced Rodríguez, who is desperate to win a grand tour before his career is over, and Dumoulin, who could take time against the climbers in the 39km time trial at Burgos in stage 17.
“Today showed that when we work together we are very strong,” Aru said. “With still 10 stages to go, the goal now is to defend the red jersey.”
The Vuelta now has two transition stages before riding into Asturias next weekend for three decisive climbing stages. Aru will be able to mark Rodríguez, and try to take more gains on Dumoulin. The others might start the fight for the remaining podium spots, or in the case of riders like Froome or Quintana, take aim for a stage victory to salvage something from the knockout blow that Astana delivered in Andorra.
“Hopefully Aru can make it to Madrid,” Landa said. “Aru made a big move in the GC today, and we hope there is more to come, and he can win this Vuelta.”