As the day unravelled Contador targeted an early downhill section and executed a plan to devastating effect testing the wherewithal of all those around him. A plan that also suited Quintana who on Saturday had tried – halfheartedly - it has to be said – to shake off the Froome powerhouse and extend his 54 second margin. Knowing the English cyclist is always keen to win a stage at a grand tour event and achieving that on Stage 11 at Pena Cabarga. But also beating Quintana in the process as both engaged in battle in the first weekend. A week later though Froome had dropped three minutes and thirty-seven seconds as the Contador - Quintana breakaway reshaped the general classification. With an unusual sight - it has to be said - of seeing Team Sky in such disarray. So no doubt there was much restless sleep into Monday morning when the true damage may look irreversible.
It was stage which left bizarrely left Froome isolated in a chasing group with only teammate David Lopez for company after his team were stuck in the peloton - tired from yesterday’s exertions perhaps. Any reduction in time loss made better thanks to Orica-Bike Exchange riders - who did him some favours - followed by an Astana trio and then BMC Racing. Without them Froome was marooned and helpless without the usual team Sky reinforcements surrounding him. Rarely ever seen so critical have they become to the Wiggins and Froome victories over the years in France during the summer. Chris Froome never without Richie Porte the year of his first win. Or last year with Geraint Thomas everywhere.
On the steep climb in Northern Navarra all the cyclists were exposed to the real physics of nature and the breakaway saw three of them still racing for the finish line together on the narrowest sections with a kilometre to go. Then as Contador got burned off, Quintana kept the pace to the top with Gianluca Brambilla of Etixx-Quick-Step in his slipstream fighting to grab the stage. An exhausted Contador fourth having consumed much energy driving the initial breakaway and knowing he would struggle for the last sector if there were a handful of riders still left in contention. A result though which leaves him in fourth, by seconds, and now within reach of a possible third place podium. A fight he must take on with Colombian Esteban Chabes. The red Jersey now out of reach for another year. But even a third place seemingly impossible a week ago with his injured legs after a fall.
Nairo Quintana looks back to his best, something which eluded him in France during July. His strength contrasting with a lost looking Froome who almost seemed human such was the exhaustion – and frustration – etched on his face. For that reason, the stage was a classic and the riders wearing their courage, instinct and heart on their sleeves. A segment which left little need for race directors and radio chats as the leaders fought the conditions and heat to the maximum. An excitement that Team Sky have strangled from many of the Tour de France stages many of which have become almost chess like. With race strategy run too much from the car seat rather than the bike saddle. Cyclists bombarded with instructions rather the old way where you raced as you felt and invented your own stage tactics with ore cunning.
As the Tour at times is monotonous La Vuelta is the opposite and with Team Sky perhaps less focused the race has opened up/ With all the Spanish cyclists also desperate to win stages and catch the eye. Indeed, at different points on Sunday TV viewers saw the strength of Alejandro Valverde, energy of Dani Navarro, and diligence of Jonathan Castroviejo. All of which makes for a vastly more exciting stages and now made even more so by the result of Stage 15 in Northern Spain. Aided by stunning scenery and the abnormal heatwave which saw the riders battling 37C on Sunday. But few will be taking anything for granted going into the 158 km Stage 16 on Monday that heads down to the east coast for the week before arriving in Madrid.
Last Sunday Froome spoke to no media straight after the stage and will no doubt do his talking on the bike over the coming days. Perhaps after Tuesday’s rest day and ahead of the time trial as the Vuelta makes it way down from the mountains of Aragon and down to a flat stage finish on Monday, after a one point 3rd category climb – the long downhill descent to Vinaroz offering a chance for escapees to make their mark. All the leader’s intent on recovery from yesterday when some rest might be the order of the day. Contador and Quintana happy with their efforts having rearranged the leaderboard more favourably. With Quintana now in sight of a Vuelta title unless Team Sky can reverse matters
Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford also spoke with ITV Sport after the stage, explaining that Movistar and Tinkoff had played their cards to perfection and reaped the benefits.
"Sometimes you have to take your hat off to people and just say, 'well done,'" Brailsford added. "That was a great move and it paid off for Nairo and Alberto.
"We just have to sit down and look at it and keep on going. Sometimes in sport you take a punch in the face, turn around sit yourself down and say right, there six days of racing left, we're still in the same position as we were this morning and we'll just keep on going," added Brailsford.
La Vuelta - General Classification
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