Riding his debut Grand Tour at the sprightly age of 22, gutsy Gougeard proved the strongest of a large break of 24 riders to give his Ag2R-La Mondiale team their first win in the 70th edition of the Vuelta a España.
Gougeard soloed clear on the second of two categorised climbs 25 kilometres from the finish of the 186km stage from Medina del Campo.
The Frenchman increased his lead on a fast descent before powering up the cobbled ramparts outside Avila to cross the line 40 seconds ahead of Portugal's Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida).
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Belgium’s Maxime Montfort (Lotto Soudal) led a chasing quartet over the line a further four seconds back before the remaining riders of that large break arrived in dribs and drabs over a six-minute window.
From the moment the last escapee came home, the race favourites did not cross the line for another ten-and-a-half minutes - but the spectacle was well worth the wait.
Spanish national champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) whetted the appetite with a series of attacks on the fast descent to open up a small gap approaching the final rise to the line.
And when Dumoulin attacked the final cobbled challenge with Giant-Alpecin team-mates John Degenkolb and Lawson Craddock to reel in Valverde, Italian rival Aru (Astana) had no answer.
Giant-Alpecin's Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin adjusts his Red Jersey on the podium
Image credit: AFP
His elbow still bloodied from a crash early in the stage, Aru toiled on the cobbles to concede three seconds at the finish and see his deficit doubled ahead of Saturday’s all-important final stage in the mountains.
The final rider in the current top three on GC, Spanish veteran Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), was also caught out by Dumoulin’s late attack.
Leader of the race two days earlier going into the individual time trial in Burgos, Rodriguez came home in a group nine seconds down on Dumoulin to drop 1:24 behind the 24-year-old on GC.
1. ARU CRASH
The stage hierarchy was decided just six kilometres into proceedings when a large group of 24 riders opened up a gap that soon hit double figures. With 18 out of 22 teams involved – and no riders from the top ten out ahead – the peloton sat back in anticipation of the rolling terrain on the horizon for the second half of the stage.
Then came the curveball: a mini-pile up near the front of the peloton which took down Aru, the white jersey, and a number of his Astana team-mates. Giant-Alpecin also had riders on the floor, while race leader Dumoulin was caught up in the fall-out.
Twice Aru visited the medical car to have his wounds attended to – but both he and Dumoulin were back in the pack by the time the race passed through the finish town of Avila ahead of the rolling final out-and-back loop with 100km remaining.
2. MACHADO SPARKS GOUGEARD INTO ACTION
Little happened on the gentle Cat.3 Alto de Valdavia with the break passing as one, boasting an unassailable lead of 16 minutes over the pack with 80km remaining.
Tiago Machado (Katusha) shuffled the deck ahead of the Cat.2 Alto de la Paramera, the Portuguese riding clear with 45km remaining before being joined by Gougeard and Leonardo Duque (Team Colombia).
Duque was soon dropped on the climb as a chasing trio of Montfort, Amael Moinard (BMC) and Andrey Amador (Movistar) rode 40 seconds in arrears.
Machado made it a chasing quartet after he was dropped by Gougeard near the summit, which he crested with 30 seconds to play with ahead of the long 18km run into Avila.
3. VALVERDE AND DUMOULIN ROLL THE DICE
With Gougeard already showing the kind of skills on the cobbles that saw him win the 2011 Paris-Roubaix juniors, the race between the big favourites was animated from behind when Valverde followed up a series of failed attacks on the climb with a surge off the front on the descent.
The Spanish veteran opened up a small gap of seven seconds over a select pack that included all the GC favourites and – crucially for Dumoulin – a couple of Giant-Alpecin riders in Degenkolb and Craddock.
And it was this pair of lieutenants who set a blistering pace onto the cobbles as Valverde was reeled in and the irrepressible Dumoulin rode clear.
Dani Moreno (Katusha) was the only rider able to keep up with Dumoulin’s dig as Aru grappled behind with the help of compatriot Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
With Moreno on his back wheel, Dumoulin crossed the line 16:18 down on winner Gougeard but three potentially crucial seconds ahead of red jersey rival Aru, who limped home behind Pozzovivo after a day that proved both psychologically and physically damaging.
COMING UP: Saturday’s 176km stage 20 from San Lorenzo De El Escorial to Cercedilla features four back-to-back Cat.1 climbs ahead of a fast downhill run to the finish, where Dumoulin will discover whether or not six seconds is enough to see him secure the fabled red jersey.
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