Quintana beats Froome to Vuelta crown, Latour wins stage 20
Colombia’s Nairo Quintana withstood a number of attacks from Britain’s Chris Froome on the Alto di Aitana to retain the red jersey in a thrilling conclusion to stage 20 of the Vuelta a Espana, won from a break by the French youngster Pierre Latour, writes Felix Lowe.
Triple Tour de France champion Froome (Team Sky) sportingly applauded as he crossed the line two seconds behind Movistar’s Quintana after his rival put in one final acceleration on the home straight of the tenth – and last – summit finish of the race.
Quintana extended his lead over Froome to 1:23 ahead of Sunday’s processional stage into Madrid – putting him on the brink of beating his great rival for the very first time in one of cycling’s three-week major stage races.
The pulsating penultimate stage of the race – a 193km mountainous schlep featuring now fewer than five categorized climbs – also saw Colombian Esteban Chaves take back the final podium spot from Spaniard Alberto Contador. Italian Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) secured the green jersey while Spain’s Omar Fraile (Dimension Data) wrested the blue polka dot jersey from the shoulders of Frenchman Kenny Elissonde (FDJ).
Orica-BikeExchange’s Chaves attacked on the penultimate climb to pile the pressure on Contador, who had moved into third on GC less than 24 hours earlier with a strong performance in Friday’s individual time trial in Calpe – won convincingly by Froome.
The impressive Chaves finished the stage in ninth place – one place ahead of compatriot Quintana but more than a minute faster than Contador, whom he now leads by 13 seconds. Barring any misfortune, Chaves will secure his second podium finish in a Grand Tour this season on Sunday – following his runner-up spot behind Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali in May’s Giro d’Italia.
It will be the second time in the past two years that two Colombian riders have finished together on the podium of a Grand Tour.
As for Froome, the 30-year-old – who will rue the so-called “Ambush of Formigal” which saw him concede more than two minutes to Quintana in last Sunday’s stage 15 – will enter Madrid as a three-time Vuelta runner-up having missed out to Juan Jose Cobo in 2011 and Contador in 2014.
Quintana’s victory will be the 26-year-old’s second Grand Tour victory following his triumph in the 2014 Giro – which he won ahead of compatriot Rigoberto Uran. It has also seen the compact climber back to his best after he struggled to third place in July's Tour while riding a shadow of his usual self.
It was almost double delight for Colombia on Saturday after Darwin Atapuma (BMC) led a quite enthralling stage entering the final few hundred metres – only to be passed by a resurgent Latour (Ag2R-La Mondiale) within touching distance of the finish.
The 22-year-old Frenchman became the 13th first time Grand Tour stage winner of the 71st edition of the Vuelta – a race that will go down as one of the finest in recent history.
Pierre Latour wins stage 20 of the Vuelta a EspanaEurosport
Latour and Atapuma were part of a 15-man group that rode in pursuit of leading duo Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana) and Rudy Molard (Cofidis) – the last two survivors of an earlier break which was swallowed up on the second climb of the day.
Spanish veteran Sanchez and Frenchman Molard held a maximum lead of three minutes over their pursuers as the pack of main favourites dropped back to a huge 13 minutes in arrears after a frantic opening two hours to the stage.
The stellar chase group included former stage winners Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo), Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling), Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) and Valerio Conti (Lampre-Merida) – although the leading duo still held a two-minute advantage going onto the decisive 21km climb.
Also present in the chasing group was diminutive climber Elissonde, who attacked from the main pack on the third climb of the day in pursuit of the three points he needed to retain the blue polka dot jersey on his back. The French rider had shot himself in the foot on the first climb after attacking – and then cracking – to allow rival Fraile crest the summit in pole position and move two points clear in the mountains classification.
Chris Froome (Team Sky) finishes stage 20 of the 2016 Vuelta a EspanaEurosport
With Elissonde unable to add any more points to his tally over the remainder of the stage, Fraile secured the polka dot jersey for the second successive year by that slender two-point margin.
With the main pack trailing the leaders by a huge margin, Orica-BikeExchange upped the tempo to pave the way for an attack from their man Chaves, who bounded clear three kilometres from the summit of the Cat.2 Puerto de Tudons to open up an instant gap.
Chaves was then able to link up with team-mate Damien Howson, who dropped back from the break and paced his leader with utter dedication – not to mention disregard for his own wellbeing – until the foot of the final climb. By this point, Chaves had an advantage of two minutes over the main pack, including – most importantly – an isolated Contador.
Despite losing Spanish champion Jose Joaquin Rojas to a nasty fall earlier in the stage, Movistar had numbers in the pack while Froome relied on Sky team-mate Leopold Konig and – further up the road, in the break – David Lopez.
Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) set a fast tempo for Quintana to nullify any attacks from his rivals – and when Orica’s Simon Yates managed to get away, it was the American Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) who reeled in the young Briton to safeguard his place in the top five.
Konig managed to pave the way for Froome, who could rely on some pacing from Lopez once his series of attacks had dropped everyone bar Quintana. But it was not enough. The Colombian held on – and even dropped Froome in the closing moments to increase his lead by two seconds.
By now, the race for the stage had been won by Latour – who had staged a stunning comeback alongside Gesink, Frank and Atapuma, to reel in both leaders and blow the race wide open. Molard had been first to falter before Sanchez was also pegged back inside the final five kilometres after a brief chasing cameo from Conti.
It was Atapuma – who wore the red jersey for a number of stages in the opening week after finishing second behind Calmejane in stage four – who first caught and passed Sanchez, only for Frank and Latour to ride back on with 2.5km remaining.
Frank cracked first, the Swiss stage 17 winner caught by Felline as Latour and Atapuma traded blows further up the road. When Atapuma crested the summit with four-hundred metres remaining it looked like he was finally going to open up his Grand Tour stage account. But as the road flattened out, Latour rallied – passing his fellow escapee just metres from the line.
Sprinter Felline moved above Movistar duo Quintana and Valverde to secure the green green jersey thanks to an expert third place ahead of Frank and Gesink. Meanwhile, Belgian Bart de Clercq (Lotto Soudal) passed Molard and Calmejane for sixth before Chaves – looking completely empty – came home to snare, quite brilliantly, his ticket to the podium on Sunday.
There followed a brief pause before the red jersey of Quintana danced over the line, four minutes down on Latour but just ahead of Froome, who fittingly applauded the performance of the man who will on Sunday be crowned the 2016 Vuelta champion.