Fuglsang denies Geoghegan Hart as Roglic extends lead on La Cubilla
Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang soloed to a maiden Grand Tour stage win ahead of Britain's Tao Geoghegan Hart on the mist-capped Alto de la Cubilla as Slovenia’s Primoz Roglic extended his overall lead after distancing the world champion Alejandro Valverde on the long final climb in Stage 16 of La Vuelta.
Astana’s Fuglsang beat Team Ineos tyro Geoghegan Hart by 22 seconds after proving the strongest of a stellar break on the 144.4km mountainous stage through the Asturias mountains.
Fuglsang’s first victory in his 14th Grand Tour capped a well-crafted move by Astana, whose veteran Spaniard Luis Leon Sanchez took third place ahead of another hot British prospect, James Knox of Deceuninck-QuickStep.
Astana also looked to have their say in the battle for red, with the remaining members of the team setting up the Colombian Miguel Angel Lopez for an attack on the decisive climb.
But Spanish veteran Valverde (Movistar) was distanced a few kilometres from the summit and now trails Jumbo Visma’s Roglic by 2’48” ahead of Tuesday’s second rest day, with Pogacar and Lopez retaining their third and fourth places on GC while edging closer to the world champion.
A miserable day for the Spanish Movistar team was crowned by the ailing Colombian Nairo Quintana, who was dropped on La Cubilla to concede his fifth spot in the standings to Poland’s Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Knox’s strong showing from the break saw the 23-year-old rise six places to eleventh place, just over a minute off the top 10 with two summit finishes remaining.
But the day belonged to the 34-year-old Fuglsang, who belatedly added a Grand Tour scalp to a season haul that also includes victories in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine.
“It feels great,” said Fuglsang, shivering in the cold at the finish. “It was one of my goals coming here - but it’s one thing to have a goal, another to fulfil it. I’m super happy to have this win.”
Stage 16: Pravia to Alto de la Cubilla - how it happened
Another day in the achingly beautiful Asturias region of northern Spain spirited the riders over two first-category climbs ahead of the sixth summit finish of the race.
With fifty kilometres of false flat ahead of the first ascent, the battle to make the break was typically feisty as numerous attempts were thwarted by riders thinking less about pawns, more about kings and queens.
Ukraine’s Mark Padun was clearly motivated, the Bahrain Merida rider getting in an early four-man move which never got more than 20 seconds on the pack, before firing up another quartet.
Padun was joined by Deceuninck-QuickStep duo Knox and Remi Cavagna, with the Frenchman Romain Siegle (Groupama-FDJ) making up the numbers.
Behind there was an almighty tussle as numerous chase groups fought tooth and nail before amassing ahead of the Puerto de San Lorenzo.
With the Jumbo-led peloton eventually giving their grace to the move and sitting up, a large leading group of 21 riders formed on the climb - a stellar collective including Astana duo Fuglsang and Sanchez, Belgian breakaway specialist Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal) and Briton Geoghegan Hart (Team Ineos).
The last riders to join the party were Italy’s Brambilla (Trek-Segafredo) and the Spaniard Mikel Bizkarra (Euskadi-Murias), who managed to bridge over just as Stage 5 winner Angel Madrazo (Burgos-BH) and Geoffrey Bouchard (Ag2R-La Mondiale) resumed their polka-dot battle.
It was the Frenchman Bouchard who got the better of the ailing Spaniard over the summit, moving ahead of Madrazo in the virtual KoM standings.
The pair pulled away on the descent but were rejoined by the other escapees by the time the second climb, the Alto de la Cobertoria, came along, with the peloton now trailing by five minutes.
A series of accelerations from Brambilla and Geoghegan Hart on the climb distanced Padun, Richeze and Arndt, before a further shake-up occurred when Bouchard and Madrazo prepared for their sprint to the summit.
The in-form Bouchard outkicked his rival to extend his virtual lead to 6pts going over the top, Madrazo all but certain to lose the polka dot jersey for the first time since taking the tunic in Stage 2.
Enjoying their power in numbers, QuickStep piled on the pressure on the descent with Knox riding clear. Bouchard, Siegle and Geoghegan Hart led the chase with Amanuel Ghebreizhabier (Team Dimension Data). When the Briton was reeled in, Belgian’s De Gendt and Gilbert zipped clear through the intermediate sprint with 30km remaining.
But once the race hit the 17.8km final climb of La Cubilla - known as the Asturian Galibier, on account of its sheer scale - the remaining 18 men of the break were back together, riding with a nine-minute advantage over the pack.
The decisive move came with 10km remaining when Spanish veteran Sanchez put in a dig to edge clear with teammate Fuglsang, the Italian Brambilla and British duo Geoghegan Hart and Knox.
Fuglsang and Brambilla went clear with 7km remaining, but when the Italian faltered, Geoghegan Hart rallied back into contention. Third place on Sunday’s Stage 15, the flame-haired Ineos climber came within 10 seconds of Fuglsang’s lead - but ultimately didn’t have enough gas in the tank to reel in the dependable Dane.
Fuglsang held on to win by 22 seconds, with Sanchez leading Knox home at 40 seconds and Brambilla completing the top five at 1’12”.
The surviving escapees arrived in dribs and drabs - with Bouchard taking 10th place and securing the polka dot jersey - before the impressive Pogacar led Lopez and Roglic over the line for 14th place just under six minutes in arrears.
After Astana had taken over the reins from Jumbo-Visma half-way up the climb, Lopez kept his part of the bargain with a series of sprightly attacks - the principal victims of which turned out to be Movistar’s two leaders.
Quintana, in green, was dropped at the first attempt, the 2016 champion eventually coming home 8’32” down in lowly 34th place. Valverde, in the rainbow stripes, fared a little better, but the length of the climb and the high pace caught up with the 39-year-old, who needed pacing from teammate Imanol Erviti - who had been in the initial break - to nurse him to the line, 23 seconds behind Roglic, Pogacar and Lopez.
Valverde retained his second place on GC but will now be looking over his shoulders as Pogacar moved within 54 seconds, with fourth place Lopez a further 17 seconds back.
Roglic consolidated his lead in both the red and green jersey classifications while Bouchard became only the second rider in the race to don the polka dot jersey, moving six points clear of Madrazo. The only ray of sunshine for Movistar came in their retention of the team classification over Astana. Plus ça change...
Coming up: Stage 17 - Aranda de Duero to Guadalajara
Following Tuesday’s much-needed second rest day, the race resumes with this rolling 219.6km stage which features no categorised climbs, but plenty of hills ahead of what may be only the fourth bunch sprint of the Vuelta so far.
Could Ireland’s Sam Bennett make it a hat-trick of wins for Bora-Hansgrohe?