Roche in red after Quintana wins Stage 2 with stunning attack
Colombia’s Nairo Quintana attacked an elite group of six riders to win Stage 2 in Calpe ahead of Ireland’s Nicolas Roche, who took over the race lead on an enthralling day on La Vuelta.
Quintana (Movistar) and Roche (Team Sunweb) zipped clear with 20km remaining after the steep Cumbre del Sol climb at the conclusion of the 199.6km stage alongside Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First), Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) and Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott).
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But a blistering - and gloriously uncharacteristic - attack from Quintana, the 2016 champion, with 3km remaining on the flat approach to the finish proved the decisive moment of the day, the Colombian catching his fellow leaders unawares to lay down an early marker on the race.
Roche outsprinted Roglic for second place five seconds behind winner Quintana - and once the bonus seconds had been factored in, it emerged that the Irish veteran had a slender two-second advantage over Quintana in the new-look general classification.
Isolated from his Astana teammates, overnight race leader Miguel Angel Lopez of Colombia finished in a 13-man chasing group 37 seconds down on the stage winner to relinquish the red jersey he took after Astana won Saturday’s opening team time trial.
Five years after he wore the red jersey for one day in the 2013 Vuelta, Roche is back in the hot seat while Colombia’s Uran moved in third place at eight seconds. Spain’s Nieve is fourth at 22 seconds while Lopez dropped to fifth at 33 seconds.
The explosive finale - in particularly the stinging double-digit ramps of the Cumbre del Sol climb - took its toll on some of the race outsiders, with Team Ineos duo Wout Poels and Tao Geoghegan Hart crossing the line almost 10 minutes in arrears to leave their GC ambitions in tatters.
Having missed out on red, Quintana will sport the green points classification jersey while Lopez will don the white young rider’s jersey.
Part of the day’s four-man break, Spain’s Angel Madrazo (Burgos-BH) crested the first two summits of the race in pole position to secure the race’s first polka dot jersey.
Stage 2 - Benidorm to Calpe: As it happened
Madrazo and Belgium’s Sander Armée (Lotto Soudal) extricated themselves from the pack shortly after the start of the 199.6km stage ahead of the race’s first categorised climb.
Pursued by Spain’s Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and South African Willie Smit (Katusha-Alpecin), the two leaders quickly established a large gap over the Astana-led peloton on the Cat.2 Puerto de Confides.
Madrazo went over the top ahead of Armée in pole position before the chasers managed to bridge over after the subsequent descent.
With the quartet holding a maximum advantage of almost seven minutes, Grand Tour debutant Lastra was riding in the virtual red jersey - not that the status quo was ever going to remain intact on such a punchy finale.
The experienced Madrazo, a former Movistar rider making his fourth Vuelta appearance, picked up maximum points over the Cat.3 Alto de Benilloba to close in on the first polka dot jersey of the race.
After negotiating some rolling roads through the hills and olive groves of southeastern Spain, the leaders head back to the Costa Brava with a gap of just under two minutes on the pack.
With 40km remaining, Armée, a stage winner from 2017, took matters into his own hands with an attack after the riders had passed through the finish zone at Calpe.
The 33-year-old held on to win the intermediate sprint before being the last man of the break swallowed up by the pack with 31km remaining.
The decisive 3km climb of the Cat.2 Alto de Puig Llorenca - aka Cumbre del Sol - then blew the race apart as the gradient leapt up to 15% either ride of a momentary flat respite.
As numerous riders - including all the sprinters - found themselves blown off the back, a select group of around 25 riders formed on the front.
Valverde took the KOM points over the top of the climb ahead of Latour and New Zealand’s George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) to confirm compatriot Madrazo’s polka dots.
Latour made a move on the descent before an elite group of Quintana, Roglic, Uran, Aru, Nieve and Roche formed with 20km remaining.
The gap grew to 40 seconds on an uncategorised climb before the fast drop back down to the coast. And then, the unexpected happened: Quintana - renowned for his passivity and peaking in the final week - danced clear of his fellow escapees with panache.
Roche and Uran led the chase as Nieve almost came a cropper when his wheel locked going through a tight roundabout.
But it was too late. Quintana, who won Stage 18 of the Tour de France in Valloire last month, added a second Vuelta stage win to his name, soloing over the line with five seconds to play with over his pursuers.
With Roche winning the sprint behind to pick up six bonus seconds to Quintana’s 10 bonus seconds, out came the calculators to work out who would take over Lopez’s red jersey.
As things stood, that accolade went to 35-year-old Roche, who once again seems to have hit his best form in his favourite race of the year.
Coming up: Stage 3 - Cuidad del Juguete to Alicante (188km)
For a second day running, there’s no guaranteed rendez-vous for the sprinters as the peloton tackles some rolling roads and two lower-category climbs before a fast downhill run to Alicante.