This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
Alexandre Geniez (FDJ.fr) won the queen stage of the Vuelta a Espana, riding alone to the mountaintop finish at Peyragudes in France. He was part of a large group which got away early on the stage, and along the way dropped all his companions.
Second place went to Michele Scarponi (Lampre-Merida), with Nicolas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff) holding on for third after attacking his GC rivals on the Port de Bales climb.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) again defended his overall lead with apparent ease. Chris Horner (RadioShack Leopard) is still second at 50 seconds, with Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) third at 1:42.
While Geniez took a well deserved win, the true race was that within the favourites' group. Roche had jumped early in an attempt to make up lost time. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Nibali and Horner all kept close watch on one another, every now and then pulling ahead or chasing to make their mark, with Domenico Pozzovivo dangling at the back. In the end, the all crossed the finish line together, only 15 second behind Roche. Nibali made a point of leading the group into the finish.
It was a breakthrough win for 25-year-old Geniez, whose only previous pro win was a stage at the Tour of Austria in 2011. The crowds at the French ski resort joyously celebrated their homeland winner.
"This was such a good day, it was the best day for me. I was a bit lucky but racing in France made it a special day," Geniez said.
"It was good group of six riders in the break and everyone played the game and cooperated to take the break as far clear as possible. Then on the last climb we all rode at our own speed."
"The bunch came back but I still had some power to stay away. I didn't enjoy the last few kilometres because you never know if you are going to be caught or if you can be happy. Fortunately I can be happy."
Geniez had joined the 28-man strong group which got away about 23 km into the stage. He was one of the first to jump when the group fell apart on the second climb of the day, and a six-rider group formed which held together until the ascent of the third climb. He climbed to the top with Caja Rural's Andre Cardoso, dropping him on the descent and then tackling the final climb alone.
How it unfolded
The day started out dry, with only one rider not starting: Thomas Marczynski of Vacansoleil-DCM who became ill overnight.
The first of the day's four climbs came almost immediately. The Puerto del Canto (category 1) topped out at km 31.4 and featured a 24.4km long climb. Several riders and groups tried to get away on the ascent, but the first efforts were unsuccessful.
After 23km, Bartosz Huzarski (NetApp-Endura) took off and soon a 28-man-strong group formed. Nicolas Edet (Cofidis) took the mountain points, with Serge Pauwels (OPQS). Andre Cardoso (Caja Rural), Mikael Cherel (AG2R) and Warren Barguil (Argos-Shimano) behind him. However the peloton was not going to let a group get away again and held the escapees to within three minutes.
The rain started up again, although it was notably warmer than the day before. But things were bad enough to start the list of abandons, with Philippe Gilbert (BMC) calling it quits about 60 km into the day. Others followed with nine riders quitting the race during the stage.
The breakaway group was too large to be successful,and on the climb up the second mountain, Puerto de la Bonaigua, the group started coming apart. Barguil, Alexandre Geniez (FDJ) and Francis de Greef (Lotto Belisol) were the first to go on the attack and soon a new group formed as they were joined by Cherel, Cardoso and Edet.
This smaller group was more successful and soon had over two minutes on the chase group and a maximum of 8:03 on the peloton. Edet took the second mountain ranking as well, ahead of Cardoso, Cherel, Barguil and Geniez.
Astana got serious about the chase and that, combined with a long but gradual and easy descent, started bringing the gap down. The abandons continued along the way, with a total of eight by about km 140.
The first intermediate sprint of the day came on that descent, at km 139. De Greef won it, followed by Cardoso and Cherel. At that time the gaps were 2:55 to the large chase group and 5:30 to the peloton. Both of those gaps had dropped slightly by the time they crossed over into France, about 11km later.
Sun and warmer temperatures up to 27°C greeted the riders there, much to their relief. The first climb on French soil was the Col du Port de Bales. The category 1 climb is 19.2km long with an average gradient of 6.2%, but with sections up to 10.5%.
As the six leaders started up this third climb, they had 3:30 on the chasers and 4:40 on the field. The group of chasers had long since started falling apart and was getting smaller all the time. The lead group was also getting smaller. With 35km to go, Geniez and Cardoso were alone in the front, with the peloton at 5:18, with riders sprinkled along the way between.
The two leaders crossed over the top with a gap of 5:05 over their nearest chasers. Nicholas Roche (Saxo-Tinkoff), who had lost time and dropped in the GC in the previous stage, attacked out of the peloton in an attempt to work his way back up in the rankings. He crossed the mountain ranking about 20 seconds ahead of the field.
A solo effort
Geniez was the better descender, and the Frenchman took off on his own, with just over 27km to go. Roche was joined by teammate Oliver Zaugg, who dropped back from the break, and they slowly ground out a minute lead over the peloton. That didn't seem to particularly bother race leader Vincenzo Nibali or his Astana team. The Irish rider had come into the stage 4:06 down but it did park a chase by FDJ.fr to limit Pinot's losses.
With some 11 km to go, things perked up in the group of favourites, which by now was down to about 20 riders. Roche's action spurred the others into hopes of making up time, with the result that Astana firmly took control of the group. Nibali kept a close eye on his nearest rival, Horner.
With 10km to go, and on the final climb, Alejandro Valverde dared to move up, and that was too much for Nibali. He wanted to show who was in charge here and took off from the field, closely accompanied by Horner. Having proven himself, he fell back into the group.
Rigoberto Uran was the next go, but didn't get away. Joaquim Rodriguez quickly drew Horner and Nibali to his rear wheel as he moved forward. He wasn't about to give up, and attacked again, but his rivals were quick to mark him. In the meantime, Roche's lead over the group had dropped to half a minute. RadioShack moved to the head of the group, with Robert Kiserlovski leading and Horner on second wheel. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel) and Leo König (NetApp-Endura) had trouble keeping up.
UP ahead Geniez continued to power on in the sunshine, suffering alone on the 9% gradient sections, but gamely heading on with the goal of a stage win ahead of him. Sanchez recovered from whatever his problem was, and shot past the GC group. The alarm bells went off and the others moved up to rope him in again, and the Basque rider had trouble holding on the the group.
As Geniez passed under the 1km marker, Horner picked up the speed, dragging the rest of the group, now down to five, with him. Nibali moved back to the front, to maintain his mastery.
Geniez was able to happily cruise into the finish, with no rival anywhere in sight. Second place finally went to Lampre's Michele Scarponi about three minutes later, with Roche third at 3:05. The favourites came in together at 3:20.