This article was originally published on Cyclingnews.com.
At the end of a day characterised by crosswinds, it was perhaps fitting that it was a Dutchman who raised his arms in triumph on the Calle Vitoria in Burgos, as Bauke Mollema (Belkin) claimed stage 17 of the Vuelta a España.
Mollema unfurled a classic finisseur’s move by zipping clear of a reduced peloton with 700 metres to go, and aided by the stalling tactics of teammate David Tanner behind, he held off the frustrated sprinting trio of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Max Richeze (Lampre-Merida) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) to take the stage honours.
Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) retains the red jersey and maintains his 28-second lead over Chris Horner (RadioShack-Leopard), although both men had to be vigilant in a tense finale as the Saxo-Tinkoff team of Nicolas Roche split the peloton with a fierce collective attack in the crosswinds with 28 kilometres to go.
Matteo Tosatto, Rafal Majka and Michael Mørkøv were all prominent in forcing the initial cracks in the peloton, and the fracture became fully defined when RadioShack’s Fabian Cancellara took over the reins. The aim was doubtless to test the legs and positioning of Nibali, who suffered on the final day in the Pyrenees on Monday, but the Sicilian appeared to have made good use of his rest day, and was pedalling comfortably in the heart of the leading group.
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, 3rd overall at 1:14, and Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez, 4th at 2:29, were also present and correct at the business end, and of the top ten riders in the general classification, only Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) missed the bus. The pair would pay a high price, conceding 1:30 to the other contenders by the time the race reached Burgos, with Roche moving up to 5th place overall.
Mindful of his precarious overall lead, Nibali sent Alessandro Vanotti and Paolo Tiralongo to the front to discourage attacks on the final, uncategorised climb with ten kilometres to go, where only Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) succeeded in slipping away. The Italian was duly caught with six kilometres remaining, and on the run-in to the finish, his Lampre team looked to set up the sprint for their fast man Richeze.
Underneath the red kite, however, Mollema sensed his opportunity, even though he explained afterwards that he had planned his seemingly off-the-cuff move before the stage had even begun. “To be honest, I was thinking all day about attacking in the last kilometre. I knew I'd have a chance because the bunch was going to be small because of the late climb," Mollema said.
“Then because of the echelons, the bunch was smaller again, and yet three of the four guys we have left in the race were up there, so we did a good job. I was suffering so much but I was thinking this is my chance and that I had to take it. The speed dropped a bit and I was able to move up, and then I attacked with one kilometre to go.”
Calm before the storm
The summit finishes at Pena Cabarga and the Angliru may be the marquee stages in the Vuelta’s final days, but with wind forecast, there was ample potential for splits in the peloton on the long, exposed run to Burgos on Thursday afternoon. The race was flagged off into a block headwind, however, and when Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) and Javier Aramendia (Caja Rural) clipped off the front in the opening three kilometres, the bunch was happy to leave them to it.
No strangers to spending hours on the front, Hansen and Aramendia struck up a steady working alliance that saw them build up a lead of seven minutes over the peloton with 130km to go, but that advantage began to tumble once Lampre-Merida started to set the tempo in the bunch in support of Max Richeze.
With 40 kilometres to go, the duo’s advantage had dropped to within two minutes, as both the pace and the tension in the peloton began to rise as it swung into a section of crosswind. A Movistar delegation lingered with intent just behind Lampre for over ten kilometres before Saxo-Tinkoff grasped the nettle with 28 kilometres to go, just as they had done at Saint-Amand-Montrond in July at the Tour de France.
In spite of significant reinforcements from one Fabian Cancellara, Saxo-Tinkoff were unable to discommode the overall leader, Vincenzo Nibali, nor his dauphins Chris Horner and Alejandro Valverde, but it was an impressive show of force from Roche’s teammates nonetheless. Roche et al received some reward for their efforts, too, when Pinot and Pozzovivo were caught off guard and lost 1:30 before the stage’s end, meaning that the Irishman moves up to 5th place overall.
“Surprising the field like this is not an easy job, especially because we did the same thing during the Tour. Mentally it was hard for the riders to stay focused and to stay together waiting for the right moment to hit the gas,” said Saxo-Tinkoff directeur sportif Fabrizio Guidi. “We're not done trying. We will use every opportunity there is to help Nico climb the GC.”
Following Cancellara’s impressive and sustained demonstration of his Worlds credentials (in what ought to be his last act of this Vuelta), Astana’s forcing on the final climb ensured that there were no further frissons among the overall contenders in the closing kilometres of the stage. After struggling at Formigal on Monday, Nibali looked distinctly more comfortable here, although he is aware that stiffer tests of his resolve are still to come. “Tomorrow, we start the decisive stages,” Valverde warned.