While Chris Froome (Sky) continued to rule the roost in the Vuelta a España on its first high mountain summit finish on Wednesday, one of the more interesting developments among his rivals was Bahrain-Merida's strong collective racing.
Bahrain-Merida leader Vincenzo Nibali had already launched one of his signature downhill attacks on Tuesday coming off the Collado Bermejo, and that was preceded by his impressive stage win in Andorra nine days ago.
Nibali's long GC game continued on stage 11, where he moved up to second overall on GC, but most impressive was Bahrain-Merida's performance on the Calar Alto where they drove hard at a point when Sky's control seemed briefly to waver. The team could represent a further challenge to Sky's dominance in the key climbing stages to come.
Nibali's teammate Giovanni Visconti was in the day long breakaway, and another, veteran Franco Pellizotti, put in much of the hard work when the headwinds were strongest at the top of Calar Alto. Nibali, finally, launched a second move near to the top of the climb, coming away with a third place on the stage and some significant gains overall that allow him to move into second place on GC, now 1:19 behind Froome in the standings.
"We are becoming better and better but it's still too early to judge something for sure," Bahrain-Merida sports director Goradz Stangelj told a small group of reporters at the finish.
"As we've seen Froome has a really strong team, it's very difficult to gain some time on him, but somebody needs to try. We looked for other teams to do something too, but that didn't happen, for sure the bad weather conditions had an effect on that."
Overall, though, he recognised "We tried to take control, and we had Visco' [Giovanni Visconti (Bahrain-Merida)] in the break. But he had to spend too much energy when Simon Yates (Orica-Scott) came across and he couldn't help very much.".
At the end of the day, in any case, this was a good day for the Bahrain-Merida squad and Nibali in particular. "[Esteban] Chaves (Orica-Scott) and [Fabio] Aru (Astana Pro Team) lost time. It's still too early to say what will happen in the race, but we had a good day today," he added.
"At the end of the day Sky are still in the lead and tomorrow [Thursday] they will control the race, it is a tricky stage but not hard. So we are looking at the stages further on."
The two crunch moments for Bahrain Merida that Stangelj is referring to will doubtless be the stage to La Pandera on Saturday, and then, above all, the short but very tough stage to Sierra Nevada on Sunday - on paper at least, the hardest climbing stage of the entire Vuelta.
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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