John Degenkolb's victory on stage 4 of the Vuelta a España was lent an additional sheen by the dominance of his sprint on Córdoba's grand Avenida Conde Vallellano, but it was really forged on the stiff Alto del Catorce Por Ciento, 25 kilometres north of the city.
On another sweltering day in Andalucia, the German fast man held tough as the pace ratcheted upwards on the day's principal difficulty, with rider after rider jettisoned unceremoniously out the back due to the combined effect of Sky and Movistar's pace-making.
As barometers of progress go, the second category climb seems a reliable one. On the Vuelta's last visit to these parts in 2011, Degenkolb, then a callow neo-professional, was among those who wilted on its 14 percent slopes. This time around, he crested the summit safely ensconced in the leading group and without dulling his incisive speed.
"I knew the final climb because I did it three years ago in my first Vuelta. I didn't manage to get over the climb then, so I knew that it was going to be very hard and the heat didn't make it any easier, but I'm obviously in better shape than three years ago," Degenkolb said in the small media truck near the finish line. "It makes me very happy to celebrate this victory because it's a classic finish in Córdoba, the Vuelta has been here a lot."
Once over the top, it was instantly apparent that Degenkolb and overall leader Michael Matthews would be the men to beat in a sprint, and the Giant-Shimano and Orica-GreenEdge teams were duly prominent in controlling the select front group.
After a move featuring Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was snuffed out with 10 kilometres to go, Degenkolb's teammates helped to peg back a brace of speculative efforts in the finale. In the sprint, he was emphatic in fending off the challenges of Vicente Reynes and Matthews.
"I was very lucky to have three teammates with me, including Chad Haga, who did an unbelievable job to bring back Quinziato and Hansen. I have to say 1,000 times thank you to my team," Degenkolb said. "Then, in the sprint, I followed Vicente Reynes' wheel and he did more or less the perfect lead-out for me."
It was Degenkolb's sixth stage victory at the Vuelta after claiming a quintet of wins on his second appearance in the race in 2012. In that most mountainous of Vueltas, he essentially won every bunch sprint that he contested, but he said that he was unsure if his 2014 condition is at the same level, at least for now.
"It's very hard to say because in the first couple of days it felt quite strange to race as my last race was the Tour de France," he said. "It's difficult to do two Grand Tours in a row, and I didn't do any races in between. I did a couple of training rides and a lot of recovery. I hope from day to day I'll get better, but it's hard to predict."
Adding to his array of Vuelta stage wins is a goal unto itself, but like many in the race, Degenkolb's is also here to prepare for the world championships road race in Ponferrada. Fourth in Valkenburg two years ago, Degenkolb has continued to develop ever since, adding victories at Paris-Tours and Gent-Wevelgem, as well as second place at Paris-Roubaix.
Degenkolb's ability to go the distance is clearly not in doubt and the well-balanced Ponferrada course is tipped by many to be suited to fast finishers who can last the pace on the climbs - the kind of rider who can win a stage of the Vuelta in Córdoba, in fact.
"To be honest, the only real thing that I know is that everybody who talks to me about it says that the parcours will suit me, but I still have to take a look at it," Degenkolb said. "I haven't seen either the profile or the parcours itself yet. I'll just try to get there in the best possible shape, at 100 percent."
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