A complicated finale with some segments of pave kept all the sprinters on their toes on stage 17 of the Vuelta a España but John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) managed to come through nonetheless for his fourth victory of the race.
Degenkolb weaved and surged as he overpowered Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek), whose very presence in the 41-rider sprint – not to mention the dramatically reduced size of the bunch, where Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) just hung on for 41st – spoke volumes about how unpredictable an affair the final dash along the A Coruña seafront had become.
There were other reasons for the chaotic sprint, though: a long stretch of cobbles just before the finale – which perhaps whetted Cancellara's appetite for the sprint – as well as the last remnants of a daylong breakaway that refused to throw in the towel until almost within sight of the finishing gantries.
"It was really not easy," Degenkolb said of his ninth Vuelta stage win in three years. "It was like a game of poker, you had to keep calm and make sure other guys panicked and began their sprint too early.
"With 500 metres there were still guys from the break out there, so some other guys started too early and when I did sprint, it was from 200 metres to go and in the right position."
Degenkolb said another factor in his favour was that he and his Giant-Shimano teammates – whom he thanked profusely – had ridden the last 10 kilometres of the course on the rest day, and could anticipate moments like the cobbled sections perfectly. On top of that, his leg injury from stage seven is "improving fast" and he has dispensed with the bandages and gauze he had worn for over ten days.
"I'm still not 100 percent, but I'm coming closer, which is good because I have a big goal coming up at the World Championships," Degenkolb said. Indeed, his fourth place at Valkenberg in 2012 – much more similar to Ponferrada than last year's climb-fest in Florence – bodes very well for the Spanish Mundiales. And his current form, too, strongly suggests he could do well at Paris-Bourges and Paris-Tours, both of which he won in 2013 and which will again be his last races of the season
Before that, though, Degenkolb has the green jersey and the possibility of taking it all the way to the finish at Santiago de Compostela on Sunday. Degenkolb does not rule out stage 19 ending in a sprint – "they said Cordoba [stage four] wouldn't be a sprint and look what happened" – but his chances of taking the points jersey, he says, are "not in my hands."
Coming from the man who won five stages of the Vuelta in 2012 but did not take the points competition, these are not idle words.
"Today was a very big step, I did get some more points," said Degenkolb, who now has 149 points to second-placed Alejandro Valverde's 114. "But I have to be realistic, it's not really in my hands.
"Now it all depends on how the upcoming days develop, how many points the GC guys get. If I win it, I will need a bit of luck. And if there are breakaways, it will be good for my chances, too."
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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