A surging attack by Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) with two kilometres to go enabled the Vuelta a Espana leader slightly open his overall advantage on Fabio Aru (Astana) from three seconds to six seconds, with one major mountain stage left to race.
Dumoulin’s stage started with a narrow escape, when both he and Aru were caught up in a crash after 70 kilometres along with other riders including Dumoulin’s teammate John Degenkolb. TV images showed Aru, who suffered cuts and bruises, quickly remounting, and although Dumoulin also came off, he was not hurt.
The big news, however, was Dumoulin taking another three seconds on Aru after he blasted away on the cobbled sector leading into the finish city of Avila. Aru did his utmost to follow, but was unable to prevent the Dutchman from gaining a little more time. The Vuelta leader has already proven that even if he has to be on the defensive on the high mountain stages he can win against rivals of the caliber of Chris Froome on steep uphill finishes like Cumbre del Sol in the first week on the Vuelta. And on third week medium-mountain stages like Friday’s, Dumoulin has now shown that he is both willing and able to turn the tables on his rivals, no matter how small the margin.
After closing down every attack by Aru on Thursday - and even briefly going on the attack at the end of the stage - then gaining a little time on Friday, Dumoulin was asked after stage 19 if, at least on a psychological level, he felt he was out-duelling the Italian.
“I’m not interested in the mental combat. I’m more busy at gaining time,” Dumoulin responded. “I said this morning if there was a chance I would take it and this last climb was a real power finish. There was a chance. I don’t know if those three seconds will be useful.”
Should he have no more than that slender advantage prior to Sunday’s last, usually largely ceremonial stage, into Madrid, hypothetically the battle for the lead could go down to the Vuelta's final dash up the Paseo de la Castellana boulevard in central Madrid on Sunday evening. “I hope I will have won [by Saturday],” Dumoulin said, “but I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes open on Sunday.”
As for his own accident, Dumoulin said “I was on Degenkolb’s wheel when the crash happened, I went into the ditch and my bike was broken. But it wasn’t that scary.” He spoke briefly with Aru afterwards and asked his rival if he was OK, and, as Dumoulin said with a chuckle, “of course, he said he was.”
The Dutchman was satisfied with how Giant-Alpecin had raced during the stage, showing strongly until a third of the way up the final classified climb of La Paramera when Movistar began shredding the field. Even so, two of his teammates, Lawson Craddock and Degenkolb, regained positions on the fast descent and were present to support their leader in the finale.
“We’ve got a stronger team than you might think, we did very well today,” Degenkolb commented. “It cost us a bit of energy but we had Degenkolb and Craddock there at the end, and they led me out for that last attack of mine. No other team could do that. We can be very satisfied with today.”
Willing to talk with Dutch reporters at length as he warmed down on the rollers behind the winner’s podium, Dumoulin’s satisfaction and lengthy post-stage conferences contrasted radically with Aru’s rapid disappearance from the Vuelta finish area as he sought to check up on his injuries.
Aru’s team reported the crash had happened when riders skidded on a patch of gravel, but Aru did not want to talk to reporters at the finish, weaving his way rapidly to an Astana passenger transit van and clambering inside without a word.
Sitting in the front seat with what appeared to be small cuts and bruises to both his elbows as well as his lower body, Aru steadfastly ignored the cloud of reporters and well-wishers who clustered on both sides of the van. After five minutes, the driver started up the motor and, after a tricky piece of negotiating his way out of the line of traffic - helped by some journalists - he finally managed to drive away.
“La Morcuera! La Morcuera!” two Spanish fans yelled at Aru as the van left, referring to the hardest climb of Saturday’s final mountain stage and where he could have his last chance to attack the Dutchman. But for now, Aru’s thoughts were surely on getting as much rest as possible after a stage where Dumoulin’s hold on the red leader’s jersey tightened again.
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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