Chris Froome (Team Sky) reinforced his overall lead in the Vuelta a España's first summit finish with a slight gain, but more importantly, the Briton has once again shown that he is the strongest climber in the race.
In a repeat of the final installment of Sky's tactics in the ascents to Andorra on Monday, a devastating acceleration by Sky teammate Gianni Moscon left many of Froome's rivals reeling. Then it was up to the Briton himself to deliver two surging attacks to see how many of the Froome's fellow contenders could handle the pace.
This time, once again, Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) showed he could keep Froome company, but beyond that only Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) and Canadian Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) could follow the Sky rider. Contador even put in a timid counter-charge, but it was not enough to shake Froome in the slightest.
As a result, what was the tiniest of margins, just two seconds advantage over three rivals, has now stretched to 10 seconds margin over one, Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing Team). These are not the gaps that are in any sense conclusive - this is a 3km climb, not the Angliru. But in any case, there's the sense, like in Andorra, that little by little Froome is opening an advantage, and at best his rivals can only manage to get briefly on equal terms. Only Chaves has managed to show complete consistency in matching Froome.
"I'd need to look at the GC, but he's showed that he's one of the strongest climbers so far in the race," Froome said of Chaves after claiming his third red jersey of leader in the Vuelta. "Last year, he rode extremely well, and I imagine this year he will be up there again. The [stage 16] time trial, though, is not really in his favour."
Froome singled out Contador, too, for praise after the Spaniard's bounce-back, albeit one in which he remains at three minutes overall and is therefore hardly a major GC threat.
"It shows a lot about Alberto's character; he's extremely tenacious and he doesn't give up," Froome said. "I am sure he will fight all the way to the end of this Vuelta."
As for Sky themselves, Gianni Moscon was once more the top support rider for Froome.
"This is his first Grand Tour, and he's been doing an amazing job so far," Froome said. "He's completely blown the peloton to pieces, both in Andorra and again today. Even for me to stay on his wheel - that's not been easy."
There had been a risk, on paper, that Manzana-Postobon's Jetse Bol, part of the break and the best-placed rider on GC, could have taken the lead. But Froome argued that despite Sky's laissez-faire attitude towards the break, letting the escapees gain seven minutes at one point, there had never been a real chance of that happening. In the end, Bol finished 2:27 ahead of Froome, and is now 20th overall, 15 places better than on Tuesday evening, but still a long way down.
"I don't think the red jersey was really in danger. We were always in control of the situation. I was also surprised that no other teams were interested in riding for the stage today," Froome said.
After Wednesday's difficult finish, there are now two relatively straightforward transition stages, although sparks invariably fly on Cuenca's narrow, cobbled final third category ascent and the technical drop back into town to the finish, tackled on Friday. But for now, Froome remains firmly in control of the Vuelta a España.
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