The latter stages of the Vuelta a España have, in years past, been marked by unspoken alliances along national lines – Pedro Delgado’s unseating of Robert Millar in 1985, for instance – but Tom Dumoulin’s Giant-Alpecin team has publicly refused the help of fellow Dutch squad LottoNL-Jumbo in defending his red jersey between here and Madrid.
Victory in Wednesday’s Burgos time trial was enough to put Dumoulin back into the overall lead, albeit just three seconds clear of Fabio Aru (Astana), with three testing stages to come before Sunday’s finale, including a penultimate stage over the Alto de Navacerrada.
Dumoulin is on the brink of becoming the first Dutchman to win a Grand Tour since Joop Zoetemelk claimed the Tour de France in 1980, and the arrival of journalists from the Netherlands on the race since the weekend is testimony to the level of expectation in his home country.
Speaking to Dutch television station NOS, LottoNL-Jumbo directeur sportif Merijn Zeeman pledged the support of his team to Dumoulin in the closing days. "We’re two Dutch teams with friendly relations, so we want to support Dumoulin,” Zeeman said. We hope that one of our compatriots can win the the Vuelta, but neither of us have the best team for controlling in the mountains."
According to Spanish newspaper AS, however, Giant-Alpecin directeur sportif Addy Engels moved swiftly to politely refuse LottoNL-Jumbo’s offer of help.
“That’s forbidden by the rules of the UCI, so we will support Tom to the extent of our capabilities and we won’t resort to any irregular strategy,” Engels said.
Engels acknowledged the limitations of the Giant-Alpecin squad in the high mountains, pointing out that the squad was assembled largely with the intention of helping John Degenkolb amass sprint victories.
“We didn’t pick a team thinking that one of our riders would have the lead at this stage,” Engels said. “We wanted stage wins with Degenkolb and Tom. This situation exceeds our expectations.”
Stage 19 to Riaza features the category 1 Puerto de la Quesera in the finale, Friday’s stage is the testing leg to Ávila, while Saturday’s penultimate stage through the Sierras of Madrid includes no fewer than four category 1 climbs.
In addition, there are time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds for the first three riders on each stage, and bonuses of 3, 2 and 1 second on offer at the intermediate sprint each day.