Michal Kwiatkowski's first major defence of his lead in the Vuelta a España on a high-mountain stage turned out well despite a late attack by Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) putting the Team Sky racer under pressure.
Kwiatkowski shadowed the other top favourites and did not respond when Yates blasted away. But the Polish racer never looked to be in trouble, either.
Closer to the line, as the gradient flattened notably with the risks that much smaller, the Vuelta leader responded rapidly when Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Emanuel Buchman (Bora-Hansgrohe) went clear, crossing the line in 13th place.
Yates gained 27 seconds on the red jersey group, while Buchmann came across 25 seconds clear. Valverde, who was forced to respond as the two attackers pushed him to fourth overall, gained two seconds, but Kwiatkowski retained his overall lead by seven seconds over Buchmann, in what is a hugely encouraging result for the young German Yates is third at 10 seconds. David De La Cruz, Team Sky's other GC option, rode strongly, finishing with the other favourites, and is now 17th overall.
For a rider who is still finding out what he can achieve in Grand Tours, rather than a confirmed GC favourite, Kwiatowski's performance meant he passed the Vuelta's first climbing exam with close to flying colours.
"It pretty much went to plan," Kwiatkowski told reporters afterwards. "We were pretty happy with such a big gap and we were pretty sure that some of the other teams would make fireworks on the last climb and that's exactly what happened with Lotto-Jumbo setting a high tempo.
"The first part of the race was pretty easy in one way, but considering the temperatures it's never easy to race with 35 degrees. That's why a lot of guys couldn't really survive."
When the sparks began to fly on the Alfacar, Kwiatkowski congratulated LottoNL-Jumbo for setting such a high tempo but insisted that "they came away with nothing, I guess, without cooperation [from other teams] at the end. And I'm happy to have the jersey at the end of the day."
But none of the other favourites managed to gain time. Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), one key rival with a much greater climbing palmares, visibly struggled. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) once more opted out of the GC battle, and other outsiders of the calibre of Louis Meintjes (Dimension Data) also lost time.
Overall, therefore Kwiatkowski has remained firmly in the game, and that, he pointed out, is no mean achievement.
"I'm not the biggest GC contender here, that's [Nairo] Quintana (Movistar), Valverde, Buchmann, George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo)…there are plenty of other guys who have to put me under pressure if they want to win the Vuelta a España and gain time on the summit finishes."
Referring to the high pace set by rival teams, Kwiatkowski argued somewhat dryly, "When they cut down the peloton and isolate each team to one or two figures, but then don't know what to do, that was the perfect scenario for me. I'm not there to take care of Buchmann or Simon Yates, that's not in my interest, my interest was to keep a good position on the last climb, and not lose too much energy or time. So I'm super happy."
Looking at the next section of the Vuelta, although stage five on Wednesday has some very lumpy segments through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada right up to the last 20 kilometres, Kwiatkowski says he is largely expecting the fast men to come to the fore in the next four days, with perhaps a few minor GC skirmishes.
The next big sort out for the general classification will be on stage 9 at La Covatilla, the Vuelta's first Hors Categorie finale. But at least until then, Kwiatkowski's grip on the overall looks likely to remain solid.
"Before Sunday [and La Covatilla] there are plenty of opportunities for the sprinters if they survive the small kicks at the finales, maybe for Valverde or for me, too."
"But I want to enjoy the lead too, so let's hope I can keep it for now. We'll see."
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