A courageous long-distance attack by Movistar’s Marc Soler saw the Spanish racer regain momentum for the general classification battle, even if he could not take the stage win when he was out-duelled by France’s David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ).
Soler bridged across to an eight-man breakaway also containing teammate Nelson Oliveira on the second of four first-category climbs, forcing Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers to work hard behind earlier than they would have liked.
Previously 10th overall at 3:52, Soler is now sixth overall at 2:44, less than a minute behind teammate Enric Mas and leapfrogging Movistar co-leader Alejandro Valverde, who remains in eighth.
Barring Dan Martin (Israel Start-Up Nation) darting away in the last 500 metres, which fractured the GC group but did not have any major effects time wise, Soler was the only major favourite to make any kind of move on Saturday’s mountain stage which, after the Vuelta’s dramatic first 10 days, largely failed to live up to expectations.
Already a stage winner in the first week at Lekunberri, Soler played a solid tactical game throughout most of the breakaway, using Oliveira to gain a maximum time margin, and then when it was clear, the break would stay clear launching an attack at five kilometres to go which only Gaudu could respond.
It was only in the last 500 metres that Soler made an error, attacking the Frenchman too early into a headwind and then running out of legs when Gaudu came back to him closer to the line.
“I feel a bit angry because maybe I went for it too soon,” Soler told Spanish television after he was named the most aggressive rider of the stage. “From the team car, they had warned me that there would be a massive headwind at the end but I didn’t think I would suffer as badly as I did.
“I couldn’t face up to Gaudu at the end and he got the win. Even so I think I can be pleased with how I’m feeling, I’ve pulled back some time on GC and I think globally the team is giving people something to talk about.”
“When Soler attacked, I knew the headwind was going to burn him out quickly,” Gaudu added afterwards. “I waited until the last 150 metres to the line then decided to go for it. When I saw Soler was struggling with 75 metres to go, I couldn’t have felt happier.”
Although taking the stage win would have been the ideal result, Movistar nonetheless could be satisfied with a day on which Mas came home with the reduced group of favourites, and remains in fifth overall. He closed the gap slightly on Hugh Carthy (EF Pro Cycling), who fell back slightly when Martin launched his late attack, losing seven seconds.
With three riders in the top 10, the Spanish team remained firmly in charge of the Best Team classification, widening their advantage on closest pursuers Jumbo-Visma from 5:57 after Friday’s stage to 7:37. On current evidence, and after a dismal first part of the post-confinement season, collectively the Spanish team appears to be the only squad in the Vuelta able to give the Dutch outfit a run for their money.
Soler’s attack on stage 2, Valverde’s breakaway efforts over the Orduña climb on stage 7, Movistar's collective drive to bring back a powerful break on the Moncalvillo stage and now Soler’s second day in the thick of the action, with sterling support - as the Catalan recognised - from Oliveira, are all testament to the Spanish team’s strength.
However, after Soler moved up into the outside bracket of GC challengers on Saturday, it remains to be seen if, rather than firing off broadsides in all directions as has been the case up to now, the Spanish squad can now actually go head to head with the riders ahead of them overall.
“The best option on the table for us was for the break with Marc to go for the stage win and regain time overall,” Mas added afterwards. “He’s now getting closer to the top in the overall again.”
“I think Jumbo were there working with Ineos on the earlier climbs because Marc was at four minutes overalll, but they realised later on that it wasn’t going to be so dangerous for them, and they didn’t want to go flat out and then the rest of us could have put in some attacks.
“As a result, it’s all going to come down to the Angliru. A lot can happen on Sunday's stage. It’s only very short, but it’ll mark a before and after in this year’s Vueltam,” said Mas.
“Tomorrow on the Angliru?” Soler himself commented. “We’ll see. But it’s another opportunity for the team for sure.”
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