Steven Kruijswijk’s yo-yo Vuelta continues. After bursting onto into third place overall thanks to the stage 13 time trial, the Dutchman ran into trouble on the steep slopes of Monte Oiz on Wednesday and slipped down to fifth. On Friday, he was back on the podium as the stars aligned for him on the Coll de la Rabassa.
Kruijswijk’s LottoNL-Jumbo teammates were prominent at the foot of the 17km final climb, and when Nairo Quintana launched the first attack some 13km from the summit, Kruijswijk jumped on it with his teammate George Bennett.
At first it appeared speculative but, after Bennett had fallen away, two guardian angels arrived in the form of Simon Yates and Thibaut Pinot.
“When Quintana attacked I said to George to follow and we did, then suddenly Yates and Pinot came across, and that was perfect for me,” Kruijswijk told reporters beyond the finish line, a wave of Dutch journalists having made the trip to Spain after seeing Tuesday’s time trial.
“They were pulling pretty fast and in the end I was only able to follow them – I couldn’t take any turns. Yates was so strong. He was out to gain a lot of time, I think, and I was able to take a lot of profit from that. I didn’t look back anymore. As long as Yates was pulling I knew Valverde was behind. That was the case and I was able to gain a lot of time back.”
Many had predicted a contained affair on the Coll de la Rabassa given the brutal nature of the final mountain stage that awaits on Saturday, and Kruijswijk revealed he ignored guidance from his team in taking such an aggressive approach.
“We spoke about it this morning, and someone said ‘ah the climb is not so hard, it’s steady, it will finish with a group of 10’. And I said ‘ah it’s the last week, everything can happen’.
“You have to go with the race. I couldn’t predict how today would end. You saw we took a lot of time back.”
Kruijswijk said he struggled with the 2000m+ altitude and lost contact late on the climb, finishing third, 13 seconds behind stage winner Pinot and eight seconds behind Yates. Still, he put 39 seconds into Miguel Angel Lopez and Enric Mas to leapfrog them on the overall standings, and 59 into an ailing Valverde, whom he now trails by just 20 seconds.
Kruijswijk recognises that Yates looks dominant in the red jersey and he knows that, realistically, he’s out to secure that podium spot when the race reaches its climax on Saturday with a brutal 97km stage that features six climbs. Nevertheless, he’s well aware that the pendulum can still swing in any direction.
“Tomorrow can be a whole different story again, with lots climbs coming after each other. I think we can expect Movistar to drop a big attack. I’m third now on GC, of course I’d love to hold onto that,” Kruijswijk said.
“Everything is still possible. Today I got back from fifth to third and tomorrow it could be the other way around again. You never know. You have to keep fighting to the finish.”