Ruben Plaza (Lampre-Merida) put in a solo effort of 112 kilometres to win stage 20 of the Vuelta a Espana, but the real story took place many minutes down the road, as red jersey Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) dropped off the podium after Fabio Aru and his Astana team cleverly dumped the Dutchman to take the overall lead with one day remaining.
Aru began the day 6 seconds behind Dumoulin on general classification, but the standings would be redrawn radically on a dramatic day of racing in the Sierras of Madrid. The Italian now tops the GC with 1:17 in hand over Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), with Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) in third at 1:29. Dumoulin, who was distanced on the penultimate climb, the Puerto de Morcuera, eventually fell to sixth overall, 4:36 down.
Aru and his team began their forcing on the Morcuera and Dumoulin, long without teammates, was eventually distanced two kilometres from the summit. The already-dropped Alejandro Valverde aside, the other favourites easily went along, and Dumoulin could only watch them go.
Plaza had been part of an early break group, and on the second of the day’s four climbs, he took off alone. His gap never got up much above the two minute mark, but his chasers were unable to get close and he held on to win the stage from Jose Gonçalves (Caja Rural) and Alessandro De Marchi (BMC).
Team tactics ruled the day, as Astana showed to its advantage. The Kazakhstani team had two riders in the early break, and both Luis Leon Sanchez and Andrey Zeits were able to drop back and support their captain in the valley before the final climb, the Puerto de Cotos. Astana also boasted a stronger climbing team than the young and relatively inexperienced Giant-Alpecin squad. Dumoulin was alone early on, while Aru had a flock of teammates around him.
“This victory is thanks to my teammates, it’s not just about me,” Aru said. “They’ve been phenomenal for the whole Vuelta – Mikel, Luis Leon and Dario Cataldo – and we think of the guys who aren’t here, Paolo Tiralongo and Vincenzo Nibali. We had our difficulties at the start of this Giro but we’ve worked hard and we’ve been very united."
Dumoulin was not up to the many climbs, losing the Vuelta lead on the climbs, due to both his own legs and the lack of supporting teammates. But it was the clever Astana tactics which gave him the knock-out punch, shoving him entirely off the podium.
“I was just empty, I had no legs. I had an idea that was the case but I just fought for what I was worth and in the end you just got to deal with it,” Dumoulin said. “Tomorrow I will feel proud but today it’s just disappointment.”
How it unfolded
Four category 1 climbs were on the schedule for the decisive and penultimate stage, with an 11km long descent into the finish. There were frantic efforts to get into the day’s early break group, and the lucky ten were Rubén Plaza (Lampre-Merida), Adam Hansen (Lotto-Soudal), Jaco Venter (MTN-Qhubeka), Lawrance Warbasse (IAM Cycling), Dani Navarro (Cofidis), Jay McCarthy (Tinkoff-Saxo), José Gonçalves (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Eduard Vorganov (Katusha), Moreno Moser (Cannondale-Garmin), Miguel Ángel Rubiano (Colombia) and Yukiya Arashiro (Europcar).
Not to be outdone, a huge chase group formed. As the leaders hit the top of the day’s first climb, the Navacerrada, they had 1:06 over the chasers, with the field at 6:32.
Going up the second climb, the Puerto de la Morcuera, Plaza decided to take off on his own and he quickly built up a lead of more than two and a half minutes. The former lead group and the chase group merged into a mini-peloton of some 38 riders.
The group constantly split and reformed over the kilometers. It featured three Movistar riders who could conceivably provide later help to Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde, who came into the stage as fifth and sixth overall. But this did not seem to concern Giant-Alpecin or Astana, as they let the gap grow to some 13 minutes.
Plaza flagged a bit just before the third climb, but seemed to catch his second wind, building his lead from 1:40 to nearly three minutes. Behind him, various riders tried desperately to break out of the chase group and catch him, but the group was not in the least cohesive and no one was successful.
Twelve minutes back, Astana finally decided it was time to take action, moving to the head of the group. Dumoulin was still near the head of things, but was losing helpers along the way.
Astana then went for its chance, with 4 kilometres still to go to the top of the Morcuera. Mikel Landa took off, followed by Aru, Quintana and Rafal Majka. Dumoulin was distanced at first but soon made his way up to the others. Valverde went with him, but quickly fell back.
The Dumoulin group was a very elite one, with eight riders. In addition to the race leader, it contained Aru, Landa, Quintana, Majka, Joaquim Rodriguez, Esteban Chaves and Mikel Nieve. Astana kept turning on the speed, hoping to dump Dumoulin and propel Aru into the race lead. But the young Dutchman coolly kept up with no difficulty.
Near the summit, though, Aru, Quintana and Majka took off, at first building a gap to Dumoulin, and he finally dropped back. Both he and Nieve watched the others disappear into the distance, with Dumoulin watching his hoped-for grand tour win vanish.
Dumoulin was not about to admit defeat, though. One of the larger riders, he could use his time trial talent to his advantage. The Aru group started gathering in drop-outs from the former lead group, including, dangerously, Luis Leon Sanchez of Astana. The Giant-Alpecin rider had moved up to nine seconds of the group, but then the gap grew again. Dumoulin almost visibly lost hope and his deficit soon stretched out to the minute mark.
Plaza was unaware of the drama behind him, and he held on to his 1:40 lead as he started up the final climb, a gap he would maintain all the way to the top.
Landa drove the pace in the Aru group, though Quintana, sensing a chance to move up on GC jumped near the summit. Majka, celebrating his 26th birthday, went with him to protect his placing. The two quickly put in a gap on the Astana-led group.
Quintana and Majka reached the top 4 minutes behind Plaza, but aided by teammates from the day’s early break, the built up a lead of almost a minute over the Aru group.
Rodriquez was not happy