Vuelta a Espana: Froome struggles on Los Machucos

Chris Froome (Team Sky) was forced onto the defensive on the steep slopes of the Alto de los Machucos on stage 17 of the Vuelta a España as he struggled to handle the double-digit gradient of the narrow cow track and was dropped by all his overall rivals.

Austria's Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue Sport) won the stage with a brave solo move from the break of the day to take an historic stage win for the Irish Professional Continental team on their Grand Tour debut.

Riders were forced to use tiny gears on the 20% sections of road, with 34 or 36 tooth front chain rings and rear cogs of 30 or even 32 teeth. The rutted concrete track and tight hairpins meant they needed every tooth.

Denifl suffered but eventually enjoyed his moment up front as the race exploded behind him. Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo) attacked from the peloton on the lower slopes of the Alto de los Machucos to try to win the stage but he came up short, finishing 28 seconds down on Denifl. Behind him Froome soon showed signs he was suffering and was unable to stay with his rivals.

At the finish Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) beat Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) and Rafa Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) for third place, 1:04 seconds down on Denifl.

Froome struggled to stay with teammate Mikel Nieve in the final two kilometres and finished 14th on the stage at 1:46. He lost 42 seconds to Nibali and Zakarin and a little less to Kelderman and others. His lead on the Sicilian is down to 1:16, with Kelderman at 2:13 and Zakarin at 2:25. Contador remains fifth but closed the gap to 3:34. Other riders also gained time on Froome.

Canada's Michael Woods (Cannondale-Drapac) finished a strong seventh on the stage and bounced back from tenth to seventh overall. He is now 6:33 down on Froome.

Froome had seemed in total control after winning the Logroño time trial on Tuesday, but suddenly the Vuelta a Espana is wide open yet again.

"I think we always knew today was going to be a really tough final, and it definitely was, especially with the weather conditions as well. But there are three days of racing left and the team is still in great position. I'm feeling good and looking forward to the next few days," Froome said defiantly.

"This was a typical Vuelta summit finish. It's just the nature of the race. It's the same for everyone of course. I don't think anyone really enjoys gradients over 25 per cent, but that's just how it is, and it's the same for all of us. It's never nice to lose time, but I still feel good, and three more days, I'm confident we can get the job done."

Denifl could hardly believe he had won the toughest mountain finish of the 2017 Vuelta a Espana. He dedicated his success to his partner and son.

"This is for my girlfriend and little boy. I think they're watching at home. I can't believe it; I had super, super legs today. I was waiting the whole Vuelta for this day. I paced myself the whole Vuelta, and today I went all in. It's just amazing. For me team, Aqua Blue we're at our first Grand Tour here, and winning a stage …I'm over the moon. Thanks. Thanks."

Denifl spent all day in the break but never doubted his chances.

"You always have to believe to win, and when I felt my legs I was like, 'Oh my God. These legs are super good.' And I just kept on pushing. The climb was perfect for me with some flats parts in between for recovery. Now I won a stage in the Vuelta. It's the best day in my cycling life."

How it unfolded

The riders enjoyed the warm conditions at the start in Villadiego, perhaps knowing that the clouds were low and roads wet on the climb to the finish on Los Machucos.

The early break formed after just a few kilometres, with Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue) and Dani Moreno (Movistar) jumping away in search of adventure. They were soon joined by Magnus Cort (Orica-Scott) and Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) and Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors) set off in pursuit.

With the opening 100km on relatively flat roads, the six came together after 30km and worked on carving out as much of a lead as possible. Ian Stannard led the chase for Team Sky and Froome. However, it rose to a maximum of 9:15 until Astana also joined in with the work with 110km to go.

Soon after, as the road rose on the category 2 Portillo de Lunada, the gap was down to 5:40, with several teams clearly targeting stage victory. Villella took maximum points to defend his climber's jersey as the race disappeared into the mist and low clouds and was then dropped from the move in the tricky conditions.

Nibali tried a move on the descent in the clouds but Team Sky and the rest were soon on his case and the speed stayed high. Only Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) was caught out and several teammates had to drop back to drag him back up.

Bahrain-Merida held the reins of the peloton, bringing the gap down to 2:36 on the approach to category 1 Puerto de Alisas, with 30km to go. The riders faced a stiff climb to the summit, a nasty descent and then the final wall up Alto de los Machucos.

With 23 kilometres remaining to race and six kilometres from the top of Puertos de Alisas, Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves (Orica-Scott) attacked together from the main peloton in a clearly planned move. They were joined by others but Team Sky took over the pace-making in the red jersey group and kept them under control.

Up front Stefan Denifl lead the remains of the early break over the climb Puertos de Alisas as the fear and tension rose before the steep final climb of the stage. The break and the peloton took the descent carefully.

Moreno was the biggest overall threat from the break but as the Alto de los Machucos begin after the early kilometres and the first super steep section, it was Denifl who emerged at the front and began to dream about winning the stage. He was on the ride of his life.

Contador lunched is pursuit with six kilometres to go, quickly opening a gap and passing Lopez who had the same idea. The increase in speed exposed Froome's problems, and the support of five Team Sky riders could not help him on the steep climb to the finish. Nibali, Zakarin, Kelderman and the others soon tried to distance him and gain as much as they could without blowing themselves. 

Ahead Contador paced his effort on the steep and easier sections as he closed the gap on Denifl. The Spanish fans cheered him on and he gritted his teeth as he caught and dropped the remains of the break. Only Denifl remained out front with two kilometres to go. The gap was down to 23 seconds with a kilometre to go but unfortunately for Contador and fortunately for Denifl, it was mostly downhill.

Denifl managed to stay away and take his historic win for Aqua Blue Sport, while Contador had to accept another placing. Froome fought to limit his losses and rightly thanked Nieve. Without him and his Team Sky teammates he could have lost much more time.

Now he must limit his losses on Saturday's mountain finish to the Angliru but his rivals know he is beatable.

Thursday's 169km stage 18 from Suances to Santo Toribio de Liébana ends with short but steep climb to the line and three other climbs in the final 50km. It will be another big test for Froome.

Full Results

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#Rider Name (Country) TeamResult
1Stefan Denifl (Aut) Aqua Blue Sport4:48:52
2Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Trek-Segafredo0:00:28
3Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team0:01:04
4Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-MeridaRow 3 - Cell 2
5Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-AlpecinRow 4 - Cell 2
6Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-HansgroheRow 5 - Cell 2
7Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale-Drapac0:01:13
8Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Movistar Team0:01:17
9Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb0:01:19
10David de la Cruz (Spa) Quick-Step Floors0:01:42
11Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Team LottoNL-JumboRow 10 - Cell 2
12Jack Haig (Aus) Orica-ScottRow 11 - Cell 2
13Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Team Sky0:01:46
14Christopher Froome (GBr) Team SkyRow 13 - Cell 2
15Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky0:01:53
16Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors0:02:01
17Fabio Aru (Ita) Astana Pro Team0:02:04
18Pello Bilbao (Spa) Astana Pro TeamRow 17 - Cell 2
19Louis Meintjes (RSA) UAE Team Emirates0:02:05
20Romain Bardet (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale0:02:14
21Sergio Pardilla Bellon (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA0:02:16
22Nicolas Roche (Irl) BMC Racing Team0:02:32
23Antonio Pedrero (Spa) Movistar Team0:02:55
24Tejay van Garderen (USA) BMC Racing TeamRow 23 - Cell 2
25Aldemar Reyes (Col) Manzana Postobon0:03:06
26Hernán Aguirre (Col) Manzana PostobonRow 25 - Cell 2
27Richard Carapaz (Ecu) Movistar TeamRow 26 - Cell 2
28Sander Armee (Bel) Lotto Soudal0:03:28
29Antwan Tolhoek (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo0:03:39
30Darwin Atapuma (Col) UAE Team Emirates0:03:48
31Jeremy Maison (Fra) FDJ0:04:07
32Tobias Ludvigsson (Swe) FDJ0:04:34
33Gianni Moscon (Ita) Team Sky0:04:40
34Luis Angel Maté Mardones (Spa) Cofidis, Solutions Credits0:04:45
35Bernardo Suaza (Col) Manzana Postobon0:05:01
36Peter Stetina (USA) Trek-SegafredoRow 35 - Cell 2
37Jarlinson Pantano (Col) Trek-SegafredoRow 36 - Cell 2
38Jesus Hernandez Blazquez (Spa) Trek-SegafredoRow 37 - Cell 2
39Thomas De Gendt (Bel) Lotto Soudal0:05:37
40Stef Clement (Ned) Team LottoNL-JumboRow 39 - Cell 2
41Bart De Clercq (Bel) Lotto Soudal0:05:49
42Adam Yates (GBr) Orica-Scott0:05:52
43Johan Esteban Chaves Rubio (Col) Orica-ScottRow 42 - Cell 2
44Franco Pellizotti (Ita) Bahrain-Merida0:06:14
45Diego Rosa (Ita) Team Sky0:06:22
46Jacques Janse van Rensburg (RSA) Dimension Data0:06:48
47Koen Bouwman (Ned) Team LottoNL-JumboRow 46 - Cell 2
48Jaime Roson Garcia (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA0:06:58
49Nicholas Schultz (Aus) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA0:07:04
50Matej Mohoric (Slo) UAE Team Emirates0:08:17
51Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) BMC Racing Team0:09:35
52Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Pro Team0:10:49
53Luis León Sánchez (Spa) Astana Pro TeamRow 52 - Cell 2
54Fabricio Ferrari (Uru) Caja Rural-Seguros RGARow 53 - Cell 2
55Edward Theuns (Bel) Trek-SegafredoRow 54 - Cell 2
56Julien Bernard (Fra) Trek-SegafredoRow 55 - Cell 2
57Floris De Tier (Bel) Team LottoNL-Jumbo0:10:57
58Lluís Guillermo Mas Bonet (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA0:11:25
59Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step FloorsRow 58 - Cell 2
60Salvatore Puccio (Ita) Team Sky0:11:28
61Anthony Roux (Fra) FDJ0:11:37
62Chad Haga (USA) Team SunwebRow 61 - Cell 2
63Rein Taaramäe (Est) Katusha-Alpecin0:11:49
64Przemyslaw Niemiec (Pol) UAE Team Emirates0:12:19
65Fernando Orjuela (Col) Manzana Postobon0:12:22
66Carlos Verona Quintanilla (Spa) Orica-ScottRow 65 - Cell 2
67David Lopez Garcia (Spa) Team SkyRow 66 - Cell 2
68Rui Alberto Faria da Costa (Por) UAE Team EmiratesRow 67 - Cell 2
69Simon Clarke (Aus) Cannondale-DrapacRow 68 - Cell 2
70Giovanni Visconti (Ita) Bahrain-MeridaRow 69 - Cell 2
71Alexis Gougeard (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale0:12:40
72Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil (Spa) Movistar Team0:13:39
73Maxime Monfort (Bel) Lotto SoudalRow 72 - Cell 2
74Bob Jungels (Lux) Quick-Step Floors0:13:42
75Antonio Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida0:13:55
76Clement Chevrier (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale0:14:00
77Guillaume Bonnafond (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions CreditsRow 76 - Cell 2
78Odd Christian Eiking (Nor) FDJ0:15:24
79Juan Felipe Osorio (Col) Manzana Postobon0:15:50
80Daniel Hoelgaard (Nor) FDJ0:16:15
81Magnus Cort (Den) Orica-Scott0:16:17
82Simon Yates (GBr) Orica-ScottRow 81 - Cell 2
83Johannes Fröhlinger (Ger) Team SunwebRow 82 - Cell 2
84Søren Kragh Andersen (Den) Team SunwebRow 83 - Cell 2
85Ricardo Vilela (Por) Manzana PostobonRow 84 - Cell 2
86Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-HansgroheRow 85 - Cell 2
87Christopher Juul Jensen (Den) Orica-Scott0:16:24
88Joe Dombrowski (USA) Cannondale-Drapac0:16:26
89Domen Novak (Slo) Bahrain-Merida0:16:29
90Markel Irizar Aranburu (Spa) Trek-Segafredo0:16:35
91Pawel Poljanski (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe0:16:52
92Sergei Chernetckii (Rus) Astana Pro TeamRow 91 - Cell 2
93Bert-Jan Lindeman (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo0:16:54
94Daan Olivier (Ned) Team LottoNL-JumboRow 93 - Cell 2
95Christian Knees (Ger) Team Sky0:17:00
96Marco Haller (Aut) Katusha-Alpecin0:17:06
97Davide Villella (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac0:17:29
98Marc Soler (Spa) Movistar Team0:17:41
99Hector Sáez Benito (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGARow 98 - Cell 2
100Valerio Agnoli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida0:17:42
101Ivan Garcia Cortina (Spa) Bahrain-Merida0:17:44
102Chris Hamilton (Aus) Team Sunweb0:17:46
103Sam Bewley (NZl) Orica-ScottRow 102 - Cell 2
104Patrick Konrad (Aut) Bora-Hansgrohe0:18:20
105David Arroyo Duran (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGARow 104 - Cell 2
106Stéphane Rossetto (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits0:18:48
107Koen de Kort (Ned) Trek-Segafredo0:18:56
108Jelle Wallays (Bel) Lotto SoudalRow 107 - Cell 2
109Adam Hansen (Aus) Lotto SoudalRow 108 - Cell 2
110Hugo Houle (Can) AG2R La MondialeRow 109 - Cell 2
111Jan Polanc (Slo) UAE Team Emirates0:19:29
112Loic Vliegen (Bel) BMC Racing Team0:19:37
113Lasse Norman Hansen (Den) Aqua Blue Sport0:20:06
114Damiano Caruso (Ita) BMC Racing TeamRow 113 - Cell 2
115Francisco Ventoso (Spa) BMC Racing TeamRow 114 - Cell 2
116Eros Capecchi (Ita) Quick-Step FloorsRow 115 - Cell 2
117Julien Duval (Fra) AG2R La MondialeRow 116 - Cell 2
118Peter Koning (Ned) Aqua Blue Sport0:20:29
119Mark Christian (GBr) Aqua Blue SportRow 118 - Cell 2
120Kenneth Van Bilsen (Bel) Cofidis, Solutions CreditsRow 119 - Cell 2
121Tim Declercq (Bel) Quick-Step FloorsRow 120 - Cell 2
122Tomasz Marczynski (Pol) Lotto Soudal0:20:38
123Aaron Gate (NZl) Aqua Blue SportRow 122 - Cell 2
124Nelson Oliveira (Por) Movistar Team0:21:07
125Igor Anton Hernandez (Spa) Dimension DataRow 124 - Cell 2
126Lorrenzo Manzin (Fra) FDJ0:21:23
127Arnaud Courteille (Fra) FDJRow 126 - Cell 2
128Daniel Navarro Garcia (Spa) Cofidis, Solutions CreditsRow 127 - Cell 2
129Jetse Bol (Ned) Manzana Postobon0:21:34
130Yves Lampaert (Bel) Quick-Step FloorsRow 129 - Cell 2
131Lachlan Morton (Aus) Dimension Data0:22:02
132Thomas Scully (NZl) Cannondale-Drapac0:22:03
133Sebastián Molano (Col) Manzana PostobonRow 132 - Cell 2
134Juan José Lobato (Spa) Team LottoNL-Jumbo0:22:07
135Hernando Bohórquez (Col) Manzana PostobonRow 134 - Cell 2
136Ian Stannard (GBr) Team SkyRow 135 - Cell 2
137Diego Rubio (Spa) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA0:22:49
138Remy Mertz (Bel) Lotto Soudal0:22:51
139Brendan Canty (Aus) Cannondale-DrapacRow 138 - Cell 2
140Anthony Perez (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions CreditsRow 139 - Cell 2
141Matteo Trentin (Ita) Quick-Step FloorsRow 140 - Cell 2
142Laurens De Vreese (Bel) Astana Pro TeamRow 141 - Cell 2
143Rafael Reis (Por) Caja Rural-Seguros RGA0:23:22
144Michael Mørkøv (Den) Katusha-Alpecin0:23:23
145Alberto Losada Alguacil (Spa) Katusha-Alpecin0:23:26
146Sacha Modolo (Ita) UAE Team Emirates0:23:36
147Federico Zurlo (Ita) UAE Team EmiratesRow 146 - Cell 2
148William Clarke (Aus) Cannondale-DrapacRow 147 - Cell 2
149Matvey Mamykin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin0:23:41
150Anthony Turgis (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits0:23:43
151Nikita Stalnov (Kaz) Astana Pro Team0:23:48
152Toms Skujins (Lat) Cannondale-Drapac0:23:52
153Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) Cannondale-DrapacRow 152 - Cell 2
154Michel Kreder (Ned) Aqua Blue Sport0:24:01
155Conor Dunne (Irl) Aqua Blue SportRow 154 - Cell 2
156Maxim Belkov (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin0:24:04
157Niki Terpstra (Ned) Quick-Step Floors0:24:18
158Adam Blythe (GBr) Aqua Blue SportRow 157 - Cell 2
159Andreas Schillinger (Ger) Bora-HansgroheRow 158 - Cell 2
160Manuele Boaro (Ita) Bahrain-Merida0:24:32
161Christoph Pfingsten (Ger) Bora-HansgroheRow 160 - Cell 2
162Michael Schwarzmann (Ger) Bora-HansgroheRow 161 - Cell 2
DNSLennard Kämna (Ger) Team SunwebRow 162 - Cell 2
DNSDaniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing TeamRow 163 - Cell 2
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Intermediate sprint - Solares, km. 145.2
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResultHeader Cell - Column 3
1Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors4pts
2Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Movistar Team2Row 1 - Cell 3
3Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) BMC Racing Team1Row 2 - Cell 3
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Points
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResultHeader Cell - Column 3
1Stefan Denifl (Aut) Aqua Blue Sport25pts
2Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Trek-Segafredo20Row 1 - Cell 3
3Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team16Row 2 - Cell 3
4Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida14Row 3 - Cell 3
5Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin12Row 4 - Cell 3
6Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe10Row 5 - Cell 3
7Michael Woods (Can) Cannondale-Drapac9Row 6 - Cell 3
8Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Movistar Team8Row 7 - Cell 3
9Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Team Sunweb7Row 8 - Cell 3
10David de la Cruz (Spa) Quick-Step Floors6Row 9 - Cell 3
11Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo5Row 10 - Cell 3
12Jack Haig (Aus) Orica-Scott4Row 11 - Cell 3
13Mikel Nieve Ituralde (Spa) Team Sky3Row 12 - Cell 3
14Christopher Froome (GBr) Team Sky2Row 13 - Cell 3
15Wout Poels (Ned) Team Sky1Row 14 - Cell 3
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Mountain 1 (Cat. 3) Portillo de Lunada, km. 107.3
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResultHeader Cell - Column 3
1Davide Villella (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac5pts
2Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) BMC Racing Team3Row 1 - Cell 3
3Stefan Denifl (Aut) Aqua Blue Sport1Row 2 - Cell 3
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Mountain 2 (Cat. 1) Puerto de Alisas, km. 162.6
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResultHeader Cell - Column 3
1Stefan Denifl (Aut) Aqua Blue Sport10pts
2Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Movistar Team6Row 1 - Cell 3
3Alessandro De Marchi (Ita) BMC Racing Team4Row 2 - Cell 3
4Julian Alaphilippe (Fra) Quick-Step Floors2Row 3 - Cell 3
5Magnus Cort (Den) Orica-Scott1Row 4 - Cell 3
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Mountain 3 (HC) Alto de los Machucos, km. 180.5
#Rider Name (Country) TeamResultHeader Cell - Column 3
1Stefan Denifl (Aut) Aqua Blue Sport15pts
2Alberto Contador Velasco (Spa) Trek-Segafredo10Row 1 - Cell 3
3Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana Pro Team6Row 2 - Cell 3
4Vincenzo Nibali (Ita) Bahrain-Merida4Row 3 - Cell 3
5Ilnur Zakarin (Rus) Katusha-Alpecin2Row 4 - Cell 3
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Combativity
#Rider Name (Country) Team
1Daniel Moreno Fernandez (Spa) Movistar Team