The steep slopes of Les Praeres brought Louis Meintjes his first career Grand Tour stage victory, the South African pulling off a come-from-behind triumph on the Asturian climb at the Vuelta a España to solo to the win from the breakaway.
As the Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert climber soared to victory, further back down the climb race leader Remco Evenepoel stamped his authority on the race, the QuickStep-AlphaVinyl leaving behind all of his GC rivals and extending his overall lead heading into Monday's rest day.
Evenepoel took fourth on the stage, with Samuele Battistella (Astana Qazaqstan) and Edoardo Zambanini (Bahrain Victorious) taking second and third from the break. The Belgian didn't need those podium bonus seconds, though, having crossed the line 34 seconds up on his nearest rival, Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates).
In eighth, Enric Mas (Movistar) shed a further 10 seconds to Evenepoel with Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) another two seconds back and Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) losing six more seconds.
For Meintjes, the win was the sixth of his career and second of 2022. He had been part of the 10-man move that went away after a long fight early on the stage, though victory looked to have been lost after Battistella and Jimmy Janssens (Alpecin-Deceuninck) jumped away inside the final 10km.
As the strongest climber in the group, though, Meintjes made his way back on the short but brutal 3.9km climb, which averaged 12.9%. He caught and passed the lead duo at 2.5km to go and never looked back, racing on alone to the top for the biggest win of his career.
"It's something special. I still need some time for it to set it. Actually, I've never been on the podium of a WorldTour race. That was one of my main goals before stopping my career," Meintjes said after his win.
"The last few days in the mountain finished I just wasn't quite fast enough to keep up with the GC guys. Then if I don't get the result that way the best is to go with the breakaways. It worked out perfectly today. I was quite lucky; I tried one time and picked the right breakaway.
"It was quite a hard day and they made me do a bit more work always closing the gap and accelerating so I was spending more energy than a lot of guys and I wasn't sure I'd still have the best legs.
"It was really hard and actually it didn't matter if you followed the breakwawy or not. It was just a time trial to the finish."
Evenepoel's ride now sees him reach the rest day – and the long trip south for stage 10 – 1:12 up on second-placed Mas. Roglič is the only other rider within two minutes of the race lead at 1:53 down, while Rodríguez (2:33) and Ayuso (2:36) are the only other men within three minutes.
How it unfolded
Following the stage 8 summit finish at Colláu Fancuaya, Sunday's ninth stage at the Vuelta a España would bring another tough uphill test for the peloton with the steep slopes of Les Praeres.
The 171.4km stage from Villaviciosa brought another five categorised climbs including the finisher, along with the second-category Alro de Torno after 55.6km, the first-category Mirador del Fito after 93km, and two third-category climbs, the Alto de la Llama and La Campa, inside the final 60km.
Les Praeres would be the major test of the stage, though, with the 3.9km hill averaging a scary 12.9%, including sections of leg-breaking 24% gradients. With the rest day coming on Monday, the climb would be a chance for the GC men to empty the tank before travelling across to south-east Spain to restart on Tuesday in Elche.
Attacks flew from the very start of the stage, with Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) and Luis Angel Maté (Euskaltel-Euskadi) among those on the move. It would take some time for the break to establish itself, though, with stage winners Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates) and Jay Vine (Alpecin-Deceuninck) also attempting to break away inside the first 20km.
The battle for the break would continue for the opening 40km before a group of 10 men managed to extricate themselves from the peloton.
Samuele Battistella (Astana Qazaqstan), Edoardo Zambanini (Bahrain Victorious), Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers), Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), Filippo Conca (Lotto Soudal), Thymen Arensman (Team DSM), Jimmy Janssens, Robert Stannard (Alpecin-Deceuninck), José Manuel Diaz Gallegos (Burgos-BH) and Simon Guglielmi (Arkéa-Samsic) all got out front, though Arensman – 11th on GC at 3:18 – didn't last long before dropping back.
As the race headed towards the Torno, the break held a lead of three minutes on the peloton, which saw QuickStep-AlphaVinyl in control for race leader Remco Evenepoel. Up front, Stannard and Janssens led the way over the top as they defended teammate Vine's KOM jersey.
Further back, the peloton fell to pieces as attacks from Vine, Soler and Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain Victorious) pushed the pace before it all came back together over the top with QuickStep retaking control.
The break's advantage only extended thereafter, growing to five minutes as the peloton knocked off the pace. As the best-placed rider in the break at 8:28 down, Meintjes will have been eyeing the chance to make up some GC ground, as he had done on L'Alpe d'Huez at the Tour de France.
Stannard and Janssens again led the break over the Mirador del Fito, snatching up a further 10 and six points, while the peloton crossed the top at 4:45 down. The gap held as the riders headed towards the next climb, the Llama, where Stannard and Janssens once again took the points at the top.
On the way down the twisting descent, there were multiple crashes in the peloton, with Lutsenko and Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious) among those hitting the deck, though the GC contenders avoided the carnage.
The status quo up front remained over the penultimate climb of the day at La Campa, as Stannard and Janssens led the breakaway over the top with the peloton at four minutes back. Following the fourth descent of the day, however, the attacks would start.
It was Janssens who led the moves at the front as the break looked set to contest the stage victory, the Belgian pushing on with just over 12km to go. He was brought back but swiftly went again, this time with Battistella joining him in the attack as the rest of the break dithered.
Back in the peloton, QuickStep and their World champion Julian Alaphilippe continued to lead as the group closed to within 3:30 of the leaders with 5km to go, while Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) and Chris Harper (Jumbo-Visma) were held up by a crash on a downhill run.
At the start of the final, brutal climb, Janssens attempted to deal the first blow among the two leaders, but the Italian stuck close behind him as they battled the double-digit gradients.
Three minutes back down the road, the peloton had shattered very quickly, with Evenepoel, Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma), Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates), and Enric Mas (Movistar) emerging as the strongest on the early slopes following Alaphilippe's push.
As the GC group passed under the 3km to go banner, 700 metres behind the lead, Evenepoel pushed on alone, dispatching his rivals with seeming ease on the steep gradients, with Mas the closest man behind him. Up front, meanwhile, the pure climber Meintjes had caught and passed Janssens and Battistella and pushed on for victory.
Evenepoel showed no sign of struggle on the harsh climb, putting 40 seconds into Ayuso, Mas, and a resurgent Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers), and even more into Roglič as he headed into the final 2km.
Two minutes up the road, Meintjes was all set for a first career Grand Tour stage win, having left behind the rest of his breakaway rivals and raced up the final inclines of the climb well clear of the rest. Evenepoel kept going too, taking something as sweet as a stage win as he gained 34 seconds on his closest GC rival and even more on the rest.
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