Nicolas Roche defended his third place at the Vuelta a Espana by finishing in a large front group with Chris Froome on the third day of action.
Roche spent the day wearing the combined classification jersey for race leader Esteban Chaves, and both he and Froome had a trouble-free stage as the sprint teams enjoyed their day in the sun.
The Team Sky duo joined Sergio Henao, Mikel Nieve, Geraint Thomas and Christian Knees in clocking the same time as Peter Sagan, who earned himself a long overdue Grand Tour stage win by outsprinting Nacer Bouhanni and John Degenkolb in Malaga.
The Tinkoff-Saxo rider latched on to Degenkolb (Giant Shimano)'s wheel as the race reached a fast and furious conclusion, and rounded the German before holding off Bouhanni (Cofidis) by half a wheel at the line.
The result had no significant bearing on the general classification, ensuring Roche remained 15 seconds behind Chaves (Orica GreenEdge), with Froome just 25 seconds further back in eighth.
The 158.4km trek from Mijas took place under sweltering conditions and it took less than 10km for eight riders to forge up the road. Their lead had stretched to over two minutes by the time they topped the first categorised climb, but it hadn't grown much further as they crested the Puerto del Leon.
Orica GreenEdge and Tinkoff-Saxo had been sharing the load to keep them in check, and parity was ultimately restored inside the last 14km. All the while, Team Sky had been sitting pretty towards the front of the peloton and everyone did their bit to keep Roche and Froome out of danger.
Vasil Kiryienka, Salvatore Puccio and Christian Knees helped chase down a late attack from Jerome Cousin (Europcar), and then Geraint Thomas guided the duo into the last 3km before leaving it to the lead-out trains to battle it out in Malaga.
Giant Alpecin and Lotto NL- Jumbo did the lion's share of the work, but it was Tinkoff-Saxo who were celebrating as Sagan romped to his first Grand Tour stage win since 2013.
Ian Boswell suffered a crash 40km from home, but was pleased to report no major injuries when we caught up with him after the stage.
"It happened on a roundabout after a pretty stressful descent. Two guys fell down in front of me and I went into the back of them and then onto the grass. Fortunately I was OK - I only had a few scratches here and there - and my bike was fine.
"I'll definitely be good to go again tomorrow. We've got a long day ahead of us at 209.6km, but it's likely to be a sprint stage again so my job will be keep Froomey and Nico protected, the same as today.
"Things are going good so far, we've got a great bunch of guys here and I'm looking forward for the big climbs to come."
“We can be pretty happy as a team, Nicolas [Roche] was up there, so was Sergio [Henao] and Mikel [Nieve], just a little bit behind that, so I think as the first summit finish for the team we can all be pretty happy,” Froome said at the stage.
“Myself, personally, I was surprised with how decent the legs felt after not having raced properly since the Tour. We’re looking forward to the rest of the race now, the morale’s high and we’ve still got everything to race for at this point.”
“There was a lot of marking each other, I wasn’t going to chase with [teammate] Nico Roche up the road, and Valverde wasn’t going to chase with [Nairo] Quintana (Movistar) up the road. It was basically up to Katusha and [Joaquim] Rodriguez and I think they waited a little too long. Rodriguez is in great form and I think we can expect a lot from him in these next few weeks.”
“I said to Nico I feel like I need to ride at my own speed here, I need to see how I’m feeling, I’m not going to follow anyone specifically, I gave him the green light to go and he made the most of it.”
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