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While Landa won the Vuelta a Espana queen stage by being the strongest from an early breakaway, Aru was the best of the favourites and took the overall lead; Froome crashed out of contention while Dumoulin defended himself well

Photo: Sirotti

ASTANA - PREMIER TECH

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IAN BOSWELL

RIDER PROFILE
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MIKEL LANDA

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VUELTA A ESPAÑA

RACE PROFILE
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02.09.2015 @ 19:21 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Mikel Landa bounced back from a few poor performances in the most beautiful way when he took an impressive solo victory in the feared queen stage at the Vuelta a Espana. Having joined a 19-rider breakaway, he dropped his final companions on the final climb. Fabio Aru made it a fantastic day for Astana as he turned out to be the strongest of the favourites and even though Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) defended himself well, it was enough to take the overall lead. Chris Froome crashed right from the start and dropped out of GC contention.

 

In the Giro d’Italia, Mikel Landa, Fabio Aru and the rest of the Astana team created some real fireworks and completely blew up the race. They were expected to repeat that kind of performance in the Vuelta a Espana but with Vincenzo Nibali getting disqualified after stage 2, Paolo Tiralongo crashing out of the race and Landa dropping out of GC contention, they got the race off to a very poor start.

 

Since then, the Kazakh team have been relatively anonymous but with a strong showing in the first big mountain stage, Fabio Aru proved that he is ready to go for the overall win. Apparently, the entire Kazakh team have just been saving their energy for the crucial phase of the race as they came out swinging in today’s queen stage.

 

The 138km course with six major climbs had been described as the hardest in recent grand tour history and it certainly provided the drama that many were expecting. And like in the Giro, it was Astana all over the place as Landa took the win from a breakaway while Aru finished second and moved into the race lead.

 

At the top of the penultimate climb with 19km to go, Astana had already blown the race to pieces after a 19-rider breakaway had dominated most of the stage. Landa, Nelson Oliveira (Lampre-Merida), Ian Boswell (Sky), Romain Sicard (Europcar) and Pawel Poljanski (Tinkoff-Saxo) were the survivors and had an advantage of 2 minutes over the main group of Alberto Losada, Daniel Moreno, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha), Mikel Nieve (Sky), Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo), Gianluca Brambilla (Etixx-QuickStep), Louis Meintjes (BMC), Domenico Pozzovivo (Ag2r), Jerome Coppel (IAM), George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo), Fabrice Jeandesboz (Europcar), Aru, Diego Rosa, Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), Esteban Chaves (OricaGreenEDGE), Rodolfo Torres (Colombia) and race leader Tom Dumoulin.

 

At this point, one big name was already missing. Chris Froome had crashed even before they hit the first climb and even though he had eventually made it back to the main group, he was distanced on the Collada de Gallina. He would never make it back and ended up losing more than 10 minutes to Landa.

 

Losada was doing all the work in the main group until he swung off with 12km to go. While the escapees rolled across the line in the intermediate sprint, Sanchez took over despite having his teammate Landa up the road.

 

Oliveira knew that he was up against some strong climbers so he attacked with 9km to go. Landa was quick to react and he joined the Portuguese before riding away as soon as they hit the final 8km climb.

 

Losada, Coppel and Bennett were dropped from the peloton as they approached the final climb, with Sanchez doing a huge amount of work. That set Aru up for his attack as soon as the road got steep with 8km to go.

 

Rodriguez, Valverde, Moreno, Quintana, Nieve and Majka joined the strong Italian who flew past Darwin Atapuma (BMC) who had been in the early break. However, the Movistar pair, Nieve and Majka soon cracked, leaving just the two Katusha riders with Aru.

 

Further back, Dumoulin had gone into TT mode and with Chaves and Rosa on his wheel, he left Torres, Pozzovivo and Meintjes behind and made it back to Valverde, Quintana and Atapuma. Quintana attacked immediately and made back to Majka and Nieve who were still ahead and had picked up Poljanski who worked for his leader.

 

Impressively, Landa has extended his lead over the Aru group from 1.50 to 2.05 with 6km to go where Dumoulin had already lost 30 seconds. Moments later, Aru again went into action as he easily dropped the two Katusha riders.

 

Further back, more drama unfolded when Quintana cracked and was passed by the Dumoulin group. Meanwhile, Aru flew past Sicard and later also Oliveira.

 

Poljanski ended his work and left it to Majka and Nieve to try to get back to the Katusha pair while the disaster continued for Movistar when Valverde was dropped from the Dumoulin group. At this point, the race leader had lost 1.05 to Aru who was 1.40 behind Landa.

 

Aru also passed Boswell with 3km to go, meaning that only Landa was still ahead of hism. With 3km to go, he was 30 seconds ahead of the Katusha duo, 45 seconds ahead of Majka and Nieve and 1.10 ahead of Dumoulin, Chaves and Rosa.

 

Aru continued to get closer to his teammate but it was too late to take the win. Landa had plenty of time to celebrate his third grand tour stage victory while the Italian reached the finish 1.22 later. Boswell held onto third while Moreno and Rodriguez lost almost two minutes. Majka and Nieve were just 11 seconds behind Rodriguez while Chaves led Dumoulin across the line with a time loss of 2.59 after the Colombian had made a late attack in an attempt to distance the race leader. Valverde had nearly rejoined them while Quintana was a big loser as he rolled across the line much later.

 

With his time gains, Aru moves into the race lead with a 27-second advantage over Rodriguez while Dumoulin is third, 3 seconds further adrift. He should get a relatively easy first day in the red jersey as stage 12 only includes an early category 2 climb that leads to a long, slightly downhill run to the finish in Lleida where the sprinters hope for a chance to shine.

 

The queen stage

After the rest day, it was time for the queen stage which brought the riders over just 138km from Andorra La Vella to a summit finish at the top of the Cortals d’Encamp climb. However, the short distance didn’t mean that it was an easy day as there was no flat section at all. Right from the start, the riders hit the first category 1 climb and then it was another two category 1 climb, the category HC Collada de la Gallina and a small category 2 climb before they got to the 8km category 1 climb to the finish.

 

It was a cloudy but dry day when the riders gathered for the start. One rider was missing as Vladimir Isaychev (Katusha) didn’t sign in.

 

Froome goes down

There were lots of nervous faces when the riders rolled through the neutral zone but lots of riders were still eager to go on the attack. Fabio Duarte, Carlos Verona, Omair Fraile and Ben King attacked as soon as the flag was waved and they were joined by Pierre Rolland, Riccardo Zoidl and Torres before they were brought back. Duarte, Fraile, King, Verona, King and Blel Kadri tried again and got company from Zoidl, Larry Warbasse, Salvatore Puccio, Sergio Paulinho, Landa, Tiago Machado and Jose Joaquin Rojas but that move had to success either.

 

While the attacking continued, disaster struck for Froome as he hit the deck at the bottom of the first climb. He was quickly back on his bike but with the fast start he faced a long and hard chase back to the front.

 

Lots of attacks

Jeandesboz and Moreno Moser were the next to attack but it was Sicard and Atapuma who got an advantage. Torres tried to join the pair but he never made the junction and fell back to Fraile, Bennett and Verona who formed a chase trio. Meanwhile, Froome was chasing with Christian Knees and later Vail Kiryienka would also drop back to pace the leader.

 

The chase group was brought back before Coppel took off. He was joined by Olievira and Fraile and those three riders joined Atapuma and Sicard. Meanwhile, Froome was riding hard, constantly passing riders as the peloton had exploded to pieces.

 

A 19-rider front group

Javier Moreno was doing some huge damage in the main group which was down to less than 20 riders and he later took off alongside Boswell, Poljanski, Landa and Montaguti. Plaza and Losada also koined that group while Fraile led the front group over the top.

 

The main group crested the summit with a delay of 1.05 while Froome was in a very big group with the likes of Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) and Meintjes who had lost contact due to a mechanical. Meanwhile, more riders attacked from the peloton and it was Romain Hardy and Poljanski who were the first rider to join the leaders. Boswell, Moreno, Imanol Erviti, Montaguti, Losada, Landa, Verona, Plaza and Damien Howson also made the junction and when Mikael Cherel, Jose Goncalves and Bennett also made it, 19 riders had gathered in the front.

 

Froome rejoins the peloton

Astana had taken complete control in the peloton with Alessandro Vanotti setting the pace. As things calmed down a bit, the Froome group rejoined the peloton and it was a bunch of more than 100 riders than was 1.15 behind with 115km to go. They brought Rubiano back after he had tried to bridge the gap.

 

Vanotti slowly allowed the gap to grow while Montaguti rejoined the front group after a mechanical as they went up the second climb. Here Plaza and Fraile sprinted for the points and it was the former to come out on top. At this point, the gap was 2.15.

 

Sky take control

Erviti attacked on the descent and he rode strongly to put 30 seconds into his chasers. Meanwhile, the gap had gone out to 4.10 when Astana suddenly stopped their work.

 

Sky didn’t hesitate for a second and immediately put Knees on the front. Moments later, Erviti hit the third climb with a 45-second advantage.

 

Landa attacks

Riders were getting dropped from the peloton while Knees maintained a stable gap of 4.30 all the way up the climb. In the chase group, Goncalves was riding hard for Caja Rural but the gap still stayed around 1.10 for most of the time until Landa made a surge. The Basque was joined by Montaguti, Poljanski, Atapuma and Oliveira but the group came back together.

 

Landa tried again and this time he was joined by Oliveira and Bennett. Fraile, Coppel, Poljanski and Cherel also made it across before Boswell brought it back together.

 

A fight for KOM points

Erviti reached the top with a 40-second advantage while Fraile beat Plaza, Oliveira and Coppel in the sprint for second. At this point, the Movistar rider decided to wait and it was Hardy and Montaguti who joined him after they had escaped on the descent.

 

That trio hit the Collada de la Gallina with a 15-second advantage but they were brought back immediately. Hardey was dropped before Sicard and Losada started the attacking. Cherel joined them but it all came back together before Coppel took off. Moreno and Verona had been distanced through.

 

Froome is dropped

Leonardo Duque was the next Colombia rider to try to bridge the gap but he was brought back when Puccio took over the pace-setting for Sky. Meanwhile, Sicard, Poljanski and Boswell joined Coppel and later Atapuma, Landa, Oliveira and Fraile would make it an 8-rider group.

 

With 45km to go, the gap had gone out to 5.30 and this was the signal for Astana to kick into action. Dario Cataldo took over the pace-setting and he made the group explode to pieces. Immediately, Froome drifted towards the back and it didn’t take long for him to lose contact. Thomas, Kiryienka and Henao waited for him and when Nicolas Roche was also dropped, Sky suddenly only had Nieve in the main group.

 

An 18-rider main group

Up the road, Coppel had been dropped by the chasers before Atapuma took off in pursuit of Landa. He was joined by Boswell and Sicard and those two riders made it back before Poljanski and later also Fraile made the junction.

 

The main group was down to just Nieve, Pozzovivo, Cataldo, Rosa, Sanchez, Aru, Torres, Brambilla, Valverde, Quintana, Chaves, Dombrowski, Meintjes, Dumoulin, Rodriguez, Moreno, Majka and they had already put more than two minutes into Froome. At the same time Cataldo’s hard wotk had reduced the gap to 3.45.

 

The peloton splits on the descent

Fraile led Landa and Atapuma over the top after Oliveira had made the junction to make it a septet. Meanwhile, Froome dropped back to the medical car and had clearly given up.

 

Cherel, Montaguti were brought back by the main group which split to pieces on the descent. Rodriguez and Valverde took off and were later joined by Moreno. They caught Losada and Erviti and the latter worked hard in the valley to increase the advantage.

 

Aru and Dumoulin back in contention

At the bottom of the descent, Cataldo, Aru, Quintana, Brambilla, Majka, Chaves and Goncalves were the nearest chasers and after Erviti had swung off in the Valverde group, it was a strong surge from Aru that allowed the Italian, Quintana, Brambilla, Chaves and Majka to rejoin the group after strong work from Cataldo. Nieve, Pozzovivo, Montaguti, Dumoulin, Javier Moreno, Sanchez, Rosa, Cherel, Dombrowski, Meintjes and Jeandesboz were further back, with Cherel and Montaguti working hard.

 

As they hit the penultimate climb, Pozzovivo went deep and with Nieve, Meintjes, Rosa, Sanchez, Dumoulin and Jeandsboz on his wheel, he managed to rejoin the main group in which Losada was working hard. Meanwhile, Fraile was yo-yoing off the back of the front group before getting dropped for good. Moments later, Landa led Boswell and Oliveira over the summit while the peloton followed 2 minutes later, setting the scene for the dramatic finale.

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