Purito earns a stupid hat and a different jersey
Stage 15 was notable for a rare sighting of the fabled Haimar Zubeldia, a man of such astonishing invisibility that he has five Tour de France top ten finishes to his name without anyone even knowing what he looks like. He was last man standing from the break, but was passed by the favourites with 2km to go.
That was where things got steep. A kilometre later, warmly embracing the gradient, Joaquim Rodriguez attacked. Only ‘attacked’ is entirely the wrong word for what he did. Attacked implies something sudden and savage, whereas what Rodriguez did was something slow and gradual, but equally lethal.
It was like gently pressing the tip of a knife to someone’s chest before gradually applying more and more pressure. For the next few minutes, he rode slightly faster than anyone else could. They could see him there in front of them, almost within spitting distance, but that small gap was only going in one direction. By the finish, he’d gained 12 seconds on Rafal Majka, who came second, and 15 seconds on race leader Fabio Aru.
As reward for his sterling efforts, Rodriguez was asked to don the traditional Asturian hat that makes you look like a dickhead. Only a man who’d just won a stage of the Vuelta to leave him one second off the race lead would be happy enough to get away with this look.
Tom Dumoulin Time Loss Watch – part one
On the steep stuff, all the climbers effortlessly waved goodbye to the time-trialist. Tom got away with losing 51 seconds, which is a sizeable wodge of time, but not debilitating.
The final summit finish of the race. There are still more climbs to come, but with no scope for recovery afterwards, summit finishes are where climbers tend to do most damage. For the purposes of this race, the climbers are everyone bar Tom Dumoulin.
There were seven climbs in all and this terrain brought us another rare sighting – the decreasingly visible Frank Schleck; a man who once contended for the Tour but who hadn’t actually won a bike race other than the Luxembourg National Road Race since 2011. But you know what? He won. He actually won. Frank Schleck won a bike race. The break still had a ten-minute lead with 18km to go and he was the strongest among them.
Behind, it was almost an action replay. Joaquim Rodriguez slowly wound it up for the last minute or so and eased away from everyone. Fabio Aru chased him in his usual bike-swinging, dribbling fashion. He kept the gap down to just two seconds, but when you only lead by a second, that’s not enough, so Rodriguez is the new race leader.
Tom Dumoulin Time Loss Watch – part two
Sometimes the riders cycle uphill and sometimes they find themselves on a climb. It’s not the same thing. The final incline on stage 16 was a fearsome thing. Hitting 20% at several points, you pretty much just had to cling on. And that’s precisely what Tom Dumoulin did.
As I said, he lost 51 seconds on stage 15’s summit finish, but this slope was another order of magnitude altogether. You’d have bet on him losing at least a minute and probably a couple, but in the end he lost just 27 seconds to Rodriguez and less to everyone else.
It was, in many ways, the mightiest ride of the race. Perhaps even of the year.
So where do things stand?
Let’s have a top ten table.
Rest day tomorrow and then it’s the time trial. What’ll happen to those time gaps then?
Well Joaquim Rodriguez is shit at time trials and Fabio Aru’s shit at time trials. Rafal Majka’s mediocre at time trials and Tom Dumoulin’s ace at them.
The ideal scenario would therefore be for Dumoulin to monster everyone and take the lead, leaving everyone to take turns attacking him in the few hills and mountains that remain.
This is probably what will happen. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but the Vuelta is the most consistently entertaining race on the calendar.