Rest day recap: Red jersey passed around as crashes mar first week of La Vuelta

We seem to have said this at every Grand Tour this year but here goes… what a week of drama we’ve had at the Vuelta!

The jersey has changed shoulders no less than five times in nine stages and there’s been crashes a plenty which have seen a few of the bigger names head for home early.

Here’s a rundown of what’s gone on…

Stage 1 – Salinas de Torrevieja > Torrevieja – 13.4km – TTT

A gentle start with a relatively short team time trial. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, if you’re Jumbo-Visma then quite a lot actually. The Dutch team – which boasted three possible GC contenders in Primoz Roglic, Steven Kruijswijk and George Bennett at the start of the race – had an early evening to forget.

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Not only did half the team come down after hitting some surface water caused by a burst paddling pool – yeah, really! – their team car was parked in such an unfortunate position that it was blamed by Deceuninck Quick-Step for them not winning the stage.

The same spot of water also brought down UAE Team Emirates but the damage to Jumbo-Visma was arguably worse – they came across the line 40 seconds down on the stage winners.

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One of the pre-race picks, Miguel Angel Lopez took the first red jersey of this year’s Vuelta after leading home his Astana team two seconds ahead of Deceuninck Quick-Step.

Stage 2 – Benidorm > Calpe – 199.6km 

We’ve been critical of Nairo Quintana’s chances of ever winning another Grand Tour but the Colombian set his stall out early with a superb solo victory on stage two.

The Movistar man jumped with 3km to go from a group which also contained Roglic, Rigoberto Uran of EF Education First, Mitchelton-Scott’s Mikel Nieve, Sunweb’s Nicolas Roche and Fabio Aru of UAE Team Emirates.

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He finished five seconds ahead of Roche but it was the Irishman who took the red jersey.

The riders held a minute’s silence for Bjorg Lambrecht before the stage got underway in Benidorm and it was Lambrecht’s teammate Sander Armée who got into an early break, later joined by Angel Madrazo of Burgos-BH.

The pair got over the first summit alone but Jonathan Lastra (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Willie Smit (Katusha-Alpecin) bridged across before the second climb and the quartet built up a lead of around seven minutes.

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Armée was the last man standing from the break with just under 40km to go and when he was swallowed up an attack by Roche and Nieve 20km from the finish was enough to allow a six-strong group to form.

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The move caught race leader Lopez by surprise and when Quintana decided he was going to go there was only ever going to be one result.

Stage 3 – Ibi. Ciudad del Juguete > Alicante – 188km

Irish eyes were smiling in Alicante as Bora Hansgrohe’s Sam Bennett snatched his first-ever Vuelta victory in the sprint.

Bennett, who’s had to be patient for a Grand Tour chance this season having been snubbed for the Giro and the Tour, outsprinted Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) and Luka Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) to collect his 12th win of the season.

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His compatriot Roche stayed in the red jersey to make it a double celebration for the Irish, in a race which has been kind to them over the years.

After two days of unpredictability, stage three proved to be more straight forward – a break went away with little chance of surviving and, given how scant opportunities are, the sprinters’ teams did plenty of work to drag it back.

Madrazo did add to his King of the Mountains points but he was never going to stay away.

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The pace was upped inside the last 10km and by the time they passed under the 3km-to-go marker, the sprinters were set up to do battle.

Bennett followed the wheel of Theuns and once he got into his pace there was little the Belgian could do to stop him sailing past.

Stage 4 – Cullera > El Puig – 175.5km

There’s close… and then there’s close and the fourth stage into El Puig featured one of the closest photo finishes we’ve seen in a long time.

Deceuninck Quick-Step’s Dutch champion Fabio Jakobsen was the victor, pipping Bennett by the tiniest of margins on the line.

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In fairness, Bennett did well to get himself into a potential winning position given he took the slightly longer way around a roundabout with a kilometre to go.

It was a relatively quiet day for most although Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk abandoned after 50km, still feeling the effects of the opening stage TTT crash.

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Jelle Wallys of Lotto Soudal got his nose out in front when the flag dropped and was the last the break to be caught 19km from the line.

Roche hung on to the red jersey for another day but admitted afterwards that he felt his time in it may be about to come to an end…

Stage 5 – L’ Eliana > Observatorio Astrofísico de Javalambre – 170.7km

It was a day for the breakaway and the smaller teams on the climb up to the Observatorio Astrofísico de Javalambre as Madrazo claimed a spectacular victory for the tiny Burgos-BH team.

Despite his companions up front trying, again and again, to drop him on the final climb, the Spaniard hung in and found the extra push needed inside the last kilometre to take the biggest win of his and his team’s career.

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He finished ahead of teammate Jetse Bol and Cofidis’ José Herrada.

It was also a good day for Lopez; the Astana man got the better of a reduced GC bunch inside the last final 3km to move himself back into the red jersey.

The Colombian was the strongest of the group of favourites to place 4th on the stage, 47 seconds behind Madrazo.

Roglic and Valverde limited their losses to Lopez but the first summit finish of this year’s Vuelta didn’t end well for Quintana and fellow Colombian Esteban Chaves who conceded more than 50 seconds to their compatriot.

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The victory will have tasted sweet for Madrazo and the Burgos-BH team, especially given the squad were suspended for three weeks at the start of the season after a series of positive drug tests over the last couple of years.

Stage 6 – Mora de Rubielos > Ares del Maestrat – 198.9km

Jesus Herrada went one better than brother Jose 24 hours later, taking his first-ever Grand Tour victory on a day dominated by crashes.

Herrada pipped Bahrain Merida’s Dylan Teuns to the line but it was the Belgian who ended up in the red jersey after finishing second on the Ares del Maestrat climb.

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The stage will be best remembered for a huge crash almost halfway through which took out EF Education’s Uran and Hugh Carthy, CCC’s Victor De La Parte and former race leader Roche.

At one point Team Ineos’ David de la Cruz – a late addition to the British team’s line-up – was the virtual leader but he had no response when Teuns jumped off the front with Herrada in pursuit of Mitchelton-Scott’s Tsgabu Grmay and Movistar’s Nelson Oliveira.

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Herrada decided to make his move with 400m to go and Teuns, probably aware he’d be riding into red, decided against following the Spaniard, who himself wore the leaders’ jersey in the 2018 edition of the race.

Stage 7 – Onda > Mas de la Costa – 183.2km

There was a rainbow at the end of the stage as world champion Alejandro Valverde rolled back the years to take a 120th career win.

Valverde edged out Roglic, Lopez and Movistar teammate Quintana on a day in which Teuns lost all momentum with 26km to go.

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Quintana took the initiative and it looked like he had put Valverde in trouble.

But Spaniard wasn’t going to give up that easily and when he surged for the line, only Roglic could keep pace.

A strong group – including the likes of Wallays, former world champion Philippe Gilbert, UAE’s Sergio Henao and Ineos’ Sebastian Henao – eventually got a break going 60kms into a brutal day of racing.

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But the peloton wasn’t going to allow a second consecutive breakaway victory and the teams of the GC contenders kept them on a tight leash all day.

Gilbert and Sergio Henao were the last to be caught as Astana and then Jumbo Visma upped the tempo and doomed their efforts to failure.

Lopez moved back into red for a third time as he kept pace with his rivals.

Stage 8 – Valls > Igualada – 166.9km

A wet and wild stage in Catalunya saw German Nikias Arndt power to victory.

After the sprinters teams and GC contenders decided against contesting the stage, it was left to the breakaway to triumph on a largely flat stage, although a climb inside the final 30km did at least give the men at the front something to think about.

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Sunweb’s Arndt outsprinted Alexander Aranburu (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Soudal) while Cofidis’ Nicholas Edet was the surprise recipient of the red jersey after the group containing Lopez rolled over the line nine minutes behind the break.

It was a ragged day of racing with attacks left, right and centre pretty much from the off.

The large break probably wouldn’t have stayed away had the main contenders not been saving themselves for the following day in Andorra but that won’t have concerned either Edet or Arndt whose visits to the podium are few and far between.

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The heavens opening on the descent from the Puerto de Montserrat made things tricky for the long run but Arndt held his nerve.

Stage 9 – Andorra la Vella > Cortals d’Encamp – 94.4km

So many times this year we’ve hailed the emergence of a new young talent.

And the final stage before the first rest day was another chance to do so as UAE Team Emirates’ Tadej Pogacar pocketed his first Grand Tour victory in Andorra.

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The 20-year-old, who’s already tasted stage and overall victories this season at the Tour of California and the Volta ao Algarve, showed he can mix it with the best of them finishing ahead of new race leader Quintana, Roglic and Valverde.

The riders once again had to contend with a number of external factors including a hail storm which saw some of them stopping to take shelter and a treacherous looking gravel section which was made even worse by the wet weather.

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There were crashes on that section for Roglic and Lopez but thankfully neither rider seemed too badly affected.

In fact, Roglic summoned some resolve from somewhere to put his mishap behind him and drag himself back onto the day’s podium, finishing 48 seconds down on Slovenian neo-pro Pogacar.

From a British perspective, Ineos’ Tao Geoghegan Hart spent some time at the front of the race as he looked to put a disappointing first week behind him.

With today’s rest day out of the way, the GC battle looks to be playing out as expected, after a fairly unexpected first week of racing.

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