Ruben Plaza put together a sensational performance to win Stage 20 of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana on Saturday, riding on his own for well over 100 kilometres while the peloton was more concerned with the battle at the top of the standings.
Red jersey Tom Dumoulin finally broke under the relentless pressure, losing minutes while the other favourites raced to the finish line. The Dutchman dropped out of the top three altogether, and barring utter madness on the final day of racing, Fabio Aru will win the 2015 Vuelta in Madrid on Sunday.
Here are the results from Stage 20, along with the updated standings:
Saturday's stage provided Aru and Joaquim Rodriguez with their final opportunity to push Dumoulin out of the red jersey, with several categorised climbs littering the course toward Cercedilla. With the gap between Dumoulin and Aru just six seconds, none of the favourites were likely to push the tempo early, opening the door for an early break.
A group of 11 riders took off immediately after the start of the race, and before long they were joined by a number of other riders, none of whom figured to play a big role in the general classification. Plaza had no intention of staying with the group and decided to attack, embarking on a solo journey that lasted several hours, to the admiration of cycling commentator Jose Been:
The peloton didn't care too much and allowed the Lampre-Merida rider a lead of over 10 minutes, and with the riders in the chasing group struggling to communicate, Plaza managed to stay ahead on his own for most of the stage.
He started to struggle on the climbs at the midway point of the stage, with Sean Kelly (h/t Eurosport's Felix Lowe) suggesting he should have timed his jump later:
The peloton finally started racing with 50 kilometres remaining, as Astana sent Dario Cataldo to the front of the pack in an attempt to isolate Dumoulin. Giant-Alpecin have at times struggled to protect their leading rider, and the other teams were determined to drop as many domestiques as possible ahead of the finale.
Mikkel Landa switched gears during the climb of the Puerto de la Morcuera with Aru on his wheel, and Dumoulin was forced to let the Italian ride for the first time, a sign the Dutchman could struggle later in the stage. Behind those two, Alejandro Valverde appeared to be struggling tremendously, to the shock of VeloVoices:
With Astana pushing the pace, the peloton shattered into small pieces, with only the favourites managing to keep up with Landa. And just as it seemed things would settle down, Aru himself placed his first attack, dropping Dumoulin and receiving some unexpected help from Nairo Quintana.
With no team-mates around and Astana now giving it their all, the gap between Aru and Dumoulin quickly rose to 20 seconds, and former professional cyclist Michael Rasmussen thought it wouldn't matter whether the Dutchman made it back to the group or not:
The Dutchman started making up time during the descent, but he had to find the group with Aru again before the next climb, or his dream of winning the Vuelta would be over. Meanwhile, Astana ordered Andrey Zeits and Luis Leon Sanchez to drop back from the early break, giving Aru two more team-mates heading into the finale.
Katusha also started to contribute, knowing Rodriguez still had a chance to move up to second place or maybe even beat Aru to first during the final climb, and with both teams now working hard, TV presenter Ashley House didn't like Dumoulin's chances:
Mikel Nieve gave the Dutchman a little support, but when the gap to Aru started to approach one minute, his body-= language changed dramatically. Dumoulin sat a bit straighter, dropped his head and no longer looked at the road ahead―he knows his bid to win the Vuelta was over.
So did Procyclingnews.eu:
At the front of the race, Plaza was putting on an incredible show, maintaining a lead of well over a minute against four chasers. And with the bulk of the finale taking place on descending roads, things were suddenly looking up for the Spaniard.
With Dumoulin losing so much time, the riders outside of the top three realised they suddenly had the chance to move up in the standings. Quintana and Rafal Majka attacked during the final climb, but the rest of the group was happy to just cruise up the hill and continue putting Dumoulin at a distance.
Lowe felt terrible for the Dutchman:
Global Cycling Network's Daniel Lloyd also weighed in:
With Majka gaining on Rodriguez in the standings, the Spaniard ordered his Katusha team-mates to start chasing in the descent, and the final kilometres were ridden at a frantic pace.
Plaza comfortably took the stage win, but all eyes were on the group of Aru. The Sardinian was swarmed as soon as he crossed the finish line, and Rodriguez joined in on the celebrations once he was informed Majka fell short of overtaking him in the standings.
Dumoulin dropped all the way out of the top five, and he told Eurosport (h/t Been) that while he knew he would look back on his Vuelta with pride, he only felt disappointment crossing the finish line:
The final stage of the 2015 Vuelta a Espana will be a typical flat ride toward Madrid, where the peloton will do several laps on a local circuit before an expected bunch sprint. Stage 21 offers no realistic opportunities to make up time in the standings; all the riders will do is drink champagne, smile for the cameras and be glad the 2015 Vuelta is over.