Within three kilometres of the flag dropping, the formula for Stage 17 was blown to pieces. A two hundred kilometre drag south over rolling terrain, and standard procedure suggests a breakaway up front, a slightly dawdling peloton behind, and a late catch in time for a bunch sprint.
Mother nature, though, had other ideas. Clearly fed up of these pesky cyclists and their ostentatious displays of dominance over the Spanish terrain, the wind blew. Alternating between cross wind and tail wind, and blowing hard.
The riders, pre stage, had the look of condemned men. The race would be blown to pieces, scattered up and down the road, to be replaced by a big fight. Eyeballs out. On the rivet.
Nerves were already shredded.
From the flag teams fought for position. No team is more adept in these conditions than Deceuninck Quick Step; being Belgian, crosswinds are page one, chapter one in the Big Book o’ Cycling Tactics.
The break formed immediately – a massive forty riders – seven of them from Deceuninck, and they rode like, well…Belgians, for the remaining two hundred kilometres or so.
The gap formed, and stabilised at around five minutes, to group two containing race leader Primoz Roglic, along with Valverde, Pogacar, Lopez and Majka; the top five on GC.Embed from Getty Images
Not so much caught napping as sleeping through their alarms and desperately trying to make amends by brushing their teeth with one hand, eating their Weetabix with the other, and phoning work on speakerphone to explain that the dog ate their car keys and they’ll be at their desk within the hour.
In these conditions there was not a cat in hells chance of closing the gap to the break. This was damage limitation.
The joker in the pack was Nairo Quintana; the Movistar man had infiltrated the lead group, had a couple of teammates in support, and was poised to leap above Pogacar and Valverde and on to the podium. For a while even the Red Jersey of Roglic was under threat. Quintana, implausibly, looked like he might take the seven minutes required to assume the lead.
And on a stage without a single classified climb.
In the final kilometres, into Guadalejara for the stage win, it was a question of which card would Deceuninck Quick Step play, and when, and could they outfox sprinter Sam Bennett? The Irishman, far and away the fastest finisher in the group, was outnumbered.
Two K’s to go and Zdenek Stybar launched.
One K to go, he tired.
Gilbert hovered menacingly.
Six hundred metres to go and Bennett could wait no longer; the cycling equivalent of a desperate thirty-five yarder in injury time. His acceleration, awesome, faded. He found himself clear of the field, with only Philippe Gilbert – one of the finest bike racers of his generation – sitting calmly on his wheel.
Dammit!Embed from Getty Images
Gilbert eased around for the win. Number two, for him, in this Vuelta. Four Deceuninck men in the top ten. James Knox among them, leaping up to eighth overall.
Quintana now second.
Roglic still in red, having dodged a bullet.
And all clocked at an average speed of more than fifty kilometres per hour. It was celebratory post-stage thousand-yard-stares all round.
(Image: By US Army, Tom Lea – https://web.archive.org/web/20130601171156/http://armylive.dodlive.mil/index.php/2010/10/art-of-the-american-soldier/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16719942 )