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Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla - Spain - wielrennen - cycling - cyclisme - radsport - Benjamin KING (USA / Team Dimension Data) pictured during 73rd La Vuelta ciclista a España (2.UWT) Stage 9 from Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla (200.8 KM) - photo Luis Gomez/Cor Vos © 2018

VUELTA’18 Stage 9: Return Of The King!

Stage Report: Ben King (Dimension Data) took another stage win on another mountain top finish as Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) again had to settle for a valiant second place. The GC contest never really took off but Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) lost seconds and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) didn’t, leaving the Brit in red.

This was going to be the key stage of the first week, a chance for the GC contenders to really come out firing. It didn’t happen like that though, the GC battle did come partly to life but this won’t be a stage that will live long in the memory. Unfortunately the flat finish to the final climb coupled with a rough headwind limited GC attacks by and large. However, that doesn’t take anything away from the job done by Ben King who got into the break of the day and then decided to push on with 19km to go. He led by 1.30 as the climb started but Bauke Mollema was hauling time back but the closest he got was 18 seconds before he fell away inside the final kilometre. Nairo Quintana emerged at the front for really the first time in the race and he started the attacking but he couldn’t get clear and the gaps were minimal when we hit the finish line. Quintana took big strides to end the day third on GC, just 14 seconds back but it was Simon Yates who slips into red by just one second ahead of Valverde. Emmanuel Buchmann’s team did a lot of work on the lower slopes of the climb but the German wasn’t able to follow the attacks at the top, he finishes the day in fourth place on GC, just 16 seconds down with Ion Izagirre a further second back in fifth place. The GC battle is well poised as we head into the rest day and the second week.

The 195km from Talavera de la Reina to La Covatilla is going to be the most crucial of all the stages in the first week of the 2018 Vuelta and possibly the entire race. We’re halfway between Madrid and the western border of Portugal in the Sierra de Gredos mountain range. It’s very much a stage of two halves, the first 100km feature three categorised climbs; the first category Puerto del Pico (15.1km @ 5.7%), third category Alto de Gredos (4.6km @ 4.9%) and the second category Puerto de Peña Negra (12.2km @ 4.8%). The Puerto del Pico features early stages around the 5% mark but the latter stages ramp up to 7.7% and 6.7%. After a long descent the next 60km are almost all flat before the road starts climbing again, 23km from the finish. The early climbs will break up the bunch but it’s likely that we will see a full peloton hit the early slopes of La Covatilla. The final climb though is brutal, far more brutal than the 9.8km @ 7.1% suggests. The very early and late parts of the climb are virtually flat which means the mid-sections feature steep points of 12% and consistent stretches of 11%.

Familiar Names
With a long day ahead the break went clear without too many issues and it was de ja vu for many riders. The break consisted of; Luis Angel Mate & Kenneth Van Bilsen (Cofidis), Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Dylan Teuns (BMC), Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), Ben King (Dimension Data), Reto Hollenstein (Katusha-Alpecin), Tom Leezer (LottoNL-Jumbo), Luis Mas (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA), Aritz Bagues (Euskadi Murias), and Jesus Ezquerra (Burgos-BH). Angel Mate has been a regular fixture in breaks this race as he has mopped up king of the mountains points. Bauke Mollema has also been a regular but his best has been second place on a stage after, as at the Tour de France, going clear with significantly better finishers and Ben King already has a stage win on the first mountain stage of the race.

As the break hit the early stages of the first climb the gap sat just slightly beyond the four minute mark from the Groupama-FDJ led peloton. Rudy Molard (Groupama-FDJ) was still leading the race after taking over the red jersey on stage 5. He’d taken the jersey off Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) and no doubt the Sky tactics had involved Kwiatkowski slipping back into the red jersey today when Molard fell away, unfortunately for the British team, the Polish former World Champion had fallen down the GC and was now 6th 1.06 back from Molard. The best of the rest was now Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) who sat just 37 seconds behind the Frenchman.

On the opening climb Mate took maximum KoM points with Mollema and King his nearest rivals. The battle was repeated on the second climb as again Mate took maximum points with Mollema and King fighting it out behind. Over the early climbs the break were slowly padding their lead and over the top of the second climb it was now a little over five minutes and slowly growing. On the final climb of the first half of the race Mate was again the leader but this time it was De Gendt and King who fought it out for the second place. It may have only been the first week of the race but Mate was building a sizeable lead in the king of the mountains competition.

Groupama-FDJ had done a good job of keeping the peloton in check but the gap was now out beyond nine minutes and Ben King was sat in the virtual red jersey. On stage 4, King had been the virtual red jersey, but brutal pace making from LottoNL-Jumbo had resulted in him losing the red jersey but he had taken the stage, both victories were still on the table for him now. Behind in the peloton Groupama-FDJ had given way to Movistar who were defending Alejandro Valverde’s position.

Done Deal?
With 40km to go, the gap was closer to ten minutes than nine and the peloton looked content to hold tight and wait for the final climb. The peloton had clearly accepted that the stage win wasn’t going to come from someone in the peloton but it wasn’t yet assured that Ben King would slip into the red jersey. With 35km to ride, the American was in red by 3:19 but that could slip away very quickly on the final climb.

Sky were the next team to takeover the pacemaking duties on the front of the bunch. It was a case of musical chairs at the moment, the front of the bunch was being led by a changing cast of teams but none of them really seemed like they wanted to be there. The Sky ownership of the front was beginning to pay off though as the gap was collapsing towards the eight minute mark with under 30km left to go.

The final climb may only have been 9km long but in reality the road rose from a lot further out. De Gendt was the first to attack and he took King and Mollema with him with Teuns, Ezquerra and Mas joining later and Hollenstein the last man to make it across. The leading six were relatively short lived however as Angel Mate towed the remaining members of the break across. Bagues was the last man across and he was really struggling as the road and the attacks went up.

With 18km to go the gap was less than seven minutes and it was no longer a done deal that the break would actually stay away and Ben King’s chances of being in red were shot. Despite this, the American was on the attack through the narrow and steep cobbled streets of Candelario before the start of the climb proper. Mas was chasing but slightly further down the road De Gendt was leading a group in pursuit of King.

Astana were leading the way as the peloton hit the streets of Candelario. It was like a scene from the Tour of Flanders as the riders dug in on the steep cobbles. The pace making of Astana hadn’t cut out that many of the riders but Kwiatkowski was within the first five riders and completely alone. If the ascent had been trying the descent was another matter, narrow with very sharp corners. Ben King was able to pick his line and he had 1:12 on the rest of the break as the road turned uphill again, still not on the actual climb. The pack had also made it through safely but the group was reduced to no more than 60 riders.

La Covatilla
The climb was just 1km off for King and he would take a lead of 1:30 into it, it wouldn’t be enough to go into red but he was riding towards a second stage win. King was on the way up and his lead had expanded slightly to 1:34. Behind was the lone chase of Mas who had a small lead ahead of Mollema. The Dutchman was feeling strong though and he set off in lone pursuit of King.

The teams of LottoNL-Jumbo, Bahrain-Merida and Sky led the peloton as they all began to place their riders on the flatter early slopes. King’s lead was fading as Mollema’s charge took the gap below a minute. The Dutchman looked horrible on the bike but he was enjoying the steeper slopes and he was creeping up to King.

Rafa Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) was leading the peloton for his team mate Emmanuel Buchmann and the gap was falling, just 5:30 now, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that the peloton might have a shot at the stage win. King was suffering but his lead on Mollema wasn’t melting away, it was 44 seconds with 5.5km to go. Majka’s pace making was making a big difference, he’d dropped Molard and all of the Sky team bar Kwiatkowski.

Molard’s deficit was just 30 seconds but it was hard to see how the Frenchman could claw his way back in, he was also riding without team mates as Thibaut Pinot managed to stay with the leading group. The peloton were gaining about a minute a kilometre but the road flattened out at the top and they needed the gain ground quicker if they were going to take the stage, it was still a battle between King and Mollema who were just separated by 30 seconds, and falling.

Majka had slowed but with 3.5km to go he pushed on again and the GC group were strung out but nobody else was willing to keep the pace high. Majka was done and Movistar were forced to the front. It still wasn’t a done deal that the stage would be won by King or Mollema, who were just 15 seconds apart, the peloton were under four minutes to go with 2.7km to go. If an attack went that might melt away quickly but both King and Mollema were getting closer and closer to the flat section at the summit. LottoNL-Jumbo were pushing on though, Sepp Kuss was the revelation of the race and he was putting Kwiatkowski in difficulty as the Pole dangled off the back of the group.

Mollema could see King, he’d closed the gap but he just couldn’t close it beyond 18 seconds. As soon as he got to that distance King was able to find something else and the gap went out to 20 seconds. It was yo-yoing within those two seconds but King was riding to a stage win yet again.

King was the first through the red kite and he was stretching his lead on Mollema, the American had looked like he might get caught by the peloton earlier in the day but he had recovered during the climb and was leading Mollema by 31 seconds and the GC group by 3:24. It was going to be two stage victories.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar) was leading the GC riders and Ion Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) were leading the way. Quintana went again but the road had flattened now and he was in a quintet of Rigoberto Uran (Education First), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb), Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), and Izagirre and Quintana. Simon Yates (Mitchelton Scott) had been found out but was closing quickly with George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) a little further behind. Alejandro Valverde had lost further time and was crawling into the finish. Kwiatkowski was the big loser though, he’d lost contact further down the mountain and had fallen out of contention despite all the work his team had done earlier in the stage.

Catch up with the ‘Vuelta First Week Photo Gallery’ HERE.

• Note: Canadian readers can watch the Vuelta LIVE with a subscription at Flobikes.com

Vuelta a España Stage 9 Result:
1. Benjamin King (USA) Dimension Data in 5:30:38
2. Bauke Mollema (Ned) Trek-Segafredo at 0:48
3. Dylan Teuns (Bel) BMC at 2:38
4. Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana at 2:40
5. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar
6. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb
7. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale at 2:43
8. Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida at 2:46
9. Simon Yates (GB) Mitchelton-Scott at 2:49
10. George Bennett (NZ) LottoNL-Jumbo at 3:02
11. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 3:04
12. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ at 3:05
13. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo
14. Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale
15. Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe at 3:08
16. Fabio Aru (Ita) UAE Team Emirates at 3:20
17. Richard Carapaz (Ecu) Movistar at 3:29
18. David De La Cruz (Spa) Sky at 3:32
19. Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step Floors
20. Sepp Kuss (USA) LottoNL-Jumbo
21. Louis Meintjes (RSA) Dimension Data
22. Jan Hirt (Cze) Astana
23. Reto Hollenstein (Swi) Katusha-Alpecin at3:50
24. Jesus Herrada (Spa) Cofidis at 3:54
25. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Sky at 4:44.

Vuelta a España Overall After Stage 9:
1. Simon Yates (GB) Mitchelton-Scott in 36:54:52
2. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar at 0:01
3. Nairo Quintana (Col) Movistar at 0:14
4. Emanuel Buchmann (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe at 0:16
5. Ion Izagirre (Spa) Bahrain-Merida at 0:17
6. Tony Gallopin (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale at 0:24
7. Miguel Angel Lopez (Col) Astana at 0:27
8. Rigoberto Uran (Col) EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale at 0:32
9. Steven Kruijswijk (Ned) LottoNL-Jumbo at 0:43
10. George Bennett (NZ) LottoNL-Jumbo at 0:48
11. Fabio Aru (Ita) UAE Team Emirates at 1:08
12. Enric Mas (Spa) Quick-Step Floors at 1:15
13. David De La Cruz (Spa) Sky at 1:26
14. Wilco Kelderman (Ned) Sunweb at 1:50
15. Michal Kwiatkowski (Pol) Sky at 2:10
16. Thibaut Pinot (Fra) Groupama-FDJ at 2:33
17. Rudy Molard (Fra) Groupama-FDJ at 2:43
18. Benjamin King (USA) Dimension Data at 3:01
19. Laurens De Plus (Bel) Quick-Step Floors at 3:17
20. Jack Haig (Aus) Mitchelton-Scott at 4:29
21. Jesus Herrada (Spa) Cofidis at 5:04
22. Louis Meintjes (RSA) Dimension Data at 5:27
23. Rafal Majka (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe at 5:44
24. Hermann Pernsteiner (Aut) Bahrain-Merida at 6:01
25. Gianluca Brambilla (Ita) Trek-Segafredo at 9:08.

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