Fighting through fog and 23% gradients, Rafał Majka finishes fourth on Vuelta a España stage 17.
Back on the road after the Individual Time Trial, it was another hilly day at the Vuelta a España as the race headed deep into the Basque Country. In spite of a damp and misty finale, the enthusiasm of the fans kept the riders motivated, especially on the summit finish, where Rafał Majka came so close to challenging for the win after a day spent riding in the break. As one of only a handful of the twenty-one strong break to last to the end, Rafał fought hard with his rivals, taking fourth. With the finish line barely visible due to the fog, Emanuel Buchmann crossed the line a few minutes after his teammate, having suffered along with his GC rivals on the day’s last climb, his efforts keeping hold of his eleventh position in the overall.
Starting with a circuitous route that took in the first of six categorised climbs, it was back to the more demanding and undulating terrain after the fairly flat Individual Time Trial of yesterday’s stage. The first two climbs would be covered after 85km of this 157km parcours, but it was the final four that would reveal who was in good form, all falling in the final 40km of the day. Individually, these wouldn’t cause the peloton a great deal of trouble, but collectively and in quick succession, it would be a ferocious finale, where riders would have to end the day on the summit of the first category Alto del Balcón de Bizkaia. Starting at a gentle 3% gradient, riders might be lulled into a false sense of security, before the road became progressively steeper, ultimately hitting an unimaginable 23.83%. Followed by a slightly less steep section, at just 7.64%, this might be the point riders would attack and become where the stage came to life.
The Team Tactics
The tough summit finish was one that would suit Rafał Majka, and so the Polish rider would either get in the break early on or, if this wasn’t possible, would watch how the day unfolded and try to get in the decisive move if the opportunity came up towards the end of the stage. The rest of the team would focus on supporting Emanuel Buchmann over the day’s challenging terrain. All of the riders in the GC race would be suffering today, and it would be important for the team to protect Emanuel and keep pace with the other riders in the overall contest.
Skirting the northern Spanish coast, the temperature and landscape had changed dramatically since the start of the Vuelta. Where there were cloudless skies, oppressive heat and desert-like terrain, there was now cool air and lush forest. In the much less punishing conditions, the riders were clearly more motivated and were pushing from the drop of the flag to get in the break. Every time an attack was pulled back, another one went, but nothing stuck until the descent of the first climb. Twenty-one riders were in this sizeable group, and in amongst them were the Austrian National Champion, Lukas Pöstlberger, and Rafał Majka. This group would be aiming to build a strong advantage before the day’s chaotic and punishing finale, first hitting four minutes and then more than eight minutes at 60km to go. It was at this point the peloton put their foot down and started working to reduce the gap to the front, the advantage falling steadily, but it didn’t look as though the bunch would be able to make the catch, as the break hit the foot of the final climb with more than three minutes in hand. As the road ramped up, the break splintered, but the stronger climbers struck out on their own, Rafał out of the saddle on the painful 23% gradient, but looking solid on the demanding climb. Lukas dropped back to ride in support of Emanuel Buchmann, a select group of GC riders going ahead of him as the cloud descended on this stage, cooling the riders’ legs. An attack off the front of Rafał’s group in the final 1,500m saw him drop back, but rather than go into the red responding, the Polish rider kept his own pace, and while he was able to bridge back to the front, a second attack saw him distanced again. Shrouded in cloud, this cruel climb put the hurt into every single one of the riders as Rafał crossed the line in fourth. On a climb that seemed so much harder than its first category classification, Emanuel Buchmann found the going tough, a sentiment shared by many of the GC riders, but kept hold of eleventh on the overall standings.
01 M.Woods 4h09’48”
02 D.De la Cruz +0:05
03 D.Teuns +0:10
04 R.Majka +0:13
From the Finish Line
"We had another tough start to the stage with a climb right after the drop of the flag. Thanks to a strong effort, Lukas and Rafał made it into a big and strong break. We had planned to have Rafał in the break, so this worked out, and the rest of the guys in the bunch helped and protected Emu. He felt well and held on to 11th in the GC. There are some tough stages left and we'll keep fighting. Rafał took fourth, three riders were faster in the finale but I think he showed a fighting spirit." – Steffen Radochla, Sports Director
"Today wasn't my day. I tried it, I gave it my all but after spending several stages in the breakaway in this Vuelta, my legs aren't fresh. Maybe it was due to the rest day and the time-trial but I didn't feel too well today. However, I gave it a try, I took my chances and I finished so close to the podium in this brutal stage." – Rafał Majka
"This stage and, in particular, the final climb, was just too hard. The fog made it even more difficult. On top of that, the breakaway group had a big advantage and we had to pull hard to come close to them. That effort and the brutal ascent to Balcón de Bizkaia made it tricky to follow the leaders." – Emanuel Buchmann