Frank Schleck won stage 16 of La Vuelta after a long and climb-heavy day in the break, that saw him come into his own on the last two climbs and take victory.
Stage 16 was the third summit finish in a row and included three category 3 climbs, two category 2 climbs, a category one climb and a finish upon the HC Alto Armita de Alba.
The day began immediately with the climb of the cat 3 Alto de Aristebano and right from the starting flag the attacks came with five riders quickly able to get an advantage. These were KoM leader Omar Fraile (Caja Rural), Carlos Verona (Etixx-Quick Step), Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Frank Schleck (Trek), and Rodolfo Torres (Team Colombia) and they quickly got 6′ on the peloton.
Four more riders went clear as they continued up the climb – Moreno Moser (Cannondale-Garmin), Cyril Lemoine (Cofidis), Lawrence Warbasse (IAM Cycling) and George Bennett (LottoNL-Jumbo) – with Lampre-Merida’s Tsgabu Grmay following closely behind.
The four men were able to join the leading group as Fraile took full points at the top and Grmay was able to join up with them, creating a breakaway group of 10 riders with an advantage of 7′ as they descended the first climb.
Their lead continued to grow with the only danger to Aru’s lead being Schleck who was more than 40′ down and by the time they reached the foot of the second climb – the Alto de Piedratecha – they had more than 12′ on the peloton. At the top of the climb Fraile once again took the points – the rest of the breakaway more concerned with working together for the stage win – with their advantage now at 16’40”.
As the break continued to gain time on the peloton there was a stalemate with neither Astana or Katusha taking the responsibility to set a strong pace which allowed the break’s lead to biollow out even further to more than 21′ as the break reached the foot of the third climb – the category 3 Alto de Cabrunara.
Fraile once again took the points at the top of the climb to extend his lead in the mountains classification whilst the break’s gap fell for the first time of the stage as Katusha decided to put the pressure on a little, the break’s lead falling to just over 20′ as they began the descent.
When the break hit the slopes of the category 2 Alto de Tenebredo their advantage was hovering around the 19’30” mark when Fraile took more points to bolster his lead as KoM. As the break began their descent with a lead of around 19′ Katusha were still on the front of the peloton although the pace was still casual and they didn’t seem concerned about catching the break.
The break went over the top of the Tenebredo with their advantage still at 19’50”, making it likely that the stage winner would come from the break unless the peloton began to pick up the pace.
With Katusha still riding at the front of the peloton the break continued to forge on, hitting the slopes of the category 2 Alto del Cordal with their lead still intact and still working together well. The gradient of the Cordal began to take it’s toll though with the break’s lead coming down to 17’52” with half of the climb complete, with the gap coming down to 14′ as the break reached the top of the climb – Fraile taking full honours again – and Tinkoff-Saxo took over pacemaking duties from Katusha.
On the technical descent Warbasse lost tough and dropped almost 20″ back as the break tried to regain the majority o their lost time, but Tinkoff-Saxo were doing plenty of damage at the front of the peloton and had reduced the leaders’ gap to just 12′ with 30km – and two categorised climbs – to go.
As the break began the first category Alto de la Cobertoria their long day of climbing began to show, with riders beginning to drop off the pace. Although Warbasse had managed to get back in touch, Grmay and Lemoine fell back 20″ and Rolland, Fraile and Moser were 10″ behind them as the five leaders continued to climb.
Frank Schleck was the man to take full points at the top of the Cobertoria as he put on a fierce pace for the break which caused it to begin to fragment, with Schleck, Torres, Verona and Bennett being the only riders able to stay with him whilst the others dropped back.
Schleck’s pace was enough to also drop Verona and Bennett at the summit and they began their descent with a few seconds advantage on the chasers and more than 10′ still on the peloton, which was being slowly dismantled by the strong pace Tinkoff-Saxo were forcing.
With 7km to go Schleck and Torres reached the foot of the final climb – the HC Alto Ermita de Alba – with their lead still over 9′ making it likely that the stage winner would come from this pair. Torres didn’t really contribute tot he workload except to put in occasional digs of high pace which almost dislodged Schleck on more than one occasion.
Astana were leadnig the peloton after taking over the pacemaking and they had managed to reduce the peloton to just 20 riders, including most of the GC and elite riders and their lieutenants.
As Mikel Landa continued to drag the GC group up the climb, Schleck attacked Torres and easily distanced him and was able to get around 30″ as he went under the flamme rouge, staying away to take his first victory since 2012.
Landa’s pace was putting the GC group to the sword, with Valverde then Pozzovivo dropped as the group was thinned out to just 10 riders with 2km to go.
Rodriguez attacked just before the 1km banner and quickly got a significant gap which forced Aru and Majka to follow. Majka was distanced by Aru as Rodriguez continued to maintain his slight lead, crossing the line 2″ ahead of Aru and moving into the leader’s jersey.