Vuelta Espana 2018 Stage 9: the accidental leader

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For the past few days, stage nine had carried the subtitle: “The day when Rudy Molard will lose the red jersey.”

Despite being a strong climber, this mammoth Grand Tour stage through the mountains would prove too much for our surprise race leader. He would crack, and someone more famous would assume control of the race.

Being a romantic, I was desperate for Molard to “do a Voeckler” and keep the race lead. The dismissive certainty of the pre-stage predictions was a bit to hard-nosed for my taste. Correct, but hard-nosed.

I would have preferred the pretence of: “he could do it, couldn’t he…wearing the jersey is sure to spur him on…etc. etc.”

Alas no.

On the final windswept climb to altitude at La Covatilla he lost contact. As so often with these things, the moment his will was broken, five or six kilometres from the summit, it was over.

Just like that.

Done.

He lost minutes.

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The world of French cycling did, however, still have cause to celebrate. Entire towns gathered in squares. Firework displays were hastily arranged. Bernard Hinault, I hear, held a gathering at his Breton farmhouse, delving into his wine cellar for a special vintage to mark the moment.

And that moment came just a couple of kilometres from the summit of La Covatilla as Michal Kwiatkowski gently lost contact with the main group of contenders, his legs whispering in Polish: “to wystarczy.”

That’s enough.

And with that we had a huge mountain climb in a Grand Tour with no Team Sky riders anywhere near the front. None. And the champagne corks began to pop.

UCI president David Lappartient was reported to have wept, briefly, tears of relief, before sitting down to pen a withering critique of Dave Brailsford and his Anglo-Saxon methods. Finally on the front foot, if only for one day.

It’s fair to say that the offending climb – La Covatilla – was a brute. A great shoulder of earth, reaching high altitude, with a searing wind ready to cut down any foolhardy attackers.

From the day’s break our hero from stage four, Ben King, was out alone on the slopes, with Bauke Mollema in pursuit. It came down to a simple question: Who can suffer most?

Ben King, as it happens.

Two career Grand Tour stage wins and counting.

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Amongst the contenders behind no one dared expose themselves to that wind and the GC race was neutralised. Only in the closing kilometres did sniping attacks come.

While the likes of Lopez, Kelderman and Quintana pushed for the finish Yates hovered behind, not attacking but maintaining and managing. Alejandro Valvere faltered, seconds further down the road.

He’d done what he hadn’t wanted to do.

The new race leader, accidentally, by a single second.

Post stage, Yates was sheepish.

After his dominance, and subsequent collapse, at the Giro d’Italia earlier this year his stated aim here at the Vuelta was to ride within himself. Let others worry about the jersey. Bide his time. Save his legs for later.

Imagine being so good that you can accidentally take the lead of a Grand Tour.

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