Fabio Aru of Astana finally found the keystone in Tom Dumoulin's stone wall of excellence, using his teammates to launch a decisive attack on the day's third climb to finally put away the Giant-Alpecin rider and win the Vuelta a España. Dumoulin spent close to three weeks defying expectations that he would lack the climbing prowess to contest the overall classification, even adding a few seconds to his scant lead as recently as yesterday.
But the gritty determination that saw him claw back time on all the major ascents disappeared today, and when Aru himself headmanned the attacking on the Puerto de la Morcuera with some 30km to go, Dumoulin at long last had no response left in his legs. Rather than fighting to limit losses, Dumoulin slipped steadily backward and was more than a minute behind entering the final climb of the day. By then, Aru had acquired two more teammates in Luis Leon Sanchez and Mikel Landa, who had joined the day's escape earlier and were at his disposal when Aru needed them most. As the race briefly flattened out, terrain that could have cost Aru compared to the powerful Dumoulin wound up being to his big advantage as his Astana mates hammered Dumoulin's hopes into oblivion. This was a crystallizing moment for the entire Vuelta -- not just Aru vs Dumoulin but the Sardinian with a strong team vs a strong but isolated Dutchman. Day after Day Aru struggled to make time against Dumoulin, but he did so knowing that someone would help him out in a moment of need, whereas Dumoulin had no margin of error, and today that cost him the race. That, in the end, was game, set and match.
Ruben Plaza of Lampre won the stage today with a three-hour solo effort, a glorious ride that on any other day would be a headliner. He took it from a group of a dozen or more riders who had a comfortable margin over the peloton but rode without great organization and were slain in the end by a single rider pedaling with purpose. Plaza's first season with Lampre has paid major dividends: just as he won a stage of the Tour de France to rescue the team from obscurity there, so has he now gotten them out of the shadows in the season's final grand tour with another solo effort. Jose Goncalves of Caja Rural outsprinted Alessandro De Marchi for second on the day.
For Aru, his first grand tour win will only briefly be overshadowed by the tragic hand dealt to Dumoulin. When the dust settles, the wiry climber will have made history for his home region, becoming the first Sardinian and second southern Italian to win a grand tour. The lasting images of his victory will all show him flailing away at his bike, mouth agape, emotions laid bare for all to see. He isn't the most beautiful rider, but he is a climber par excellence and combines the determination of a Cadel Evans to boot. There are at least two (if not many more) moments which defined his race: chasing down Joaquim Rodriguez on stage 11, where the Spaniard had escaped to take the overall lead but ultimately only by a single second thanks to a desperate effort on Aru's part; and the time trial on stage 17, where all seemed lost until the final 10km, when Aru nearly matched the pace of stage winner Dumoulin and saw his overnight margin reversed by a mere three seconds. This effort set up the all-out war that ensued since; whereas any more of a margin might have led to Dumoulin being left to (more) comfortably defend his position. Of course today we know that Dumoulin needed a full three minutes to salt away victory, but race tactics can change a lot based on the day's standings.
Dumoulin conceded 3:40 to Aru today and fell all the way to sixth place, a result that's tragic for many reasons. Not only does it diminish what had been a grand effort and one of the closest grand tours in history, it also throws away a lot of effort redirected to the Vuelta from his original plan of just gaining some form ahead of the World Championships, where Dumoulin would be a top contender for the time trial. Now he goes to Richmond with his tank and his spirits depleted. Cycling is a cruel sport.
Rodriguez stayed with Aru to ascend to second overall, but at 1.17 behind the Sardinian and with nothing like the team firepower he did not challenge for more. Behind them, Tinkoff-Saxo's Rafal Majka rose up to the podium, but not before being tested by Movistar's Nairo Quintana, sitting fourth, who attacked Majka on the final climb but ran out of road and could not reverse his 33 second deficit to the Polish rider. Rodriguez has a stranglehold on the combined jersey, but could see his lead for the points competition under threat tomorrow in Madrid from Alejandro Valverde of Movistar, who sagged back today but will live to contest the sprint tomorrow. That and the stage victory are the only spoils left for anyone to grab. Should be fun, but nothing like today.