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Vuelta a Espana 2017: Stefan Denifl conquers Alto de los Machucos on Stage 17

Brutal 28% ramps causes chaos but Denifl holds on to claim famous win

Martin James
6 Sep 2017

Unheralded Austrian Stefan Denifl (Aqua Blue) won Stage 17 of the 2017 Vuelta a Espana, finishing 28 seconds clear of Trek-Segafredo's Alberto Contador at the top of the 'monster' Alto de los Machucos.

Chris Froome (Team Sky) still leads the race overall, but was badly exposed on the final climb to finish the stage 14th, 1:46 behind Denifl and behind most of his GC rivals.

Denifl had been part of a six-man breakaway that went clear in the opening 20km of the stage, but held on to take a debut Grand Tour win as the race behind him blew apart. 

After a pair of lesser climbs earlier in the day, the 180.5km stage from Villadiego to Los Machucos came to a head on the final 9km climb to the finish, which included sections of 28% gradients and ramps as steep as 30% in places.

Contador finished an excellent second after leaving the rest of the GC contenders in his wake on its steepest slopes, while Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) continued his impressive run of form to take third.

He just pipped Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha) to the line, 1:04 down on the stage winner, to gain a few bonus seconds for his troubles.

Froome was dropped almost as soon as the toughest gradients took hold, but paced himself to the finish as best he could to minimise his losses. 

The top five remains unchanged, but Nibali is now just 1:16 down on Froome, with Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) still third at 2:13, Zakarin fourth at 2:25 and Contador still fifth but with a much reduced deficit of 3:34.

After a pair of medium mountain stages tomorrow and Friday, the final battle for GC honours will be fought out on the feared Alto de l'Angliru on Saturday, before the ceremonial procession into Madrid on Sunday.

Six-man break

The main break of the day came together inside the opening 20km. Three riders made the initial move – Alessandro De Marchi (BMC), Denifl (Aqua Blue) and Dani Moreno (Movistar) – and they were soon joined by Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Floors), Davide Villella (Cannondale-Drapac) and Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-Scott) to form a group of six off the front of the peloton.

They quickly built a big advantage over a main field that seemed happy to let them go for the time being.

The gap got as high as nine minutes at one point, before the peloton finally decided it was time to start working.

Bora-Hansgrohe and Astana were the main animators, with Team Sky keeping a watching brief behind, and their efforts quickly pulled the break back to around 5:30 at the halfway mark of the stage.

Then it was into the first serious climb of the day, the 8.3km 2nd category Portillo de Lunada – a modest test compared to the challenges to come.

Astana continued to push the pace in the main field, and by the top had cut the gap to the six leaders to less than four minutes.

But now there was a new problem: the altitude of the climb had taken the riders into low cloud, and the conditions turned the long descent on the other side into a gamble on wet roads and with near-zero visibility.

Fortunately everyone got through the ordeal safely, but the conditions saw a massively strung out peloton break apart altogether.

Nibali was the man doing most of the damage, living up to his billing as a fearless descender and reducing the breakaway’s advantage by a full minute in barely 10km of riding.

Back together

His efforts briefly saw Froome lose contact, but the red jersey was quickly shepherded back by his Team Sky teammates and the main favourites arrived together at the base of the next climb, the Puerto de Alisas.

Topping out at a modest 675m after just 8km of climbing, again this wasn’t a climb to fear too much on its own.

But with the summit coming just 18km from the finish and the descent over the top pitching straight into the final climb with its frightening gradients, action was practically guaranteed and the climb had duly been given 1st category status.

The five leaders – Villella had been distanced in the fog – still had a respectable 2:20 advantage going into the Alisas, and gave away only a handful of seconds on its lower slopes.

Then the attacks started in the main field. Orica-Scott duo Adam Yates and Esteban Chaves were the first to go clear, knowing they had a teammate ahead in Nielsen. Several other riders bridged over to join them, and a small gap opened.

But then Team Sky hit the front in numbers for the first time, and the attacking group were reeled back in.

The breakaway remained clear at the summit, now reduced in number to four after Nielsen had sat up to wait for his teammates – only to find they'd been swallowed up by the Sky machine before he could lend them a hand.

If at first...

So he went again over the top of the climb, this time with another teammate, Jack Haig, for company.

It was a risky move on a damp and technical descent, but the pair arrived at the foot of the final climb 30 seconds clear of the main field, and less than a minute behind the remaining four leaders.

The Alto de los Machucos wasted no time in dishing out the punishment, launching straight into a 17.5% ramp that immediately blew the peloton apart.

Jarlinson Pantano (Trek-Segafredo) launched off the front with 6.5km to go, then came the expected attacks from first Lopez, and then Contador.

They were now getting to the hardest sections of the climb, but while Lopez and Contador were going forward, Froome was going backwards, surrounded by Team Sky riders but unable to match the pace of those ahead.

Contador lifted the pace again to distance Lopez, but the toughest 30% section of the clmb was still ahead. And so, incredibly, was Denifl, the last man standing at the front and still a minute clear of Contador.

Behind them, Nibali started to push on, sensing the chance to do real damage to Froome's overall lead and revive his bid for GC honours.

By now Froome was shedding time to all his main rivals, his best case scenario now involving little more than damage limitation.

Contador was burying himself in his quest for an elusive stage win to round out the final Grand Tour of his career, but in the end Denifl survived to take the biggest win of his career.

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