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King conquers Vuelta a Espana 2018 Stage 9, Yates in red after first summit finish

Ben King takes a second stage win in gruelling battle with Bauke Mollema

Martin James
2 Sep 2018

Image credit: Eurosport

American Benjamin King (Team Dimension-Data) produced a superb solo ride from the breakaway to lead all the way up the feared final climb of La Covatilla to win Stage 9 of the 2018 Vuelta a Espana.

King had been part of the main break of the day that went clear at the start of the day, then pushed on alone before the hardest part of the final climb. However, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) is the new race leader.

Bauke Mollema (Lotto Soudal), like King part of the break, chased the American all the way up the final climb but was unable to close the gap in a solo battle of wills over the final few kilometres.

Among the favourites, the difficulty of the Covatilla saw the real favourites for Vuelta honours emerge, as first the red jersey holder Rudy Molard (Groupama-FdJ) then second place man and yesterday's winner Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) were beaten by the punishing gradient.

Instead it was Astana's Miguel Angel Lopez, Movistar's Nairo Quintana, Wilco Keldermann of Team Sunweb, Rigoberto Uran of EF-Drapac and Ion Isagirre (Bahrain-Merida) who led the charge for the line.

However, finishing just a few seconds further back was Michelton-Scott's Simon Yates, and the Englishman's fast finish was enough to take the red jersey with a lead of just 1 second over Valverde.

How the stage unfolded

It's taken a long time for the first serious summit finish of the 2018 Vuelta to come, but the climb of La Covatilla at the end of Stage 9 was set to deliver and then some.

The finish line altitude of 1,965m would be reached after nearly 25km of steady climbing, but the real hurt would be dished out by the middle part of the classified climb, a stretch of 10%-plus ramps lasting around 5km.

But all that would only come after 180km of the kind of hard riding that has already made a fairly serious selection among the favourites over recent days.

The 1st category Puerto del Pico (1,375m) on 52,3km and the 2nd cat Puerto de Pena Negra (1,910m) on 98km would do plenty to soften the legs up along the way, meaning whoever was feeling strong enough to attack on the final slopes of the day would have earned their advantage.

The importance of the stage meant we were treated to live TV pictures right from the start of the day's action, something that typically exposes just how hard the break of the day has to work to go clear, and how many others try and fail before a move finally sticks.

Well not today. Thanks mainly to Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal), the first move of the day was the one that stuck.

The Belgian was joined by Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), Dylan Teuns (BMC Racing), Ben King (Team Dimension-Data), Lluis Mas (Caja Rural), Aritz Bagues (Euskadi-Murias), Kenneth Vanbilsen and Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Reto Hollenstein (Katusha-Alpecin), Tom Leezer (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Jesus Ezquerra (Burgos-BH).

De Gendt and Mollema were probably the biggest names in the group, though Mate in the mountains jersey might dispute that. King, meanwhile, was the best placed in GC terms, the American sitting 26th overall at 6' 34" and wearing the white combined jersey on his shoulders having already won a stage in this year's race.

As expected, Mate took the points over both the Puerto del Pico and Puerta de Pena Negra to bolster his lead in the climbers' competition. The break had built its lead to upwards of 5 minutes by this point, with the Groupama-FdJ ranks of overall leader Molard doing most of the work to police the gap.

Eventually, though, the race leader's teammates gave up on doing all the work, and the gap quickly jumped to beyond 9 minutes, which put King into the virtual red jersey.

Begrudgingly, Astana, Movistar and Team Sky started riding, which quickly saw the gap reduce again to around 6 minutes and the peloton quickly reduce in size. It also saw the peloton drastically reduce in number, the likes of World Champion Peter Sagan deciding to sit up and make their way to the finish at a more leisurely pace.

But King, seemingly, was taking his bid for the race lead seriously, and certainly fancied his chances of a second stage win.

He attacked the rest of the breakaway as the gradient started to bite on the lower slopes of the final climb, and opened up a 90-second lead impressively quickly before Mollema made his move in response.

10km from the line still nobody had tried their luck from the peloton, a sign that the pace being set at the front of the group was a serious one.

But the toughest part of the whole climb was still coming and King hit it alone, desparately trying to keep his tempo going while the gap to Mollema behind started to shrink - 60 seconds, 55 seconds, 50 seconds... could King hold on?

Soon the peloton were also on the steepest part of the climb, and the spike in gradient was too much for the red jersey of Molard, though he was far from the only one found out and hadn't cracked altogether. 

Nonetheless by now Valverde had taken ownership of the virtual lead, the gap to King at the front now 4'39", with Rafal Majka (Bora-Hansgrohe) doing the pace-setting.

However, his chances of the red jersey were now over but King was still chasing the stage win. Yet Mollema was still closing, desparate to avoid another second place on this climb having finished runner-up to Dan Martin the last time the Vuelta came here in 2011.

Still the favourites behind watched each other, but up front King had reached the easier part of the climb with 2.5km to go and still had 20 precious seconds of his lead intact. As the gradient eased and the metres to the line started ticking by more rapidly, the gap suddenly froze as King and Mollema emptied themselves with the finish line tantalisingly close.

In the end King just had enough, and took a second stage win of a highly impressive 2018 Vuelta, Mollema falling away behind to once again finish runner up on the brutal slopes of the Covatilla.

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