Philippe Gilbert won stage 17 of the Vuelta a España in style following on from a great performance by his Deceuninck – Quick-Step team.
On paper, it should have been a relatively quiet day, over a slightly undulating terrain, from Aranda de Duero to Guadalajara, where the race returned for just the sixth time in history. But as soon as the bunch exited the neutral zone, Deceuninck – Quick-Step asserted their authority over the race, ripping the peloton through the crosswinds and forcing what proved to be a crucial selection.
Eros Capecchi, Rémi Cavagna, Tim Declercq, Philippe Gilbert, Fabio Jakobsen, James Knox, and Zdenek Stybar all booked a place in the 46-man group which also included the likes of Sam Bennett (Bora-hansgrohe), Dylan Teuns (Bahrain Merida), Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Dimension Data), Nairo Quintana (Movistar Team) and Wout Poels (Team INEOS).
From kilometre three until the finish of the longest stage of this year’s Vuelta (219.6km), Deceuninck – Quick-Step relentlessly drove a burning pace, putting over six minutes between the leading group and a depleted field on this fast, dramatic stage, and turning the race upside down.
A sudden injection of pace with 40 kilometres remaining helped the chasers cut the deficit by more than a minute, giving a glimmer of hope to the bunch, but it was just a brief moment which immediately cooled down, as the Deceuninck – Quick-Step-powered group continued to ride strongly, averaging more than 50km/h as they pushed the lead out to 5:30.
Inside three kilometres to go, Zdenek Stybar put in an effort as the road went up and carved out a small advantage, but he was pulled back with 500 metres to go. Sam Bennett was the first to open the sprint, but Philippe Gilbert remained attentive and tracked down the attack, catching and surging past the Irishman when he ran out of steam on the stiff gradient to the line, thus adding an 11th Grand Tour stage win to his palmares.
“The stage was complicated and very aggressive right from the start with the wind and everything, but we were very motivated and had a plan, so we hit the front early and did our thing. It was just crazy out there and I can tell you I have never experienced anything like this in 17 seasons as a pro. I am sure this stage will forever remain in the history of La Vuelta and people will talk about it for many years from now on. All this makes my win, which was possible only with the help of a fantastic and committed Wolfpack, even more sweet and unforgettable”, Gilbert said after his 77th pro victory, which landed him the prestigious Ruban Jaune, awarded to a rider after recording the fastest average speed (50.63km/h in this case) in a race longer than 200 kilometres.