Vuelta a España: Majestic Alaphilippe wins in Xorret de Cati
The 25-year-old became the sixth Quick-Step Floors rider to take a Grand Tour stage victory this season
Julian Alaphilippe is back! After a four-month injury lay-off, which had him skip the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de France, Julian made up for all those disappointing and sad moments by riding to a memorable victory on stage 8 of the Vuelta a España, which took the bunch over the punishing Xorret de Cati (5 kilometers, 9% average gradient), a climb last used in the race seven years ago, but first tackled in 1998.
The Quick-Step Floors rider was part of a large group that jumped clear after 40 kilometers and established a five-minute lead before the bunch began chasing hard inside the final 50 kilometers. Despite the furious tempo set by several teams, the escapees arrived with a comfortable advantage at the bottom of the ascent, which witnessed a first selection being made after the first kilometer, once the riders hit the double-digit ramps.
Seven kilometers from the finish, Bora-Hansgrohe duo Emanuel Buchmann and Rafal Majka upped the pace, but Alaphilippe responded with fantastic ease and continued to ride superbly and stay there despite several other attempts of the Pole, who dug deep in order to drop the Frenchman; Majka continued to attack, hoping to get a gap over the top, but Julian mastered the excruciating gradients of Xorret de Cati to perfection, showing composure and confidence on a climb he's never ridden before.
In the downhill, the two were joined by Jan Polanc (UAE Team Emirates) and soldiered on to the finish, where the Slovenian accelerated only to be immediately countered by Julian, who with 400 meters to go put in such a strong sprint that he distanced both his opponents and cruised to the finish arms aloft and almost in disbelief, as he nabbed his first career Grand Tour stage victory.
"It's incredible, I don't have words for it, I can't tell you how much this victory means for me after being away for such a long time. I knew I was able to come back, a belief shared with my family and the team, but to get a Grand Tour stage win, my first one, it's really amazing and it makes me extremely happy", a beaming Julian said after becoming the 55th French rider victorious in a Vuelta a España stage.
"The start was really fast and we tried to put someone in the front. In the end, that rider was me, but I couldn't have done it without the help of Matteo. On the last climb I was suffering, but I remembered that with three kilometers to go there was a downhill where I could recover a bit, so I remained focused and motivated, and luckily I was the strongest at the finish", Julian said of Saturday's stage, before concluding with a wry smile: "We had a fantastic Vuelta so far, the team's been really great in this first week and fortunately, the race is far from being over!"
Alaphilippe wasn't the only Quick-Step Floors member over the moon on Saturday afternoon. Sport director Rik Van Slycke couldn't hide his happiness after the team's 13th Grand Tour stage victory of the season.
"It was a very hard day with a lot of attacks already from the start of the stage. Once Julian made it into the escape, we knew they needed around three minutes ahead of the bunch at the bottom of the last climb. Julian was strong today and very intelligent, staying calm on the ascent and playing poker games. Then, after Polanc tried to overtake him in the last kilometer, he jumped on his wheel and was perfectly placed to finish off the job and make it another day to remember for us here", said Rik Van Slycke.
Behind the escapees, the GC contenders had their own fight, which was ignited by Alberto Contador (Trek-Segafredo), who attacked eight kilometers from home. Red jersey Chris Froome (Team Sky) responded and soon the peloton disintegrated, as the two continued to trade punches on the steep Xorret de Cati.
David De La Cruz was among the ones to lose contact with the duo, but the 28-year-old Spaniard didn't panic and rode a smart and pragmatic race in the closing kilometers, conceding less than half a minute by the time he rolled over the line. With one stage to go before the race's first rest day (Orihuela – Cumbre del Sol, 174 kilometers), David is seventh overall, 27 seconds from the Vuelta a España podium.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele