Nicolas Roche of Saxo-Tinkoff has won the first Grand Tour stage of his career, taking Stage 2 of the 2013 Vuelta a Espana on the Category 1 summit finish of the Alto do Monte da Grobe. Astana's Vincenzo Nibali, current Giro d'Italia champion and winner of the Vuelta in 2010, takes over the race lead from team mate Janez Brajkovič.
NetApp-Endura's Leopold Konig, winner of the Queen stage of the Tour of California in May, launched an attack from a select front group with 1.5 kilometres left to ride of the 11 kilometre climb that concluded the 177.7 kilometre stage from Pomntevedra.
Katusha's Dani Moreno and AG2R's Domenico Pozzovivo responded along with Roche, but it was the former Irish national champion, whose father Stephen won the Tour de France, Giro d'Italia and World Championship, and whose cousin Dan Martin won a Vuelta stage two years ago, who kicked strongest in the finale to prevail.
Moreno came home second, and Pozzovivo third.
After a three-man break had been swept up early on in that final climb, it was the Spanish team Movistar that forced the pace and put some of the rivals to Alejandro Valverde's ambitions for a second overall victory in the race into trouble, with Euskaltel-Euskadi's Samuel Sanchez and Sergio Henao of Team Sky among those to lose time.
The three men who had formed the first break of the 68th Vuelta were reined in early on in the final climb as the road headed inland from Baiona, where that ascent began.
The first man from the break to be swallowed up by the peloton was the man who had initiated it this morning, Lotto-Belisol’s Greg Henderson.
The trio of escapees, completed by Garmin-Sharp’s Alex Rasmussen and Francisco Aramendia of Caja Rural, had a lead of more than 12 minutes at one point, and still had a margin of around 10 minutes with 40km left.
They struggled with a headwind, however, as they looped back up the coast towards Baiona and with their lead was slashed by half over the following 20km, as they headed towards the final climb, the game was clearly up.
Aramendia, Rasmussen & Henderson in the break (© Vuelta 2013/Graham Watson)
Aramendia’s team mate, the former Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Amets Txurruka, was first to make a move from the bunch, but he was soon pulled back.
Behind, overnight leader Brajkovič, who had led his Astana team across the line as they won the Stage 1 team time trial from Vilanova de Arousa to Sanxenxo, was struggling at the back of a dwindling front group.
The overall contenders were now beginning to come to the fore, including 2010 Vuelta champion Nibali and his predecessor as winner of the race, Movistar’s Valverde.
As Movistar forced the pace through the toughest section of the climb, the gradient hitting 10 per cent with 8km left to ride, one Spanish hope for the overall cracked – Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi.
That was bad news for the peloton’s longest standing team, which is making its Grand Tour swansong ahead of being wound up at the end of the season, three of his team mates dropping back to try and help him up the climb.
Next to struggle was Team Sky’s designated leader for this race, the Colombian Henao, and now Movistar, sensing they could do some real damage to rival teams, massed at the front of the group to force the pace again.
Konig's move briefly looked as though it would succeed as he quickly built distance on the group behind, but he was beaten into fourth place as Roche, Moreno and Pozzovivo caught and overhauled him.
Roche, a top ten overall finisher in the Vuelta in the past, said afterwards that a burden had been lifted from his shoulders by clinching his first Grand Tour stage win.
"It’s a relief. After getting all those placing in the Grand Tours, I was wondering about my capacities and I was very frustrated to not making it.
"Recently, my team-mate Michael Rogers told me it would come soon, necessarily. And here I am, I win the first stage after the team time trial in the Vuelta, which is my favorite Grand Tour. I’m very happy."
Asked about the public criticism of the team by co-sponsor Oleg Tinkoff, Roche said: "We were all very sad. I can only say that Alberto Contador and his team-mates have given 100 per cent during the Tour. But there was [others] stronger than us, it’s as simple as that. Tinkoff can think and say what he wants but it’s sad…"
His manager at Saxo-Tinkoff, Bjarne Riis, added: "Yesterday, Nicolas was very strong, so this morning I told him: you have to try. With the punch he’s got for such a finale, it was worth trying. He’s very lean. He has prepared this Vuelta very well. I’m super happy for him.”
Astana's Vincenzo Nibali takes the leader's jersey (© Vuelta 2013/Graham Watson)
After being presented with the leader's jersey, Nibali reflected on how the final kilometres of the stage panned out: “On the last hill, the Movistar team set the pace very high with Eros Capecchi and Sylvester Szmyd.
"It was controlled until the final sprint that lasted for 500 metres. It was a fast finish, very suitable for Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez.
"As for myself, I was only behaving with regards to my ambitions on GC. I was led by Paolo Tiralongo and Jakob Fuglsang very well.
"My team has worked from start to finish. We looked at controlling the situation and it went all right.
"My directeur sportif Alexandr Shefer kept me informed about the riders dropping off [such as Sanchez and Henao].
"They paid for their efforts, which is understandable the day after a team time trial but there are many uphill finishes at the Vuelta.
"That’s why we have to live it day by day.
"It’s worth trying to keep the red jersey. We’ll do so with the Astana team.
"Here, the most dangerous people are Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde, but today, Nicolas Roche has done an important action in winning the stage.”
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.