The 187.2km stage from Rialp to Valls looked on paper like a day for the sprinters, but on an ultra-fast trek out of the foothills of the Pyrenees and down to southern Catalunya, Poels spoiled the day for the fastmen with his breakaway. Astana’s Dario Cataldo was second, 11 seconds later, followed by Wanty Group-Gobert’s Gaetan Bille and Dimension Data’s Kanstantsin Siutsou.
Already on the attack early on the stage, Poels made his definitive move when he broke away from a seven rider move on the final climb of the day, the second category Alt de la Lilla, and crossed the summit, 10.6 kilometres from the line, with some 20 seconds on his closest rivals.
The Volta a Valencia winner stormed down the fast descent into Valls, increasing his lead to around 30 seconds at one point, as lack of collaboration in a counter-move by Cataldo (Astana) and Carlos Verona (Etixx-QuickStep) saw the two chasers swept up by fellow-breakaways Siutsou and Bille.
Picking the perfect line through the winding final kilometres in the town of Valls, Poels crossed the line outside the sports centre named after Xavi Tondo – the late, much missed former pro from Valls who died in a freak accident five years years ago – with enough time to savour the win.
“I knew the climb from the race last year and that it wasn’t too hard but that it would be my only chance to attack,” Poels told reporters later.
“In the last two kilometres I got a bit nervous when it all began to get a bit closer together but the corners helped me stayed away, it was better than when you had those long straights like immediately before.”
The stage itself, a long trek through rolling terrain criss-crossing Catalunya from the Pyrenees in the north to the region’s vineyards and olive groves in the south, had started at breakneck speed, with over 50 kilometres covered in the first hour. The speed was so high, and the attacks so frequent, in fact, that no break could work its way clear until nearly 120 kilometres had been covered.
“At the beginning it was really fast, and then I thought on the first climb of the day” – the second category Por d’Ager at kilometre 70 – “that the break would go. But there was a move of 25 riders so we closed that down with the team and then the final break managed to go;” Poels recounted.
How it unfolded
In the fraught first two and a half hours of racing, with no breaks managing to stick, both former race leader Dan Martin (Etixx-QuickStep), fourth overall, and Contador managed to snatch bonus seconds in a hot spot sprint. Martin clawed back three seconds on Quintana as a result, and is now 21 seconds back, and Contador, having regained a second, is now seven seconds adrift of the leader.
However, the break of seven then went clear, and although Katusha and Orica-GreenEdge worked hard to pull back the move, at the foot of the final second category climb Poels and the other six riders still had 90 seconds on the bunch.
Whilst Quintana shadowed Contador on the climb, neither brief moves by Dani Navarro (Cofidis), Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) nor even a longer surge by Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) over the climb’s summit managed to work out. Contador stayed close to the front in the final dash for the line, finishing 14th and avoided losing time – as he had done in Paris-Nice because of a late split. But there were no gaps and Quintana, 21st, was close behind.
Poels’ victory provided a timely boost to Sky’s morale in a Volta a Catalunya which has not worked out as well as expected. Although Ben Swift has ridden strongly, taking second on the opening stage and was named by Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis) as his most dangerous rival, since then Ian Boswell abandoned on stage four, Paris-Nice winner Geraint Thomas did not start Friday’s stage five, and leader Chris Froome, whilst performing solidly and currently in eighth place, has not been fighting for the top positions overall.
“We are not leading or on the podium yet but Chris is doing really well and knows what he’s doing,” Poels argued. “Especially when you’ve lost two guys though, it’s always nice to win a stage and let the people know we are here.”
“The team rode hard in the first two days and tried to make the race hard so I think we are quite strong, but it’s alway snice to go home with a victory and maybe we can have some more in the days to come.”
Saturday’s stage, in particular, looks good for Swift, who according to Poels, was “normally our man for today so maybe he was not so happy with me,” he joked. “No, I think it’s ok, so maybe tomorrow for Ben because Bouhanni is not here any more and was really strong, so we will see.”