On the penultimate day of the year’s final ‘Grand Tour’, Wout Poels did something not many bike racers can do: he beat Remco Evenepoel (SOQ)! Relying purely on instinct, Poels launched his sprint before he had planned, (and perhaps earlier than many watching thought was wise), but held off the day’s favourite by just a few centimetres on the line.
The parcours was akin to a Belgian classic, something like Liege-Bastone-Liege (which Poels has also won), with ten category 3 climbs totalling over 4000 meters of elevation gain. The day’s breakaway took a while to form, with Antonio Tiberi and Poels amongst the 19 that got away. Wout attacked on the last climb and created a small gap, with only 4 riders able to follow. They rode away and worked well together to ensure the winner would come from that group of five. Approaching the finish in Guadarrama, the Dutchman took matters into his own hands (or rather his legs!), and attacked 300 metres out, taking the perfect apex on the last corner, and resisting the late charge of Evenepoel to take a second Grand Tour victory of the year (after stage 15 on the Tour de France). The GC group came in all together to keep the General Classification unchanged, with Mikel Landa staying 5th and Santiago Buitrago 10th. Barring catastrophe, the American Sepp Kuss (TJV) will be crowned La Vuelta 2023 champion in Madrid tomorrow.
The overjoyed Poels reflected afterwards: “It was a hard day and we talked in the morning to have Antonio and me in the break, and it went pretty well, but you lose a lot of energy to get there. Then you see the calibre of the riders around you: Remco, G (Geraint Thomas (IGD)), Marc Soler (UAE), and you need to survive the first part and make a little plan for the final. Antonio did really well, he kept me out of the wind, and then on the steep part of the climb I left. Only 4 people came over, full gas to the finish line. Then I knew 250 meters to go, left corner, first I thought to go after the corner, but I second-guessed and had a feeling I needed to go earlier, pass Remco earlier… and it worked out. I wanted to go into Remco’s wheel, but sometimes you have to have a bit of a race feeling, so if you feel it you have to go.”
Lead Sports Director Neil Stephens had been hoping for a stage win in a race where Bahrain Victorious have performed strongly throughout, and it finally came.
“This is the last stage we realistically had a chance to win and to be able to pull it off in the last moment with Wout Poels was fantastic,” he said.
“We went into the day knowing that a GC attack was almost impossible. We had one climb that was a major challenge that we had to overcome, and we knew that we had support back in the bunch to do that with Santiago and Mikel. So that allowed us the moment to really put a big effort into breakaway, with the ideal people that we wanted into breakaway being the two that actually made it. So it’s a fantastic effort from the rest of the team to try to help them to make the breakaway, and then it was up to Antonio and Wout to really work it out between themselves and try to pull off the stage win. Wout made a really good tactical decision, he was the first one to attack on the hard climb, El Escorial. He was the first on the climb getting ready to descend into the town and the first to launch the sprint in the final. He did everything textbook, he was tactically really good, he’s in the form of his life, and to be able to win the last big stage of La Vuelta is fantastic.”