Louis Meintjes (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) climbed to victory on stage nine of the 2022 Vuelta a España on Sunday on the short, steep final ascent of Les Praeres.
The South African climber showed his pedigree on diabolical double digit gradients in Asturias, proving himself to be the best of the day’s nine-man breakaway.
He finished just over a minute ahead of fellow escapee Samuele Battistella (Astana Qazaqstan), with Edoardo Zambanini (Bahrain-Victorious) finishing in third place.
Fourth place went to race leader Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), who showed his flying form and extended his overall lead after a commanding showing.
His team set a fierce pace onto the day’s decisive climb. On 18 per cent gradients, Enric Mas (Movistar) was the last man who could stay with him, letting go three kilometres from the top.
As the red jersey opened up his lead, Mas teamed up with compatriots Carlos Rodríguez (Ineos Grenadiers) and Juan Ayuso (Team UAE Emirates) to limit their losses. Teenage talent Ayuso outsprinted them to finish 34 seconds down on Evenepoel.
Further behind them, defending champion Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) lost 52 seconds to the leader.
Of the GC candidates, British contender Tao Geoghegan Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) was the day’s big loser. Placed fifth before the stage, he dropped out of the top ten overall, involved in a crash on the run-in to the final climb.
Evenepoel has breathing room at the top now, 1-12 ahead of Enric Mas (Movistar Team) with Primož Roglič third at 1-53.
After the Vuelta’s second rest day on Monday, the racing resumes on Tuesday with a 30.9-kilometre time trial between Elche and Alicante. The Belgian prodigy may well extend his lead further.
How it happened
The Vuelta a España peloton headed out of Villaviciosa on a 171.4km route with five categorised climbs. The worst was left till last: the short, savagely-steep climb to the finish at Les Praeres.
After a volley of attacks in a fierce opening hour’s racing, the key move went clear 40 kilometres into the action. Nine riders escaped, including Paris-Roubaix winner Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) and Meintjes.
As the peloton raced through the green, rolling hills of Asturias in northern Spain, Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl set the tempo, allowing the escape a maximum lead of five and a half minutes.
Although racing one man down after Pieter Serry (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) was forced to withdraw following a COVID-19 positive test, world champion Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl) was among their workers putting in a shift.
Breakaway member Robert Stannard (Alpecin-Deceuninck) led the escape over the day’s first four cateorised climbs. He moved into second place in the King of the Mountains competition, behind his teammate Jay Vine.
A crash on the descent of the Alto de la Llama with 50 kilometres to go took down Antoine Raugel (AG2R Citroën), Jonathan Caicedo (EF Education-EasyPost) and Héctor Carretero (Equipo Kern Pharma).
Later, on the fast run-in to the final climb, Jumbo-Visma domestique Chris Harper crashed, involving Geoghegan Hart who lost significant time.
The fight for glory came down to the escape, who had three and a half minutes’ lead at the foot of the final climb. Battistella and Jimmy Janssens (Alpecin-Deceuninck) took a flyer minutes before the eyewatering pitches of Les Praeres.
The GC contenders had saved the fireworks for Les Praeres. The climb has gravel-strewn upper reaches and savage gradients: 3.9 kilometres averaging 12.9 per cent, with soul-destroying sections at 23 and 24 per cent.
In front, Alaphilippe hit the afterburners for team leader Evenepoel, causing a split in the bunch.
It was every man for himself. Evenepoel, Mas, Roglič and Ayuso were left at the head of affairs, but nobody could live with the race leader for long. Upper body bobbing with effort on the gravel-strewn upper reaches, 22-year-old Evenepoel showed that he was in a class of his own.
Up ahead, Meintjes bridged the gap to Janssens and Battistella and rode straight past them. “I knew it was really hard and actually it didn’t matter if you followed the breakaway or not, it was just a time trial to the finish,” he said afterwards.
Having finished second on the stage to Alpe d’Huez this summer in a Tour de France where he joined several breakaways, nobody could begrudge the diminutive South African the biggest victory of his career.
“It’s something special, it still needs some time to set in,” Meintjes said. “I’ve never been on the podium of a WorldTour race except for a team classification, so that was one of my main goals before stopping my career.”
Vuelta a España 2022, stage nine: Villaviciosa to Les Praeres (171.4km)
1. Louis Meintjes (RSA) Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert-Matériaux, in 4-32-39
2. Samuele Battistella (Ita) Astana Qazaqstan, at 1-01
3. Edoardo Zambanini (Ita) Bahrain Victorious, at 1-14
4. Remco Evenepoel (Bel) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, at 1-34
5. Filippo Conca (Ita) Lotto Soudal, at 1-58
6. Juan Ayuso (Esp) UAE Team Emirates
7. Simon Guglielmi (Fra) Arkéa Samsic, both at 2-08
8. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar, at 2-18
9. Carlos Rodríguez (Esp) Ineos Grenadiers, at 2-20
10. Primož Roglič (Svn) Jumbo-Visma, at 2-26
General classification after stage nine
1. Remco Evenepoel (Bel) Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, in 34-02-32
2. Enric Mas (Esp) Movistar, at 1-12
3. Primož Roglič (Svn) Jumbo-Visma, at 1-53
4. Carlos Rodríguez (Esp) Ineos Grenadiers, at 2-33
5. Juan Ayuso (Esp) UAE Team Emirates, at 2-36
6. Simon Yates (GBr) BikeExchange-Jayco, at 3-08
7. João Almeida (Por) UAE Team Emirates, at 4-32
8. Miguel Ángel López (Col) Astana Qazaqstan, at 5-03
9. Jai Hindley (Aus) Bora-Hansgrohe, at 5-36
10. Pavel Sivakov (Fra) Ineos Grenadiers, at 5-39