VALLE DE SABERO. LA CAMPERONA, Spain (Reuters) – Spaniard Oscar Rodriguez pulled off the biggest win of his career by snatching victory in stage 13 at the Vuelta a Espana on Friday while compatriot Jesus Herrada retained the red jersey but saw his lead significantly trimmed by Briton Simon Yates.
Rodriguez, 23, is riding his first grand tour but he made his mark by freeing himself from a small breakaway group in the final stretch of the summit of the La Camperona mountain, battling against gradients of 24 percent.
Rodriguez finished 19 seconds ahead of runner-up Rafal Majka of Poland and half a minute clear of third-placed Dylan Teuns of Belgium.
Majka admitted to being taken by surprise by upstart Rodriguez’s late burst of energy.
“I’m surprised by this guy because in the end, when he caught me with Teuns, I still had good legs, but this guy when he was coming, he was coming really fast, this is cycling,” Majka said.
The Spaniard added: “I didn’t believe I was going to win until the very end, I still can’t believe it.”
Race leader Herrada struggled in the mountains after going for broke in Thursday’s flat stage to lift the leader’s red jersey from Yates, and his gap over the Briton was cut down from three minutes 22 seconds at the start of the stage to one minute 42 seconds.
Colombian Nairo Quintana finished the strongest of the general classification hopefuls to leapfrog his Movistar team mate Alejandro Valverde into third place, eight seconds behind Yates.
“The differences were not very big but it’s important to recover time little by little to get the red jersey and try to win the race. I’m grateful for these little seconds,” said Quintana, Vuelta champion in 2016.
“Yates is looking very strong and he’s a rival that I’ll have to be very careful with. I invited him to collaborate with me (to gain more time on Herrada) but today it was up to me.”
Friday’s stage was the first of three consecutive summit finishes which will put the general classification hopefuls to the test and is likely to have a huge say in who wins the race overall.
Saturday’s stage is a new, 171km route up the Praeres mountain containing five classified climbs and just shy of 3,000 metres of vertical climbing, while on Sunday riders will visit Lagos de Covadonga, an old favourite of the Vuelta.
(Reporting by Richard Martin, editing by Mitch Phillips and Pritha Sarkar)