Above photos ©Bettiniphoto
Bauke Mollema crossed the line in fifth place, 12 seconds behind winner Rui Costa (UAE Abu Dhabi) to claim the overall race lead in the Vuelta a San Juan, Friday.
The 162.5-kilometer stage five presented the only significant climb in the weeklong race – making it a one-shot deal for the overall classification after the time trial of stage three. With two sprint stages remaining, Mollema is poised to win his second stage race of his career after the Tour of Alberta in 2015.
Mollema started the decisive stage in second overall, three seconds behind race leader Ramunas Navardauskas (Bahrain Merida) after the Dutchman rode an impressive time trial that gained him time over all the GC favorites.
"The climb was not steep, but the high altitude made it difficult," explained Mollema. "The pace was really high, so there were only some small attacks, and with one kilometer to go there were just three of us, and then at around 600m to go I blew up.
"I had info from the car from Popo (Yaroslav Popovych, director), so I knew that Nibali and Navardauskas were dropped, but I was still a little worried when I blew up as I couldn't push anymore and then it's easy to lose 20-30 seconds in the last bit. Thankfully, I was only 12 seconds behind Costa at the finish. I was lucky to have the time from the time trial."
Mollema's strong finish in the time trial made the difference, giving him a 14-second advantage over Oscar Sevilla (Medellin-Inder) and 16 seconds over Rodolfo Andres Torres (Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec) in the overall classification, both who finished in front of Mollema on the grueling uphill finish.
I really struggled with the altitude, especially at this point of the season; not once last year did I do a race this high, and that made the final climb very hard.
Matthias Brändle, who was sitting in third place coming into today's decisive race, joined a large 16-man breakaway that escaped after an initial dangerous move had been tamed. It was a savvy move that allowed the team to sit back and recover after helping in the chase of the first 20-man escape.
"The team did a super job," continued Mollema. "They helped chase the first breakaway down of 20 guys, and then Matthias went with the second move, which was perfect. It was hot and windy, and they kept me hydrated with bottles all race.
"It was just a fast pace all day. It was not windy at the start, but later it picked up and then Quick Step and Bahrain went full gas into the wind. That brought the second breakaway back fast."
With two stages remaining, both predominantly flat and pegged for the sprinters, the team is in a good position to defend the jersey but will need to stay focused said Mollema.
"We need to be attentive in the next two stages, and see who we can let go in a break. It's also going to be really warm over the next days, and with the wind always a possibility, we have to be ready."