With the break reeled in and the hardest of the spadework seemingly done, the Australian squad’s plan unravelled in an instant when their sprinter Michael Matthews was successfully ambushed by EF Education-Nippo duo Jens Keukeleire and the winner of the day Magnus Cort within metres of the line.
Just to rub salt in the wound, Deceuninck-QuickStep’s young fastman, Andrea Baglioli, also squeezed past Matthews at the finish.
Matthews, finally third, said he was still feeling the effort of Wednesday’s short but very hilly and hot stage in his legs, but admitted too, that “we just got jumped there a little bit by Magnus Cort.
“After yesterday, today was always going to be difficult,” Matthews said at the finish, “but it all came together in the final there.”
Initially unwilling to try for the sprint, Matthews said he had been struggling on the climbs, but thanks to “gritting my teeth” he had come through to the finale in the main group and with options.
A four-man group with riders as experienced as Sergio Henao (Qhubeka NextHash) and Romain Bardet (Team DSM) had opened an important gap on the Alto de 14 per cent climb and on the fast descent back into Córdoba. But Team BikeExchange made a huge effort to pull it back, only for things to fall apart in the last metres.
“Clearly today was a disappointing day for us but the team was really good, they threw everything at it,” Sports Director Julian Dean added, before pointing out that, “I think we had more than any other team left there in the final to chase down those final four riders.”
Matthews admitted freely that he had ended up being outplayed, though, by EF Education-Nippo.
“We just got jumped a little bit in the final from Magnus Cort, they just timed it better than I did in the sprint there,” he observed. “I think all-in-all we did a really good team performance today.”
Matthews should have at least two more opportunities to take a win in bunch sprints in the 2021 Vuelta, the first as soon as Friday at VIllanueva de la Serena. Then there are two final possible sprint stages in the third week, on Tuesday in Santa Cruz de Bezana and on Thursday in Monforte de Lemos.