Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r-La Mondiale) soloed to victory on stage 19 of the Vuelta a Espana from the day’s breakaway, as Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) extended his slender overall lead.
Gougeard’s timely attack, and a lack of co-ordination was enough to earn the 22-year-old Frenchman a maiden Grand Tour stage win on a day in which the breakaway was given plenty of licence to go clear.
Back in the bunch, meanwhile, Dumoulin attacked on the cobbled section in sight of the finish line to gain three further seconds on Aru to move six seconds clear overall.
The day’s break formed very early, with 24 riders from 18 different teams going clear, including Eritrean champion Natnael Berhane (MTN-Qhubeka).
Neither race leader Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin) nor second-placed Fabio Aru (Astana) had team-mates in the break, but Movistar did get two men up the road in Andrey Amador and Fran Ventoso.
Any suggestion they would be working to protect their GC men was ended when they were allowed to go well clear, however, with Giant-Alpecin opting for an easy pace in the peloton and allowing the gap to grow right out.
Best-placed rider in the break David Arroyo (Caja-Rural) started with a 30-minute deficit to Dumoulin so with no threats overall the peloton settled into a steady rhythm.
A crash in the bunch saw several Giant-Alpecin riders crash, however, with Dumoulin held up and Aru hitting the deck – requiring two trips to the medical car as a result.
The slowing of pace in the bunch meant the gap to the leaders went out beyond the 15-minute mark before the attacking started at the front – Tiago Machado (Katusha) the first to try his luck.
Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r-La Mondiale) got across, as did Leonardo Duque (Team Colombia) before Gougeard went clear and dropped the Portuguese rider.
Machado, meanwhile, was joined by Maxime Monfort (Lotto-Soudal), Amador and Amael Moinard (BMC Racing) in pursuit of the Ag2r man.
Further back, Movistar upped the pace in the peloton a little, with Valverde trying to attack to improve his GC standing again with Tinkoff-Saxo leading the pursuit.
Gougeard, meanwhile, continued to press on alone up the road – his advantage growing to 30 seconds as the 3km-to-go banner approached.
The lead had grown further as he hit the cobbled ascent up to the finish line, with the chasers failing to work together and ceding the opportunity of the stage win as a result.
With Gougeard claiming victory, all eyes turned back to the GC group, where Valverde continued to attack – splitting the group momentarily on a rapid descent.
Still Valverde attacked, however, and finally earned a gap of his own as he approached the final five kilometres.
The Spanish champion continued to lead as he hit the cobbled section but Giant-Alpecin hunted him down as they looked to set up Dumoulin to make gains.
The tactic worked too, with a small gap opening up to Aru and the Dutchman’s overall lead up to six seconds with just two stages remaining.
Vuelta a Espana 2015: stage 19 – result
1) Alexis Gougeard (FRA) – Ag2r-La Mondiale – 4.19.20hrs
2) Nelson Oliveira (POR) – Lampre-Merida +40”
3) Maxime Monfort (BEL) – Lotto-Soudal +44”
4) Andrey Amador (CRC) – Movistar – ST
5) Tiago Machado (POR) – Katusha
6) Amael Moinard (FRA) – BMC Racing
7) Fabio Duarte (COL) – Colombia +53”
8) David Arroyo (ESP) – Caja Rural +1.03
9) Christian Knees (GER) – Team Sky +1.17
10) Fran Ventoso (ESP) – Movistar – ST
1) Tom Dumoulin (NED) – Giant-Alpecin – 78.20.51hrs
2) Fabio Aru (ITA) – Astana +6”
3) Joaquim Rodriguez (ESP) – Katusha +1.24
4) Rafal Majka (POL) – Tinkoff-Saxo +2.31
5) Nairo Quintana (COL) – Movistar +3.02
6) Alejandro Valverde (ESP) – Movistar +3.24
7) Johan Esteban Chaves (COL) – Orica-GreenEDGE +3.39
8) Daniel Moreno (ESP) – Katusha +3.46
9) Mikel Nieve (ESP) – Team Sky +4.19
10) Louis Meintjes (RSA) – MTN-Qhubeka +7.00